I’ve been having some trouble reading fiction. Novels bore me. This month I got about 3/5 of the way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which is 800 pages long and acknowledged as a classic, and then lost interest. At the point where she started writing about the coming of the railways to the community (the story is set in the 1830s), I realized that I was reading a very high-class 19th century soap opera. There are three couples, all of whom have romance problems — Dorothea and Will, Lydgate and Rosamund, and what’s-his name and Mary. Dorothea’s uncle has run for Parliament and lost. There’s some sort of plot complication having to do with Bulstrode the banker and Raffles the unexpected beneficiary of the old miser’s estate…. And who cares? Do I care?
So this week I re-read Terry Pratchett’s Mort, and now I’m starting in on his Equal Rites. I think I may finally have figured out what I’m looking for in fiction. If I had to name three favorite authors, I’d probably say Pratchett, Carl Hiaasen, and Donald Westlake. What they have in common is extravagance of imagination.
Middlemarch, like Dickens (whom I also like a great deal), has extravagance of narrative. That’s the delight of reading pre-20th century literature: The author shows off his or her cleverness, and also comes out from behind the curtain and talks to the reader. But while the writing is extravagant (and let’s not talk about Henry James, whose writing is extravagant but also impenetrable), the actual events of the story in a 19th century novel are boring.
This is not specifically a British affliction, by the way. I’ve tried to read Proust. Proust is beyond boring. I think I tried to read Maugham too, a couple of years ago. Same deal: boring.
I read to be entertained, thank you very much. If a fantasy novel has a tolerably well developed premise, that counts for a great deal. Bujold’s Sharing Knife quartet is one of my favorite fantasies, and I’m also quite fond of the Strange the Dreamer duology.by Laini Taylor. Once upon a time I read six of the seven Harry Potter books before I got bored.
What I don’t enjoy is seriousness. Or at least, my tolerance for seriousness is sharply limited. I do quite like Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer mysteries, and they are completely serious. I’m not sure why they appeal to me, but perhaps it’s because Lew Archer himself is just an observer. He is intimately involved in the action, yet both as a character and as the narrator he’s standing aside from it, observing it quite coolly. The thing I love about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries is the extraordinary interplay between Wolfe and Archie; the stories themselves are forgettable.
I don’t know if I have any talent for writing extravagant fiction. Most of my stories have been quite serious (though there are a couple of comic characters in the Leafstone sags — yes, those books up there at the top of the blog; they’re on Amazon; please, rush out and buy them!). I think the reason I’m no longer excited about writing fiction is that all of my story ideas are so deadly serious. I have a sequel in mind for Woven of Death and Starlight, I’ve got quite a large file full of notes about it, but I just don’t care. It doesn’t excite me.
In Mort, Death is one of the main characters. You know, the extremely skinny guy with a permanent toothy grin, carries a scythe? That guy. In the course of the story Death turns his usual duties over to a bungling apprentice and, now that he has a little free time, sets out to discover what this “happiness” bit is all about. He tries fishing. He tries getting drunk. He finally finds some sort of fulfillment as a short order cook, but it doesn’t last.
Pratchett’s world-building is extravagant, his plots are extravagant, and his prose is extravagant at a level that can only be described as lapidary. It’s not lapidary prose, you’ll understand; it’s the extravagance that’s lapidary. There are not many novelists who use footnotes, and still fewer who write footnotes that have you laughing out loud. There’s a scene segue in Mort in which Pratchett breaks the fourth wall to comment on his own scene segue. I mean, how did he dare to do such things?
If I could write like that, I think I’d get interested in writing again.