Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reading bad novels

Orange judge Kathryn Hughes makes the point that to get to the good longlist for this year's prize, they first had to wade through too many bad novels. "The rural teacher syndrome" of scarcely concealed autobiography being a particular problem. (Which does make you ask, why do the publishers publish them then?) However, although I can well see that a prize judge might never want to read another bad novel again, I wonder about her point that even bad non-fiction teaches you something; whilst a bad novel feels just like time wasted. Obviously there's different layers of bad; I don't think I would willingly suffer a Reader Digest' condensed version of a Dick Francis novel again; (I was miles from anywhere - there were no other books in the house...), but, and maybe this is my own contrariness, I've often learned more from bad novels than good ones. For a start, as a writer, it makes you want to react against them; and second, there's something about a bad novel that clearly gets the blood running. Successful novels that I've disliked are a particular favourite - nothing would ever get me to read Ondaatje's "Anil's Ghost" or Jane Smiley's "Moo" again, yet I remember hating Carol Shield's "The Stone Diaries" so much that I had to read her equally ghastly "Larry's Party" just to see if I'd got it wrong. Perhaps I've been lucky - and avoiding novels about rural teachers might be where I've got lucky - or, more likely, any fiction has something going for it: the long, hard process of creating it in the first place.

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