A rant against literary literature
Today I am angry. Really very angry indeed. I read a book last night, you see, one that I had been looking forward to reading for several months. It's a ghost story, which is my favourite kind of story, and I had high hopes for it. I won't name it here, as I wouldn't want to prejudice anyone else against it, but suffice to say it has let me down. My expectations have been rather badly confounded.
In many ways it was a good book (although expensive for a thin paperback, which is what put me off buying it for so long). The author created a suitably moody atmosphere, the setting was perfectly adequate, and the characters were, well, flimsy at best, but then that's only to be expected from such a short novel. The premise of the story was sound and, all in all, it should have been an enjoyable few hours of reading.
The problem, however, was that by the time I'd finished the book, I still didn't have the faintest idea what was going on. Not a clue. I couldn't tell if the haunting had been real or not, I wasn't sure which characters were meant to be sympathetic and which unpleasant, and I couldn't even say now, in the cold light of day, quite how the story ended. I was left with the overriding impression that I had missed something, or at the very least misunderstood something of the plot. I went back and re-read certain parts, but found myself none the wiser for doing so. The fact remains that if I was called upon to describe what happened in the story, I wouldn't quite be able to manage it.
At that point, I went online and read some reviews. Perhaps I should have done this first, but the book came with such excellent credentials that I hadn't thought it necessary. Anyway, a quick glance at the online reviews told me that I wasn't alone. The general opinion was that this book was incomprehensible. It was too busy being clever and literary to actually bother making much sense. And whilst that is perfectly fine for some people, I myself have always looked upon novels as primarily a means of entertainment. When I'm reading a comedy I expect to laugh, when reading a thriller I expect to thrilled, and when reading a ghost story I expect to be at least a little scared. What I most certainly don't expect is to be first confused, and then enraged. The very act of constantly having to go back to check if I've missed something drags me out of the story as thoroughly as if I'd put the book down and walked away. It is difficult to immerse oneself in a good book when one constantly has the sense that one has skipped a few pages by accident.
In its defence, it's not the worst book I've ever read. That honour still goes to a book whose title I forget (which I suppose says it all), and whose ending was so abrupt that I actually threw the book in the bin in disgust. I then had to make an apologetic phone call to my friend to explain why I had thrown away the book she had been kind enough to lend me. And, of course, there are countless books which I've given up on half way through (my apologies to A.S Byatt) simply because I've realised that I couldn't care less about the characters.
But they weren't ghost stories, and therein lies the crux of my rage. Ghost stories are to me what cheap cider is to an alcoholic. I love them, I covet them, and I hoard them, saving them up so that I can read them in one sitting, preferably in late October when the rain is beating against the window and the wind is howling around the house. They are my drug of choice. To be disappointed by a ghost story feels like a betrayal. It isn't that I expect each one I read to be on a level with M R James - that would be placing too much of a burden of expectation on any writer. All I ask is that I understand what's happening. Confusion, in this case, is the enemy of fear.
Will I read any other works by this author? Absolutely not. Despite their numerous literary awards, they are not for me. Unless they wrote another ghost story. I might be tempted if they wrote another ghost story.