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Are Novels a Waste of Life?

Earlier this year I realised that three months had passed since I last read a novel and that it was the first time in the sixty years I have been able to read that this had happened. And then I also realised that the novels I had read in the last few years had not been for pleasure, but for the purposes of researching travel or articles. Extended works of fiction don’t do it for me any longer; now it is time for the old age pension, with death or dementia on the horizon (distant horizon, one hopes, but horizon nevertheless) life seems too short for other people’s imaginings.

Some pleasures have stood the test of time splendidly. Beethoven sounds as good as ever, cricket still fascinates as does theatre and some of the beer produced in England these days is much better than the stuff I drank in my youth. But the novel is only a remembered pleasure. Stephen King wrote of its excitement recently in literally glowing terms:

A successful novel should interrupt the reader’s life, make him or her miss appointments, skip meals, forget to walk the dog. In the best novels the writer’s imagination becomes the reader’s reality. It glows, incandescent and furious.

He was referring specifically to his own experience of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but I can remember my versions: Captain Marriott’s Children of the New Forest, read all night under the bedclothes, George Orwell’s 1984 read in the back of the car on a wet day out in Morecambe – chilling me to the centre of my soul and influencing me forever – or Albert Camus’ L’Etranger, which at sixteen seemed to be the only book in the world which was based on an understanding of what life was really like. Even as a young lecturer the article or lecture I was supposed to be writing sometimes had to wait for Dorothy L. Sayers or Anthony Trollope to reveal their plots.

But slowly, steadily, the urgency of that pleasure ebbed away. For many years I have abandoned most of the novels I’ve tried to read after five or twenty five pages. Even when I’ve got “into” a book I can’t necessarily finish it. I found the philosophy and history in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose interesting, but abandoned it about a hundred pages from the end when interest relied on the plot. Louis De Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin seemed a fine novel, but long before the end I had abandoned it in favour of investigating factual accounts of what actually happened in Kefalonia in 1943.

This is all rather sad and a bit like the loss of faith described by some Victorian intellectuals. Some of the meaning has gone out of life. Whatever else the day offered, there was always that last fifteen minutes with the bedside book to look forward to. Also the selection of reading for the holidays and the discussion of a novel’s merits and limitations with my lifelong companion. On a purely selfish level this loss is to be bemoaned, gone down the same tube as one’s ability to drink beer, eat curry and still get a night’s sleep. It’s all so demographically predictable: I am old and male and therefore less likely to read novels. I am even following tediously in my father’s footsteps because I remember that he once asked if he could have Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes when I had finished with it, only to throw the book away in disgust when he discovered it was a novel. He didn’t read novels and nor do a lot of my former colleagues in universities.

But I can’t and don’t regret the loss of the pleasure of reading novels very much. Did anyone ever lie on their deathbed wishing they had read more novels? The novel as a genre is treated as being at the centre of our culture: “book” clubs read not books in general but novels and we make children study them. Yet this is a fairly new form, the extended story, which developed only in the eighteenth century and is thousands of years younger than poetry, drama and music. It is, perhaps, the typical expression of a culture more tolerant of introspection and egotism than previous societies. In any case, the place of the novel in our culture is now quite domineering: the best guess is that over 100,000 new works of fiction are now published every year in the English language and it is suggested that these constitute only 5% of those which are written.

Of course I have tried to write one, based on the inadequately challenged assumption that if you are a “writer” you ought to write a novel. Mine had two fundamental – and probably very common – faults: they were far too descriptive, in the nineteenth century style, and they tended to autobiography. What I really wanted to do was capture the flavour of reality, which has always seemed to me to be far more interesting than unreality. I therefore have an acute distaste for “fantasy” and science fiction.

The worst implication of the place of the novel in our culture is the insistence on including the study of novels in education. I have a vivid memory of watching one of my sons struggle through Jane Eyre, just five days before he was due to take an exam which required his knowledge of it. When he finished he asked rhetorically, “Is that the worst book ever written – or what?” No, it isn’t – there are lots worse, but making intelligent young men read the Brontë sisters when they have never even heard of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty might just be the worst idea in the history of education. Soft humanism replaces hard thought and the study of the novel has a very high opportunity cost.

I crave a better understanding of the world and, whereas reading novels seemed to offer this when I was younger, it long since ceased to do so. I have had much more satisfaction from reading philosophy and history. David Hume remains the most exciting writer I have ever read and, among contemporaries, I have been gripped by Jan Morris, Alistair Horne and John Keegan, for example. The emphasis on war indicated by those names is probably typical of a generation that was never shot at.

I broke my novel famine at Wimbledon. It was raining and we were on Court One, which unlike the Centre Court, has no roof , though most seating is under cover. There was nothing else to do and I read Joanna Trollope’s The Other Family. It was OK; it passed the time. But it didn’t do too much else and I haven’t read one since.

Lincoln Allison