Reading and re-reading

Dave Lull recently sent me an article by Alan Massie called "The rewards of crime", an interesting if unfocused essay about crime and "prose" fiction (yes, the title refers to crime writing, not other forms of rewards of crime). Mr Massie (known at Petrona Towers as a writer of military-historical fiction novels) touches on many separate themes in his essay; I like some of his points but others seem to me downright silly. I might return to some of these another time, but for now I want to mention "re-reading". How likely are you to re-read a book?

Mr Massie writes: "Of course most crime novels are poor — but then so are most novels categorised as ‘literary’. They may bear reading once, but rarely twice." He refers to an essay by Nicholas Freeling (author of the van der Walk series among other novels), in which the point is made that many "literary" novels use a crime as a theme: Dickens, Trollope, Dostoevsky, Zola, Conrad et al.  According to Mr Freeling, ‘crime’ fiction’s appeal to readers is its analysis of "the pathology of the human condition, the moment after, it may be, a long drawn-out disturbance or perversion, at which the delicate balance of metabolism tilts into morbidity".

Mr Massie believes that "the difficulty for all novelists is to go on. It’s not only that you use up material, or that you seem to have said everything before; not only that you may become, as Greene put it, ‘the prisoner of your method’. It’s that it becomes ever harder to devise new situations and new characters, even to take this task seriously. When this happens, some stop writing; but they are few. Others turn to preaching, concerning themselves with ‘social issues’; others abandon the attempt to portray the world as it is, and retreat into extravagance or whimsy. You can see this happening, sadly, with crime novelists whose plots become ever more far-fetched or elaborate, whose criminals seem to amuse themselves with setting fantastic puzzles for the police. "

Although I am sure this is true for crime fiction (I can think of more than a few examples!), I am sure it is equally true for any kind of fiction, "literary" included. How often do we read a first novel of huge promise, only to find that the poor writer seems to have run out of ideas in subsequent efforts, and we are left disappointed? Or find an author’s output uneven in various ways, with a sense that there is a massive struggle going on in order to fill the pages?

In the hands of a good author, crime fiction has the huge plus of the plot. It’s easy to be snobbish about "genre" fiction, but if there is that framework (the crime), the author has a head-start on writing a book that is actually readable, in the sense of motivating the reader to finish it to find out an "answer". During the course of that journey, the author can be as profound and philosophical as she or he wishes, and the book as a whole can transcend the boundary of the niche genre. Kate Atkinson, Ian McEwan and John Banville are examples in my mind of "prose" or "literary" authors who use crime fiction in this way, whether deliberate or unconscious. 

In sum, I think a good crime-fiction novel is just as likely to be re-readable as a good "prose" (to use Mr Massie’s term) novel — particularly when the distinction is blurred. And there are plenty of "prose" novels which are not re-readable as well as the poor crime novels to which Mr Massie alludes.

Bibliophile at Another 52 Books addresses this topic in her post "The joys of re-reading".  She divides her re-reads into three categories: one-time re-reads, repeat re-reads and perennials. You can read more about which books she puts into each category and why at her post.