Papercuts by lamplight

This post is an attempt to explain to myself more than anyone else why I sat up till 2 am last night when I was already tired.

I’ve always been a sucker for books that draw you in. I remember when I was seven getting in trouble because I just didn’t stop reading when book time had moved on to Maths – Hurrah for the Circus (that Enid Blyton one) was just a bit more interesting that long multiplication, sorry, Miss. In my teens I could have spent every waking hour (and often did) stuck so deep in a book I’d only move to eat (walking to kitchen reading, make tea while reading, risk third-degree burns etc). One of the reasons I like holidays is you can read all day until you fall into a stupor and no one is allowed to judge you (same as drinking, really).

Last week I was up with David Mitchell’s new book, but the sheer length meant I had to eventually put it down and got to sleep. That finished (brilliant), I started reading Sister, this new book that’s been selling thousands and generally making the rest of us wannabees weep into our crumpled manuscripts and cry, ‘It should have been me, damnit!’ (Or maybe that was just me).

So, I didn’t really want to like it, but, sadly, it is very good. It has that ineffable ‘unputdownable’ quality that makes you want to keep reading – no, have to keep reading – long back your bedtime and when you know you’ll be knackered tomorrow and not able to sleep on the train because it’s half-term and someone let the little beasties out of their jail school.

I was trying to analyse what made me so much want to read on, and how I could apply this to my own work. I think it was how she started near the end and moved back, and how she let little titbits of information slip tantalisingly out, introducing lots of potential suspects. Or maybe because you don’t realise what kind of book you’re reading until you’re right in there. I did admire the way too she slipped in quite a few poetic lines without slowing up the narrative. So it wasn’t perfect  – but by that point I didn’t care because it was 2am and I had to know!

There’s an interesting post here http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/may/18/whydobadbookssellbettert about why, when it comes down to it, being unputdownable seems to matter more than anything else. Maybe you won’t win the Booker, but I bet the criticisms aimed at Dan Brown and JK Rowling don’t bother them, since they probably can’t hear inside their gold-plated houses.

I suppose my lesson from this is that it’s possible to write a book that sheds light on the human condition, in which we can recognise the truth of life, while still telling an edge-of-your-seat story. I think I’d prefer that than writing a worthy book that’s so boring and/or repellent I can’t bring myself to finish it (looking at you, Martin Amis).

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