How many ways are there to read a book? You pick it up in the hope that you can lose yourself in it, that the story will grip you enough for you not to want to put the thing down. You hope it will illuminate parts of your life that have been dark for decades, that it will explain to you how you are what you are. You want it to be set in the world you live in, with characters like those around you, so you can relate. You want it to take you to places you’ve never been, worlds you don’t know, to give you vicariously experiences you could never get any other way. You want it to take the language in your ears and bend it into new and thrilling shapes. You want it to lift your spirit, to turn all the lights on and to make the world sing.
Reading can make us better people. Yet despite what you might hear there’s a crisis going on out there. Literature is in retreat – too elitist, too obscure, too non-productive, too economically backward, too difficult, too distant. What’s there to replace it? Immediacy, street life, gabble, things that engage for the shortest of moments. Literature has fought back with flash fiction (novels of fifty words or less), one word poetry, text message tales, life stories now told to camera but never written down.
At a literary dinner recently Ken Follett told us that thrillers worked only when there was a tension present that could be drawn out to fill the entire work. One that kept the reader engaged. He said that the life of his characters had to shift every five pages, just to keep the reader on board. Old stuff, sure. Dickens knew this. But still eminently true. Depicted life needs plot.
Glyn Jones was a great Anglo-Welsh poet and novelist. His classic tale, Island of Apples, will be reprinted shortly by the University of Wales Press. Glyn insisted that plots were best dealt with as core ideas. These things are like snowballs, he once told me. You get a concept, an image, an action, a name, and then you roll it forward and it attracts content as it goes. The novel as a glowing idea rather than a flowing line.
But it’s fiction with self-evident plot that sells, that gets borrowed the most from our shrinking libraries. Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth moves more than 100,000 copies a year. Glyn’s do only a fraction of that.
But don’t dismiss Island of Apples. This is a masterwork. A romantic tale without sex, the pre-adolescent angst of a valley schoolboy coming to terms with the world of the imagination. The reprint will be available in June.