Fiction usually serves a specific purpose in my reading life: it functions the way a palate cleanser prepares us for flavors ahead, or in the case of reading, the next serious book. It is not that fiction writers are trivial in their efforts, it takes the same hard work to produce decent fiction as it does any other type of writing. Fiction is not the main event for me, so there are different expectations.
A novel must be paced quickly to hold interest. While fans of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky exist, their books have been difficult reads. I’m willing to suspend disbelief, yet only for so long.
I don’t like it when the mechanics of assembling a story are visible in the narrative. Yes, the author has to end a novel, although arbitrary resolutions of plot, ones in which the author’s hand is clearly visible, are particularly annoying. I’m thinking of Richard Powers novel The Overstory, an otherwise engaging tale.
Reading the first chosen novel of an author is almost always better than the next. I’m comparing Amor Towles books A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway. I was enraptured by the former and the latter seems forced and vapid. Towles seems full of himself and we don’t read fiction because of that. The same applies to Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars and The Thirty Names of Night. The former is memorable, and the latter, not so much. All of them helped pass the time, so what am I complaining about?
Time was I wanted a novel to teach me something. Michael Crichton’s State of Fear cured me of that. One needs no further thinly veiled and polemicized presentations of a political argument. That Crichton was required reading to work in a logistics company rubbed salt into the wound. I seek to engage in a good story, follow it through to the end, and move on. Spare me the polemics, please.
When I consider past reading, there are only a few novels I would read again. Among them are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolkien’s books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, and On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I enjoy reading John Irving, who is an exception to the rule about next books. Before I’d re-read one of his, I’d finish reading what I haven’t. My favorite was A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Give me a good novel, one that reads quickly, encourages me to suspend disbelief, and is a narrative for the sole purpose of telling the story. Do it well and you’ve got me hooked… at least until I move on to the next main reading event.