Tuesday, 27 March 2012

I am not a free man, i am a number

What makes a truly great novel?
Blogspace is full of people who will tell you the answer to that question (and it invariably uses multiple use of the word 'edit')

I was wondering, is a novel only great if i understand what the author was trying to say?
Or, alternatively, can we be pursuaded that a novel is great if, after the fact, we understand what the author was trying to say?

I'll use a couple of examples. The first one isn't a book

You may have been to Portmerion - it's a village on the Welsh coast. if you've not, you might have seen it on the box as it's the setting for the original version of The Prisoner. It's very pretty, with italionate architecture and nooks and strange shapes and build on a 2/3 scale (although people manage to live there).
I hated it. it ticked the Trying Too Hard box and i couldn't understand what the architect was trying to do.We went to find the cafe.
Near the middle of the village there's a shed, with a film on repeating loop. In the film the architect, Clough Williams-Ellis, explains what he was trying to do. Lightbulb moment. When we came back out i looked at it in a different way and loved it

So, to a book. I've just read On the beach by Neville Shute. It's about a small city in Australia in the last 4-6 months before the radiation from a nuclear war arrives.
Rather than desperately trying to find a way to survive, they spend the time having dinner parties and saying 'don't worry it will all be over soon.'
i can't decide whether Shure was portraying some sort of colonial stiff upper lip, or how people behave when they believe there is no hope.

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Although i don't understand it, PJ O'Rourke called it the best novel ever written. i hated it.

Having said that, i suspect that, even if i'd understood it, i'd still have hated it.it's so turgid and small and I only continued to the end to find out how they eventually manage to save themselves.

SPOILER. They all die. It's just totally depressing

You may be looking for the hidden meaning in my book.

SPOILER. There isn't one.


  1. Good question. Yeah, I think you do have to understand the message behind most things to truly appreciate them. That's why I stay away from the high-brow stuff - I'm just not smart enough to understand what point the author was making half the time and the rest I'm looking up every other word in a dictionary!Mind you, I suppose you can still appreciate a good poem or a great painting without necessarily needing to delve into hidden meanings etc. Hmmm. Great post. Thank you :-)

  2. In my view a book in itself cannot be great. It can only be enjoyed and appreciated. Though an author can be great. By turning out work that captures imagination and pushes the reader to a higher level of understanding. I have read ECHO and in my view it is great, yet others may be inclined to disagree, to which no one can argue therefore the book cannot be great.
    So my view is that YOU must be great to achieve works of greatness!
    Was assimov great after his first publication or Hamilton? I would say yes but again others would say no.
    To conclude, I think echo is great, I loved the way we constantly flip from Yorke to echo, the fact echo changes so much in the book and many more aspects. So yes I think Peter Johnstone is a new great for us all to enjoy!

  3. Paul, what can i say? Thank you so much. I'm pleased beyond measure that you like it so much. can you go and say it again on Amazon, now? :-)

    Ashley. Currently i'm reading New York to Dallas. It's written under a pen name but there's no escaping the fact that it's (cough) Nora Roberts!

    To regain some credibility after that bombshell, the best ever opening lines, imho, from one of the greatest books

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

    Strangely, some of Dickens' other books are rubbish