Earlier this week, the novelist Mark Billingham caused a minor stir when he suggested that readers should throw a book “across the room angrily” if it hasn’t gripped them in the first 20 pages. Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Billingham said that he gives up on about half of the books he starts because “life’s too short ... There are so many great books out there.”
Plenty of others agree with him. Hilary Rose, writing in The Times, explained that she “bitterly regret[s] not heeding Billingham’s life lesson sooner”. Crime writer Linwood Barclay added: “Think of it this way. If the first three bites of your meal taste terrible, you don’t need to keep on eating, expecting it will get better.” Well, no, though I’d point out that if the starter was disappointing, you might still stick around for the main. Plenty of iffy prawn cocktails have been followed by an excellent steak.
Reading is, for the most part, a private pursuit; it’s unlikely many of us would seriously change our habits based on the advice of others. Whatever works for you, I suppose. Still, I have found the discussion this week dispiriting and, dare I say it, a bit childish. The idea that we read simply to be entertained – as an easy form of escapism – seems to underpin all the arguments for giving up on a book: “I couldn’t get into it”, “it didn’t grip me”, “too slow”. But entertainment, surely, isn’t the only reason why people read – or indeed why authors write.
Reading should challenge and confound us; it should take us into the minds and lives of those we don’t like or find hard to understand. This may not always be gripping but it is often rewarding. We owe it to writers to give them a full hearing before passing judgement – and finishing a book is the only way to do this. To give an author just 20 pages of your time is insulting.
The protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, for example, is self-obsessed, indulgent and cruel. Reading about her can be infuriating and tedious but then again, so is the life she leads. That is the point, of course, and it allows us to experience her eventual transformation together. Twenty pages in, I could sympathise with the urge to throw the novel “across the room angrily”. But I’m glad I didn’t. Every reader will have a similar story.
Indeed, Umberto Eco deliberately made the opening of his novel The Name of the Rose as impenetrable as possible, in order to weed out those readers not prepared to stick with him. “My friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding,” he wrote in the postscript. “Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey [where the novel is set] and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the mountain.”
Form and style can be frustrating, too. If a novel is written in an unconventional or fragmented way, it is hardly likely to grip you in the first 20 pages, as you grapple to interpret it. Sometimes it seems like nonsense – try Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – but then the veil lifts and the rhythm takes hold.
It is an imperfect analogy, but the feeling of elation you might get from a gruelling run is greater than if you’d plodded to the end of the road and back. Many of life’s great pleasures – sport, playing a musical instrument, learning a new language – are not easy to get to grips with. None of which is to say that reading a book purely for entertainment is wrong; I adore crime fiction and thrillers. But you are limiting your enjoyment of reading if that is all you seek.
There are undoubtedly books which you never get along with, or are simply not very good. I tried and tried to forge a relationship with Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, but, right until the final page, never got anywhere. Was that a waste of my time? Possibly. But you’ll never know unless you persevere. For every one of these books, there are countless others that blossom late on and reward the effort. I’m happy to take my chances.
In a recent interview, Lee Child, author of the unputdownable Jack Reacher series, was asked which book he had never been able to finish. “None,” he replied. “I’ve finished every book I’ve started. You can learn plenty from bad or difficult books.”
And, he might well have added, you can miss so much by throwing them “across the room angrily”.
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