Imagine an addict who not only couldn’t get a fix, but hadn’t even an idea where a fix could be got, no matter how much money or time or how many henchmen they had to search for it.
Six to eight months of the year at least, I’m fine. I can happily dip in and out of my book stash and read for twenty minutes, or until it’s time to stop reading. I can get by on what I have. But I’ve got the shakes these days, and not a heady cure in sight.
Do you ever find yourself reading something and, although it’s perfectly pleasant and all that, and an adequate way to while away the hours—ever get that sneaking suspicion that it’s the literary equivalent of a prescription drug? You’re reading something that’s perfectly palatable. It cures some of your symptoms, but hardly ever gets to the root of the problem.
Prescription books have formulas. They have a precise chemical composition which the author has often been regulated into producing, with the following side effects:
- Crime novels where the whodunit is overly concerned with the howdunit and the howinvestigatit, rather than fleshing out the whydunit or the whoitwasdunto with original and fresh character traits
- Romance novels where the brooding hero and sexually innocent heroine spend two-thirds of the book pushing each other away because of perceived or non-existent slights and misunderstandings
- Historical Fiction where all the children are sweet and loving and the women are guilt-ridden or stoically impoverished
- Women’s Fiction where protagonists are chronically nice people and any deaths, if they occur at all, are meaningful
- Literary Fiction entirely composed of gimmicks or short sentences and adjectives which take the place of verbs
I don’t want prescription drugs. I want heroin. Book heroin is an unregulated chemical compound which fills your every waking minute. When you’re not reading it, you’re thinking about it. When you are reading it, you are not wherever you are. You will push everything and everyone away until you get to the other side.
Book heroin is full of people who feel familiar but do unfamiliar things in a believable way. It feels like the characters know you, and are studying you as much as you’re studying them, even though you’re doing the ocular equivalent of licking the windows, gawping at their car-crash lives.
I want to make facial expressions when I’m reading that don’t include eye-rolling. I want to go from eyebrow-raising to pupil dilation, from facial dimples to damp tearducts. I want to stay up reading until stupid o’clock and get up the next morning not even tired because I’m still high on the book.
The Magic Formula
I get none of this from prescription drug books which are variously categorised into one narrow definition such as Crime, Thriller, LOL-Free Lit-Fic, or Romance. They are 500mg of paracetamol against a raging migraine. They are doughnuts made out of kale. Alcohol-free beer. Holidays with someone else’s children. Roughage.
Sometimes I wonder if the problem is that big business publishing is so concerned with average book sales that they won’t risk anything out of the ordinary which could really grab readers by the goolies. For example, right now they don’t seem to like cross-genre stuff, purely because they’re not entirely sure where to market it.
Marketing Says No
Comedy isn’t allowed at all unless it’s full of violence (men’s fiction) or romance (women’s fiction). Violence isn’t allowed in Romance. Romance isn’t allowed in Crime or Psychological Thrillers unless it’s destructive. Anything fantastical must be segregated during the frequent periods when magical realism is out of fashion.
And combining the lot is definitely not allowed, because then a book can’t be bashed into this ruinous niche marketing template that’s taken over the entire business.
Not In My Name
I did a quick and thorough scientific survey of myself, and came up with some incontrovertible findings.
In the last 15 years or so, fewer than 10 of the books or book series I read qualified as pure book heroin, in that they made me fall in love so hard that they took over my brain, actually interfering with my ability to live a normal life.
One of these was written in the 1940s; one in the 1970s, and one in the last 5 years. A couple turned out to be literary prizewinners, one was a story which defied description and has never been emulated. They shall remain nameless, because I have no intention of boiling this down to mere book titles. But all, and I mean all of them, had one thing in common.
None of these books could be classified into a single homogenous genre. Some of them could be described by that most begrudging of terms, the Potboiler. But they all had combinations of all the best ingredients: love, crime, mystery, fantasy, witty dialogue, tragedy, obsession, devotion, malice.
Crime becomes more thrilling when passion is involved. Violence is more palatable when combined with comic relief or cathartic sorrow. But to make a real page-turner, good people must make terrible mistakes, and bad people must capitalise upon them. That, after all, is human experience.
For now, I’m still looking. I’m also well aware, by the way, that after book heroin there is an inevitable comedown. But with this kind of hunger, this need, it’s a side effect I’m going to accept.
What do you think? Are you getting enough of a hit from genre fiction? Or like me – is it wrecking your buzz?