Traditionally, fiction has divided into two camps. On the one hand we have literary or "contemporary" fiction, characterized by beautiful writing but often said to have no story. And then there's genre fiction, with a hot high concept to hook your interest and a series of reversals to keep you on the edge of your seat - but typically written with all the charm and elegance of a Haynes manual.
Virginia Woolf was vexed by ungainly prose styles. "Something tore," she said of such a book; "something scratched. A single word here and there flashed its torch in my eyes." Well, quite. But recently, reading a book where every phrase sparkled, I realized that the (very famous) author had given me no reason to turn the page. There was no problem facing the characters, no impending disaster that they would either triumph over or succumb to. If the craft of words was all I wanted, I would do better to read poetry.
Why should style matter? Try this:
Few things have been more beautiful than my note book on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india rubber stretching out to infinity, now it was a book again, but bigger than the book of all knowledge. It grew more fantastic as it reached the bottom, where a puff of sand welcomed it and obscured it from view. But it reappeared, quite sane though a little tremulous, lying decently open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among its leaves.That's E M Forster. Or this:
I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years, until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its lazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom.Mark Twain. Now contrast with:
The speeding vehicle clung to the road, squeezed down by the slip-stream of its speed over the flat-dish shape of its outlines.Enough, already! Because if the writer cares so little for language - or at least, cares so little for his story that he didn't trouble over telling it well - then why should it be worth my time to read it? And I think it kinder to leave the writer in question anonymous, except to say you are unlikely to hear him mentioned in the same breath as Forster or Twain.
Read the first page of Lolita, or A Clockwork Orange, or To Have and Have Not, and you know you are in the hands of an author whose intelligence and insight will take you somewhere new. The journey will be worth your attention and it may change you. But over the last half of the twentieth century, good prose became a peacock's tail that grew so big as to obscure the beast itself. This allowed a new strain of style-only authors to evolve, with no story to tell but all the trappings of style necessary to pass themselves off as good writers, the way a hoverfly masquerades as a wasp.
Yet there's an interesting trend in modern literary fiction. There are definite signs that story is starting to matter again. Borrowing a little from genre writing, novels such as The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler's Wife have blazed the trail. Between the extremes of geeky high concept and ethereal but aimless prose, we now have a hybrid: the compelling page-turner that is also beautifully written. Which, after all, is only what good fiction is supposed to be.
And so, back to Roz and that "best novel of the year". Of course, I'm partial. But not so much that I can't tell great writing when I see it. Hence the shock. I've been hearing about this book over the dinner table for the last five years. First the core concept: if (double underline that if) hypnosis can reveal past lives, what about future lives? Suppose you could be shown glimpses of an incarnation of yourself - your soul, whatever - in the future. What would that mean to the way you lived your life now?
Publishers loved the concept, but they wanted to Roz to take it off into the realms of genre. Murder, clues, a race against time: Dead Again in reverse. Crass? Of course, but I was right there adding my voice to theirs. A thriller with a reincarnation hook - sorry, preincarnation; what a gift to the bestseller racks. A career vista opened up of a new Roz Morris high concept genre title every year. It was the obvious way to take the idea, and exactly what Roz didn't want. She's already had that career, as a million-selling ghost writer. Now she's honed her craft and she wants to write fiction of genuine quality. Commendably, and in spite of the chorus of editors, agent and husband, she stuck to her guns. And My Memories Of A Future Life turns out be a work far more astonishingly original and more exquisitely written than anybody imagined - certainly including yours truly.
Roz released My Memories Of A Future Life originally on Kindle in several parts for 99 cents an episode, arguing that literary fiction can and should be compelling enough to bring readers back for more. After all, it worked for Dickens. Reviewers have talked about the surprise-&-delight factor - something that all novels ought to have, but which is rare enough nowadays to be worth remarking on. Even the readers who normally stick to genre have seen that Roz's literary treatment of the idea allows her to take it in unpredictable directions - because, wherever you think that preincarnation concept might go, I can guarantee you won't anticipate what Roz does with it.
Now, naturally you should take all that I say with a pinch of salt. But you don't have to take my word for it. The book is available in episodic ebook form for another month, and in paperback, and you can also hear Roz read the first four chapters in a podcast. All the details are on the book's website. It's not as a husband that you can trust me, but as an author and fellow reader.