Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Monday, 22 April 2013


Once Upon a Time in a Far Off Land….

by Jennifer Young

Life on a desert island...you'll need a good book.
Photo by Indi Samarajiva (Wikimedia Commons)
The world is full of books. Too full, I sometimes think. And as I get older, rather than having more time to read them it seems that there are just more and more for me to read. The net result is that either the books I read get wiped from my memory so that I really can’t recall enough of them to claim I have read them (so sorry, Johns le Carre, Wyndham and Steinbeck, among others) or else the ones I meant to read get pushed so far down the list that I’ll probably never get to them.

 To address this, I’ve got a plan: I alternate new books with classics. So far I think the classics pile has been as mixed as the new pile – some lollipops (I’ll definitely revisit the extraordinarily modern plot of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) and some lemons (though I would recommend Moby Dick as a practical guide for insomniacs).  Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Robinson Crusoe.

I still don’t know what to make of it. If I hadn’t been so set on my plan I’d never have picked it up, let alone persevered through the heavy opening sections. One thing it doesn’t do is get straight to the action. Check that one off in your writers’ circle. “Brilliant plot, Daniel, but perhaps you should get to the interesting stuff a little more quickly?”

Then there are the characters. I won’t criticise his characterisation (I’m in a position of weakness) but it might have helped if any other than Crusoe and (eventually) Friday had names. It’s difficult to distinguish one sailor from another, the first of the Spaniards from the second, Crusoe’s patron from his benefactor and, indeed, any of the other old men and their sons who between them maintain his wealth for him as he spends the years marooned on his famous desert island.

Crusoe and Friday
(public domain: from Wikimedia Commons)
And another problem. Crusoe alone on the island for so many years (Friday turns up so far into the book that he’s more like a week on Friday) has no-one to talk to and no-one to talk to means a distinct absence of dialogue. Worse: it means dense pages of text and more than a little repetition as successful wheat crop follows successful wheat crop and, frankly, nothing happens. Until, writes Defoe, “I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore.”  

I was surprised too, even though I knew it would come. In my mind I ran with Robinson to hide in the woods, keeping watch while he set up his muskets to defend whatever he had against all comers. That’s why it’s a classic. Because for all its dated language and ponderous prose, for all the fact that it could do with a very heavy editor’s cut, it made me draw in my breath in that noooo! moment we all aspire to. Okay, it took pretty much half the book: but in the end it hooked me.

It would never be published today, of course – not just because of its slow pace, its over-heavy moralising on the superiority of the Christian over the savage and its unconscious but obvious racism (it is, after all, a book from the age of slavery). And if you do pick it up, don’t expect it to be a rip-roaring read.  But it illustrates something that’s always worth repeating: if you can make your readers sit up suddenly and straight, spilling their glass of wine into their box of chocolates…you’re a writer.

20 comments:

  1. I htink I did read Robinson Crusoe in the dim and distant past, or perhaps a cut-down children's version, as I don't remember it being particularly long or slow. But then in my teenage years I read War and Peace and Anna Karenina and didn't think they were long or slow either...

    I really like your idea of alternating classics and modern books. Now I have a Kindle it's much easier to do and I had the same intention. It's slipped, but I'm determined to get back to it - you're right, there's a lot there for us to learn from.

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    1. The Kindle is what got me onto the classics, too - I confess. All those copies we have, with their tiny print!

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  2. Interesting post, Jennifer. There are lots of classics which would not be published today but which still retain a strong readership.
    Funny, I don't remember reading Robinson Crusoe at all. I have loaded my Kindle with a selection of classics - Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre - and favourites from my childhood such as What Katy Did (which I read dozens of times), Little Women, etc. I was surprised at the high moral tone in Little Women as I don't remember it being such a 'goody-goody' book when I read it as a child. Do any children today read those books, I wonder? Do writers of today's children's books still teach moral principles and ethics, though in a different language and different settings from before?

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    1. I'm embarrassed to say I'm a little out of touch with children's literature of today (JK apart, of course). I rather steered my offspring towards the books i read as a child. They did tend to be moral, I think.

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  3. Very interesting, Jennifer. I've been listening to 'Coming Home' by Rosamunde Pilcher - not exactly a classic, actually quite recent in the scale of things - but I was very taken with how long and detailed bits of it were, with very little really happening. I suspect there'd be more of an editorial pen today. Also, my favourite all-time author is Dorothy Dunnett. She is utterly brilliant, BUT - rereading recently, I realised how much you have to concentrate. It's a knack we seem to have lost. And yes, I read all those big classics when I was a child/teenager too (War and Peace, Galsworthy, Scott, Trollope - Anthony not Joanna) etc etc. Had I but world enough, and time ... (Actually, confess, I read books like 'Forever Amber' too!)

    As for the moral tone, well, hmm, not a lot of that around today! Which, I would say, is a distinct improvement!

    Great post, really got me thinking.

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    1. It's strange, because some novels are a good read despite being very slow. I studied Joseph Conrad for A level and really got into it - but he's possibly the slowest-moving novelist I can think of.

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  4. Interesting post, Jennifer. I must admit I'm not a great lover of the classics. I much prefer a modern pacy style which has you flicking the pages faster and faster. I well remember reading Middlemarch for a university course, and falling asleep before the end of each chapter. It's a big book and took me forever to get through it, but I suppose I benefited from the sleep!

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    1. I think deep down I read the classics because I feel I have to. I wonder how many of them I'd put down if they ever got published today?

      I'm with you about Middlemarch, by the way!

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  5. Interesting post, Jennifer. I always used to tell my Creative Writing students that Thomas Hardy would never be published today! The problem is our sound-bite society. There was no alternative amusement until the very late 19th century, now we have so much we want everything NOW! And although the proselytising (which is how I think of it) is alien to us, it wouldn't have been for them.

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  6. Thanks, Lesley...I'd love to know how you advise your creative writers to begin. At the beginning? In the middle? With a teaser? That's one of the big dilemmas for me.

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  7. That's what I need - A reading plan - plus the will power to stick to it. I doubt if I shall ever get all the books read which I already own and then I keep adding more.

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    1. Don't tell anyone, Gwen, but I'm not that great at sticking to my plan either...I think I'll need a few fluffy books to recover from Robinson Crusoe!

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  8. Very interesting post, Jennifer - and I agree there are too many books available today, which the kindle has just made worse! I still have some favourite classics I'd like to revisit, but I don't know if I'll ever get around to reading those I missed

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    1. Rosemary, I thionk part of the trouble is that there are too many books I feel I ought to have read. Perhaps I need the courage to admit to not having read them, shrug my shoulders and say, so what?

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  9. A refreshing perspective, Jennifer.

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  10. I laughed at Chris' Middlemarch comment and Jenny's response to it. I read it and adored it and gave it to my father to read. Bless him, he plodded through it. His comment? 'Well, she didn't use one word where a hundred would do, did she?'
    I have FB'd and Tweeted and had some comments and an RT or two....spreading the word...:)

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  11. An interesting approach, Jennifer. I really enjoyed Scott novels in my youth. Still do, although I'm now more conscious of all the unread books out there. Now, I'll give a book - say - 50 pages. If it hasn't gripped me by then, I abandon it - something I'd never have done before. I don't think this approach would work with some of the classics.

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    1. They were talking about Scotts novels on the Radio 4 book programme at the weekend. It made me want to go back and read them, but definitely wouldn't be able to use the 'give up after 50 pages' approach. So many books, so little time.

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  12. I think it's interesting - perhaps we should adjust our expectations for different books. I certainly wouldn't have given an airport thriller (as I like to call them!) the amount of time I gave to Crusoe.

    Interestingly, Ivanhoe is the next classic on my list....I'll let you know how it goes!

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