Having read hundreds of books as a book reviewer, and hundreds more for my personal pleasure, I have come to understand something about what, and why, I read. And to think about what I don’t read.
The books for review have been a mix of fiction and non-fiction. The subject matter of the non-fiction has ranged widely in both scope and depth, and has sometimes been challenging but almost always rewarding. There are no drawbacks to learning something new or seeing a different point of view. And having to consider what to write about a given book not only focuses the mind but furnishes it too.
The fiction – novels and short stories – has included books that I might never have chosen for myself. In fact, in real life I rarely choose fiction. I’m one of those people who normally, in libraries and shops, scan the first page and only turn to the second if the author has managed to catch my interest. But as a reviewer I read right through, critically but, I hope, fairly. Doing so taught me that the first page doesn’t always offer reliable indications about the rest of the book, and I was often pleasantly surprised.
That held true for full-length novels and books of short stories, although sometimes I felt cheated that a book plugged as a novel turned out to be a book of short stories so thinly connected that you could hardly see the stitches. When I worked in the trade the prevailing opinion was that books of short stories were unpopular, and only established writers could risk cobbling together enough shorts to fill the space between the covers. I used to wonder why that should be. After all, people have always enjoyed stories from babyhood onwards, and the length has always varied to match both subjects and attention spans.
Now there is a fashion for what are called, among other things, short-shorts, flash fiction, micro-fiction, drabbles and the wonderfully quirky Chinese “palm-sized”. Shorts can be anything from six words (for example the often quoted “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn”) to about 300 words – and telling a story within that limit is a challenge. But – there isn’t time to savour them.
I’ve just glanced at a new batch of flash fiction, published with a common theme, on-line at http://flash-frontier.com Twenty-six of them, one after the other. Obviously they are of mixed quality, but all are worth reading. But they remind me why I am not drawn to short fiction, even though I have written some and will continue to do so. For me, a story has to be long, structured, elegant, thoughtful, gripping, satisfying. Something with depth. Something that lingers in the mind. Something at around 200 pages.