I recently finished reading the new William Morrow edition of Agatha Christie's classic mystery novel After the Funeral. It goes without saying that there really cannot be too many editions of the Queen of Mystery's books and this particular Poirot whodunit remains one of her more satisfying efforts. After turning the last page, once again failing to name the culprit before the big reveal (yes, I used a detective's log and no it didn't work), I flipped back to the introduction I had skipped over in my haste to begin the story. (I have a horrible habit of skipping introductions. I don't want to hear what someone else thinks of a book before I even begin reading reading it. Spoilers lurk everywhere in introductions. It is a minefield to be avoided at all costs.)
This particular introduction was written by Sophie Hannah, the author who was chosen to pen the upcoming "Agatha Christie Mystery" The Monogram Murders. (If you harbor doubts about anyone else - regardless of talent - writing as Agatha Christie allow me to assure you that you're not alone. But that is a discussion for another day.) In her introduction Hannah muses that the kind of mysteries Christie wrote, "the ones with the high-concept, seemingly-impossible-yet-possible solutions, the ones that take your breath away," would not curry favor with contemporary readers whose "expectations of novels have changed." She notes that during Christie's time, readers simply expected an exciting story, while today's readers expect more realism. In some sub-genres, of course, this is true. She never explicitly says so (and I wondered if she knew it herself), but she is simply describing what is known as the different Schools of Mystery.
Agatha Christie belonged to what is known as The Golden Age of the British Detective Novel which flourished between the 1920s and the 1930s (also called Puzzle-Plots). Cleverness was the name of the game and outwitting the reader was the goal. Grisly violence, social or political commentary, and descriptive sex was all off limits because it was untidy and couldn't be resolved with a return to nice, neat British social order by the end. Our cousins across the pond do love things nice and tidy...little wonder I harbor such an affinity for them.
And who can blame the public for making these novels bestsellers? The 1920s saw Europe in tatters. World War I had just ended and everyone was still questioning the death, the carnage. For what? Order - not just social order - had been destroyed. The Lost Generation was groping it's way through the arts. Fascism was rising across the Continent. The average reader lacked an anchor...stability. The British detective novels were, if not quite solvable for the average reader, predictable in format. They provided a safe feeling that order would be restored by the end of the novel.
In 1928 a group of authors gathered together to form a club (a club which is still, by the way, still in existence today). They called it the Detection Club. The first President was C.K. Chesterton. Founding members: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Miles Burton/John Rhode, Father Ronald Knox, and Freeman Wills Croft. Members of the club agreed to rigidly adhere to the following ten rules as established by Knox:
The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
No Chinaman may figure in the story.
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The detective must not himself commit the crime.
The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
1932 Detection Club Dinner
If the rules and format of a British Detective Novel from the Golden Age sound vaguely familiar to modern day readers, it might be because you still see their offspring in what we now refer to ascosy mysteries. I find it fascinating that the name of the sub-genre reflects the comfort that the original genre produced in it's audiences. I don't believe that to be coincidence.
The Puzzle-Plots that Agatha Christie wrote were only one of many Schools of Mystery that have made an appearance since Edgar Allan Poe first ushered in what would become an irresistible genre of reading. From hard-boiled detective fiction to locked-room mysteries; from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, the mystery genre has a variety of schools that are all worthy of study. I'm not entirely certain that they completely evolved from reader demands, but rather were simply a reflection of the times. While Sophie Hannah contends that modern day readers find Christie's plots not "plausible" enough to find commercial success, I would argue that the fact that William Morrow is publishing brand-new editions of Christie's novels refutes that argument entirely.
So last week I was featured The Oatmeal, which is a stand-alone type comic. Another another form of webcomic - and this type might look more familiar to you in the guise of a graphic novel - is a dramatic series that has a long, continuing story with a recurring set of characters and a fully-formed plot line.
Needless to say, this type of webcomic has it's roots in the comic books days of old when superheros would take an entire comic book to defeat the nefarious evil-doers threatening to destroy mankind. If you look very close, the old comic books would actually run in a series themselves (hence why they were numbered) to tell the long story. In the case of webcomics they are usually serialized, appearing once per week on average (the website will tell you how often and what day they publish and of course you can subscribe to their feed). Once a story is complete, it is usually left archived for new readers to discover and/or available for purchase in graphic novel format.
One of the better examples of a webcomic with a long running storyline is FREAKANGELS, which appeared weekly between 2008 and 2011 to wild popular acclaim. A post-apocalyptic story written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Paul Duffield, FreakAngels ended it's run at 864 pages. Oh yes, you read right. 864 pages. And it's all still available and new fans are (binge) reading it every day.
Based off John Wyndham's 1957 science fiction novel The Midwich Cuckoos (later turned into the movie The Village of the Damned), FreakAngels imagines what might have happened if the creepy children featured in the original novel survived and lived to see a world destroyed by apocalyptic flooding.
Recipient of the 2010 and 2012 "Favourite Web-Based Comic" Eagle Award, FreakAngels carried some serious clout in the world of webcomics and is worth checking out if you have any interest in apocalyptic fiction or in seeing where the bar has been set in the past.
Last week I talked about a trend in the book blogging world I've noticed where book reviews have been largely replaced by book synopses. I don't believe this is by nefarious design but rather the result of the ridiculous pace that being set by book bloggers in order to keep up with the latest and greatest book releases. The push to read more, to read faster, to keep pumping out the reviews has resulted in a plethora of book review sites whose deepest review of a book might be the words "lyrical prose." Aside from that, what we find is simply a regurgitation of a plot synopsis and star rating.
We no longer find thoughtful, educated reviews because we are no longer reading books purposefully. And who has the time? With anywhere between ten to twenty reviews scheduled in a given month, the average book blogger simply does not have the time to read any book in a meaningful manner. To simply read the book itself cover to cover is an accomplishment in and of itself. Few, if any, have the time then to re-read the book, dissecting the text structurally to find the deeper meaning and reinforcement of themes. Not only are we depriving ourselves of a greater understanding and enjoyment of literature but if we're not understanding it, how can we properly review it?
I spent a few hours this afternoon reading a random two dozen review of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. I wasn't looking for professional reviews, but instead focused on the book blogging world, searching for a review that explored image, symbol, archetype. I looked for any discussion about the principle of selection when discussion Tartt's plotting. I looked for any possible hint of a specific (or hell, even general) literary criticism applied to a review: feminist? contemporary? structuralist? Nothing. Most gushed over the story, although they felt it a tad over-long. A few talked about some themes. But if you read some of the professional reviews of the novel, ones that deconstruct the story, you'll find a different opinion than the book blogging world expressed. Interesting, no? I myself only gave the Pulitzer-winning tome a single read and found myself immediately - out of habit - a "review" on the keyboard. I had written approximately two paragraphs before I realized this was no more than plot regurgitation, poorly done at that, before CTRL A, DEL saved each and every one of you from reading that particular hell. Tartt may have written a self-indulgent, Dickensian knock-off that snookered the Pulitzer panel, but surely she deserves better than a plot synopsis and a three-star rating here (spoiler). If I'm going to pan The Goldfinch, I could at least do it properly. What I am suggesting here isn't a unique idea: "While reading skills are taught and trained, there is occasionally a misconception that understanding of texts, whether oral, written, visual or multimodal, comes naturally and does not need further attention. […] Literature uses language to communicate, and language consists of conventional semiotic signs, based on an agreement between the bearers of a particular language and culture. For anyone outside the given community, conventional signs do not carry any meaning, or at best the meaning is ambivalent. As a consequence, before we can understand a work of literature, we need to be trained in a number of conventions. On the most basic level, we must know how to read, how to make sense of letters, words and sentences - what is normally referred to as literacy. Fiction is, however, more complex than, for instance, everyday language, since it also involves figurative speech and other features and artistic devices which need special knowledge to be understood. […] the language of fiction - in a broad sense, including many layers of artistic conventions - demands a knowledge of and training in certain codes." — "Literacy, competence and meaning-making: a human sciences approach" (June 2010, Cambridge Journal of Education), Maria Nikolajeva.
Before someone pulls out the old Book Snob card, let's talk about this for a moment. Clearly, not every book is intended to be analyzed under a literary microscope. To deconstruct a JoJo Moyes novel, for example, would be an exercise in futility. Many genre novels are simply meant to be read through quickly and enjoyed. This is why they are called genre novels. It's important to know the difference. To treat literature as a genre novel is to miss out on something greater. And this is where the disconnect lies.
We read so many of these genre novels - so quickly, rush rush rush, get those reviews out, hurry! - that when a novel of important literature is placed before us we frequently don't know how to read it purposefully. This is important. I'll say it again. We don't know how to read it purposefully. Many of us perhaps have forgotten from our long-ago university English classes. Many of us never learned to begin with. So what do we do when this very well-written piece of literature comes before us? We write the same synopsis-type blog entry as we would for any other piece of genre fiction and blow right on to the next book. And this is a disservice this is both to ourselves and our readers.
I'm not suggesting the book blogging world begin writing 5,000 word reviews of classic Russian literature (although if anyone would, I'd subscribe to your blog immediately and hit the LIKE button so hard the key would break off my laptop). But I do return to the concept of learning to slow down and read purposefully every once in a while. Essays are one way of doing this. Short stories are another. Educating yourself on the literary theory should be far and above more important to the book blogger than how to promote your blog via social media. There are dozens of university websites that offer online resources free for the taking. Apply what you learn to short stories or the latest literary fiction that arrives on your doorstep. Take the time to create a real book review. Your readers will thank you. More readers will flock to your website. I will run to your website.
Most of all, slow down. Read purposefully. Even if you never craft a book review based on that reading. Do it for your own love of books.