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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How much plot?

Agent Jonny Geller recently complained that The Independent's review of Jane Harris's new novel Gillespie and I contained too many spoilers. Having just  reviewed the book myself for the Financial Times, I was curious to see what he meant. On reading Carol Birch's review I thought Geller was being unfair, and challenged him to see if he could do any  better.

Reading a novel in advance of publication is like setting out on a long sea voyage in which you're not just ignorant of your destination, but even what sort of vessel you're travelling on. The captain may be a fraud and the unobtrusive fellow who brings your tea in the morning might turn out to be the one you should have kept an eye on all along. Certain tip-offs will help later passengers enjoy the trip more fully. Yet in alerting them to all the sights, you should never rob them of the thrill of surprise.

My rough rule of thumb is that the first quarter to a third of a novel generally constitutes the set up and is fair game. The reviewer can describe that set-up, and maybe drop a few broad hints as to the direction the action might go, but at some stage you have to say 'Now read on...' However, sometimes even an early twist is clearly designed to come as a shock. (In which case it'll probably be given away by the jacket blurb.)

When editing reviews, a literary editor all too often has not read the novel in question, so it can be difficult to ascertain how much is too much. I might send an entire review back with the terse note: 'Too plotty!' A phrase such as 'After his wife dies...' would have me trying to elicit where in the book this happened. If it fell foul of my golden rule, I'd amend it to something like 'After a family tragedy...' Sometimes even this is too much, if it's a 'lightning from a blue sky' development. Sensitivity to the writer's design is all.

It's amazing how wedded reviewers can be to revealing the plot: 'I can't discuss the book properly without revealing that she dies halfway through/the butler did it/it was all a dream.' Funnily enough, this defence does have some historical weight. Reading Virginia Woolf's early book reviews, I was surprised at how much of the plot she routinely gave away. Perhaps today we focus on plotting above all other stylistic issues; certainly her reviews were also full of insight about the craft of fiction. Most often, though, the 'this happens, then that happens, then finally...' school of reviewing is just lazy.

Gillespie and I does present specific problems for the critic. To use the maritime analogy above, it quickly becomes clear that deciding what sort of vessel you are on, be it comfortable cruise liner or leaky tub, is absolutely crucial. Harris's narrative is so deft at wrong-footing the reader that even to know at the outset what sort of story you're going to be told will take away from the purity of discovering/deciding that for yourself.

Sadly, Jonny Geller did not choose to rise to my playful challenge to write a review himself. At least he conceded that in this case it is a tricky undertaking. I recommend Harris's superbly slippery novel, but the less you know about it in advance, the better.


  1. I am intrigued now...

    I am re-reading Aspects of the Novel by Forster. It is a great meditation on what actually is 'a novel'? And it is a little bit sceptical about the importance of the 'plot' to the quality of the novel. No, maybe more ambivalent. Which, if you read a book like Passage To India, you can see how he plays that ambivalence out.

    What actually happens? I still don't know to this day.

  2. Although writing only on a blog, I try to be 'professional' and don't give away anything that seems to me to be pivotal. Alternatively, if it's in the blurb, it's fair game. (But blurbs can sometimes take you to more than halfway through the plot.) As a result, my reviews are probably too light on plot.

    In an ideal world, a review would be as interesting a rewarding for those who have read the book as for those who haven't - so said Philip French, and that's what I would aim for even if I don't achieve it. Just yesterday, I was delighting in James Lasdun's superb review of Edward St Aubyn's At Last and tweeted a link to it. As soon as I did, someone replied, saying he had given away virtually the entire plot. Had he? I hadn't noticed, perhaps because I had read the book already and was concentrating on how he analysed it. Still, just goes to show that even great critics get it wrong sometimes.

  3. 'At Last' is all about mood, atmosphere, situation and delight in language - it's not plotty at all. You can't really spoil an E St A novel by saying what 'happens', just as you can't spoil a Michelin meal for someone else by describing what YOU had.

    Will check out the Lasdun review though - sounds great. I have reviewed the book for the FT.

  4. Right, just read Lasdun. A superb review - though he doesn't leave much uncovered, it's true.

    I'm not as sure as everybody else seems to be that this is the last we've heard of Patrick Melrose!

  5. Me neither - for one thing, St Aubyn's non-Melrose novels weren't a patch on the others, so if he continues to draw from that well with similarly brilliant results, I shall be quite happy.

    I've just read your review; thanks for the heads-up. I love your point that St Aubyn gives "the uncanny sense that precision and beauty invariably point to truth." And I agree that Mother's Milk was scandalously overlooked in 2006. Anthony Quinn, writing later, said the vote was 4-1 against St Aubyn (he was the only supporter). Barmy.