A few weeks ago I had the temerity to post on Facebook that I find plot-less novels a struggle to read and enjoy.
And, apriti cielo, going by the flustered and indignant reactions I got, you’d think I had insulted my Facebook friends’ mothers. Private messages, emails, text messages even, telling me I couldn’t be serious, insinuating that I couldn’t recognise a good read if it hit me on the head with a Times Literary Supplement review, and even solicitously offering to “re-educate” me.
A small premise here: my Facebook feed tends to be populated by book types, so emotional posts and comments on books and reading aren’t that uncommon in my neck of the woods. Second small premise: I tend to blab quite a bit on Facebook, so perhaps I did kind of walk into this one. Still, there apparently seems to reign in certain quarters a belief that unless a novel is impenetrable and revolving around a man brewing the perfect cup of tea across 268 pages, it is not worthy of even a cursory glance.
And this worries me. We constantly complain that people don’t seem to want to read. Maltese literature suffers much more in this respect: even regular readers don’t automatically switch from an English novel to a Maltese one. We have huge problems with a falling — or at best static — readership for Maltese literature, and to be honest the last thing we need is to douse the field with a strong dose of real or perceived elitism.
Of course, I understand that there is the peer pressure to conform. This isn’t strong just among teenagers with raging hormones, but also among a few of us (yes, I have been guilty of this myself quite a few times) that have to be seen to be reading the most obscure of books, and discussing them in vernacular that serves as a gatekeeper to shut out any “non-conformists”.
Surely if there is something Maltese literature has a surfeit of, it is highbrow tomes. Many of them are great writing and deserving of every accolade they get, but the unavoidable truth is that they get read by, and appeal to, a tiny minority of readers. Which does not mean they should not be written; the literary world would be a poorer one without them. But we must address the fact that the vast majority of readers — that’s you and me — can often be in the mood for a good read, that carries us along and tells a story, and crucially that we can enjoy reading.
It’s no surprise that Maltese novels like Ġużè Stagno’s What Happens in Brussels Stays in Brussels (a Maltese book, English title notwithstanding) and Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi were such runaway hits, topping sales charts in their respective years of publication and attracting the attention of the not-normally-Maltese-reading public. They both tell a story, and a page-turning one at that. And they both are what seems to be a dirty word to some: accessible.
In one of the more enjoyable and light-hearted publishing and editing books on the market, How not to write a novel, authors Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark advise:
“As a writer you have only one job: to make the reader turn the page. Of all the tools a writer uses to make a reader turn the page, the most essential is the plot.”
As a publisher, my job is to not let my personal tastes influence my discretion in selecting manuscripts to acquire. Indeed, one of my key criteria is selecting scripts that readers will look out for, enjoy reading, look forward to getting back to after a day’s work, and recommend to their friends. And, whether we like it or not, the presence of an engrossing plot or narrative is often the way to do this.
Of course “plot” can mean different things to different people. To me, it means that something of interest — to the reader, not to the writer — is happening in the novel and that the reader will want to keep turning the page for more. Call it a narrative, if you will. This is not to diss plot-less novels, obviously. Some of the most highly-acclaimed books are driven by anything but plot, and work brilliantly for that. But, whether we like it or not, they mostly remain niche books and will not do anything to change the wider landscape of readers who want to enjoy a book — in Maltese, in my case — that tells a story.
At this point though, for fairness’ sake, perhaps I should bite the bullet and get started on reading that tea-brewing novel.