I’ve been neglecting my blog a bit. It’s been very busy time for me as the CWA membership secretary. Subscriptions were due on 1st January and we have around 500 members so that’s an awful lot of renewal forms and cheques. (And by the way, if you’re a crime writer and you’re not a member, why not? You’re missing out on a lot of fun). To make matters more complicated, this year we have introduced online payment, so I am operating two systems, a paper one and an electronic one, which has made for a challenging first year in the job.
There has still been time for reading, of course. I’ve enjoyed the latest Camilleri, THE TRACK OF THE SAND. Reading this and also reflecting on FREEDOM, the Jonathan Franzen novel, it strikes me that reticence is a an important quality in a writer and that there is enormous skill in knowing how to give the reader exactly the right amount and no more. It’s a common fault in new writers that they try to tell you everything. But it’s a courtesy to the reader to assume that they don’t need to have everything spelt out. There’s a good example in FREEDOM when disaster overtakes one of the characters – I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it – and Franzen doesn’t describe how she felt or what thoughts went through her head; we imagine that for ourselves and the scene is all the stronger for it. Similarly when Inspector Montalbana has a ill-judged sexual encounter, we don’t need a blow-by-blow account, but Camilleri tells us enough for us to understand the Inspector’s discomfort later.
So: enough and no more. Sound easy, perhaps, but it is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer.
Among my presents this year was Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM, which I’d very much looking forward to reading. The big question has been, could he come up with something as good as THE CORRECTIONS? I thought that was the very best contemporary novel that I had read for a long time, exhilerating good in the way that Dickens is good and naturally I was hoping for more when I opend the new one just before Christmas. At first I was a bit disappointed. I wasn’t immediately caught by it and I think this had something to do with the character whose narrative we first follow, a basketball player who goes to University on a sports scholarship. Maybe it brought back the misery of basketball in my own school days and being among the last to be picked for the teams! But it was also to do with not understanding the American sports jargon and with the personality of Patty which I didn’t much like. However I pressed on and got over that.
It’s good, it’s very, very good, though my personal preference is still for THE CORRECTIONS. FREEDOM is a state-of- American novel and Franzen touches on some huge themes, but at the heart of it is a portrait of a marriage and this is where he really excels. It struck me as I was reading, how brilliantly Franzen writes about sex, a notorious difficult area. He’s explicit, but never pornographic. He doesn’t make the mistake of going into a lot of physical detail, instead he really gets into his characters’ heads.
When I’d finished it, I felt at a loss. I knew I wouldn’t want to read anything else for a while. It was as if I had eaten a long meal with many courses. I needed to think about the novel, digest it, go back and re-read parts of it. And ultimately it is pretty pointless comparing it to THE CORRECTIONS. It’s a different novel, it’s another great novel, and I am sure that it will last.