The other day I found myself on a Ryanair plane to London, with two and a half blissful hours of peace in front of me. Yippee! – I thought giddily to myself. No internet to interrupt the long, imminent reading session that lay ahead! I snuggled down in my seat (‘snuggling’ is something that’s pretty inevitable on Ryanair, given the cramped seating arrangements) and felt all cuddly and cosy in a squished kind of way. Digging my Kindle out of the stuffed chaos of my backpack, I prepared to launch into the brand new novel I’d just ordered: Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. The blurb and introduction seemed promising. So I started reading.
Less than an hour later, I switched off my Kindle and stared out of the airplane window in mute disbelief. But not disbelief of the hardships and tragedies that the youthful Pino Lella endured the Second World War in Italy – all of which truly sounded worthy of remembrance. No, I’m talking about a different kind of disbelief, a literary dismay: something I’ve been experiencing with increasing frequency ever since glutting myself this summer on a voracious diet of current bestsellers. It’s a habit which has now stuck and become as addictive as my daily dose of Chopin that I bash out on my pre-war Berdux grand piano. (Once upon a time I dreamed of owning a Steinway, but that dream, like so many others, somehow got washed aside along life’s ever descending shoreline.)
But getting back to my cramped Ryanair plane journey. There I was, stranded roughly thirty thousand feet somewhere over Germany, with almost two hours still to go of flying time. No other book at hand, no magazine, no newspaper, and no internet with which to order an alternative novel on my Kindle. I was stuck with Beneath a Scarlet Sky or nothing. So, not being in a daydreamy mood in which to merely gaze out of the window, and not being in the least bit sleepy, I had no choice but to plough on with the book that God had tricked me into ordering. And I do mean plough on, as slowly and tortuously as Hannibal across the Alps.
So … exactly what kind of literary torment is it that I’m talking about? Okay, I’ll give you a clue. How about changing the third word in the title, so that it reads Beneath a WOODEN Sky. Get it? Or, if you suffer from pathological gormlessness such as I have been accused of on countless occasions by my sharp-witted daughter, then maybe I’ll have to spell it out for you.
Here’s the thing. There’s excellent writing, good writing, mediocre writing, and wooden writing. Make no bones about it, wooden writing inhabits the very meanest of all literary offences. The punishment should be a total ban from launching any further novels of a similar vein. A life-sentence ban. Never again to subject any unsuspecting readers to the ordeal of bitter disappointment, after having seditiously coaxed them into the pages of one’s book via a ravishing and misleading blurb.
Yep, that’s what happened to me. I got caught up with the hype surrounding this charismatic-sounding, indomitable, incurably romantic Pino Lella who really existed, and, as with The Tattoist of Auschwitz, I wanted to find out more about the unsung hero and his wartime exploits. Sadly, all that ended up happening was that I read a large amount of text that might as well have remained blank, such was the two-dimensional narrative and dialogue that littered the pages instead of jumped out of them. The author did a great job of breaking just about every creative writing rule that ever existed – show don’t tell; only connect; avoid clichés (like the plague); practise your dialogue out loud so that it sounds convincing; make your readers truly feel themselves in the settings you depict, make them care passionately about your characters; control your readers on puppet strings: make them cry, laugh, gasp and, when they reach the end of the road, make them suffer a gut-wrenching urge for the story not to end yet, not just yet, please …just another few pages, another chapter … another whole book …
I didn’t even reach the end of Under a Wooden Sky. Sorry, I meant Under a Crimson Sky. Mustn’t be mean. But I read enough of it to find myself cursing the perniciousness of the publishing world. In a nutshell, how in fuck’s name did that book ever become so successful? Pardon the ugly expletive, but I really am finding myself getting ever-angrier each time I read yet another book that is claimed as the latest Sunday Times / New York Times Nr 1 Bestseller. Have men of letters gone mad? Has the entire literate human race gone mad? If the author had written a biography about the remarkable Pino Lella instead of a novel, then perhaps I could have forgiven him some woodenness of style. But in fiction? Absolutely no way! Sullivan’s only justification – which some might claim is a sufficient one – is that his subject matter was worthy. And I freely admit that I felt touched by his introduction. That’s why I read further – until I stopped.
However, I’d like to end on a happy note. As soon as I arrived safely in London, I almost ran to the nearest Waterstones and spent ages mulling over which novel to plunge myself into next. Evidently seeing my dilemma, the kind assistant took pity on me and recommended Elena Ferrarante’s My Brilliant Friend. I duly bought it, took it to my best mate’s flat, and later that night – when I crawled into bed somewhat the worse for wear after a three-hour session with my Bridget Jones gang of Londoners – I at last opened up those crisp, virginal pages and started reading.
Ah…! Now there’s a writer for you! Within minutes I was under the influence. (But no more wine, please …) It was all there – evocative descriptions, sparkling dialogue, compelling narrative, complex characterisations, humour, pathos, beautiful language … I was away!