A lit­er­ary jour­ney

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Cover Story -

Train jour­neys are not what they were, from a lit­er­ary point of view. Time was when glanc­ing across the aisle at the pas­sen­ger op­po­site you could muse on their character and their lit­er­ary predilec­tions from the ti­tle of the novel they were read­ing. That de­light, alas, is less fre­quently en­joyed nowa­days, thanks to the slow and steady in­va­sion of the elec­tronic book. A dis­tant glance at the screen re­veals noth­ing more than a shade of ghostly pal­lor, and read­ers’ ex­pres­sions give lit­tle away. But per­haps the anonymity has meant that men are now free to in­dulge them­selves in ro­man­tic fic­tion and women to de­vour gung-ho spy thrillers, or am I be­ing alarm­ingly sex­ist? I don’t think so. I doubt that as many men read Vic­to­ria His­lop and Rosamunde Pilcher as do women. I know from ex­pe­ri­ence that pub­lish­ers have a clear view of the mar­ket for cer­tain au­thors, but then I also take great plea­sure in prov­ing them wrong, by virtue of my own read­ing habits and those of the read­ers of my own nov­els. It came as a sur­prise to me, when I be­gan writ­ing fic­tion in 1998, that I wrote what are con­sid­ered to be “ro­man­tic” mys­ter­ies. I just thought of them as “sto­ries”, but there is a strong re­la­tion­ship nar­ra­tive in them all, and that, I ad­mit, puts them in the “ro­man­tic” cat­e­gory. Are men averse to ro­mance in their read­ing? I doubt it. There is an er­ro­neous as­sump­tion that most men lack sen­si­tiv­ity. Some men do, cer­tainly, but so do some women. You see, all th­ese gen­er­al­i­sa­tions fall apart as soon as you start to ex­plore them. There will al­ways be some men who are de­voted to Jilly Cooper (I num­ber my­self among them) and some women who de­light in the gory go­ings on in a Jo Nesbo Nordic-noir yarn. I blushed with pride when an el­derly pa­tri­cian gen­tle­man ac­quain­tance of mine con­fessed he had two of my nov­els on his bed­side ta­ble – one almost fin­ished and the other ready to start. You will for­give what sounds like boast­ful­ness; it was, in ef­fect, re­lief. A good story should en­thrall a reader re­gard­less of gen­der. How de­light­ful it would be to sit on the train op­po­site a sharp-suited hedge-fund man­ager en­grossed in Geor­gette Heyer, or a young mum lost in Ernest Hem­ing­way or Pa­trick O’Brian. Per­haps the clas­sics en­joy more cross-gen­der support. There is cer­tainly much so­lace to be found in their pages – a kind of com­fort can be de­rived from tales of times past when men bowed and women curt­sied and any vi­o­lence came cour­tesy of a blun­der­buss or a club rather than a Kalash­nikov ri­fle. Even crime, it seems, had a more deco­rous qual­ity in those days. But it would be a crime in it­self if the clas­sics were thought of only as com­fort food. They can demon­strate the art of fine writ­ing as well as teach­ing us much about our­selves. Harold Macmil­lan sug­gested that Mar­garet Thatcher would learn a lot from the nov­els of Jane Austen. He was a fan of both Austen and Trol­lope, but I doubt that David Cameron falls into the same cat­e­gory. He is, I would guess, more of a Robert Har­ris man. What be­comes clear is that it would do us all good to broaden our hori­zons; to risk read­ing books that deal with hith­erto un­char­tered ter­ri­tory. There will al­ways be places we can­not go – I doubt I will ever be able to get stuck into the world of elves and gnomes, but I could cer­tainly push the boat out in other di­rec­tions. The raft of writ­ers wait­ing to en­trance us with their sto­ries has never been broader, and lit­tle can com­pare with find­ing a writer who takes you to parts of your con­scious­ness you never knew ex­isted. If you are not a fan of e-books, just buy a cover for your cho­sen read and im­merse your­self in a rip­ping yarn. Your jour­neys will pass in the twin­kle of an eye or the turn­ing of a page.

ALAMY

Time travel: read­ing on the train makes the jour­ney whizz by in a flash

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