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