by Lee Cross
What makes a great book?
Well as every reader knows that varies from title to title, and that’s even before you start factoring in things like personal taste. I’m a bit of genre whore and find myself jumping between them, pretty much with the changing of the weather.
For example, my favourite books right now might be; The Lord of the Rings, Catch-22, 1984, The Milk Chicken Bomb and The Name of the Wind. If you were to ask me that same question tomorrow the list could read: The Fountainhead, London Fields, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Foundation and The Master and Margarita.
A fairly random selection of novels no doubt, with no obvious connecting thread, but I’ve come to understand there is a common factor in the books that I personally consider to be great – Time.
Of the ten books I’ve listed, not a single one is centered around the subject of time, which is quite deliberate on my part because that’s not what I’m driving at. Each of those stories actually has time. There is a clock running in the world Winston Smith as surely as there is in the Hogwarts terms of Harry Potter.
The Lord of the Rings is the finest example of what I mean. From Frodo’s discovery of the true nature of the One-Ring to The Battle of Bywater more than a full year passes in the life of the Hobbits… and you feel that passage of time. You feel it as surely as Sam and Frodo do. By the end of their adventures it really feels as though all those months of travel and terror have happened; that you were there with them and part of the journey… It is an ineffable work of genius and the main reason why I hold up LOTR as my example of the highest standard.
It doesn’t matter how fast you can read a novel, it’s completely irrelevant whether you go at 100 pages an hour or a single chapter a week; for those moments when you are reading a great work of fiction you’re existing in two parallel timescapes… the one where you have to get up and try not to be late for work, and the one where you are trying to navigate the lightless days of Moria.
How do the great writers create time? The process rarely seems to be the same way twice and, quite honestly, if you’re seeing how the trick is done (while you’re reading them) then you’re missing the greater part of the magic.
Sometimes the process is simple, like in Dan Brown’s novels; he doesn’t mess about, keeps them on a tight leash and has the clock running hot right there on the page. I’m not being critical (although at least two of his books are dog-shit), sure it’s ‘bull in a china-shop’ stuff but who’s to say that is necessarily wrong… in fact I bloody love it in SpongeBob!
Truly, though, the great novels keep you guessing, they make you feel time and not think about it; how do they do it? Well I have some ideas but I honestly wish I didn’t. When you take magic and mystery out of a great book you’re left with not much more than thousands of words printed on a few hundred pieces of paper.
One thing is for sure…there is never enough time.