distracted by details

miniature sunflower sepals close up

Sometimes it seems that my work involves so much talking and so many emails that I run out of words and need to top up the supply by reading. At such times I revert to my childhood habit of reading indiscriminately and almost compulsively.

My tastes in fiction are fairly catholic and it’s definitely a question of quantity not quality for these binges: I don’t really care what the genre is, I just want words and more words.

Essentially, I am looking for a book I can race through, cover to cover, in a weekend at most. Occasionally I’ll be so word-hungry I’ll manage two books back-to-back in a weekend, though I’ll admit that a recent reading bender, where I managed four books in just under a week, left me reeling slightly.

miniature sunflower close up

Luckily for me, the local train station has a book-swap shelf, where travellers can leave books they have finished with and pick up replacements.

Of course the selection is a bit hit and miss, but there are clearly other people in the area who, like me, are fond of crime fiction. But there are all sorts of detective novels, and although I’ve been lucky enough to find a few Agatha Christies, and even an ancient P D James, I’ve also found myself reading some fairly dire modern novels.

The P D James was a cheap paperback edition published in the very early Eighties, so I wasn’t too surprised to find a couple of printing errors; the story was interesting, though, and the errors weren’t distracting enough to trip me up for more than a moment. Some of the most modern books, on the other hand, have been so badly edited that I had to stop and check whether they had been self-published.

One of my most recent finds was a historical crime novel – a two-in-one genre that I’m usually perfectly happy to read. But this book contained so many glaring errors that it made me cringe.

Back in the days of movable type, when the pages of a printed document were pieced together by hand, letter by letter, it might have made sense for individual characters to be reversed or misplaced occasionally, and the name ‘Horus’ might well have been replaced by ‘Horns’. But this really shouldn’t have happened in a book that was printed – and, indeed, reprinted – in the last five years. Even if we accept that spell checking software won’t catch an error when it’s a valid word, there’s no excuse for one of the main character’s names to be misspelled, which I also spotted.

That sort of typographic error is irritating, but perhaps not enough to pull me out of a good story if I’m intent on the plot and interested in what is happening. But the final straw for me was a detail that stood out like a sore thumb. In one scene of this Victorian murder mystery, someone fetches breakfast from the local pub. Although I have little idea of historical pub opening times, I am familiar enough with Dickens’ characters sending out for meals to the local coffee house that this in itself wasn’t a problem. What did bring me up short, though, was that the breakfast in question comprised, “a dish of fatty bacon, with biscuits and a pint of gravy.”

Bacon may have been a staple of English breakfasts for centuries, but ‘biscuits and gravy’ is such a stereotypical American dish I could hardly have been more distracted if they’d sent out for a pizza.

When I am trying to fill up with words, I want an easy read, so I’m happy to pick up the type of novel that my father strongly disapproved of and that my mother would probably classify as ‘good clean trash.’

But even trashy novels take time and effort to write. And surely even trashy novels deserve decent editing and proofreading, especially if they are published traditionally. There are hundreds of thousands of modern novelists all clamouring to be published; surely this should raise, not lower, standards?

miniature sunflower close up

I’ve chosen the following poem to end with because of the very tenuous connection of a P D James novel, although I suspect the book in question was read a little more slowly and thoughtfully than the binge books I’ve been talking about in this post.


‘It’s time for war, Bush and Blair tell Taliban’
headline, guardian.co.uk, 7/10/2001


my mother phoned; she wants to know
my plans for Christmas.

I put the fruit to soak in sherry
ready for the cake and started
making lists.

I bought material to make
sofa covers (crimson poppies
on a background of sand and stone).

I made an appointment for the dentist
for Friday week and transferred
some money to a higher-interest account.

I began to read
the P. D. James my sister left behind
last time she visited.

I ate an apple,
and kept the pips to plant


Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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