Espionage has hit the news this week, with a Chinese spy reportedly defecting to Australia. This might sound like the stuff of movies to some people, but I have barely moved past the headline to find out what has happened. For some reason, spies do not interest me.
This disinterest led to disappointment recently when I picked up the most recent release from one of my favourite authors, Kate Atkinson, and realised Transcription was a spy novel. While its setting in World War II was appealing (see below list of bookish turn ons), but I have to admit that I paused when I realised that the book’s apparent drawcards were ‘convincing depictions of espionage and counter-espionage’.
It is not that I haven’t read, and found moderately enjoyable, some spy fiction. There has been quite a few John le Carre books and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and I think I even read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. But that’s exactly the problem – spy novels don’t just leave me a little cold, they actually leave me completely. As soon as I’ve put one down, I forget what has happened entirely.
A close second to spy novels on my list of literary turn offs is detective novels. I’ve repeatedly tried Raymond Chandler, and even Paul Auster’s detective-fiction-on-acid did not move me. It was not until I read Peter Temple’s work that I began to understand how great a detective novel could be. However, I still rarely choose these books when I’m selecting my next read.
Non-fiction is also low on my list, and political memoirs in particular. I enjoy an occasional autobiography (looking at you Magda Szubanski), but on the whole, I find these books to be too straightjacketed by the social realities of those who write them, and cannot allow their true and uncensored selves to be seen. With fiction, at least writers can air their truest, most shameful thoughts and attribute them to their characters alone.
On the flip side to these literary turn offs are the themes that I can’t get enough of. All they need to be is grim, harrowing and often heartbreaking, and I am sure to love them. Book marketers, publicise a book as being the story of a dysfunctional family, a coming of age or a child’s triumph over their difficult background, and I am in. Some of my favourites in this category of recent years have been Sofie Laguna’s The Choke (neglected child living in poverty) or The Eye of the Sheep (distressed and lonely child coping with intellectual difference and loss), while I also enjoyed (is that the right word?) Rosie Waterland’s The Anti-Cool Girl (neglected child living between her alcoholic mother and very questionable foster carers) and loved Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (distressing story of childhood abuse and trauma), Peggy Frew’s Islands (broken family and disappearance of a teenager), The Kite Runner (childhood trauma and abandonment) and Commonwealth (dysfunctional family and childhood tragedy). I’m starting to think there might be something wrong with me. But just in case this all sounds too heartless, I hasten to add that it is the overcoming of this hardship that I love the most – when children rise above adversity, often to write a book about it. Who didn’t love Angela’s Ashes and Mao’s Last Dancer?
Another theme that I can’t go past is historical fiction, and just try to stop me if there is a terrible disease thrown in. Speaking about her book, Year of Wonders about a plague-stricken village in England, Geraldine Brooks told Phillip Adams on ABC’s Late Night Live that she had been fascinated by the story not just of the people’s misfortune, but also their response to it.
However, she also admitted there was a long tradition of storytelling about death and disease, noting the epilogue in one of author and neurologist Oliver Sacks’s books as conveying the notion that:
“Tales of disease are better than 1001 Nights.” Perhaps Brooks was referring to Sacks’s quote: “To talk of diseases is a sort of Arabian Nights entertainment.”
It might have started with What Katy Did, but ever since reading of Katy’s injury and recovery, I have been hooked. Afterall, it is an ideal story arc – the struggle against ill health or potential death is overcome, often due to the inner strength and perseverance of the ill.
Another theme that I am drawn to is World War II novels – in recent years there has been The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Nightingale, The Book Thief and Man’s Search for Meaning, to name just a few. All stories of triumph against evil, and survival in the grimmest of times.
While I might have clear literary turn ons and turn offs, the more that I read, the more I realise that I am often wrong in my initial prejudices against certain themes or genres. Usually, I shy away from short stories, but this year I have read Alice Munro’s Dear Life and David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, and have loved both.
I also considered political books to be a huge turn off until I discovered Anna Funder’s All That I Am (one of my all-time favourites) and Stasiland. Then there were Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that were as fascinating as any tale of war, trauma, death and disease.
I am also wary of magical realism, but count One Hundred Years of Solitude as one of the greatest and most enjoyable books that I have read.
Ultimately, it’s not the theme or genre of the book that matters as much to me as the characters within, and whether they draw me in and move me. I prefer and remember books that touch me – that make me feel sadness or joy – rather than those that are more informative. Perhaps that is why you’ll never catch me reading a political memoir, until I do and find that I enjoy it …
Do you have any literary turn ons or turn offs?