Stories Without Words

Yesterday I went to see a ballet of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities; I say this not as some kind of cultural oneupmanship, but because it set me thinking about the differences between stories and writing.

I don’t like Dickens, not that I’ve read much of his work, but every TV and radio adaptation I’ve encountered over the years has served to put me off even further – mawkish plots, stereotyped characters, unrealistic settings in an England that only ever existed in the author’s head. I went to the theatre having never read the book, with no idea of the plot, just a love of ballet, a fondness for heavily-brocaded eighteenth century coats and an interest in the French Revolution. It was an enjoyable couple of hours, and although various subtleties were lost on me (what was the significance of the scarf with the letter E embroidered on it, that several characters waved around with triumph or remorse?) I got the general gist. It didn’t make me want to read the book, however, partly because I now know how it ends, but partly because I’ve never taken to his style. And that’s what really got me thinking (don’t expect any conclusions, I’m just pondering in public).

Unlike my experience with Dickens, I took to Anthony Trollope’s style from the start, and have now happily worked my way through a good many of his novels, loving almost every page of them. However, most adaptations of the Barchester novels have left me cold – strip away the narrator’s asides, the satirical, topical references, and concentrate instead on the main plot which inevitably centres on a clergyman in a small town or country village, and his daughter/niece/ward who eventually marries a nice young chap after a hundred or so pages of complications, and it’s as bad as Dickens, and not something I’d want to spend time on. On the whole, I read Trollope for his writing style, the personality that shines through the prose, and not necessarily for the story itself (though He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now, and the Palliser novels for instance are light on clergy and strong on plot).

Philip K Dick on the other hand is pretty much the opposite: his plots are, on the whole, interesting and original, though often his characters are weak and his prose style uninspiring. Like Trollope, he’s another prolific writer whose canon I’m slowly working my way through, but in this case I’m definitely reading for the story; if the plot hasn’t gripped me in the first few pages, there’s nothing in the way it’s written that will keep me reading, and I give up.

There are authors whose novels I’ll read even if the story’s nothing special, and authors whose plots keep me hooked even though the prose is almost clunky in places, but these days I’m a lot less tolerant of badly written books with rubbish plots. A few years ago someone gave me The Da Vinci Code, and I persevered to the end, optimistically expecting it to pick up at some point, but I think if I came to it for the first time now, it’d be in the charity shop bag before the end of chapter 1.