A work colleague once startled me by saying that he judged a novel by how much he learned from it, in terms of information that he hadn’t previously known. He felt that he didn’t have much time to invest in reading fiction, and so he wanted an extra dividend, apart from the pleasure of the narrative. This way of looking at reading fiction had never occurred to me before, but I’ve thought of it many times since.
Lately, I’ve been reminded of it while reading a new book by Stephen Booth, Lost River. This is the latest entry in a highly successful series set in Derbyshire’s Peak District, and I shall review it another day. But what struck me very forcibly when reading it – especially the first half of the book – was how much factual information was crammed into it.
So, among many other things, I learned the name of the man who invented custard, tit-bits about Ozzy Osbourne’s early days in Birmingham, and quite a lot of information about present day computer games.
I found this interesting, partly because some of the detail was fascinating, but also because there is an authorial judgment to be made about how much trivia to include in a novel. Some writers hardly bother with it all, others take a different approach. The exact balance inevitably varies, depending on the type of story - for instance, Kate Ellis's novels, although contemporary, offer a good deal of insight into history and archaeology. In my own books, I do include quite a bit of background information (for instance, about second hand bookselling in The Serpent Pool), but I tend to be anxious about the need to keep the narrative pace going and so I restrict the supplementary material to stuff that is directly relevant to the story-line.
Judging by my colleague’s comment, though, some writers may be missing a trick. Perhaps there is an increasing demand among some readers for information as well as narrative in a novel. Is this the case? Or can there sometimes be too much information? I would be glad to learn the views of those visit this blog.