This last month I’ve been really enjoying the BBC series ‘Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers: Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes.’ For all kinds of reasons, traditional escapist literature is very appealing at the moment, but there were additional causes for my enjoyment.
Although my literary tastes can often be defined within the hideous genre title of ‘literary fiction,’ I do try to read widely and cover as much ground as I can. I’m very aware that many of my favourite novels fall within the Gothic tradition and once you go down that route, differences between high and low-brow literature get pretty fluid.
I can also feel a rather smug and knowledgeable when it comes to some genres. This year, through the blog, I’ve been getting to grips with great sci-fi, but even before then my reading past has been punctuated by passions for this or that genre. I can look back with pleasure at my reading habits over the years, when, in addition to a steady and continuous diet of classics, I can define my reading ages fairly neatly:
- Early teens – fantasy novels, starting with my father trying to engage me with ‘Lord of the Rings’, but really coming into its own once I discovered Terry Pratchett and his sprawling, enthralling Discworld series.
- Late teens – romance novels, most memorably Georgette Heyer and Jill Mansell, but I read everything I could and remember regular library trips with a ratio of 5:1, books with a glamorous beauty on the cover: heavy-weight literary classic.
- Early twenties – crime, crime and more crime. I read lots of Patricia Cornwell and other top crime writers, but I wasn’t fussy and devoured anything that looked like suitably chilling and gory escapism.
- Late twenties – maybe it all got too much for me at this age, because I associate these years with cosy crime, especially Agatha Christie.
Basically, I was really on board with a BBC series about genre conventions. The first episode worked through the history and traditions of the crime novel and I felt fully within my comfort zone. It’s true that I don’t read much crime these days, but I know that it will be there waiting for me when I next need it.
The second episode was about fantasy. The timing was perfect; not only had I just finished and loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ but I was watching very shortly after realising 2017 would be the perfect year to finally re-read ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Things were looking good.
Then I got to the final episode, all about espionage novels. I have a confession to make. Apart from the food bits in Fleming’s books and the action adventure moments in such classics as ‘The Riddle of the Sands‘ and ‘Trouble on the Thames‘ I have a hard time with spy novels. The truth is that I’ve always preferred Austin Powers to James Bond and I’ve only ever liked spy books if I could laugh at them. The only possible exception is Helen Dunmore’s ‘Exposure‘ which I read earlier this year, but I think my appreciation came more from The Railway Children references than the spy novel conventions. I’m ashamed to say that my experiences with John Le Carré have always left me cold and I honestly can’t remember ever really getting engrossed in a modern spy novel.
I really hate admitting that there’s a whole genre of literature that I have written off, but watching the show I realised that this had nearly happened. Now I’m begging for good recommendations for espionage novels. My mission for 2017 is to learn to love a new section of literature, and right now I don’t know where to start. Please do get in touch with non-intimidating introductions to spy-fiction; who knows, it could be that the genre for my mid-30s is just round the corner.