Thursday, January 2, 2014


PompeiiHarris.jpgTraditional publishers like to label authors by genre—and tend to rate novelists rather higher than, for instance, thriller or romance writers. Now a thriller is also a novel, but lets not confuse the issue with precision. Typically, when such people use the term ‘novelist’ they mean a good writer—in a literary sense—who writes primarily about the complexities of the human condition rather than, for example, action.

A cynic might think that literary novelists are the kind of people who write books that are widely admired but, not infrequently, left unfinished. There is some evidence to back up that unkind thought, but then there are some literary novelists who write so well, and so movingly, that they seem to have the pace of a thriller.

Personally, I find this habit of typecasting authors as being quite maddening—because apart from anything else, it makes it near impossible for a writer to break out of his, or her, particular box (at least where traditional publishing is concerned). That is frustrating beyond belief and makes me want to howl at the moon (even more than I do anyway) or, at least, bypass traditional publishing.

I certainly understand the need for genres, because we need some guidance towards the type of books we are drawn to, but I’m not sympathetic to the unspoken rating system that tends to go with such labels. As far as I am concerned, I have long disassociated an author’s writing ability from the genre. You can be a good, or even a great, writer in any genre from science fiction to pornography. Let me offer that ‘war novelist,’ Leo Tolstoy, as an example. Or was he a thriller writer? You could make a good case for both. And he was no slouch at romance, either.

Well, how about people who write computer manuals? Actually, some of these people are terrific writers, and I advance David Pogue as an example. Not only is he an extraordinarily gifted communicator, but he is thoroughly entertaining. Yes, he’s the same guy who used to write for The New York Times but recently moved to Yahoo.

As serious readers have long known, good writing has an astonishingly powerful impact and constitutes a great deal more than ‘escapism’ or ‘entertainment.’ It informs, energizes, arouses, motivates, and uplifts—and can, literally, be life-changing. 

But, as you may have noticed, most people aren’t serious readers—so don’t really believe us.

Science is supplying some supporting evidence at last. The following is a brief extract from The Independent of December 28 2013:

Brain function 'boosted for days after reading a novel'

Being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading, scientists have said.

  • by Tomas Jivanda

The new research, carried out at Emory University in the US, found that reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory.

The changes were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the the primary sensory motor region of the brain.

Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition - for example, just thinking about running, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.

21 students took part in the study, with all participants reading the same book -  Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris, which was chosen for its page-turning plot.

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