Joking aside, I love being told that one of my book is a ‘real page turner’, because frankly, if you can’t write a story that people want to keep reading so that they can find out what happens to the characters, you’re not doing your job as a novelist.
My perspective on this is rooted in my university days, when I studied French and German literature. This mainly involved reading landmark texts that were seen as having advanced the possibilities of the novel, whether it was the stripped-back brutalism of post-war German authors like Böll and Grass or the impenetrable nouveaux romans of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet. Some of these authors were stronger on plot than others, but as far as my supervisors were concerned, that was very much secondary to the ground-breaking techniques the author displayed.
As a result, I left college with a rather jaded view of narrative fiction. What saved me was an edition of the literary magazine Granta called ‘Dirty Realism’. It celebrated a new wave of American writers like Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips and Richard Ford, and the introduction placed a great emphasis on their common talent for telling stories above all.
It seems so obvious now, but this came as a great revelation to me at the time, and a validation – it was saying that if you wrote fiction, you didn’t have to display technical virtuosity or create a new form of literature: it was okay if you just told stories. And when I started writing novels, that was what I set out to do. And if this means that my books will never be studied by future generations, well, I think I can live with that.