Steven Simpson’s Blog
Please check every Monday for my most recent blog posting. Most entries will be about nature or other environmental topics, but occasionally I will write about writing, family, travel, or the Driftless Region.
Fun has become the prime determinant in what I read. When I go to the library these days, I check out five books knowing I’ll finish only two. If, after the first thirty pages, I don’t care about a novel’s plot, I put it aside. There is too much fun stuff out there to waste limited reading time on books that I don’t enjoy. I still occasionally read not-fun novels when the writing is exceptional, but I do even less of that than I used to.
Which brings me to the inexplicable fact that last night I finished The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. The book was not fun. It also was not good writing. The prose meandered, the characters were not interesting, and the mystery of a missing diamond was not something that would ordinarily hold my attention. So this morning, I sit in a coffee shop seriously wondering how Collins got me to finish his novel. What if, on some level, the guy was a literary genius? In reflecting on The Moonstone, I have come to three conclusions.
One, I read The Moonstone in its entirety because it appears high on just about every list of the Greatest-Mystery-Novels-of-All-Time. The other authors on those lists – Conan Doyle, Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Christie, Cain – all elevate mystery writing as a genre. I kept thinking that if I stuck with Collins I would come across his unique contribution, too.
Two, I became intrigued with the convoluted plot. The story was told through the eyes of multiple narrators, and each one had his or her own pointless digressions. I became curious whether the novelist would be able to pull everything together. What if The Moonstone was another The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the unexpected and perfect conclusion trumps any flaws in the rest of the book? As it turns out, Collins relied on illogical drug-induced behavior by one of the main characters to tie up lose ends. I half bought it, but The Moonstone is no Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Three, there was one literary device that did work on me and, for this, I give Collins credit. In the entire novel, there was only one character, Sergeant Cuff, who seemed to know what was going on. Early on, he solved part of the mystery and then dropped out of the story. Then, for the next 300 pages, tidbits of new information gradually whittled away at Cuff’s conclusions, and the reader is left trying to figure out whether Cuff went wrong and, if so, where.
I didn’t enjoy The Moonstone, but I am a little bit awed at the way it sucked me in.
If I had to rank my favorite recreational pursuits, I’d probably settle on fishing and writing as my top two. The other day, while I was writing about fishing, I wondered how two such disparate activities could reside side by side at the top of my list. Hunting and fishing would be logical companions, but I don’t hunt. Reading and writing go well together, but as much as I enjoy reading fiction, I don’t remember ever getting upset because other obligations took me away from a morning of reading.
The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that fishing and writing have elements in common. First of all, both are quiet solitary activities. I enjoy fishing with other people and I sometimes co-write with colleagues and students, but both activities are best done alone. Secondly both activities bring me closer to nature, even though fishing does it on a physical level and the writing (i.e., nature writing) is more intellectual. Thirdly, both have clear outcomes, but actually achieving those outcomes are not important. Catching a fish or producing good prose are things to aim for, but like all worthy goals, are not always achieved. That is not to say that fishing isn’t enhanced when I catch fish or writing isn’t more satisfying when I come up with a good sentence, but neither accomplishment defines the value of the respective activity. I’m more likely to fish two or three days in a row when the fish are biting, more likely to write longer into the morning when the writing is going well, but the cliche about a bad day of fishing applies just as well to writing as it does fishing. A great summer day is a morning of writing (maybe coming up with a good paragraph), a workout, lunch with my wife and daughter, and time on the river with a pole in my hands until the sun sets.