Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 18 Nov 2019

Do we underestimate the value of a good adventure yarn?

I have just been reading a 1956 edition of Jules Verne’s 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea' that was published in illustrated form by  Heritage Press – which was the US equivalent of the Folio Society at that time. The book carries an introduction/appreciation of the book by Fletcher Pratt, a science fiction author who, coincidently, died in the same year as this was published and in which he discusses an issue I’ve not previously given a lot of thought to.

Essentially what Pratt argues is that authors concerned with writing what you might call good, old-fashioned adventure stories that have no agenda other than to entertain – ‘no axe to grind’ is the phrase he uses – are not given enough kudos for their skills. On top of that, the books themselves are often neglected or thought of as second-rate, dismissed peremptorily by literary critics.

Defending the fact that much of Verne’s fiction is riddled with contradictions, illogicality and scientific improbability, Pratt makes this point:

“Verne was not out to probe the human soul or to wrap up a puzzling character in a neat psychological package. The writer of librettos was first of all an entertainer, and when he had said all that could be said about the probable results of a scientific invention just beyond the horizon, the entertainment was over…..”

I think this is an interesting point and one for which I have some sympathy. I am reminded of George Orwell’s entertaining essay of 1945 which he based on G.K. Chesterton’s notion of the ‘good bad’ book or author:

“A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called the “good bad book”: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. Obviously outstanding books in this line are Raffles and the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have kept their place when innumerable “problem novels”, “human documents” and “terrible indictments” of this or that have fallen into deserved oblivion. (Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?) Almost in the same class as these I put R. Austin Freeman‘s earlier stories – “The Singing Bone”, “The Eye of Osiris” and others – Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados, and, dropping the standard a bit, Guy Boothby’s Tibetan thriller, Dr Nikola, a sort of schoolboy version of Huc’s Travels in Tartary which would probably make a real visit to Central Asia seem a dismal anticlimax.”

What Orwell does is to draw a distinction between a great intellect and a great writer – the two characteristics, he argues, need not go hand in hand. This leads to the situation where books written with every serious intent are no longer read whilst those written with no ambition but to entertain survive and continue to be read. If I read Orwell’s essay correctly, his argument is that humanity can only bear so much reality and books must also offer an escape – a firebreak from the intensity of the lived experience and what it means.

Both Orwell and Fletcher Pratt make the case that in the end we judge the success or ‘readability’ of escapist literature by just how willing we are to go along with the author and suspend our disbelief in the face of the absurd. The ‘good bad’ author will carry us through these absurdities because of their skill as a writer and not because they are seeking to illuminate or plumb the unfathomable depths of the human heart.

Whichever escapist genre we feel most comfortable in is simply an issue of personal choice and preference – detective, horror, romance, spy thriller or what you will. The only qualification isn’t that it must be meaningful but that it must be well written and this seems to me to be a perfectly sound way to judge your reading choices.

Turning back to Jules Verne and 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea': did it pass the test? Was I willing to suspend disbelief for long enough to make the adventure an immersive and enjoyable adventure? Well, yes and no. It’s only the second Verne I’ve ever read but it’s also one that – like 'Journey To The Centre of the Earth' – has actually entered my consciousness through popular film and we all know that the cinematic treatment of novels is always compromised in some way. It actually took me quite a long time to get into the story as Verne wrote it rather than the way film directors have interpreted it and that was a bit of a barrier. But once I was past that, the good bad book experience was thoroughly enjoyable.


Terry Potter

November 2019