What makes a novel interesting? By Diana Reid
As a phone-addict who came of age in the attention-economy, I’m painfully aware that novels demand an archaic amount of focus. Readers have to give you hours and hours of their life, undivided—you can’t read a novel flicking between tabs, or looking from your phone to the page and back every few seconds. So when I was writing Seeing Other People, I was constantly asking: what makes a novel interesting?
I noticed that a lot of interesting themes in contemporary fiction were (for want of a better word) heavy, like death or emotional, physical or sexual violence. This isn’t surprising: tragic or traumatising events are high stakes and, therefore, inherently dramatic.
But then I thought about some of my favourite classics, which I’d found just as gripping even though they dealt with lower-stakes questions, like whether two characters will admit their feelings to each other. Jane Austen is an obvious example (not very subtly, in my novel about two sisters, the one with more ‘sense’ and less ‘sensibility’ is called Eleanor). Austen invariably writes about a few families and their relationships over a relatively short period of time. We might think that this miniaturist approach reflects her biography—that hers was an uninteresting life, or as Virginia Woolf put it, “an interchange of tea parties, picnics and dances.” But celebrated male authors whose imagination and freedoms were not so constrained have often chosen similar topics. Henry James is one example. It doesn’t spoil The Golden Bowl to say that it contains no death, violence, or random tragedy: it’s an intensely interesting novel in spite of—or perhaps because of—its narrow focus on two couples and their shifting loyalties.
Although initially counterintuitive, it makes sense that such mundane subjects make for interesting stories, because, in the course of an ordinary life, what’s higher stakes than the people you love most and how you relate to them? So I took these novels as my inspiration, and I was very careful in writing Seeing Other People to resist the temptation to make something “interesting” happen (like a fatal motorbike accident). Instead, I tried my best to make ordinary life interesting.