Bad Advice Wednesday: Don’t Forget Suspense

categories: Cocktail Hour

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            Back when they built the fence between literary and commercial fiction someone decided it was a good idea that Suspense should stay on the commercial side. Oh, an occasional stray would wander over into the literary hills, but for the most part we here in fancy town looked down our noses at creatures so craven, so obvious, so vulgar. You mean our readers are supposed to care about what happens next? But then how can they pause and admire our beautiful sentences?


These thoughts came to mind while I was laid up in bed with an infection over the last week. With my body ping-ponging between cold and hot, and my energy level barely allowing me to get to the bathroom, I watched a whole lot of TV. And I read. At first I tried to dip into the more language-oriented books that I’d assigned for a class, but after an attempt or two they remained on the shelf for the rest of the week. Instead I picked up Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a book that someone had put on one of those top ten lists on Facebook (and a movie that I had seen small parts of about a thousand times). I am not ready to put the book on any lists of mine, and I found it far from perfect, but Jesus Christ there were sections of that book where I was close to ripping the next page off, so excited was I to find out what was going to happen (even though I kind of knew due to the movie.) As my health got a little better, I would sit down for sessions of almost a hundred pages. And then I would just stop to close my eyes for a while, hungry for more. It brought back memories of the marathon reading sessions I had as a teenager—gobbling down Lord of the Rings, science fiction, Kurt Vonnegut. It was fun.

           The last literary book that I’d gotten so caught up in was Possession by A.S. Byatt. Like Cloud Atlas, it was smart, well-written and sharp. But that wasn’t the engine that drove the book. The engine was what happened. The engine was whodunit. It occurs to me that it would not be a bad thing for a young ambitious writer to read and re-read sections of these books and break down exactly what it is that pulls us forward with such excitement.

So I guess today’s bad advice is “don’t fence out suspense.” I think literary writers fear it, worrying that a book can be too fun to be considered great. But the opposite is death. There was a lot of talk on this blog last week about Hemingway and the racism in The Sun Also Rises. Those are legitimate reason to debate the book’s place on the curriculum, but one reason it is off mine is that it is so boring. Yes, I love Hemingway’s sentences and the short stories can still give me chills. But I simply don’t care about what happens to Jake Barnes.

How fun to read when you care so much.







  1. Irene writes:

    Good! I had been postponing the readings of both Possession and one of Mitchell’s novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) and now I have one more reason to start reading them. You are right that it feels like if a novel is entertaining it can’t be considered literary, or so it seems.