I’ve undertaken to write an essay on Dick Francis this summer, in preparation for which I am reading through all of his 40+ novels. His first, Dead Cert, was published in 1962, and he basically published one a year until his death in 2010 (the last few in partnership with his son Felix, who has now taken over the franchise). That’s a lot! I’ve been reading them off and on at least since the 1980s; I own about a dozen (which used to seem like quite a few, until I really took stock) and when things are busy at work I often pick a favorite to reread, as they are both brisk and smart enough to be a nice diversion without requiring a lot of attention.
It’s always interesting approaching as critical projects books or authors I have previously taken for granted or read “just” for pleasure. When I started teaching the Mystery & Detective Fiction course, I went through that with P. D. James, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky (many of the other authors on the reading list are not ones I had read before, including Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, so the effort there was always more academic). But what’s really different about this particular project is that I don’t typically read in bulk this way. Sure, when I find an author I like, I tend to follow up, but outside of genre fiction authors with 40 or more titles to their credit are rare, and I usually get restless after reading a few books in a genre series in a row. A good example would be Mary Balogh: when I discovered I could enjoy her books, I got a whole bunch from the library, but after racing through several, I just really wanted to read something different, and now I think of her as I had Francis, that is, as a safe option when I need some filler in my reading life. (A notable exception would be the Martin Beck novels: once I got hooked on them, I pretty much just kept reading. But there are only 10 of them anyway!)
What strikes me about binge reading is the different kind of attention it requires compared to the intense close reading I’ve done for most of my recent writing — any of my George Eliot essays, for instance, or for reviews including my most recent one of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life — or, for that matter, the reading I do for my teaching. For all of these purposes, poring over details is the essence. It’s not that I’m not reading each of these novels carefully and trying to hang on to the key details that differentiate one from another. There are plenty of these, and they matter, often substantially. But the novels do have a lot in common, and inevitably they blur together or form, in my mind, one larger whole. Since the essay I’m working on is intended as a kind of overview (though with a particular angle on women and gender roles), that’s appropriate: I’m reading all of them at once because I want to be able to generalize about them, to discuss patterns, or themes and variations, connecting threads, tropes, motifs, whatever. The individual novel is less important than the collection of novels. The more I read, the more each one I pick up reads like part of that collection, if that makes sense: the deeper into the catalog I go, the more rapidly I subordinate the particular to the general. My major challenge is not so much interpreting as keeping track: this is the first time I’ve ever used a spreadsheet as a writing tool!
And yet every novel is different. (I joked on Twitter that so far my lede is “The novels of Dick Francis are both alike and different” –ah, the bane of the undergraduate compare-and-contrast essay!) You could say that this oscillation between similarity and difference is the essence of genre fiction: its predictability is as much the appeal as the ability of a talented practitioner to surprise. I’m reminded of Josephine Tey’s sly, self-reflexive jab at formula fiction in The Daughter of Time:
Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about “a new Silas Weekly” or “a new Lavinia Finch” exactly as they talked about “a new brick” or “a new hairbrush.” They never said “a new book by” whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.
I do notice that interchangeable widget quality as I read these books in relentless succession — and yet I always welcomed the appearance of “a new Dick Francis” precisely because I knew what it would be like but also knew that he was smart enough to mix it up, to really make it new.