Clever novelists know how to write a story. It’s the clever-clever ones who don’t

Modernism's legacy seems to dominate refined taste - but you can't underestimate the power of a great story.

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When I discovered that Agatha Christie had written a novel set in the 1930s, describing the scandals of a champion tennis player, the sports historian in me sensed a perfect excuse. Christie has sold more than two billion books. As I’d not been one of her readers, it was time to see what the fuss was about.

Now I know. Towards Zero was an unalloyed pleasure. I was instantly gripped, lost in following the story. It was like settling into a deep armchair with a large glass of red wine after a difficult day.

The writing, which was usually crisp and unflashy, occasionally revealed glimpses of how much talent was held in check. Instead of showing off, Christie wanted to succeed. And what was success? Eliciting the reaction “What a good book!” rather than: “What a clever writer!” The last time I’d settled into a book with such confidence was when I read Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale. “That’s this weekend sorted,” I thought after the first page.

Unusually for me, I read Towards Zero on an e-reader. Just as well. I would have been reluctant to walk around with the paperback under my arm. Not quite the thing, is it, reading thrillers, potboilers, mere entertainments? I’m enough of a literary snob to assume I should have more elevated tastes – for books that might not be so narrative-driven, for instance. But I’d be wrong. The story is the best thing about novels; it always has been and it always will be.

Yet the story, if not lost, has certainly been relegated. My first job in journalism, in the 1990s, was reviewing books, mostly novels, for the Sunday Telegraph. (A quick lament: the status of the book review in newspapers was wildly different then. My pieces appeared alongside those by Hugh Trevor-Roper and Noel Malcolm – historians I was studying and prose stylists I admired. For a 20-year-old writer, in today’s jargon, it was a dizzying set of “adjacencies”.)

Looking back, reviewing those reviews, I can discern a central thread that wasn’t obvious at the time. It is a simple critique. The novels rarely came alive and the reading experience was seldom enjoyable. Orchestrating a compelling narrative, gripping the reader’s attention, creating believable characters operating in a recognisable social world – none was a central preoccupation in most of the novels I reviewed.

Far more prevalent were self-conscious cleverness, tricksy structures, a terror of the obvious and an obsession with novelty. I am not sure if cleverness is the right word, because there is another kind of cleverness that becomes invisible, focused only on creating a realised imaginative world. That kind of cleverness was vanishingly rare.

Why has the story been stuck on the back foot? It has never quite recovered from modernism’s contempt for narrative momentum. One day, despairing of the bloodlessness of Bloomsbury fiction, C S Lewis turned to J R R Tolkien with an idea: “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”

Yet it is modernism that has continued to cast a long shadow over the intellectual prejudices of the literary establishment. I once heard a publisher dismiss a theatre company as “the kind of place where they do Terence Rattigan revivals”. Giving life to Rattigan’s well-crafted and superbly plotted plays was deemed a mark of abject failure. (Trevor Nunn’s 2011 production of Flare Path was one of the best things I’d seen in years.)

Valuing the importance of the story is still considered unambitious, as though anyone could do it. I suspect the opposite: it is because writing a good story is so hard that it is such a tempting target, to be dismissed as a lower, populist skill. In the absence of a capacity, posit a principle.

A novelist recently told me about his experiences studying English at university in the 1980s. On his course, there were two types of 20th-century writers: the approved and the ignored. Among the approved were James Joyce, T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf. The ignored included E M Forster, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and W Somerset Maugham. As an intellectual fashion, modernism continued to trounce social realism even as late as the 1980s. That generation of students went on to write those novels I was reviewing in the 1990s and 2000s – the ones that cared little for narrative.

I’ll make two riders to my thesis. First, though I am sceptical of anti-populism – the idea that something cannot be good if it is successful – it doesn’t follow that the market is always right. Second, in arguing that story is the best thing about the novel, I’m not claiming that it’s the only thing. Forster made this point in Aspects of the Novel:

If you ask one type of man, “What does a novel do?” he will reply placidly: “Well – I don’t know . . . I suppose it kind of tells a story, so to speak.” He is quite good-tempered and vague . . . and paying no more attention to literature than it merits. Another man, whom I visualise as on a golf course, will be aggressive and brisk. He will reply: “What does a novel do? Why, tell a story, of course, and I’ve no use for it if it didn’t . . . You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife’s the same way.” And a third man, he says in a sort of drooping regretful voice, “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.” I respect and admire the first speaker. I detest and fear the second. And the third is myself.

While Forster is surely right to distrust the narrow-minded reader with no patience for anything other than a good yarn, his conclusion is telling. The story can’t be got rid of. That is why, in my days as a book reviewer, I longed for a book like Towards Zero to land on my doormat. It rarely did.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?