Thursday, 29 April 2021

Thoughts on a Classic

When I was very young, I expected all books to take their time getting started. I would read the opening ten or so pages without really minding that they were slow-going, because I knew that once I’d made my way through them, the real story would get started. It was the price I expected to pay as a reader.

(Not one boy I knew at school. He started every book he read on page 10. He would simply skip the opening pages and he did it, he said, because they were always boring and he didn’t see the point in wasting his time. And this was someone who read for pleasure, not because it was a book we were reading in class.)

The point of this preamble? The Borrowers fits this pattern perfectly. I found the opening chapters a real slog and was seriously considering setting it aside because it didn't seem as though the story would ever get underway. So much scene-setting. Yet when it did, I was hooked. All of a sudden there was tension. Would the borrowers escape from the villains? What would happen to their home? Once the story pulled me in, I could see why the book has become a well-known as it is.

But that slow first third seems – now, almost 70 years after it was first published – so terribly old-fashioned. It doesn’t fit our shorter attention spans, our being accustomed to every story racing away from the first page. Back in 1953, a writer could take their time setting up characters and backgrounds. Nobody complained – except perhaps my Start-on-page-10 classmate.

I wonder whether it could get published today? Or whether an editor would be composing lengthy emails arguing for extensive cuts. Would it even get the chance to become a classic?



Joan Lennon said...


msyingling said...

I'm a HUGE fan of The Borrowers (have the entire series in my school library, and not even the public library has all of the books!), but think you are right about the change in writing styles. One of my favorite essays about "nothing happening" in books is John Wilson's Eviscerating Noddy. Spot on, even if the trends have gone away from books for particular genders!

Becca McCallum said...

I don't remember The Borrowers having a particularly slow start - I'll have to find my copy and re-read it! But back then I read anything and everything including plenty of 'old fashioned' books so I suppose I was used to it.

Nick Garlick said...

Becca: I think that if I had read The Borrowers when I was younger (the 60s) I wouldn't have thought twice about the pace: I just enjoyed reading. It's only as I've grown older that I've grown more impatient; books I enjoyed through to my early 20s I now often find impossible to get into. But a world *without* The Borrowers would be a dull one indeed.

Msyingling: thanks for the link to the essay. Fascinating. Does it explain why I prefer to write books with girls as the main characters? I've looked at several books for 'boys' and I can't get on with them. Too much action!