Page-turner vs. literary – does it have to be a choice?

Having read a couple of so-called literary novels recently, I’m now very much enjoying a more mainstream title. Of course there are different books for different moods and tastes but I’m increasingly exasperated by novels that encourage you to stop and admire their cleverness at every turn.

My real beef is that the authors keep inserting themselves between the reader and the story – as if holding up a mirror and saying, ‘look at me, look at me!’ – while for me the writer should be transparent as glass. Is this a new trend or am I turning into an inverted snob or just a lazy reader?

Or maybe it’s byuuecause, as a writer myself, I’ve lost the ability to read purely for pleasure. I’m too distracted examining the nuts and bolts of the writing to get lost in a book. But I refuse to believe that there’s no such thing as a literary page-turner. Or indeed, a page-turner with great literary chops.  

To my mind, a good read should not be self-conscious, drawing attention to its clever technique, sometimes at the expense of a gripping plot and engaging characters. It should connect directly with the reader, providing immersive enjoyment, as well as being intellectually satisfying. The best of authors, whether typecast as high or low brow, manage this balancing act.

Want some examples? Leaving aside the classic novels I’d consider fall into this category, from Dickens and Chandler to Conan Doyle and Wodehouse, these are a few of mine. You’ll have your own.

Barbara Kingsolver

David Nicholls

Philip Roth

Thomas Keneally

Anne Tyler

John Boyne