An interesting post from FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, and the comments we exchanged, have got me thinking about timing. Many different sorts of things can affect what we think of a book we’re reading. There’s the obvious things such as plot, characters and so on. There’s also the matter of personal taste. We’re all different in the sorts of stories we enjoy.
But another, subtler, factor in how we feel about a book is arguably the timing of when we read that book. For the reader, timing can have an impact in several ways. For instance (and this is the sort of thing FictionFan and I were ‘talking’ about), if you read a book when it first comes out, it may feel fresh and new. That can add to your enjoyment of a novel. That’s especially true if the novel adds an innovation to the genre, or in some other way digresses from it. But if you read it later, after other, similar books have been released, you may feel quite different about it.
One example that comes to my mind is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. At the time the novel came out (1988), the psychotic-serial-killer motif wasn’t a major factor in mainstream crime fiction. That novel arguably made room in the genre for that sort of story. Since then, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, there’ve been many, many novels with crazed serial killers. Some are better than others. But it’s not a new and innovative theme any more. I wonder how that’s impacted readers who hadn’t previously read The Silence of the Lambs. Would they regard that novel as the trend-setter that it arguably is? Would they see it in a different way?
There’s also the sub-genre that’s recently (in the last few years) been called domestic noir. Of course, there’ve been many novels in which marriages fell apart, and people weren’t what they seemed. But novels such as Julia Crouch’s Cuckoo, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, and Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner have brought the domestic noir novel to the forefront of current crime fiction. And that raises (at least for me) the question of what today’s readers might think of books such as Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead, which was published in 1988. In that novel, Gordon Matthews marries Carrie Foster, and on the surface, all starts well. But each one has a dark past. Matthews was recently released from prison for killing his first wife, Anne. The way he and his lawyers tell the story, it was a case of manslaughter, and Anne was a promiscuous, alcoholic shrew who pushed her husband too far during an argument. But is that the truth? For her part, Carrie is a former prostitute who gets back on the game a few years after they marry. As the story of their marriage, and the tragedy that follows, goes on, we see a real example of domestic noir. Would readers who’ve experienced plenty of domestic noir see this as a taut, fresh look at a marriage? Would they see it as stale?
There are other ways to look at timing, too, of course. If you’ve just finished reading a series of bleak, ‘hardboiled’ crime novels, you might be ready for something lighter. So work such as Carl Hiaasen’s or Chris Grabenstein’s might appeal. Neither author writes ‘sugar coated’ crime fiction, but there is plenty of wit in it. At another time, though, you might think those very same novels too comic, and perhaps too absurd. The same is true for cosy mysteries. If you’ve just been reading a lot of light crime fiction, you might find work like Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef series too light. On the other hand, if you’ve been reading a lot of dark crime fiction, that same series might really appeal.
Timing matters for authors, too. For instance, after the commercial success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, many other novels with a similar domestic noir theme were released. I’m sure you could list more than I could. On the one hand, the success of Gone Girl allowed those other novels more exposure than they otherwise might have had. Publishers were more willing to take a chance on them, and people were more interested in the themes. On the other hand, do readers think of those other novels as ‘me, too?’ Do they look at them with fresh eyes? This raises questions for the author. Is it a good idea to pick up on a theme that’s had some success, so as to hopefully get more exposure? Is it a matter of ‘me, too,’ or is it a matter of ‘there’s a market for this sort of book?’ Or is it something else?
And then there’s the element of when in one’s life one reads something. Perhaps you started your crime-fictional journey with classic and Golden-Age crime fiction such as Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, or Anthony Berkeley. Since then, let’s say, you’ve branched out and gotten very interested in the modern hardboiled PI novel (Timothy Hallinan, for instance). Would you still see the work of, say, Arthur Conan Doyle in the same way if you re-read it?
There’s a strong argument that timing has an effect on what we think of what we read. Do you see that with your own reading? Do you ever go back and re-read a novel at another time, just to see if your first impression was lasting? If you’re a writer, do you think about timing when you choose your themes, contexts and so on?
Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, may I strongly suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s excellent blog. There, you’ll find fine reviews, interesting observations, and real wit. And Mr. Darcy.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Hot Blooded.