Do you ditch a book if it does not immediately grab your attention or do you trudge through it joylessly, weighed down by some invisible obligation to complete it, no matter how arduous the task? The writer Mark Billingham got stuck into this endless debate at the Cheltenham literature festival last week, admitting that he gives up on five out of 10 books that he starts, because “life’s too short” and “there are so many great books out there”. If genre fiction, in particular, doesn’t grab you after 20 pages, he said, “then, for God’s sake, throw it across the room angrily”.
The thought of it! It is so bold, so cavalier. There are two books in particular that I went on to adore, after several abandoned attempts to read them. It quite literally took me years to get into both Wolf Hall and The Luminaries and it was only a combination of very lazy, pool-based holidays and dogged perseverance that finally got me to stick with them. I am very glad I did. They rewarded patience and in a culture of instant gratification this seems increasingly rare.
In contemporary pop music, the flick-through catalogue style of streaming services means long intros are almost non-existent now. If a song doesn’t have an immediate hook, it is likely to be skipped and this is changing the way songs are written. If all novels had to have a poppy hook, so to speak, I am not sure the work would benefit.
On the other hand, I am seethingly envious of Billingham. The ability to chuck a book that doesn’t immediately appeal is a superpower, a recognition of the value of one’s time and something that shows great confidence in one’s own taste. There are far more brilliant stories than any one person could read in a lifetime and there are far more books I wish I had binned than ones I’m glad I did not.
It also puts novels in their place. Literature has a tendency to believe its own hype and Billingham’s approach reminds readers that novels are entertainment, too. The idea that great literature should be hard work is ridiculous, one that only the snobbish gatekeepers who celebrate exclusivity wish to hold on to.
I did abandon one book recently, because it was full of horrible things being done to animals, and snot, which, it turns out, is more off-putting than hundreds of pages of terrible prose. I am not quite sure that the balance is correct or the payoff worth it. But this is a debate that will never anoint a winning side. Billingham admitted that his wife will persevere with any book, even if she is not enjoying it.
William Shatner is back to Earth with a bump
Prince William, Jeff Bezos and William Shatner met at the centre of a surreal Venn diagram last week. At the age of 90, former Star Trek star Shatner made history by popping into space for a few minutes, becoming the oldest person to do so. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened,” he said, tearfully, after he returned to Earth. “It’s extraordinary.”
Shatner was flown into space on Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket, but commercial space tourism, that gruesome folly of choice for the ultra-rich, has a tendency to make joyful situations into joyless ones. Though he did not refer to Shatner, Prince William offered a withering critique of the billionaire space race when speaking to the BBC’s Newscast on Thursday: “We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.”
Bezos argues that building a road to space is crucial for the survival of humanity. Shatner reiterated this idea in his response to the prince, politely arguing that trips like his can show that space travel is possible, meaning new solutions to the climate crisis might be found away from Earth. But all these “coulds” and “mights” lack urgency and the idea that the solution to climate change is to simply try again somewhere else is inherently bleak. It implies a sense of resignation, as if Bezos knows that there is no point in attempting to fix what we have here. How strange, to feel so glum about the sight of a man fulfilling a lifelong dream at 90.
Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly: not a horror show after all
Though this year’s Halloween costume of choice appears to be locked in – expect to see a parade of Squid Game tracksuits on a street near you – might I make a suggestion that the chilling spectacle of PDAs, or public displays of affection, is as horrifying as any skeleton, zombie or ghost?
If anyone wishes to pursue this line of inquiry, then celebrity couple Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly might make for a good moodboard. The pair discussed their relationship in a lengthy profile with GQ Style and it has already been much-memed. On meeting him for the first time, for example, Fox told Kelly that he “smelled like weed”. “I am weed,” he replied. Mr Darcy walked so that he could run.
I read the story in its entirety, expecting to feel queasy about the couple’s hot ’n’ heavy romance; much like dreams, other people’s relationships are rarely as interesting to anyone else. Perhaps I am going soft, but it turned out to be rather sweet. Famous people are all bonkers, and there’s plenty of that, but it’s more goofy and less self-conscious than I expected it to be. It turns out I’ll be going for the tracksuit, after all.
• Rebecca Nicolson is an Observer columnist