Sitting on a train into London, and without reading material, my eye falls on the book open on the lap of the commuter next to me. Specifically, it falls on the fact that he is using a neatly folded tissue as a marker, moving it down from line to line as he reads. This seems a rather antiseptic way to read a book, and because of this, I'm expecting to see that the book itself, when my gaze darts to that, is some sort of textbook, and maybe badly printed enough for the ink to come off on a reader's fingers. Not a bit of it. It's a library hardback, and it's an historical romance. A truly dreadful historical romance, by the looks of it; the first words I read are:
Johanna was delighted to learn she would be the first of the princesses to get married.
Now, I write historical fiction, so I feel I have that much of a stake in what such writing can and should be, and this, as a line, is wong in ways that annoy me so much I start labelling them - 1) it's flat, it's reported emotion, it's not Johanna, God help the girl, leaping around in delight at cocking a snook at her sister-princesses, assuming such they be, and sticking her be-coiffed head out her casement to shout 'I'm getting married before you! Ner-ner-ner-nerner!' (If she did, that's a book I'd read with pleasure.) 2) The name. Princesses are not called Johanna. I remember watching a Hammer House of Horror years ago, with a character in it called 'Senorita Yvonne'. She was eaten by a werewolf, and frankly, with a name as anachronistic and sloppily unimaginative as that, deserved no better. Why go to the bother of creating a character - albeit in the case of Johanna, one flat as an uncooked gingerbread-man - and not come up with an imaginative and interest-snagging name for them? I went to the Mervyn Peake show at the BL recently (of which more anon) - now, if you want a master-class in the creation of fabulous names, read him. 3) So on two counts now, the author of this book has insulted me, as a reader, setting before me a bit of dead shorthand as oppposed to a bit of lively action, and misnaming a character so badly (and names you can't pronounce are another hatred of mine - how am I supposed to get carried along by the fact that you've fallen over a cliff/discovered a lost tribe of headhunters/are about to save the life of an infant during a fire at sea/ if every time my eye hits your name on the page, my reading mind is tripped up by it?).
Yet I keep reading. I race that folded tissue to the bottom of the page, maddened that it obscures the paragraph to come, despite the fact that with every line the writing seems to be getting worse in more and more predictable ways. So what is it? What is this thing about stolen words, other people's reading, that makes what they have in front of them so irresistible?
Is it simply because the words belong to someone else? (As children, my brother and I used to fight for the cereal packet with the best copy on it to read at the breakfast table - much to my mother's ire.) Is it curiosity as to what another is reading? In which case, once I've seen what it is, and judged it truly awful, why isn't my curiosity satisfied? Or is it that awakened hunger for words - any words, for an escape - on a dull commuter train? Sometimes I find myself reading some other poor soul's book, and trying to work out what the book might be - is it a Stephen King? John Grisham? Maeve Binchy? I've never to my knowledge read a word of Grisham or Binchy except for over other peoples' shoulders, yet I can spot their style at once. So is this just a spot of mental gum-chewing? What?
My own relationship to over-the shoulder reading baffles me. How about this - if the shoulder and the words should ever be yours, close up your book and ask me what I'm doing. Maybe we can both get an answer.