The Devil's Footprints

I'm currently reading a novel called The Devil's Footprints by Scottish poet, novelist and general all round good guy John Burnside and am enjoying it more than I can say, although perhaps enjoy isn't quite the right word. It's a story with a peculiarly Scottish quality - I was trying to describe it to somebody this morning and found myself searching for the right word. There's a sense of darkness about it that is hard to define but is certainly encapsulated by the title itself. This is a literary novel, for sure, and yet not one that is in any way hard to read. The prose, elegant, beautiful, slides down like honey. Things take you by surprise. And then you find yourself stopping and thinking, what was that? What did he just say? Hell's teeth, what did he just say? In short I love it. But it got me thinking because in order to read it, I had abandoned a much bigger, and much more commercial novel which I had better not name here. Besides, there are so many like it that it would be unfair to victimise any one writer. It was a good enough story, and for a while I was enjoying it, particularly for that late night reading when you want to forge on through a chapter or two before going to sleep. But then I found myself slowly but surely getting bored. Why were the characters so two dimensional? Why was the plot so unnecessarily convoluted? Why was something that was meant to be commercial becoming so much hard work? So I found myself doing something that is a sure sign of losing it with a novel - I skimmed the upcoming pages, not as sometimes happens because I couldn't bear not to know what happened next - but really because I couldn't bear to waste any more time ploughing through the plot to get to the story.
And then I turned to The Devil's Footprints, and was captivated. Which should, I suppose, teach me something about perceptions of the difference between literary and commercial fiction. We sometimes assume that because the former will be reasonably demanding and the latter reasonably easy to access, our levels of engagement will reflect that difference. This isn't always, or even often the case. And just because the whole publishing industry seems to engage in the 'fiction' that there is a great divide between literary and commercial writing, I don't think we as readers - or even as writers - should subscribe to it.

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