Intelligent novelists know how to write a story. It’s the smart-smart ones who don’t have

When I discovered that Agatha Christie had written a novel set in the 1930s, describing the scandals of a tennis champion, the sports historian in me sensed a perfect excuse. Christie has sold over two billion books. As I had not been one of his readers, it was time to see what he was about.

Now I know. To zero was pure pleasure. I was immediately captivated, lost in following the story. It was like settling into a deep armchair with a tall glass of red wine after a hard day.

The writing, which was generally neat and lackluster, occasionally revealed glimpses of the amount of talent held in check. Instead of showing off, Christie wanted to succeed. And what is success? Generate the reaction “What a great book! rather than: “What a clever writer!” The last time I settled into a book with such confidence was when I read Graham Greene A gun for sale. “It’s this weekend sorted,” I thought after the first page.

Unusually for me, I read To zero on a reader. Just as well. I would have been reluctant to walk around with the paperback under my arm. Not quite the thing, is it, reading thrillers, potboilers, simple entertainment? I’m a literary snob enough to assume I should have higher tastes — for books that might not be so story-driven, for example. But I would be wrong. The story is the best thing about novels; it always has been and it always will be.

Yet history, if not lost, has certainly been relegated. My first job in journalism in the 1990s was reviewing books, mostly novels, for Sunday Telegraph. (A quick complaint: the status of book review in newspapers then was very different. My articles appeared alongside those of Hugh Trevor-Roper and Noel Malcolm – historians I studied and prose writers I admired. For a 20-year-old writer, in today’s jargon, it was a dizzying array of “adjacencies.”)

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Looking back, examining these reviews, I can discern a common thread that wasn’t obvious at the time. It’s a simple criticism. The novels rarely came to life and the reading experience was rarely enjoyable. Orchestrating a compelling narrative, capturing the reader’s attention, creating believable characters operating in a recognizable social world – none were a central concern in most of the novels I reviewed.

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Far more prevalent were self-aware intelligence, cunning structures, terror of the obvious, and obsession with novelty. I don’t know if intelligence is the right word, because there is another type of intelligence that becomes invisible, focused only on creating a realized fantasy world. This kind of intelligence was extremely rare.

Why has history been stuck on the back foot? He never quite recovered from modernism’s disregard for narrative momentum. One day, despairing of the bloodlessness of Bloomsbury fiction, CS Lewis turned to JRR Tolkien with an idea: “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I’m afraid we should try to write some ourselves.

Yet it was modernism that continued to cast a long shadow over the intellectual prejudices of the literary establishment. I once heard a publisher say that a theater group was “the kind of place where they do Terence Rattigan covers.” Bringing Rattigan’s well-designed and superbly plotted plays to life was considered a dismal failure. (2011 production by Trevor Nunn of splay path was one of the best things I had seen in years.)

Valuing the importance of history is always considered unambitious, as if anyone could do it. I suspect otherwise: it’s because writing a good story is so difficult that it’s such a tempting target, to be dismissed as an inferior, populist skill. In the absence of capacity, lay down a principle.

A novelist recently told me about his experiences studying English at university in the 1980s. Along his path, there were two types of 20th century writers: the approved and the ignored. Among those approved were James Joyce, TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf. The ignored included EM Forster, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and W Somerset Maugham. As an intellectual fad, modernism continued to crush social realism well into the 1980s. This generation of students continued to write those novels I was reviewing in the 1990s and 2000s – those who cared little for narration.

I am going to make two amendments to my thesis. First, while I’m skeptical of anti-populism – the idea that something can’t be good if it succeeds – it doesn’t follow that the market is always right. Second, in arguing that the story is the best thing about the novel, I’m not claiming that it’s the only thing. Forster made this point in aspects of the novel:

If you ask a type of man, “What does a romance do?” he will answer placidly: “Well, I don’t know. . . I guess it tells a story, so to speak. He is rather good humored and vague. . . and not paying more attention to literature than it deserves. Another man, who I visualize as on a golf course, will be aggressive and sharp. He will answer: “What does a novel do? Why, tell a story, of course, and I have no use for it if it wasn’t. . . You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife is the same way. And a third man, he said in a kind of drooping voice of regret, “Yes – oh my God – the novel tells a story.” I respect and admire the first speaker. I hate and fear the second. And the third is me.

While Forster is certainly right to be wary of the narrow-minded reader who has no patience for anything but a good thread, his conclusion is telling. Impossible to get rid of the story. That’s why, when I was a book reviewer, I longed for a book like To zero land on my doormat. It was rarely the case.