Too much truth can get in the way of fiction


Vance Roberts emailed from the Isle of Skye about what he perceives as “the imbalance of fiction and non-fiction in your Saturday book reviews”. There were six pages dedicated to non-fiction last week, he says, and only one given to fiction. “I could accept a 50-50 split, though my belief is that there is often more truth to be found in fiction. My experience of working in public libraries has always shown a far greater number of novels borrowed, as against the popular but far less numerous borrowings of non-fiction titles.”

Fiona Wilson is our deputy books editor and frequently reviews new novels. She says that the amount of space we give to fiction fluctuates during the year but concedes that the balance is particularly skewed in the run-up to Christmas. Rightly or wrongly, publishers think people are more likely to give non-fiction books as Christmas presents, and few novels are published this late in the season. The peak date for fiction comes in October, on “Super Thursday”, when the publishing industry releases its biggest titles for the autumn market; twice as many hardbacks are published on that day as in an average week. After this, Fiona says, the amount of new fiction released drops off, and our pages reflect this.

That said, today’s Saturday Review features four pages of fiction in our Christmas books round-up. And, of course, there are the wonderful email bulletins, which subscribers can sign up for at Every Friday there’s an email put together by the books editors of The Times and The Sunday Times, with reviews, interviews, quizzes, gossip and news; and for those who like a whodunnit, there’s the monthly Crime Club email, with exhaustive listings and reviews of new thrillers, and links to sample first chapters, along with offers and podcasts and all sorts. Highly recommended.

Shall we tell the children?

Spoiler alert! No children allowed. As sure as eggs is eggs, the festive season is never complete without one of those stories about muddy fields turning out not to be winter wonderlands, or the old favourite about an unfortunate vicar getting it in the neck from angry parents for blowing the gaff on Father Christmas. Blow me down if this year’s guilty party on that front wasn’t another vicar but our own science editor, Tom Whipple, who reported in our news pages on a Lancet Psychiatry paper about the emotional damage children can undergo when they find out Mommy’s been kissing Santa Claus.

Mike Haynes wrote: “I am a parent of two young children and, irrespective of the rights and wrongs being discussed, did it not occur to you that children will read your newspaper? Inadvertently or otherwise, you have just burst the Christmas bubble for countless children across the land. Congratulations!”

Hang on. Tom’s story was on the same page as two pictures of Nigel Farage. Surely any parent with an eye to emotional damage wouldn’t have let their offspring anywhere near it. As Mr Haynes went on: “Part of being a child is being shielded from the harsh realities of the world. Part of being a parent is knowing when their children are ready to be exposed to the ‘real world’ and at what rate.”

Indeed, and I wouldn’t have wanted any infant young enough to believe all that coming down the chimney stuff to have seen the rest of Thursday’s news section, which featured two particularly unsettling murder trials, not to mention the budget deficit. Never mind, we’re sorry if we’ve upset anyone and we’ll consider ourselves warned.

Toppling trolleys

“I have always admired the extraordinary powers of observation of your cartoonists,” writes Peter Barker from Tilehurst, Reading, “but there seems reason to query drawings of a supermarket trolley with three wheels. I have never seen one; perhaps I need to get out more. Some time ago, you printed a cartoon of such a trolley labelled Tesco and the other day a drawing of another three, labelled Asda, Lidl and Aldi. Could you please ask your cartoonist where such trolleys may be seen? Those places might best be avoided for shopping, since such geometry is not stable. Steering would be good on three wheels but, with a narrow rear wheel-base and a high centre of gravity, trolleys like that could topple over sideways when fully loaded.”

I duly forwarded Mr Barker’s inquiry to David Haldane, whose cartoons adorn this, among many other pages of the paper, and who is the artist responsible for these Reliant Robins of the supermarket world. “That’s a very good question,” he says. “I remember Woolco trolleys had three wheels in the Killingworth branch, Tyne and Wear, circa 1978. Alas, Woolco and three-wheeled trolleys are no more but I feel it’s my duty to keep the legend alive.”

James Parker of Spalding, Lincs, wrote: “I have complained in the past over championship crosswords being introduced into the run of daily cryptics, as being elitist and far above our daily fare. I apologise. The rest of this week’s non-championship puzzles were nightmares, but I got much further than usual with Wednesday’s, from Heat One.”

I did once suggest, after receiving a more than usually anguished email, that Mr Parker might want to try tackling a different puzzle, but he’s not a man to be fobbed off: “No, I don’t do the simpler cryptic. It’s taken too many years to get here!” He’s an example to us all.