Return of the Didactic Novel

Just as one thought that lewdness, licence and let-it-all-hang-out had saturated contemporary literature forever, that morals and upright thinking had no place in fiction, along came Rebekah Roth.

I admit, I was mean, calling her first two novels ‘penny dreadfuls’, though I did acknowledge her uniquely valuable perspective as a professional flight attendant and her use of careful research on aspects of 9/11.  Her third novel in the series, Methodical Conclusion, establishes her as a contemporary and interesting didactic novelist.

Didactic writing is instructive.  It relies on fictional techniques to frame the all-consuming message in the text.  This can weigh heavily, be off-putting and therefore ineffective, though there have been remarkable contemporary successes.  Alex Haley’s Roots, for instance, contributed greatly to the social status of Afro-American people and spearheaded a renewed ‘back to Africa’ movement.

Rebekah Roth’s three novels, Methodical IllusionMethodical Deception and Methodical Conclusion were written out of a very strong desire to convey the work of many years of academic research on aspects of 9/11 to a new audience.  The first two novels were framed by a soppy and unrealistic romance; the third begins as a panegyric on a contemporary hotel and holiday, not to my taste either; but this novel moves swiftly to the serious and lengthy research attempted, never neglecting political implications and practical difficulties for an administration determined to uncover truths.   One suffers the unrealistic ‘clunky’ dialogue and stylistic gaffes; but the moral, patriotic and right-thinking monologues are sincere and well argued.

There are many researchers who will find the genre and style of the Methodicals tedious; but the books are achieving the readership that the writer sets out to capture.  No publisher could ask for more.


How much research is necessary to write a novel?

People are the roughly the same the world over.  They get angry, things amuse them, they fall in love, they quarrel with their neighbour, they find work difficult, depressing and challenging.  They find all kinds of things challenging.   They take up hobbies.

That doesn’t mean we can write a story set in Cornwall, change the names of the places and people and set it in, say Pune, unless of course we have done the research, either by visiting Pune or by knowing some aspect of it very well.

People may be the same the world over,  but they react differently: they care about different things, they see things differently, according to the culture in which they were born and grew up.  Take for instance Silence, the 1966 novel set in Japan by Shusako Endo, where seventeenth century Japanese traditional culture and religion meet European Catholicism;  or The Sorrow of War (1990) by the Vietnamese writer, Bao Ninh,  who tells the story of a soldier collecting bodies after a battle, thinking about his past. How well, do you think, Maikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967) would transpose to Falmouth?  Here, the devil pays a visit to the fanatically atheistic Soviet Union.  I could go on.

For me, stories arise from the people who arise from their environment, wherever it might be.  This is why ancient stories and ancient images, such as Rachael by the well, retain their appeal; yet ancient motives seem foreign.  Try living by the detail prescribed in Leviticus.

What am I trying to say here?

Cornwall deserves better than to be treated as a backdrop that flaps in the breeze.  Its stories are made of granite, kaolin and heavy metal.  Its bodies take a long time rotting in its arsenical soil.  Let’s have some Cornish Realism.

Audio Excerpt

The first chapter of  ‘The Permanent History of Penaluna’s Van’ still available as a paperback or download on Kindle.


For the great majority of people, revision is about learning material for forthcoming examinations. For the writer, revision is trying to look at work done with a fresh eye, scrubbing out and re-writing, perhaps again and again.  This is a messy business at best.  Do I jettison that well-crafted, irrelevant phrase, never to be used again?  If I’ve questioned it: yes.  Do I pare down the work to the point where I lose voice and perhaps heart as well?  No.  Where do I get the ability to know the difference? Er…

You can ask good friends to look at your work, tell you where they are confused by it, or where they simply do not know what you are driving at; but it is a real commitment on their part.  Will they tell you the truth, or will they say something benign to keep you happy?

Your worst critic is one who says, “Great, fascinating,” and no more.  This means, they haven’t read it or they think they need your friendship or they feel it’s not right to comment and discourage.  This is marginally worse than the friend who says no more than four words, “I read your book.” (And?)

After all that, you still need to get your head down and do the revision.  No-one can do it for you. Anyone else will misread you and get it all wrong.  It’s like someone taking over your knitting. Nobody else’s tension is ever the same.

Two things are helpful: print it out and read it aloud.  That way, awkwardness in the text becomes readily apparent.

A third thing is even more helpful: when you have read it so many times, you cannot see it or hear it any more, put time and distance between you and the manuscript.  Put it at the back of the filing cabinet.  Give it sufficient time and you’ll see how dreadful it is and what must be done to rescue it.

Give it really a lot of time and you’ll wonder where you got the genius to write it at all.