The trouble with being known for one series of books is that it can be tricky to take people with you when you publish something slightly different. In my case, I have a following – unspectacular but much appreciated – for my James Burke books, but that following is not transferring to the John Williamson Papers, which I think is sad. Obviously it’s sad from my point of view, because I’d like more people to read the books, but I think it’s sad from the reader’s point of view because they are missing out on a good read because it doesn’t fit conveniently into the ‘books by Tom Williams’ space in their reading habits.
Apples and oranges
Graham Greene divided his work into ‘entertainments’ and ‘novels’. Some people find this an unsatisfactory split. All fiction, they say, should entertain. Suggesting that some have a higher purpose and are ‘novels’ and not mere ‘entertainment’ is presumptuous and unhelpful.
I think the separation can be useful. If we sit down to read a book by John Grisham, we have different expectations from if we are tackling John Updike. It helps to know what we might have coming. At the end of a long day, more people will want to turn to Wilbur Smith than Salman Rushdie. The problem comes when the same author writes two different kinds of books. Some use a pseudonym to separate the two sides of their output but, as J.K. Rowling has discovered, that doesn’t always work.
I’ve obviously got a personal interest, having just republished the first two of the John Williamson Papers following the success of my books about James Burke. There is a distinct grinding of gears as readers who enjoy the adventures of my Napoleonic era spy try to adjust to the darker mid-19th-century Williamson stories.
I wish I could warn people not to expect John Williamson to be anything like James Burke. That, in fact, is what I’m trying to do here.
The White Rajah was the first book I wrote. Like all first novels, it has its flaws but, like, I suspect, many first novels, it was trying very hard to be a serious book. It’s based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak and the model for Conrad’s Lord Jim. Like Conrad’s protagonist, Brooke was a flawed hero. I’ve tried to use him and his personal relationships to say something about British colonial rule. Nowadays, we generally like heroes to be basically good people and we think colonialism was essentially bad. What I try to do in The White Rajah is to suggest that life is a bit more complicated than that. The result is a book that I hope people will find reasonably exciting (there’s battles and pirates and evil plots) but which is, I have to admit, hardly a bundle of laughs. I hope it’s entertaining but I don’t think of it as primarily an entertainment. Graham Greene might not have thought it a particularly good novel, but I think he would accept that a novel is what it set out to be.
Most of you reading this blog have probably at least looked at one of the Burke books by now, so you can judge for yourself how far they succeed in their primary intention, which was simply to entertain. James Burke (an unfortunately similar name to the Rajah’s) was also a real person, but his adventures are just that: intrigue and derring-do set in exciting places with wicked foes and beautiful women. I hope that the story is not without some more serious content, but my main aim was to send you away entertained. There is, I hope, room for both kinds of book in the world. Indeed, I fervently hope that there’s room for both on your bookshelves (or, more likely, your Kindle). Please buy both, read them and, I hope, enjoy them. Just don’t expect them to be the same.
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Back Home will be republished soon.