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Cover art for Iain M Banks' 'The State of the Art' by Mark SalwowskiAs I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Iain Banks has died.

We were all expecting this, of course – he announced in April that his cancer was terminal – but it’s still a blow to lose someone who has loomed so large in the field of popular literature.

I thought he handled the announcement and its subsequent publicity remarkably well, demonstrating a quiet humour and sense of, if not contentment, then good natured acceptance.

It makes me feel a little guilty for not being more of a fan.

The truth is, I’ve never been able to finish an Iain Banks novel. More specifically, I’ve never been able to finish an Iain M. Banks novel. (Incidentally – and not meaning to speak ill of the dead – what exactly was the thinking behind probably the most transparent pseudonym in publishing history? If any readers are aware of a reason, please enlighten me).

Iain BanksI’ve tried a few of his books over the years. I remember throwing myself into Feersum Endjinn, only to grind to a halt about four chapters in. I tried Excession a few years later with much the same result. I’m not a man who’s afraid of some hardcore sci-fi but I found both books unusually cold and alienating. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a foothold for my sympathies. I remember reading an interview with Douglas Adams many years ago in which he complained of exactly the same thing, so at least I’m in good company.

The thing is, I also read his short story collection, The State of the Art, and loved it. It’s been about 15 years since I put it down but some of the stories are still with me. So why can’t I get to grips with the novels?

I’ve encountered the same problem with Clive Barker. I tore through the Books of Blood in my early twenties but have never been able to forge more than a hundred pages into any of his full length works. Weaveworld? It felt flat and thinly drawn. Cabal? It seemed to slide out of my brain the moment I closed the cover, even when I tried reading it in French. The Hellbound Heart (which went on to be filmed as Hellraiser) is stunning though. Perhaps there’s a cut-off point – a critical mass of pages beyond which his style subtly changes. Or perhaps it’s just me.

Books of Blood, Volume 1So Iain Banks is doomed to remain one of those curious blackspots in my reading experience, and goodness knows there are plenty of those.

To my lasting shame, I hadn’t read any Ray Bradbury until last year, when I finally picked up Something Wicked This Way Comes. Less than two weeks later, Bradbury was dead and I was left feeling that I’d lost out, somehow; that I’d discovered an amazing talent just in time to see it snuffed out. Perhaps I’ll feel similarly about Iain Banks in years to come – I suspect he’s one of those writers whose work I’ll eventually revisit and reassess. As I said, I’ve never read any of his non-sci-fi novels, and perhaps I’d have a different experience. The Crow Road interests me for example, simply because I’ve never heard a bad word said about it.

If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Likewise, if you struggle with certain authors in certain formats, it would be good to know I’m not alone!

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