Melvin Burgess: The Books I Loved as a Teenager

Out of all the many, many books I read when I was a teenager, two stand out. I'm writing about them now because they couldn't be more different and because they tell a story, of a kind, about how I write.

Cover of Gormenghast
The first one is Gormenghast, by the great Mervyn Peake. It's a strange and wonderful book, and a unique one, which makes it difficult to describe in the first place. It's set in a vast walled town of crumbling towers, endless corridors, rooms, halls, cornices, parapets, dusty court yards, and, out beyond the city walls, patches of wild, untamed woodland. Gothic is the word. It's inhabited by grotesques, but never by caricatures. I can't think of any fictional people anything like the Count and Countess of Groan, or Steerpike, or Barquentine, or Swelter and Flay and many more.

So much of it is made up, you can only really describe it as a fantasy, but Tolkien never trod here. There's no magic, no whiff of fairy tale. Under the spires and towers, life is lived by ritual. Half of the characters are trying to preserve these rituals, half are trying to escape in their various ways.

It's that rare thing, a fantasy which is character driven. Grotesques they may be, like nothing and no one you ever met, but everyone within lives, breaths, suffers, grows and changes. Compare that to Tolkien, for instance. Frodo might undergo some changes, but it's more that he just gets sad. Once a hobbit, always a hobbit. Once a wizard, always a wizard. Once an elf, an elf you stay. Gandalf manges to change colour. That's about it.

Real life wasn't something I felt at ease with then....books were much better

I read Gormanghast, and the one that preceded it, Titus Groan, over and over again. Why did I love it so much? Well – it is a masterpiece for one thing. Fantastic language, fabulous characters, a great story uniquely told. But the world is full of masterpieces. What made this one so important for me was that you could hide in it. Among those crumbling spires and apartments, among the wastelands and deserted acres of stone, real life hardly intruded. I liked that. Real life wasn't something I felt at ease with then. It was over-large, threatening and potentially violent. I always expected it to kick me in the teeth at any moment, and I wasn't always wrong. Books were much better. They were predictable. You can hide in books - and where better to hide than in the empty acres of stone, the complicated corridors and basements of Gormanghast, where doing the unexpected was an act of treachery, almost?

The other book – well. It's not really a book at all, its the work of one man: George Orwell.

Orwell's work in the very opposite of Peake's. No elaborate sentences here, no fantastic settings, no grotesques or labyrinths of stone. The language is plain, the stories are simple, the light is bright. There's nowhere to hide in Orwell's invention because he wasn't interested in building dreams. He wanted to use his imagination to explore the real world. You could not possibly set out to do two more different things with fiction.

As a teenager, it took me a very long time to realise that fiction could be used to explore real things. Of course, many writers use fiction to reveal the corners of the human soul, to section relationships and feelings – it's one of the many wonders of novels that you can place imagined characters in an imagined world, put them into motion and find that they can speak real truths. But Orwell set himself a harder task than that. He didn't want to talk character. He wanted to talk politics. It's the hardest task in fiction. Novels are great at questions, but pretty crap at answers. If you lecture, you're lost. If you explain, you're lost. Political ideas are very rarely successfully explored in novels. Orwell is perhaps the  star practitioner.

Orwell has things to teach about truth, about the use of language to find the truth, about beauty in simplicity

I don't think I've ever mastered the task of writing about politics via fiction myself, although I have tried and I will try again. But Orwell has other things to teach – about truth, about the use of language to find the truth, about beauty in simplicity and about how to think and to write in ways that make the search for truth exciting and beautiful, even when the truths themselves are dull and ugly. There's no thrill like finding a fictional character that sits up and tells you something about the world you never knew. So far I've not been able to do it with ideas. But there are examples out there – just a few - and there's still time ...

Loved this blog post from Melvin? Check out the other posts in our three part series where you can pick up reading recommendations from author Non Pratt and vlogger Jean Menzies.

Melvin Burgess will be appearing in our free Authors Live: Authentic Teens in YA event on October 4 2017, exploring how well teens are represented in young adult fiction. To watch the event, just register and we'll send you instructions for viewing. You can also access a library of pre-recorded Authors Live events in our Watch on Demand section.

You can also check out our special resource to help engage reluctant readers using Melvin's books.

Melvin Burgess

Ever since his debut novel The Cry of the Wolf was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal in 1990, Melvin Burgess has consistently been behind some of the most enthralling and challenging fiction written for young adults. Junk won the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 1996 for its stark portrayal of teenage heroin addiction and young love. His latest book is Krispy Whispers, an ebook collection of short stories that discover the surreal within the banalYou can find out more at his website.