Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's how you read it.

An article in today's Guardian Review by Alex Clark sums up recent worries about the role of the editor and ponders the pressures that the books industry is putting on that role, including, interestingly, and I'd say ominously, the possibility of changes in the way we read. In literary criticism, he says:
...there has been a shift away from the painstaking analysis of words and sentences and towards straightforward plot recital and a speedy thumbs up or down
and, with reference to reading generally, concludes:
What we have to be aware of is that the creation of serious literature – whatever the degree of collaboration between author and editor – is the result of enormously concentrated mental and aesthetic effort. If it is reduced to a series of narrative effects slapped on to paper or screen, if it comes to be seen simply as one among many interchangeable ways to ingest a story, it will soon begin to look like a very poor slice of the leisure industry indeed.
Exactly. What's important about a novel is not the 'story' but the way it is told: novels aren't just stories, but constructs of language. 'Story' and mode are never separate entities: it is the mode of telling which creates the meaning and thus the story (which is why I'm not a great fan of drama adaptations of novels). A different word order here, a swapped line there, a cut here, and the whole meaning, and thus the story can change altogether. And this is the essential role of the editor: to help the author achieve the construct through which the intended meaning and story can be realized. (I've written about a significant editing experience of my own in an Author's Note on my current publisher's website here.)

As far as I'm concerned any story can be made interesting (and enlightening, and exciting) with the right way of telling (and of course insight) (and conversely any story, however outlandish and promising, can be made ploddingly dull). But an insistence on story for its own sake is probably, I would say, nurtured by the commercial nature of contemporary publishing: a good 'story' or idea can make a marketing pitch in the way claims about good writing simply can't. The idea becomes the be-and-end-all, and quite frankly I now see far too many ploddingly dull novels praised (on the net, especially) for the quirky 'story' or idea they have in actuality short-changed or even massacred, as if the reviewer were simply blind to the actual language of the novels - indeed, to put it at its most strongly, as if they didn't really, properly read them.

Loathe as I am to knock any return to much-missed coverage of books on TV, I'd say that Sebastian Faulks' BBC2 programme panders to this tendency in spades. In the trailer clip he says that he wants to rectify a recent concentration on the author rather than the book, a laudable enough aim, but his solution is to concentrate on characters, whom he says are 'all that matters', and to talk about them as if they are real rather than merely one element of an author's literary construct (and of course all of his examples are vividly illustrated by BBC dramatisations). Two BBC4 programmes on Monday however were to my mind excellent. The Beauty of Books, interestingly appearing just as we are assailed by predictions of the demise of the physical book, showed us in vivid detail and with brilliant photography the physicality of our earliest manuscripts and explained the sociological forces shaping their physical properties. In The Birth of the British Novel Henry Hitchings gave us an incisive and vivid yet truly literary-sociological account. Both programmes were a return to the mode of thoughtful commentary usefully illustrated, with none of that dramatised re-enactment stuff. The one way that the latter programme pandered to contemporary trends was in plonking in a few 'star' novelists for their comments. These moments were like holes in the middle of Henry Hitchings' beautiful logical account: one really had to laugh at Martis Amis and the usually concise Will Self sitting in the pub and telling the scholarly whizz lit critic how to suck literary eggs and losing the plot in waffle - probably because they were disconcerted by the look on his face...

(Only 2 more days I think to see those 2 programmes on iplayer - I'm a bit late with this.)


Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally. I’ve found myself using the word ‘story’ in a rather derogatory way of late, basically since I’ve been reviewing everything and anything I get sent. I don’t use it in my reviews but when I’m talking to my wife I’ll say that a book was “just a story” and they’re the books I hate reading even if they’re good stories. I once defined ‘literature’ as writing where how a thing was said was more important than what is being said. Okay that’s simplistic but you get my point. I saw the last two programmes you mentioned and the one scrap of information I’ll take away were the squiggles in Tristram Shandy - a book I’ve never read but I’m tempted now. I also agree that the programme didn’t need the wit and wisdom of Self and Amis; Hitchins was doing quite well on his own.

Dan Holloway said...

I've yet to see the Beeb4 programmes on iPlayer (but very much looking forward todoing so). I thought the Faulks programme was almost a criminal waste of opportunity, ending up as an advert for costume drama peppered with a few to-cameras designed to prove anyone who doubts the existence of a Barnes-Amis-Faulks (Ishiguro and Rushdie must be waiting in the wings for later in the series) cartel at the heart of literature wrong.

As a writer I am as dismayed as you are by the direction of critical reading. I remember the sheer joy, as a 6th former, of being presented with Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Eliot's Wasteland, and the hours feathering layer on layer of meaning and joy from the text (and being encouraged to do so) with the reading equivalent of the archaeologist's trowel. I wonder these days whether most reviewers would close the Faulkner at line one for being "one of those" books, and dismiss Eliot because "it sounds well enough but doesn't really go anywhere".

The result of my training to read was that when I decided to turn my hobby for writing into something more serious I was genuinely excited about the things I could do, the possibilities open to my craft because I could be assured of readers who would enjoy teasing the works apart. Hmm.

I must say the final nail in the coffin for me in terms of my delusions that the regular writing world might be my future home was reading the judge's notes for the Bridport one year - the ones they produce in advance. It was either Tracy Chevalier or Ali Smith's year, I can't remember which, and Tracy or ali said what they were really looking for was a good twist. Ah well, I thought. Our premier prize for one of the most challenging and exciting literary formats, and to be in with a shot what I need to concentrate on above all else is a good twist. I'm clearly barking up the wrong tree. Since then (OK, since then and a lovely letter from an agent telling me I needed a "big splash" book) I've kept my submissions to underground ezines - where I have to say readers really want something they can wrap their heads around.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan, I share your sense of despair re lit comps - in his intro to the forthcoming Salt books of Best Short Stories, Nick Royle makes an interesting comment about the lack of challenge he found in recent short story comp winners. (There was a link to it on FB recently, but I can't seem to find it now, or on the Salt website).

Anyway, I have to say I'm heartened that others of you share these worries...

Jane Eagland said...

I totally share your concern about the separation of the story from the way it is handled (not just the language but the structure, tone etc ) and the way the 'concept' seems to be given pre-eminence now. Out of curiosity I have tried to read some best-sellers where I can see the attraction of 'what happens' carrying the reader along despite poor writing; but the appeal of something like 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' for example mystifies me. I found it boring - too much tedious detail and very little narrative effect, certainly initially. So the ominous change is not only that the way we read may be being altered but that what we read is so manipulated: a few books being hyped at the expense of others.

JW_Firth said...

Yeah I agree, though lack of story can be a bit of a worry in any draft novel or short story (!) there is a media tendency of quicker-simpler which is not really compatible with literature.

Sue Guiney said...

It doesn't surprise me to see we are on the same wavelength. I watched that BBC program too, and really liked it - not so much for the talking heads in the pubs but for the rediscovery of some forgotten writers. And I did read every word of the article on editing -- a problem that has concerned me. One good thing about being with a small press is that they can take the time to do it the old fashioned way, with real editing and thought (not that they always do, but I've been lucky). But my last novel did convince me of the importance of plot. We do need to tell stories. But what makes Dan Brown not, well, Elizabeth Baines? He can't write a decent sentence to save his life. And so his books are only stories, as far as I'm concerned. Not literature.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Sue, I agree we need stories, and I love a good plot. It's just that they're not good if they're not well executed.

Thanks for distinguishing me from Dan!

Dan Holloway said...

VEry interesting what you say about Nick's comments - I do think there is a tendency to favour polish in competitions. I wonder if this has to do with the initial readings - in ABNA, for example, with 2 readings at 2nd round stage consistent good scores are favoured over one high and one low - I can see something similar being the case where there are first readers - the tendency to make safe choices.

There ARE lots of great stories out there that challenge (and split opinion) but they are most likely to be found in some of the ezines. "Best of" compilers would do well to trawl Pank and 3:am an dthe like and then click all the links on their blogroll and so on as well as looking to competitions. It's the same with novels of course - the principle is a simple one. In a competition what comes to the fore are entries that can garner consensus. Where selections are comiled as a result of strong editorial opinion there will be a totally different array - by and large with a sense of division rather than consensus.

I would have added how good it is that we have such a vibrant literary zine scene, but that remark has to be parenthesised by the sad demise this week of Pen Pusher