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.)
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