Thursday, April 24, 2014

What makes a novelist?

I have wondered on this blog what makes some people who can write wonderful prose never bother trying to be writers. (I think of the school students I taught whom I naively thought were destined for literary greatness but who never wrote once they left school; I think of adults I've taught who were simply happy to write small pieces privately but had no interest in writing anything ambitious or in being published - I had a hard time believing them, really.)

It's a question that Guardian reviewer Lee Robson takes David Lodge to task for not asking in Lodge's newly published collection of essays Lives in Writing. Robson answers it himself with reference to the critic Frank Kermode's discussion (in his memoir) of 'what kind of person makes a good novelist'. Kermode himself, a 'champion defeatist', was discouraged from trying to be a novelist by the suggestion that he hadn't had enough real-life experience. He came to the conclusion that people who made good novelists, such as William Golding and Iris Murdoch, were 'people very unlike him'. They had a 'capacity' that he lacked, to write convincingly about things they hadn't actually experienced.

Robson however points out that both Golding and Murdoch, whose early novels were rejected, had to develop that ability (that they too at one point lacked it), and comes to the conclusion that the novelist is rather
'...not someone who can [just] mix autobiography and invention, as Lodge ... suggests, but someone whose sensibility contains a balance of the intuitive and the pragmatic, the introvert and the extrovert, the better to create fiction that is neither too personal nor too [mired in technical facts].'
Which seems about right, if you add in the need for determination and maybe obsession - and perhaps especially in the current commercial literary climate.

Lodge, it seems, is complaining about the kind of reductive biographical readings of fiction about which I've frequently complained here, those that reduce fiction to mere biography or indeed 'disregard' or devalue it if it doesn't fit known biographical facts about the author. However, Robson in turn complains that this 'blinds him to more desirable forms of biographical insight into the writing - and non-writing - of novels', and points to the life experiences that do indeed make people novelists or non-writers, such as Frank Kermode's unhappy childhood that left him with 'a lifelong sense of himself as a failure', the childhood nurturing that, conversely, gave Philip Roth his supreme literary confidence, and the family habits that fed Muriel Spark's subversive wit.

I haven't read Lodge's book, but it seems to me harsh to chastise him for not taking on a different project from the one in which he is engaged - Lodge is apparently concerned with our reading of texts, whereas Robson's interest here is essentially biographical and sociological - but I find Robson's point interesting and astute, nevertheless.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rules for writers that shouldn't be rules

I've been meaning for ages to post on this (it's been a preoccupation of the WIP that's been keeping me away from this blog), but now I have the time at last I find that someone has already done it so brilliantly I don't need to. 

The title of the article, 'The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (And Probably Already Have)' is a bit misleading, as its author Susan Defreitas makes clear that the rules she examines, such as Show Don't Tell, Don't Use Adverbs etc do have their place, which is with beginner writers making traditional beginner mistakes such as verbosity, over-explaining, failure to realise the texture of a scene, lack of grounding in reality etc (and also as general notions to go on keeping in mind to avoid such mistakes thereafter). She shows, however (with considerable wit) that such advice taken to extremes can turn writing leaden and unremarkable, and, with quotes from Salman Rushdie and Nabakov, that writers with skill may ignore it with equanimity. 'Language is your Swiss army knife, and you can’t do shit like this with just the knife and the corkscrew.' I particularly like her words on cutting:
...beginning writers tend to be verbose. We can’t tell the difference between an essential detail and an inessential one. We’re like golden retrievers romping through Storyland, and pretty much every damn thing we see is a squirrel. 
But push this advice too far, and again, you’ll get stuck writing mediocre fiction. Because sometimes the things that don’t work are actually important. They don’t work not because they’re the wrong things, but because they’re the hard, ambitious, at-the-very-edge-of-what-you-even-know-how-to-say-things, and the only way to land them is to dig deeper, work harder, and sometimes even (god help you) add rather than cut.
There's an underlying implication in the article that these rules are indeed being taken too seriously and too widely, and it's a sense of this that made me want to blog about it too. I do come across a lot of writing that seems in thrall to 'show don't tell' and in dire fear of making any statements about feelings or motives, and is either weighed down with over-elaborate, clogged and seemingly mechanical external detail, or simply too stark, either way leaving us without a sense of the emotion, or, as Defreitas says, 'the thought processes giving rise to that emotion.'

Do read her article.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It's what you expect and how you read

Here's our reading group discussion of Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. It's perhaps an interesting insight into the difficulties of innovative fiction. It's a book based on hindsight rather than 'what-happens-next' plot (what happens is given from the outset), with a resulting non-linear structure and an innovative prose style. Opinions in our group were strongly divided, with most people finding the book stunning, but others left cold and unengaged and one even seriously irritated. Most strikingly and interestingly, the two camps had wildly differing impressions of the pace of the book, with those who were positive (and accepting of the premise) finding it urgent and emotionally involving, while those who were negative (and who I suspect preferred to read for plot) found it insufficiently urgent, static and repetitive.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday, January 03, 2014

Reading group: The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow

Here's what our reading group thought of this novel based on the real-life case of the Rosenbergs, charged with leaking the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union and executed in 1953.