Anne Tyler, BBC Radio 4, Clare Boylan, Colm Toibin, Deborah Moggach, Douglas Kennedy, Elmore Leonard, Good Books, Literature, Martin Amis, Mohsin Hamid, Novel Writing, Sarah Waters, Will Self, Writing Tips
The Sins of Literature is the title of a new BBC Radio 4 production. I listened to the first of three parts on Monday (9am repeated at 9.30pm GMT) and very interesting it was. The premise is simple – get a group of best-selling novelists to discuss their opinions and experiences about what makes a good book.
This episode was ‘Thou Shalt Not Bore’ and of course, much of what was said made me cringe – yes, guilty as charged, occasionally, but … The trouble with listening to a group of writers which included Sarah Waters, Martin Amis, Deborah Moggach, Will Self, et al, is that scattered amongst the pearls of wisdom (oops – Sin Number One – a cliché) there is, inevitably, a fair amount of clever, but hollow sound bites. For example, ‘Novels should be liberating’ – what exactly does that mean and when was the last time you felt ‘liberated’ by a book? By all means, describe a ‘good’ book as one in which the novelist taps into the reader’s imagination and makes a connection which moves, angers, disturbs, or excites him/her – perhaps that is liberating, to a degree. But surely the very act of reading is a kind of freedom of the mind and I would suggest that a novelist who sets out to write a ‘liberating’ book is setting him/herself too daunting a task and may ultimately fail.
Will Self was somewhat vague and esoteric on the subject of writing, advising that novels should deal with ‘new ways of being … of approaching the form … having things to say about now …’ He was clear on one thing however – similes and metaphors should be given the boot.
Some of the contributors relied a good deal on quoting others – D. H. Lawrence, V. S. Pritchard, Mickey Spillane, and Philip Larkin, for example. I love Larkin’s view on the English novel of his day: ‘A beginning, a muddle, and an end’, and it was Martin Amis’s advice about coping with difficult ‘middles’ which made sticking with the programme for 30 minutes worthwhile. He described how, when he struggles with the middle section of a novel, he ‘gives the subconscious freedom’ to sort it out. I’ve experienced this myself. It’s amazing how leaving the writing for a day or two, sleeping on the problem, or thinking about it while walking helps you move forward.
Perhaps what irked me the most about ‘The Sins of Literature’ was the Director’s decision to intersperse the writers’ interviews with an actor reading Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing – not again – please! Enjoy that exclamation mark, Elmore. I will, of course, tune into the next episode ‘Thou Shalt Not Hide’, which I’m guessing deals with the loneliness of writing.
So, just for fun, back to the pile of books pictured above – leaving out the Kindle on top and the self-published, quirky volume on the bottom, here are some examples of writing that breaks the ‘rules’.
AVOID DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF CHARACTERS
Her blonde hair untidy, her house slippers dragging as she slouched towards the public house. A fake gold ring, and fake bangles, and loud gold earrings hitting against the redness of her lipstick, the green of her mascara, the blue of her eyes.
(Colm Toibin: Mothers and Sons, 2nd page)
NEVER OPEN A BOOK WITH WEATHER
Just past the start of the divided highway, the sky grew almost black and several enormous drops spattered the windshield. Sarah sat up straight. “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain, “ she said.
“I don’t mind a little rain,” Macon said.
(Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist, 1st page)
AVOID OPENING WITH WEATHER, AVOID METAPHORS, AVOID ADVERBS, AVOID MODIFYING ‘SAID’
I arrived in the city a few days after Christmas. It was a wet, gray morning – the sky the colour of dirty chalk; the rain a pervasive mist…
I stumbled badly when the cop in the passport booth asked me how long I’d be staying in France…
‘Two weeks,’ I said quickly …
‘How can you be “not sure”,’ he asked, ‘when you have proof?’
‘I wasn’t thinking,’ I said, sounding sheepish.
(Douglas Kennedy: The Woman in the Fifth, 1st page)
Oh dear, poor old Douglas Kennedy. He mustn’t be able to sleep at night knowing all those best-sellers are riddled with the sins of literature. I’ve almost finished Clare Boylan’s Black Baby and am finding it humorous, original, and totally unboring, despite this simile on the 2nd page: The holy women look like birds around a dry lake. Next up is Mohsin Hamid – I couldn’t find anything dodgy on the first page of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, so am quite excited about that one. I wonder will I find it liberating?