Tuesday, 29 September 2009

United We Stand


Last Friday I blogged about the criticism aimed at Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol.

The debate my post sparked was lively and enjoyable. I, for one, love nothing better than discussing the craft of writing with other writers.

But what became clear to me as the day wore on was that writers appear to fall into two camps. Those who believe that story is all and those that feel the style of a piece is what makes it sing.

To be fair, I’m sure most of us would say we aim for both...a riveting plot, well told.
But when the chips are down we tend to place more importance on one or the other. Do we want to be recognised for the sheer beauty of our prose or the excitement our story lines engender?

For me it is always the later. I write thrillers and more than anything else they must ...er...thrill. If they don’t, they fail.

Now this doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of effort into my work. Far from it. I agonise for weeks over the structure, trying each permutation to see which more successfully ramps up the tension than another. I try to create characters that best tell my story and carry the reader with them. These are my conduits to the public and nothing they say or do will be irrelevant to what I am trying to achieve.
Finally, I keep my writing spare. I avoid long descriptions or digressions. This takes will power. Of course I want to frolic off, telling my readership all sorts of interesting asides, but this would be pure indulgence on my part.

Before I wrote full time I was a trial lawyer. I spent over ten years hanging out in court rooms. Over time it became obvious to me who the best solicitors and barristers were. The ones who won more cases than they lost. I’m proud to say I fell into that camp.
How did we do it? We kept things simple. We focussed on the best part of our argument and never let the jury/judge lose sight of it. And we were always in forward motion.

I attempt, whenever possible to bring these rules of communication to my writing. I remind myself that they work.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is how everyone should write. There are many scribblers out there who prefer a more languid pace. And there are readers who like it too. Sometimes that is exactly what I am in the mood for and I love nothing better than savouring a delightful sentence.

Personally, I think there is room for both story led and style focussed fiction on the book shop shelves. And everything in between. I think the publishing industry remains healthier when it commissions a mixture.

Finally, I wish writers would give each other a break and stop trying to rubbish one another work. When I was a solicitor I never heard the tax bods saying the PI guys ‘couldn’t lawyer.’ The family experts didn’t lord it over the defence advocates. We accepted that we each did a different job, that each needed an entirely divergent skill set.
As a writer, I see it in exactly the same way.

14 comments:

Brian Keaney said...

I don't think writers 'rubbish each other' that much. I just think that writing means so much to us we feel viscerally about it. I know that if I read something that seems to me to be badly written it's almost as though someone has just been personally rude to me.

TOM J VOWLER said...

I love the occassional thriller, but still require it to be well written (in a technical and aesthetic sense). For me, there's only good or bad writing - regardless of the distinction between genre/style. Admitedly, I do read mostly literary fiction, but if this wasn't utterly compelling from a narrative perspective, I'd be just as critical of it as the facile DB novels. It's certainly not snobbery.

What I found confusing about the previous debate was folk saying because he sells so well, his work must be good or have some value. This is totally illogical,though; history is full of such exceptions. Didn't Mr Blobby and The Birdie Song get to number one? :)

Helen Black said...

Well, Brian, I've only been writing a few years admittedly, but I still find it shocking how flippant writers are about fellow scribblers' work.
Instead of saying it isn't to their taste, but respecting that it's still bloody hard work...they seem almost gleeful in their condemnation.
I find this a. terribly bad mannered ( I may have been dragged up on a sink estate but we were always told to watch our Ps and Qs) and b. terribly self absorbed. As if the fact that you didn't like it means no-one else should.
I mean, I loath baked beans to the point of gagging, but I fully accept they are much beloved by others.
Does that make sense?
HB x

Helen Black said...

Tom - I hear what you are saying but I think we come at this from different perspectives.
You see I don't think literature or any art has merit or value per se.
For me, art is what art does and if it speaks to people on the level it intended to, then it is by its own definition successful and as an artist I want always learn from that.
Not just in terms of sales ( though any author who pretends they don't care is surely a liar) but in terms of successful communication and successful execution of its intention.

TOM J VOWLER said...

That's a little too philosophical for me at this time of the morning, Helen - whether art has intrinsic value or not - but if we rely on a person's experience of something to judge its worth, there still has to be parameters. If someone, let's call him Dave Brown, sat at a piano and banged his fists on the keys for ten minutes and people said, Hmmm, I like that, can I buy it? - does that mean it's any good. I suppose that's your point: if someone felt that, then it would be.

On the subject of sales, the only interest I'd have in them would be to allow me to continue writing. A hundred faithful readers is all you need for this, I think some sagacious person said.

Samantha Tonge said...

But you see, Tom, I would say the Birdie Song was a work of genius in that, for whatever reason, it resonated with thousands of people. I see sales as success not in terms of the financial gain, but in terms of them meaning an author has connected with, and entertained people. And i, as a writer, can hope for no more than that. But then i only read commerical fiction, literary fic does nothing for me. Yet i understand we all have different tastes and aspirations.

I am presently reading Stephen King's 'On Writing' and he says he realized very early on that there are always going to be people out there who make you ashamed of what you write - or try to.

Bernadette said...

I agree with Helen here. Personally I don't like the Birdie song, but play it at a wedding and lots of people will get up and gleefully dance to it. That doesn't make it high art, for sure, but it does mean that, to some people, it has some worth.

Bad and good are value judgements that people seem to apply without the necessary 'in my opinion' attached. Bad writing is bad based on whose rules?

I have read prize winning books and become irritated at the, to me, quite visible stylising of the writing or the feeling that it is a pale pastiche of another writer. Yet these are books that have been lauded in the literary press.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Woo-hoo - more debate! I'm with Helen in that story, for me, is paramount. But story alone can't cut the mustard. The steps that the writer takes to tell that story are what either draws me to a book or turns me away. Sometimes, 'literary' fiction can turn me away from a book, just as overly commercial fiction can. For me it comes down to a)using the most artful(in true sense sense of the word) means to write the story you want to tell and b)an ability to (as Sam's saying) resonate with the zeitgeist: not because you're trying to, but because it happens anyway, which is a matter of grace and sychronicity. Every book - like every painting, every pot, every song, every garden - has its unique identity. A writer can only be as true to this as she/he can.
Susiex

CarolineG said...

I agree that we should be supportive of each other - lordy knows, it's hard enough.
I echo what Tom says there with regard to good or bad transcending style. But one thing I often feel puzzled by is this when people talk about their preferences: don't others out there almost see reading as a form of nourishment? So sometimes you crave something cordon bleu and other times all you want is a fish finger sandwich?
I devour so many books that variety is really important to me. I dunno...maybe I'm weird!

Paul Lamb said...

Honestly, I'll take good writing over plot any day (not that these are mutually exclusive). Some of the most memorable stories I've read didn't have much plot at all but evoked something about being human because of the way they were told. In Jim Crace's novel Being Dead the two main characters are dead and do nothing at all (of course), yet years later I still think about that book while many plot driven stories I've read are as ephemeral as mist.
I realize that this is idiosyncratic; there is no right or wrong. I've always said that half the story is in the telling.

Fionnuala Kearney said...

I run a book club and am known to be pretty vocal about plot holes, 'bad writing' and two dimensional characters. However, I'm more than aware that what I may like, others may hate and vice versa and I also admire anyone's hard work at getting into print - especially nowadays.
I have to confess the last thing I want to do when I'm reading a book is think about its technical structure in great detail. It may cross my mind momentarily but its certainly not something I dwell on assuming I'm lost in the story. If the story's missing, then I can drone on about lack of absolutley everything if allowed floor space. For me it's story first - characters I care about - hopefully accompanied by sensible structure, pace, sense of place etc.

Helen Black said...

Paul - I think your comment illustrates why the publishing industry needs to ensure they put lots of different types of novels out there.
Readers have varying tastes which cannot be accomodated by only putting a certain sort of book on the shelves.
I happen to write very commercial stuff but it seems very obvious to me that any business model that only includes commercial books will flounder at some point.

Brian Keaney said...

I have to say, Helen, that in my experience most writers are very supportive of other writers. But one wouldn't want them to go around blandly offering endorsements of each other like a political party conference before an election. We take our job seriously and part of that job involves responding to writing as well as producing one's own writing. Last week you compared writers' behaviour unfavourably to that of lawyers but we're not really like lawyers, are we? Writing is more than a profession.

RosyB said...

Surely the (somewhat negative) focus on these big billionaire writers from other writers is because they dominate things quite so much and the media is obsessed with them creating a snowball effect that means everyone reads and buys and buys and reads.

I mean even in their criticism - the broadsheets are giving out huge amounts of space to the same old candidates who (as you say Helen) don't need it because they already sell in truckloads. Meanwhile indy debuts (or even any debuts!) struggled to get reviewed at all.

It's the extremity of it all. And when you read about how most of these big sellers are being sold as loss leaders...then it is even more mystifying. The only people gaining from this seems to be the supermarkets.

I think it is a very "capitalism solves everything" kind of argument you seem to be making here. But capitalism does not necessarily pick out the best product. Hence big companies specialising in - say -cleaning products can buy their way into other markets that they don't have the best product in. And people are not being equally exposed to the products in that part of the market to even test which is the most inherently popular (as opposed to buzz popular). Just as there are only certain brands visible on the supermarket shelves, so there are only some books truly visible to the consumer.

I think this is the frustration that writers feel.

If you personally say you don't value writing or think it has any intrinsic value then I think that's a shame.

I don't look down my nose at any writer. But everyone is entitled to say what they think is good or bad, worth aiming for or not. It's part of a healthy culture and part of writers working hard to try and realise their own thing (and working out what is important to them.)

As for popularity and sales being the only marker...well there have been plenty of propagandists over the years who "spoke" to the people and created very "popular" but abhorrent messages. Is the mass idea always the best one? No. Is crowd mentality always the way to go? I don't think so.