Posts Tagged Dave Morris
There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.
That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .
An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).
Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?
When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.
Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:
Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.
Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.
But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.
And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.
The conflagration spread to Twitter
And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’
It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?
It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.
Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?
This is something, as writers, we must avoid.
I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.
Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.
We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?
Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.
Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.
Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.
So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?
Again, I’ll let Dave speak:
In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.
Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’
So, er, what?
I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.
Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.
So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.
Anyway, the floor is yours.
Last week Dave had a piece in the Huffington Post about the day his father took him, age 6, to meet a Dalek at the BBC, and then to watch Doctor Who being filmed. That evening we dug out the DVD of the old black and white story he saw filmed all those years ago.
More riveting than that story, though, was a feature on the extras about how the series was originally devised – the forms it might have taken and how much refining it took to get to its distinctive shape. On and off, inventing Doctor Who took about a year.
1 A sci-fi story about telepaths or time travellers, or a time-travelling police force, or scientific troubleshooters keeping experiments under control for political or humanitarian reasons
2 Characters are a handsome young male hero (Cliff), a well-dressed heroine age 30+ (Lola), a maturer man with a character ‘twist’ (no name yet). They are scientists with different skills operating from an HQ with a lab and a Sherlock Holmes-ish office where they interview people who need their help.
3 Scrap that, make Cliff and Lola teachers, and add a teenage pupil (Biddy) to get into trouble and make mistakes. Cliff is a hunk, because everyone likes a hunk. Maturer man is now 650 years old and called the Doctor. Their HQ is a time machine the Doctor has stolen from his people, an advanced civilisation on a distant planet.
4 Hey, what if the Doctor was a villain who wanted to travel back to the perfect time in history and stop the future happening…? (Stroke your chin now)
5 Hey, let’s call Biddy Susan and make her alien royalty. And Lola is called Barbara. Cliff is called Ian and he’s not so much of a hunk, more an average guy.
6 Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter. And the Doctor’s a mysterious time traveller in an unreliable machine that disguises itself to blend in with its surroundings. Ian and Barbara don’t trust him, but they’re stuck in his ship. Conflict…. nice!
7 The ship won’t disguise itself. The series will be educational.
8 No, it won’t be educational, that sounds dreary and condescending. As you were.
We all do this
As those BBC dudes wrangled Doctor Who out of infinite possibilities, the questions they tackled were the questions all writers grapple with –
- who might we identify with?
- what kind of story do we want it to be?
- which of our ideas are in tune with that and which are derailing it?
- what makes it fit in its genre (and therefore the audience) and what makes it distinctive? Are any vital ingredients missing or misused?
- what will make it distinctive enough and allow us to take it in a new direction?
- what will cause conflict and drama?
- does it have enough mileage – for a whole novel or a whole series?
Few ideas descend fully formed on a lightning bolt. All the writers I know spend time banging heads with their ideas, fiddling with prototypes that are discarded and even forgotten. Our stories start as experiments and hunches – and when you think about it like that it seems so magical and random.
Almost as magical as a grainy production still from nearly 50 years ago, where there might just be a small wonder-struck face.
Thanks for the pic Machernucha
‘Keep this anecdote,’ I said. ‘Write it down.’
‘Pah it’s just a dream,’ she said. ‘I was also inspired by this strange thing that happened to a friend…’
‘Write that down too,’ I said.
She thought I was mad, and no doubt you do too. But there will come a time when you will be scratching for things to say about your book and you need something beyond a story summary or a sketch of your main characters.
I first realised this years ago at a friend’s book launch. I’d just finished My Memories of a Future Life and I got chatting to a publisher. I gave my prepared spiel and he nodded eagerly, wanting more. I’d run out of pitch, so I bumbled on about my favourite bits, aware that I was getting obscure, but I was so mired in the book I couldn’t see it as an outsider. What I needed was a crisp anecdote or two to keep him relating to it – perhaps about its influences or what inspired it. (He still asked to see it, though, so no harm done.)
Publicity is a long game of guest posts, interviews and maybe personal appearances. (At the moment, Dave is gearing up for the launch of his Frankenstein book app, and is grappling with interview questions. ‘What on earth do I tell all these people?’ he frequently says to me. ‘I thought it was enough to just write the story.’)
Blah blah blah
There’s only so much you can say about the novel without giving spoilers. And you’re going to be asked the same questions time and again about the writing of it, but that doesn’t mean you have to give the same answers. In fact, you shouldn’t. In each case you might reach a new audience, but the chances are, readers will see you several times before they decide to check you out. The more different – but congruent – stories you can tell about your book, the richer it will seem and the more ways you have to reel readers in. And the less you’ll bore everyone, including yourself.
And people who like stories also like stories about stories. I recently added an ‘inspired by’ anecdote to my Amazon listing for My Memories of a Future Life and sales have trebled. This experimental sample of just one seems to prove somethingorother.
The very best are specific but don’t give too much away. It could be
- novels that influenced it
- favourite fictional characters that spurred you to write it
- real-life experiences that fed into it – anything that gives you an insider view of the subject or events
- real-life people who inspired it or helped with research – although be careful of libel
- issues the novel raises
Or it could be something left field, like my series The Undercover Soundtrack on the red blog, where writers tell a tale about their book in the context of music that inspired them while writing.
But thinking of all this stuff – unless someone gives you a specific exercise like my Undercover Soundtracks – is time consuming. And, depending on how complex your novel is, you may not be able to name all its influences at the drop of a hat. I’m still becoming aware of forgotten seeds for both of mine. They emerge by chance in conversations, revisited films and novels I dimly remember. Now I realise I might have a use for these insights, every time I stumble on another, I write it down.
Keep your stories about your stories. You’ll be surprised how easily they’ll slip your mind, but they’re as useful to you as the ideas in the actual novel itself. And you’ll never have enough.
Thanks for the pic Ben Chau
Do you have a tale about your novel? If you can tell it briefly, the floor is yours…
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I just got Twitterviewed – interviewed on Twitter, asked enormous questions to which I had a titchy 140 characters to reply.
Twitterviews are the brainchild of Novel Publicity, which has a helpful blog and a website that offers marketing services to authors. You can find out more about Twitterviews here, including how to request one for your book or as part of your blog tour.
But get in training to be snappy – I was asked all the big questions – why I write, what Nail Your Novel is, what my novels on submission are about … answers on a postage-stamp…
Also, the other half of the Morris writing clan has been out and about in interviewworld today. If anyone’s curious about Husband Dave, he just did a considerably less squeezed, but lovely interview at Dorothy Dreyer’s We Do Write.