Posts Tagged Iain Banks
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.
At school, I wrote science fiction stories because it made my teachers supremely annoyed. That probably set me up well for my attempts to get an agent or a publisher, when I annoyed with stories that bent and mixed genres. And why not, when it was good enough for Atwood, Banks and Ballard? And the magic realists?
Today I’m at the blog of Jane Davis, one of my co-writers in the Outside The Box collection, answering questions about what I write and why, and how self-publishing began for me as a last resort and became the most positive step I’d ever taken. How times change, you might say – but we also discuss whether self-publishers are truly gaining more legitimacy or whether there is further to go. I think the latter. There are still barriers and indie authors are still treated discourteously.
Did I really use the word ‘discourteously’? I did. Do come over.
I love a good party. Anyone might collide and anything might start. Or finish. A party is fate’s way of throwing a die.
Which makes them perfect for a story.
For some reason, a dinner party scene doesn’t do it for me. Of course it can throw folks together, as randomly as you please. But a dinner party is more difficult to choreograph, as most of the action takes place around one table, and juggling a sixsome or eightsome is tricky on the page. Most of the time I find excuses to split them up, sending them out to the kitchen to flatten the soufflé, or outside to have a smoke.
A party, though, comes alive on the page more naturally. Its loose informality means you can drift through a succession of intimate groups or pull back for a long shot. You can use montage to clip a conversation of everything but the most startling line. Or show that somebody is a crashing bore without boring the reader. You can shuffle strangers around with very little contrivance.
What parties can do in a story
Parties might be a focal point for society, as in Jane Austen’s novels, when they are often the only times that characters might meet.
Jilly Cooper has rounded off a good number of novels with a rousing gathering, letting the characters bash out their differences under the special conditions a party allows.
A party can also kick off a novel rather well. Iain Banks used a party early in The Crow Road to give a sense of reunion among his characters – and ended the sequence on a poignant note as the MC saw the girl he loved with another guy. Writing as his M alter ego, he used a party early on in one of his Culture books to set up his world.
You might start with a celebration and have it end in tragedy or outrage – as in Sleeping Beauty. The contrast will make the tragedy all the stronger.
Most of the plot of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim comes from a party the MC is forced to attend at his new boss’s house. The scrapes he gets into set the rest of the book in motion.
A party can have an internalising function too. I used a party scene in My Memories of a Future Life to show the character trying to keep up with her old world after a personal disaster, pretending everything was all right. We can see it isn’t. Later in the book, she goes to another party, held by the friends of a character she hopes to find out more about. The surreal atmosphere reflects her internal state as her life takes another swerve. (Two parties may seem heavy going for one book but I atoned in Life Form 3 where there were no parties at all.)
My rules for a good party
So we’ve established that parties can give you hours of story fun. But like the real thing, they take a bit of organisation. Here are my rules for making your party go with a swing:
1 A party sequence needs a point of view. It could be one POV character or an omniscient camera, but keep it consistent. Don’t start as one and end as another.
2 When lingering on groups of people, keep to small numbers. It’s extremely hard for the reader to keep track of more than three people foregrounded at a time, and some writers never have more than two. Although you may like that ensemble scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are nattering in a café, it does not translate well to the page.
3 Keep letting the camera look up to take in what others are doing and to demonstrate that there are more people there besides the ones you’re looking at.
4 If you have a tense exchange, don’t hurry away from it too fast because you need to get round to the other people too. Lock the characters in the bathroom together if necessary so that they can take their time.
Thank you, Oddsock, for the picture. And in other news, My Memories of a Future Life will be available on Kindle soon, so that will be an excuse for a party too…
How have you used parties in your fiction? What purpose did they serve in the story? Which writers give the best parties? Share your examples in the comments!
Stories within stories can go badly wrong. The reader knows it is not ‘true’. Yes, fiction isn’t true anyway, but the reader allows that because they bought into it when they opened the book. But they didn’t necessarily agree to read the characters’ fiction, or spend long periods in their dream worlds. The reader needs to be connected securely with the other world and want to go there.
Susan, who is comfortably married with 2 children and a nice home, is sent a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. When they split up decades ago, he was a discontented drifter making incompetent attempts to be creative. Now he comes out of the blue and asks Susan to read his novel because she was ‘always his best critic’. Susan feels awkward about it – and not just because she’s worried the book will be awful. There’s difficult history between them – she feels complicated and guilty – and she’s dreading what she’ll find in the novel.
So, by the time we get to this novel within a novel, we’re curious. We want to see if it will be bad – but we’re not too worried about that because the (real-life) author has been assured and entertaining so far. And also we’ve become connected to Susan’s reactions. We have inklings that there is an older, raw Susan in dread of being woken. So we are eager to see what is in Edward’s book and how she reacts.
So the first rule of stories within stories is this: give us something we want to find.
When do you introduce it? As soon as you like, so long as you tick those boxes.
You may not need to wait very long. Tony and Susan has a prologue and a short first chapter and we’re into the book within the book. (Yes, a prologue. This writer is happy-slapping several writing taboos – and getting away with it.)
Another of my favourite books with several tiers of fictionality is The Bridge by Iain Banks. The Bridge starts with a man trapped behind the wheel of his crashed car, in pain and terrified. A mere two pages and we are into a parallel fantasy world which is his consciousness while he is in a coma. In the coma world are clues that anchor us to the real-world scene we’ve just read. Some random delirium words – ‘the dark station’ – become the first line of the coma world. There are other details too – a strange, O-shaped bruise on the man’s chest, which has given him his coma-world name, and which we know was from impact with the steering wheel. (Although the book does get flabby after a while, with dream sequences run to briar…)
Second rule of stories within stories
Give us details that anchor us and help us understand what we’re seeing. Another master-stroke about Banks’s coma-world is its setting on a giant, neverending bridge – the Forth Bridge, where the accident happened.
Here’s the third rule of stories within stories
Make both stories satisfying. Tony and Susan’s story within the story is a harrowing thriller, with every bit as much tension as the story around it. Often I see manuscripts where the writer is more interested in one strand than the other. It’s often tricky to make sure the crescendos complement each other, but, hey, you knew it would be a challenge,
Make both stories affect each other. So the characters have to be changed not only by what they are doing in the real world, but what is happening to them in the other one. It all needs to knit together to make something bigger than both stories separately – otherwise why have them in one book at all?
Again, Tony and Susan has it nailed, and in rather an interesting way. The Tony part (Tony is the fictional MC) is a story of literal, bloody revenge. The Susan part is about psychological revenge. Edward (the writer) knows exactly how to push Susan’s buttons and prod her insecurities. Because of what Edward is making Tony go through, he’s forcing her to have a relationship with her again, through the book, because he knows he’s making her react. That’s all very uncomfortable.
Do you have any rules for writing stories within stories? Do you have any favourite novels – or films – that do this particularly well? (Thank you THQ Insider for the picture)