Posts Tagged John Steinbeck

Storytelling in literary fiction: let’s discuss

New_dress_DSC09958There’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.’

Stop, please

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?

Brideshead Re-revisited

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.

Thanks for the pic “New dress DSC09958” by Владимир Шеляпин – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, the floor is yours.

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I name this book… tips for choosing a good title

3919477288_8ff29f2eda_oFor every manuscript I see with a head-turning title, there’s another with a title that’s limp, unassertive and would never tempt a reader to look closer. Or a title that’s too tricky to remember.
I had a great discussion about this recently with Peter Snell (you know, from Barton’s Bookshop) in our show for Surrey Hills Radio (find it here, on show number 10) and I thought it might be fun to elaborate on it further.

Numbers are powerful
For non-fiction, you might add a sense of value by putting a number in your title. 50 Tips To Help You Build A House sounds like it offers far more than just Tips To Help You Build A House. Numbers also create a sense of insider knowledge, that an expert has chosen just the tips you need and discarded the others. When Peter and I recorded the show in the bookshop, we’d set up the microphone in the countryside section, where there were plenty of titles like 100 Finest Country Houses. One book might have country houses, but the 100 Finest sounds more persuasive. Suppose another book of country houses misses out the best ones?
Tip: a non-fiction title should sound authoritative, assertive.
For fiction, numbers can add a sense of frisson, a specific tipping point – Catch-22, Station Eleven, Fahrenheit 451. They seem to say ‘at this moment or place, or with this concept, something significant happens’. (And look at the startling oddness of Fahrenheit 451. The unconventional word order stirs up a sense of disturbance. Ray Bradbury’s titles all have this quality.) 1984 is a clever shuffling of the date of the novel’s publication. We can imagine how sinister it must have seemed in 1948. This will be us, it seems to say. Come and see. (Is anybody currently writing 2041?) Anthony Burgess wrote a tribute to Orwell’s novel and, naturally, called it 1985.
Tip: numbers are good for attracting attention.

‘One’ is special
In our discussion, Peter mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and took us in a new direction. This title suggests a person on their own, the one who dared to go against the crowd. It conjures up a character. It also seems to speak for all of us while also being about one individual.
Continuing the power of One, David Nicholls’s One Day sounds momentous; simple yet significant. It’s also a common phrase, with overtones of hope and dreams.
And how about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? (Bafflingly, its original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women. Perhaps a Swedish-speaker could explain if the original has a special quality that makes up for the apparent blandness.)
Tip: consider the bold and emblematic individual, time or event.

What’s in a name?
We like a sense of a character in a title. Names can conjure this up, but they might be hard to remember, especially if the name is used in isolation. If you read a post or a feature about a novel called Mary would it stick in your mind so you could find it later? Memorable titles will set up a little more. A Prayer for Owen Meany: why does Owen need to be prayed for? Or they might set a tone of irony – The Book of Dave. Or grab attention with a clever phrase – Memento Nora. The Rosie Project. Each Harry Potter book had a promise of adventure – The Philosopher’s Stone, The Deathly Hallows. (Also she was writing a series.  Harry 2, Pottered About Some More, might not have done the trick.)
Tip: if using a name, add something to create a sense of curiosity.

Made-up words, or words that are difficult to pronounce
Years ago, I made this mistake with my first novel. I set my heart on calling it Xeching, after the meditative treatment performed by characters in the future part of the book. It seemed to carry resonance, but only if you knew what it was, of course. Agents pointed out that it was too hard to remember, not to mention incomprehensible. It’s perhaps the absolute showcase of a disastrous title – it means very little and is hard to spell. (I was thinking with my designer head, imagining it in a big, intriguing font on the cover.)
Your unwise title may seem to have many points in its favour. But will this meaning be apparent to somebody happening on your book for the first time?
You might create a striking effect, though, by mis-spelling a word, if the mis-spelling is easy to remember. A novel about murders in the cyber-age might be called Killr.
Tip: tricky spellings and made-up words are hard to ask for in bookshops and difficult to find in online searches. And that’s assuming they’re remembered at all.

Personality of the book
Some titles snare us with a sense of personality. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. Kill The Poor by Lemony Snicket (itself an eye-catching nom de plume). Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Instability is good
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall carries a promise – something must be done before time runs out. Look at the tension in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is potent with downfall. New twists on famous quotes or concepts are easy for readers to remember.

Words that suit the genre
In our radio discussion, Peter remarked that certain words seem to embody the appeal of a genre – and mentioned angels, demons. (Though I threw a spanner in the works by mentioning Marian Keyes’s Angels, which is chick-lit. Or did I throw A Spaniard In The Works like John Lennon?)
The treatment of the title also tells the reader a lot. My friend David Penny is preparing to publish his historical crime novel, Breaker of Bones. I saw a conversation about it on Facebook where another friend (who didn’t know Penny’s work) asked why it wasn’t Bone Breaker. That would be an entirely different kind of novel.
Tip: look up genres on Amazon and on Goodreads lists to see if there are words and title styles you should consider.

Sum up a feeling – how memorable is it?
The least successful titles I see are when the author is trying to sum up a feeling in the book. These often become generalised and vague. Finding The Answer. The Past Returns. All My Tomorrows. Husband Dave came up with clever suggestion here. If you think of a possible title, tell it to your friends. Then, a week later, ask them if they can remember it. (Try to pick the friends who don’t have superhuman powers of recall.)
The Mountains Novel (now Ever Rest) might have been christened Comeback. This certainly fitted in some ways with the story. It was pithy. However, when I googled, I found reams of novels called Comeback, many of them in the crime genre – a rather misleading flavour.
Not only that, I couldn’t remember Comeback. I simply couldn’t. In my mind, it became Countdown, though lord knows why. If it couldn’t stick for me, it certainly wouldn’t for a reader. Anyway, Ever Rest suits its mood far better.
On the show, Peter Snell added the bookseller’s perspective on commonly used titles. It’s a right royal pain to find the book the customer actually wants.
Tip: Once you’ve identified a feeling or theme you might highlight in a title, you can brainstorm strong, striking and emotive words for it.

Again, how memorable?
If your name is well known, you don’t have to try that hard with the title. Readers know to look for the next book by you. They’re more likely to find you by searching for your name, not your book title. On the show we discussed how the fantasy author Jack Vance (whose work I love) has many titles that are little more than labels (The Planet of Adventure, Trullion).
Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte all got away with name-titles (Rebecca, Emma, Jane Eyre). But they were writing in less competitive times. Would Lewis Carroll have got very far if he’d published Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland today?

Thanks for the pic Lisby

Oh, and speaking of titles with a number

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Have you any tips to share on coming up with titles? Do you find it difficult? If you have decided on a title, what others did you consider? How did you make the choice and why?

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Writers, can you answer this question?

books 0022What’s your favourite book?

It seems a simple thing to consider. Unless you’re me.

It’s on my mind because of a film I saw recently, where a couple of characters who were novelists singled out an all-time favourite work of fiction.

But… but… but…. (I informed the screen) that’s not how the writer’s mind works. And while we’re at it, novelists can’t usually quit the day job and they don’t automatically get launches at the London Book Fair.

But back to the original question. I don’t have one favourite book. I have hundreds. If I’m asked what books I’d take to a deserted island, I’d have to make up a fictitious compilation volume that runs to many roomfuls.

I’m aware I might be taking this too literally, but I think it’s an illumination of how a writer’s mind works, how we use what we read – and indeed how we choose it.

Non-creative people rarely understand this, but to a writer, the whole world is an aquarium. We are not spectators, we’re on a life mission to make stuff. Everything is a potential teacher or a books 0012trigger. We can’t turn it off. Anything might be significant and we might end up bonding with a book for the oddest reasons. One publication I’d put in my very enormous favourites compilation isn’t even a published book. It’s the colour chart of the paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball. The names of the paints (Clunch, Elephant’s Breath, James White) give me a world of delight.

Indeed I bet most writers have books they wouldn’t put on their public Goodreads profile because they don’t reflect their ‘tastes’, yet they keep them close at hand. When I’m researching ways to handle an idea I’m just as likely to seek out novels that treated it badly or ruined it, because I need to discover what mistakes were made.

And if the question is merely intended to discover what we read for fun, it’s daft to ask if I liked East of Eden better than Rebecca. You might as well ask me to make a league table of my friends. But perhaps that’s just me.

When someone asks you to name your favourite book, what’s your answer? And how do you choose books to help with your WIP?

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