Sunday, 29 August 2010

What makes a good novel?

or

Should we fire the canon?

In Nancy Lamb's informative The Art and Craft of Storytelling, she gives the would-be author a plethora of hints, tips and rules on how to create readable prose; and more imporantly publishable, readable prose. One of her tips is not to overdo the poetic description, that it makes the reader bored/tired/liable to close the book never to open it again. I'm with Nancy on this, decriptive prose has its place - in my mind interjected amongst the action. So my question is, How come so many of the literary classics are filled with seemingly endless passages of description?

I can recall the groan I emitted, almost as long as the passage itself, when I first encountered D. H. Lawrence's penchant for in-depth description in The Rainbow. Lawrence not only painted the scene he showed you every stroke of the brush. Tedious. If Nancy had been Lawrence's editor I would probably have been saved the agonising hours ploughing from cover to cover. That is not to say that the premise and themes in The Rainbow are not good stuff, it would have been a marvellous read if he had dispensed with the excess of adjectives, metaphors and smilies. I like a well-placed metaphor as much as the next man, but used sparingly.

Another author of classics fame that I struggle to enjoy is Charles Dickens. One of his novels is a cracking read, A Tale of Two Cities, but who amongst you has suffered the interminable Dombey and Son? This novel was one of the set books for my degree and I am ashamed to admit I didn't finish it. I didn't make it to the mid-point and even that was a chore. Dickens breaks a number of the 'rules' of good storytelling (and these aren't just Nancy's rules):
  • He introduces coincidences in order to make his story work
  • A number of his characters are idealised and he inserts some highly sentimental scenes
  • He is didactic -he puts his morals into the plot and mouths of his characters
I should mention he also helped create some of the rules. A number of Dickens' works were intiially serialised and so his ability to create suspense, by ending a chapter mid-scene, is a trick used by many modern day authors.

This may sound like an un-prompted attack on two of Britain's revered authors, but in truth I am questioning whether the literary canon needs a little revision (and I haven't even mentioned Shakespeare - he is for a whole separate series of rambling and rants); or perhaps that the methods used by some of these writers be honestly critiqued rather than slavishly accepted as good writing. As with all things, the passage of time renders some works obsolete or requires others to be re-appraised. Perhaps the Victorians and early twentieth century readers enjoyed coincidence and acres of description, but the modern reader tends not to; so lets consider and evaluate the canon from a fresh perspective, the modern view-point with an open mind.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

To blank or not to blank

A reader's letter in one of the writing magazines I get was lamenting the fact that the magazine had printed the word 'fuck' in full when printing a winning story. Apparently this lady could not read any further in this story having come across the word in full. I think, though she did not admit as much, that she was OUTRAGED! The offending word should have been blanked out so as not to offend according to Outraged Reader. Apparently, f**k is not offensive and she would have been able to read on.

Really?

Whilst one should not be uber-critical of others' standards, one has to wonder how this lady reads. When she comes across f**k in a piece of writing what does she say in her head? 'Fred thought, Eff star star kay that!' ? No, I very much think she reads the word in her head just as it is spoken.

The offended lady also questioned why the word had to be used at all, apparently there are millions of words that could be used instead. I question that. What word has quite the same emphasis as fuck? The hard sounding consonants in a single syllable make it a very forceful word, which in the right context is, I think, fine. Over-use of it does lessen its strength and shock value but it does have its place. It has been around for ages after all.

Many esteemed writers have used it over hundreds of years; it is not a purely modern phenomenon as this lady would have us believe. This lady (and now I AM being uber-critical) does not move in a circle of society that uses this word. Goodness me, where does she live? I have a sneaking suspicion that people may not use this vulgar term in her presence but once she has left a room there may be a few thinking, 'Thank fuck for that!'

I've just been struck by another thought. Maybe she substitutes a word - fork perhaps? Fork would be a brilliant replacement; it sounds incredibly similar and has that emphasis I mentioned earlier. I wonder what we could substitute for the 'c' word?


(After I had put pen to paper, literally, a similar article was published in the The Times. Great minds and all that.)
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