Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Once upon a time

There was a boy I sometimes played with. I can’t say that he was quite a friend. His mother was French, and I asked her one day about some translation in my homework. She couldn’t remember the word. She had lived so long in Britain that she had forgotten half her native tongue. At the same time, she had progressed only a very little way in learning English. So there she was stuck in a no man’s land of miscommunication where only the least complex thoughts could be expressed. And even then, only in the present tense.

I’m getting to that stage with the books I can bear to read. Once I devoured heaps of “glorious trash” – science fiction and fantasy written in the crudest pulp fiction style, but as long as they were good yarns with plenty of surprises and reversals they’d keep me engrossed. (I don’t mean, by the way, that all SF and fantasy is badly written; but remember Sturgeon’s Law.)

Nowadays I need more. Prose should be beautiful – not showily beautiful, necessarily, but writing is a craft and like any craft it should be executed with panache.
Virginia Woolf spoke of her anguish when “the smooth gliding of sentence after sentence” was interrupted: “Something tore, something scratched; a single word here and there flashed its torch in my eyes.” Her tastes had become refined to the point where bad writing was literally unreadable.

Why this puts me, if not in no man’s land, at least on a small island vanishing faster than the Maldives, is that there is very little modern fiction that is both elegantly written and that has a plot. There are, of course, lots of modern writers who are superb wordsmiths. I’m reading – trying to read – a novel at the moment by a very famous author, the sort who wins the Man Booker and the Nobel prize for literature. The prose is breathtaking, the imagery vivid. But there is absolutely no plot. No suspense to draw me back, no sticky situations, no real problems for the characters to face.

Modern literary authors are frightened of story. As long as they spin elegant sentences into a web of slightly hard-to-follow prose, and make sure to pour in a sackful of literary allusions, they can hold their heads up at any dinner party. But writing a narrative where – omigod – stuff actually happened could expose them to ridicule. What if they got it wrong?

In The Art of Fiction,
David Lodge said: “Novels are narratives, and narrative, whatever its medium - words, film, strip-cartoon - holds the interest of an audience by raising questions in their minds, and delaying the answers.” He goes on to quote this very short story by Leonard Michaels which is at once elegantly written and complete as a narrative with beginning, middle and end, conflict, surprise, and a theme that leaves you with something to think about. Things that every story ought to have.
I smacked my little boy. My anger was powerful. Like justice. Then I discovered no feeling in the hand. I said, "Listen, I want to explain the complexities to you." I spoke with seriousness and care, particularly of fathers. He asked, when I finished, if I wanted him to forgive me. I said yes. He said no. Like trumps.


  1. Serendipity! Just today I was getting a kick (again) out of Holly Lisle's article How To Write Suckitudinous Fiction.


    The plot is the direction of the story -- it is the way that one event leads logically into the next, with conflict creating actions that beget consequences. At this point in GLS fiction, plotlessness is almost like gravity. Unavoidable. If you have no theme, no conflict, no opinion, no hero and no villain, you can't have a plot. The second you try to create a plot, all those other essentials of good fiction are going to start beating at the door trying to get in.


    (I adore her novels, BTW. See, e.g., my comments on Talyn.)

  2. Read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott - it's beautifully written and has a cracking plot.