Monday, 27 February 2017


     '... in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be 
    original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence 
    how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become 
    original without ever having noticed it.'                                                                                                                                                    - C.S. Lewis

Something I find particularly frustrating is those who enshrine the author's craft in mystique. They speak or write in hushed tones about 'finding your voice', 'literary values', 'developing style'. It's all, if you will forgive the expression, so much crap. Did Dickens go in anxious search of his 'voice'? Did Hardy worry himself sick about being 'literary'? Did Dashiell Hammitt sit up all night reading books about 'style'? Hemmingway, Jane Austen, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Harper Lee, Stephen King - whoever your favourite author is, if you could ask his/her advice my guess is that it would probably come down to the old adage, 'Keep It Simple, Stupid'. For my money, the reverse is also true: authors obsessed with style are an abomination. If I am reading a book and find myself stopping every few paragraphs to admire a telling metaphor or a neat turn of phrase, I'm very unlikely to persevere to the end. It is obvious that the writer is more interested in impressing me with his/her cleverness than in enthralling me with a story or persuading me with an argument.
   'Le style c'est l'homme m
ême' ('style is the man himself') - so the Enlightenment writer, George-Louis Leclerc, famously observed. He exalted the virtue of expression, because when a writer fixes his mind on conveying what he truly thinks or feels he is fulfilling his function. The author puts him/herself on paper. Does that mean that he/she is impervious to all that has been written before? Obviously not. You and I are in love with the same promiscuous mistress - 'words'. We are enraptured by them. We spend all the time we can in their company. They go into the ongoing creation of who we are and it is who we are that ends up on the printed page - as long as we don't allow ourselves to get sidetracked by the demon 'Literary taste'.
   Our readers relate to us, just as people in our everyday lives relate to us. Some become firm friends. Some remain mere acquaintances. Some may hate us. C'est la vie! Most reader reviews of my historical novels are kind enough to comment that they are fluently written but one disgruntled Amazon reviewer stated that reading one of my stories was like 'wading through treacle'. 'You can please some of the people all of the time'... And just as, in the real world, people usually see through us pretty quickly if we pretend to be what we are not, so it is a mistake in our books to affect a 'literary' persona. The same is true if we put on a 'commercial' front - i.e. writing in a way we think will sell. When a new novel becomes an overnight success some hopeful writers are tempted to copy it. Be warned - bandwagons are unstable vehicles. It's very difficult to ride to fame and fortune on someone else's success. There are, of course, niche markets (about which I'll have more to say under 'N is for Niche Market'). Fans of period romance, mean-streets crime, military history and other genres are always on the lookout for new authors. But discerning readers expect newbies to be experts in the field and to have something fresh to say. Once they've sussed that we're mere hangers-on we'll have lost them for all time - no matter how brilliant our next book is.
   A brief word about those poseurs extraordinaires, the literary critics, self-appointed 'experts' who claim to be able to detect what is and is not 'literature'. According to the OED base definition all books are literature because they are written (Latin littera = 'letter'). There is no dividing line between what is 'literary writing' and 'non-literary' writing. There are well-written books and badly written books and a wide range in between. Whereabouts on the spectrum any particular work is located comes down entirely to personal preference. No-one - but no-one - is going to tell me what is or is not a good book. Most of us would doubtless agree in identifying the brilliant and the rubbishy offerings but that would still leave opinions on the vast majority of books divided.
   What that comes down to for us writers is that if we write simply from the heart and from the head we will connect with some readers. They may be many; they may be few. Either way we will have justified our existence.
   Next time:    Literary agents
* * * * *

No comments:

Post a Comment