Monday, 12 October 2009

Good Story Tellers vs Good Writers – will they ever be reconciled?

A little musing I wrote a few weeks ago but couldn't find a home for:

The six-year wait is over. The fanfare has faded. The circus has left town and bookshelves across the nation heave with the latest offering from Mr Dan Brown.

The Lost Symbol is his first book since The Da Vinci Code. Within hours of its publication 300,000 copies were sold in the UK alone, more than any other hardback novel for adults since Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press. Of the six and a half million copies printed, a million have been bought worldwide already. The e-book sales have broken yet more records and the pirates were hard at work offering hooky copies just a day after it was launched. So surely all those people handing over their hard earned credit crunch cash can’t be wrong, it must be brilliant mustn’t it?

Well actually no. It’s rubbish. It’s poorly written, cast-iron clunky and with more italicised words to stress the really important bits in case you miss them than I’ve ever seen used in a single book. In short it’s has all the verve, grace and charm of a tractor, making it to literature what Massey Ferguson is to Ossetra caviar, utterly unrelated. If great writing could be likened to a gazelle, this is an ass and Brown’s fans will absolutely love it because he gives them all they’ve ever wanted from him. And that is a corking story.

I must confess that despite my innate snobbery and the offence to any critical sensibilities I may possess part of me enjoys what Brown and his ilk write. Jeffery Archer’s Kane and Abel is for me an example of masterful story telling. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Archer was one of the great storytellers of the late 20th century and I offer up as proof his collection of short stories A Quiver Full of Arrows. It’s just a shame that it’s so badly written. Another is Stieg Larsson who was a storytelling genius. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is magnificent – we shall perhaps gloss over the original title, which translates as Men Who Hate Women - the characters he created, the journeys he takes us on are unforgettable. But to tell the story he uses words as pile drivers, smashing the reader over the head to better drive it home. These authors are the Thors rather than the Freyas, Vulcan not Venus; the writers for whom the story is all and on whom the artistry of language is lost or at least temporarily misplaced.

And herein lies the rub. It’s the old Manichaean divide. Those authors that win the prizes yearn for the sales and those that achieve the sales wonder why they never get the prizes. It would be that never the twain shall meet but there is, on the micrometer thin dividing line between the two camps, that rare breed of authors that can do both; tell a great story and use language as art to do so rather than merely using words like the pieces of an IKEA flat pack, to be loosely bolted together to form something that looks like literature. Those few, win the awards and sell the copies but, boy are they few.

The corollary is that there are some writers whose prose is so beautiful, so a pointe; they are such gifted surgeons of the lexicon that you would entrust them with your last vowel. But they can’t tell a story for toffee. Or to be more precise they once told a good story so well that they set the bar too high for themselves and could never quite reach that dizzying height again. The one-book-wonders. Like bands whose first albums harness all the vivid teenage, experiencing-life-for-the-first-time energy, angst, love and hate, and sell many millions but then disappear when the second album turns out to be a squib, the energy having all been used up. One feels sympathy for such authors and often loyalty. We buy the books and read them, but more in hope than expectation, for we know the worst of it. They will write lovely prose for the rest of their lives but they will forever be trapped as the authors without a story.

So while it is possible to be a master storyteller and a good writer it’s also rare. Perhaps we expect too much. After all we wouldn’t expect a street fiddler to be able to play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor so beautifully that it bring tears to our eyes but we’ll happily throw some coins in his violin case and thoroughly enjoy his rendition of something by the Gypsy Kings.

Perhaps that is ultimately Mr Brown’s fate, that of an author-busker. For having read his latest volume I’ve worked out why he’s so popular, it’s that he makes stupid people feel intelligent, at that he’s a bleedin’ genius. Indeed ‘volume’ is a good word for his work as it signifies the space his writing takes up with no reference to mass; no artistic heft there, no depth to his work you see, no gravitas. But he does have a very large violin case for all the coin he’s collected so that’s alright then.




liz fenwick said...

Exactly :-)

Bland Spice said...

Very nicely worded.

Here, in India, we have another excuse. The successful authors (mostly middle-aged investment bankers who know the right people in the media and whose profiles on the jacket cover list their pedigrees down to the GPAs) cite that most Indians are not confident in the tongue and hence a little bit of condescension is required from their bit – implying, of course, that if suddenly the standard of the readers was raised to that of appreciating McEwan, they, the authors, would raise their level of writing likewise.

I will follow your blog from here. Writing is my late-discovered passion.

LibraDoodle said...

Well a very warm welcome to you welcome Bland Spice and thank you for your comment. I can't help but feel that if all readers appreciated McEwan then the world would be a yet better place! Either way it's a lovely idea and one that I'm sure Ian would heartily approve of!