Saturday, October 11, 2008

Good writing, bad writing

Some years ago I found myself being called upon to say what I thought good writing was. I ended up choosing a paragraph from near the beginning of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and doing a good old-fashioned close-reading number on it, saying exactly what I thought was good about it and why. I chose it because when I'd first read it, every little hair on the back of my neck stood up, and the body test is as good as any other when you're thinking about art (best seminar paper title I've ever seen: 'If It's Crap, Why Do I Cry?').

This also works in the other direction. Sometimes, not often but even once is too damned often in terms of the time it wastes, I find myself thirty or forty pages into one of my books for review, my 'work' books, when I am alerted by actual bodily sensations to the fact that I am not going to be able to go on.

Probably about half of the books I receive for review, maybe a bit more, would come into the category of popular fiction, 'popular' in the sense of 'not literary fiction' or 'genre fiction' or whatever. Some of the more high-minded of my friends wonder, I think, though they are rarely tactless enough to say so, how I can bear to read some of this stuff. They are the same mates who are sniffy about commercial television and I think the impulse is the same.

The answer is that I read and write and think about fiction for a living and have always done so. It is my profession. I think about it in a fundamentally different way from the people for whom literature is, precisely, not a part of their everyday lives but a magical escape or a well-earned reward or some other kind of special treat.

I love these people. They are the ones who turn up at writers' festivals and ask intelligent questions at question time, having -- unlike many of one's former students -- read the books, often with great intensity and love. They are the ones who belong to readers' groups and turn up at them faithfully and have boisterous discussions of the book at issue. They are terrific people, but I am not one of them; my relationship to fiction is far more mundane and workmanlike than theirs.

Now obviously the issues at stake here are fundamentally ideological, which I won't go into because the people who care about these ideas are already familiar with them and the people who don't care about them don't care about them. Let's just say that in the last nearly-two years of reading four novels a week minimum, I've read an awful lot of excellent genre fiction and quite a lot of crummy 'literary' fiction, what you might call 'art fiction' in the sense of 'art music', fiction in which the gap between the writer's obvious aspiration and her or his actual achievement has been wide enough for a whale to swim through, and I mean sideways.

Actually this fiction/music categorisation thingy is a parallel worth pursuing, though not now, because I've just wasted however long it took to read the first forty pages of the new Dean Koontz, whose writing has aspirations to literariness but is 'popular' in the sense that lots and lots of people read him, with a view to a review. Fortunately I get sent more books than there is space to review, so I get to make choices and I have just chosen to let the already obscenely rich Dean Koontz do without 180 of my own words because let's face it, he doesn't need them and it wouldn't make any difference to the people who like to read him, of whom there are many millions, and if readers want to vote with their wallets then that is absolutely their prerogative.

But I finally put down The Darkest Evening of the Year, knowing I would not pick it up again, when I got to this passage on page 40:

Here in the venereal aftermath, Harrow has no fear of any blade she might have buried in the bedding. If ever she tries to kill him, the attempt will be made between the motion and the act, at the ascending moment of her fulfilment.

It was at this point that I began to feel the way you do when you've eaten something you should have thrown out the day before, or possibly the day before that. You know how, when you've been poisoned, there's always that moment of realisation that there's something seriously wrong, and that quite soon it's going to get much worse? I think the blade at the ascending moment of her fulfilment was that moment.

I'm guessing the phrase 'between the motion and the act' is an allusion to T.S. Eliot (see Stanza V and no I don't know what it means either) -- Koontz at 63 is exactly the right age for Eliot to have been the dominant literary influence of his formative years, and one can only wish that Eliot had been a bit more of an influence, though perhaps in a different way -- but if anyone can tell me exactly what that phrase 'between the motion and the act' actually means in the context of a hypothetical pre-post-coital psychotic homicide, I will give her or him $10,000 and a free kitten.

At which point I turned for relief to a nice novel about vampires called 13 Bullets, and so far I have not been disappointed. The heroine-narrator appears to be some kind of cross between Kinsey Millhone and Buffy, and there's blood everywhere by page 2. If you're going to write popular fiction, do it properly.


fifi said...

Beautifully put, as usual.

I have just writ a paper on the topic of affect and bodily response to art and poetry. It's something I have much interest in.

I have often shot books across the room in disgust after a chapter I don't care for. I am always annoyed I didn't spot the awfulness coming.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Fifi, I would love to read that -- is it online? Would you consider putting it online? Or emailing it to me (pavlov dot cat dot gmail dot com)?

fifi said...

I am giving the paper in November, and I am hoping to edit a couple of minutes out of it as it is a fraction too long.

I would be happy to send to a copy, after its final edit, thoughI would be a bit daunted by the prospect : I'm not an especially good writer.

TimT said...

I tittered uncontrollably at that sample of bad writing. Nice to know that Koontz was just working up to his grand conclusion up with the phrase 'veneral aftermath'.

Oddly, it's often the sentimental or melodramatic bits of serious literature that get to me. Dickens is very good at it; another example would be, say, 'Howl howl howl howl howl' from Lear. I think often the author works you up to a point where that sort of sentimental/garish expressionism works on you.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Sorry Fifi -- pavlov dot cat at gmail dot com ... forward slash sheesh

Bernice said...

He is talking about s*x isn't he? O....K..... Given how safe your $10 000 will be from just claim, I think Henry Paulson would appreciate a call...

Zarquon said...

'Between the motion and the act' means between airs of teeth grating and nipples going spung and the full-on act of lubriciousness.

Pavlov's Cat said...

TimT, yes, I too gasped at the staggering chutzpah of putting the phrase 'venereal aftermath' to paper. Or perhaps he dictates, which would explain a lot.

Bernice, oh yes, I'm afraid so.

Zarquon -- see, it's contagious as well!

tigtog said...

The heroine-narrator appears to be some kind of cross between Kinsey Millhone and Buffy, and there's blood everywhere by page 2.

Now that sounds like a damn good romp.

I gave up on Koontz years ago, and by the sign of him repeating the overblown phrase "at the ascending moment of her fulfilment" twice in one paragraph I was entirely right to do so.

TimT said...

Heh, today I read a quote from Shelley's Alastor that made me think of this post:

And my heart ever gazes on the depth
Of thy deep mysteries.

Even brilliant writers can be simply, unselfconsciously bad.

My favourite book for the writing/music comparison is Mike Moorcock's 'The Condition of Muzak' - the title is obviously a reference to Walter Pater, but also a good joke about the artificial 20th-century style of music found in elevators. And the broader point being that even groundbreakingly original and works of art are over time sentimentalised until they reach 'the condition of Muzak'.

Feral Sparrowhawk said...

There's a truly hideous piece of swords and sorcery writing that has achieved a sort of cult status where people read it out at parties and get prizes for the person who gets furthest without breaking down in hysterical laughter (or tears of horror). If there's more where this came from Koontz might just displace it.