findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the tag “style”

On Brooding in Photogenic Landscape and Noticing Dust Motes

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, Danis painter). From www.the-athenaeum.org

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, a 19th/early 20th century Danish painter). From http://www.the-athenaeum.org

I stopped watching the recent TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn on the BBC after the first episode, although Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers. No, it was not because of the incomprehensible mumbling which had a record number of complaints letters streaming in. Instead, it was because it felt all style and no content. For a witty and fair review of the film vs. the book version, see here.  I don’t know if it’s the influence of Scandinavian crime dramas, but I’ve noticed in quite a few TV dramas lately that moodiness and atmosphere inevitably lead to lack of pace. So we end up with lots of shots of photogenic protagonists staring into the distance at even more photogenic landscapes. And the story, which could have been told more effectively in 1-2 episodes, spreads out endlessly and glumly over 5 or even more evenings.

This doesn’t just happen in TV series, of course. I’ve  attended a number of writing workshops where participants have read out a beautifully crafted chapter from their work in progress… containing an intimately observed but interminable description of dust motes. Or the main character stares at himself in the mirror for quite a few pages. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding about what constitutes good writing or literary fiction nowadays. Lack of pace and plot does not make a work literary. Most of the fiction we consider ‘classic’ nowadays was written as potboilers, with little thought beyond entertaining the public and making some money out of it. Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas – there is incident aplenty in any of their books, as well as outstanding writing. Of course the writing is uneven, too, and there are often passages in their works that are crying out for a good editor.

I am not making the mistake to equate ‘lots of incidents/events’ with a good novel, or even a good plot. I’ve read far too much crime fiction by debut authors, where the main protagonist goes from one implausible situation to the next tricky one with barely a moment to breathe and bandage his wounds or feed her cat (yes, that gender division does appear on occasion still). That is equally boring as speculating about the inner life of dust particles.

Still, if I want to penetrate the enigma of sparkling dust motes or understand the world through a character’s gaze upon him or herself in the mirror, then I prefer to read a poem, a short story or an essay. There is really no need to extend it to novel-length, just like there is no point in extending a TV drama over 5 weeks if it has nothing new to say in each episode (unlike the genuine Scandinavian article, ‘The Bridge’, which had me gasping in shock and amazement every ten minutes).

Can you forgive a novel (or a TV drama) its lack of pace, plot or characterisation if it has enough moody atmosphere or beautiful writing? Or are you sometimes ashamed to admit you are bored by great stylists?

Quick Update

This is just a quick update for those of you who have been anxious about my sartorial choices…

First of all, thank you everyone for your very constructive suggestions.

So what did I opt for in the end? Black leggings, a smart silk tunic in an undefinable colour (not black) and very high heels.

The heels made me tower above everybody, and gave me confidence. So the reading went well (although others were far better, even without such heels).

Afterthought: if you plan to mingle at the post-reading drinks party, a painful hobble to the car park does not make for the most dignified exit.

I’m So Vain, I Probably Think This Is About Me

Tomorrow evening I will be presenting something in front of a roomful of people, most of whom I’ve never met before. ‘So what?’ I hear you say.  ‘That has been your job (in various incarnations) for a while now.’ True enough: I’ve been a teacher, a lecturer, trainer/facilitator and what is laughingly known as a ‘headliner’. I’ve even been an enthusiastic participant in amateur dramatics – as if you can’t tell!

So what is different this time?

Well, this time I won’t be reading somebody else’s words. I won’t be presenting general knowledge or sticking to the tried-and-tested pedagogical methods. This time I will be reading my own contribution to Offshoots 12 , the annual publication of Geneva Writers’ Group. It’s like cutting off small strips of your flesh and presenting them to the audience. I just hope none of them are cannibals.

So, of course, the question now is: what should I wear? In my corporate world, I have a ‘uniform’ – reasonably smart, modestly flattering, yet flexible enough for the temperature variations of training rooms and the mad dashes down airport corridors.

The look I am aiming for: the effortless elegance of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my heroines

The look I am aiming for: the effortless elegance of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my heroines

For poetry, however, something more free-flowing, more creative is required. Shall I go for the romantic look we tend to associate with poets (rightly or wrongly)? I cannot bear trailing scarves or opinion-piece jewellery. It’s not quite warm enough anymore for a strappy summer dress.  The other major staple of my wardrobe (jeans and white shirts) is an over-done look for hip, happening SLAM poets and spoken word ambassadors. Besides, I’m neither hip nor happening (as you can tell from the fact that I am using these words, which are probably a couple of decades out of date).

So what do poets and writers more generally wear to readings? Any suggestions?  Wikihow tells me (seriously, perhaps?) to either dress in existentialist black if I want to seem thoughtful, or in dramatic high boots if I want to be showy. Checking out videos of poetry readings, I notice that many have taken this advice to heart.  Meantime, I’ve found some wise words here, but no matching, colourful clothes in my wardrobe.

Scruffy mad poet look it is, then!

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover

 

Most Overrated Books (in My World)

The Lovely BonesWhen there is too much of a buzz around a book, I tend to wait for a few years before reading it (I will probably read 50 Shades of Grey when I am a grandmother, at this rate).  I did that with Harry Potter, ‘Life of Pi’ and I am still waiting to read Hilary Mantel’s latest two.  Because, with all due respect to reviewers, online chat forums and book clubs, no one can read a book for you.  Tastes are so different, that only you can make up your own mind! (Thank goodness.)

I finally read Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ yesterday and was intrigued for the first 50 pages or so, then a bit bored, then finally frustrated.  It’s an interesting premise (the omniscient narrator from heaven) and the adolescent voice is charming, but after a while the archness and sentimentality begin to jar.  It just goes on for too long: a novella-length of about 20,000 would have been more than enough.

So that got me musing about other books that I have found highly overrated.  Please bear in mind this is always a very personal exercise, so don’t be offended if I have included any of your favourites!  However, I would love to hear you defend any of my choices (because I am not Miss Know-It-All), or let me know if there are any others I ought to include.

1) Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code

And pretty much everything else he has written.  When I first read this, I thought it was a parody of a certain type of thriller.  But alas, no, it’s deadly earnest!

2) Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat Pray Love

Don’t get me wrong: I think she is very brave to share with readers her early-midlife-crisis and search for fulfilment.  I just find the journey a selfish and not that well-written pursuit of personal happiness, with very little attempt to understand or interact deeply with the cultures she encounters.  Some funny observations, but overall too much bellybuttonism for my taste.

3) Stieg Larsson

Yes, I ‘m sorry, the whole Girl with Dragon Tattos and other tormented characteristics left me cold!  It’s not the violence or misogyny that I complain about (the first is widespread in crime fiction, the second is debatable anyway).  No, it’s the fact that it bores me.  Everyone talks about its relentless pace and it being a page-turner, but I have to admit I skipped entire repetitive passages. It feels completely unedited, a real jumble: just spewing out of odd bits of information, plotlines and shifts in narrative voice.

4) Hemingway’s novels

His short stories are brilliant.  I just find his terseness and übermasculinity grates over the length of a novel.  And sometimes I am not sure he is as profound as his critics make him out to be.

5) Paul Coelho: The Alchemist

Possibly because all the people I despised in high school loved it so much.  Or because fable-type narratives always hit my cynical vein, from which then gushes forth pretentious twaddle.  Sometimes beautiful words are poetry that makes us gasp in wonder… and sometimes it’s a rich cake, giving me indigestion.  (On the other hand, I do like some of his other books, for instance ‘Veronika Decides to Die’.)

As I said, don’t take my word for it!  If you haven’t read these, then you may want to ignore my opinion and make up your own mind. Now I would like to know which books you love to hate!  Although I may shoot you if you dare to say ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Jane Austen…

Let the Battle Commence!

Enough marinading – time to start grilling!

Almost a month ago exactly, I wrote ‘The End’ on the first draft of my novel.   I printed it out and set it aside – yes, literally in a drawer – to marinade in its juices until I felt ready to tackle it again.   Meanwhile, the end of school revelries, birthdays, professional obligations, family demands swept over me, pulling me under, all but drowning me in waves of joy and salt, of midsummer madness and unknowable sadness.

But now it’s just me and those 150+ pages of single-spaced writing eyeballing each other.  I already know I have to take out some scenes, add others, move things around.  I know I will wince when I see redundant adjectives and adverbs, will frown at repetitions, will fiercely attack typos and careless grammar.  I am sure so much will escape me still…

And in the meantime, I continue to read and review crime fiction.  Many writers say that they stop reading in their genre when they are writing a book, but I’ve been writing this book for 12 years now!  Still, the reason for avoidance – to steer clear of contagion and envy – is becoming obvious.  Gone are the days when I could read a thriller purely for fun.  Now, if it’s a bestseller, like Simon Kernick or JoNesbø, I wish I could have that pace in plotting (even if they are light years removed from my own style).  If it’s the wit and prose that win me over, like Stav Sherez or Patricia Highsmith, I flame up in desire to achieve that standard.  And if it’s poorly written, I wallow in pools of self-pity: that I am unlikely to get published, when there is so much crime fiction already out there.

Yet none of these writers, admired or envied, are there with me.  None of my friends, online or off, can be there with me.  I step into the ring of fire, all alone.  I know nothing about grilling except for the eating. I probably have the wrong weapons with me: my glasses, my pens and my notebooks.  This time, it’s a battle to the death – and only one of us can emerge victorious.

Bon appétit!

 

Rereading ‘The Great Gatsby’

I blithely said at some point that I would write regularly about the writers who have most inspired me.  Well, not only have I not been ‘regular’ about it, but – with some ‘dare you to’ from Marilyn McCottrell over at the very funny and wry Memos from the Middle blog – I will also now break my promise about sticking to the less obvious suspects.  Yes, I will brazenly talk about that much-praised, over-analysed book called ‘The Great Gatsby’, a.k.a. ‘The Great American Novel’ by some.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this and it does seem to get better and better with age.  I suspect that my infatuation with it in my youth probably had something to do with the image of Robert Redford at the swimming pool, waiting for Daisy’s phone call, pouting beautifully and moodily in the mid-distance.  This was the movie adaptation of it, of course, sumptuously clothed and filmed (quite a bit of it in England, incidentally), but ultimately not considered a triumph by the critics.  The upcoming adaptation of it, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role… well, I beg to reserve judgement, but suspect he cannot quite replace Redford in my mind.

Yet, no matter how much I love it, I’ve been surprised that it’s considered the ‘Great American novel’, because it seems so far removed from the confidence, language and bluster that much of the American literature has. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway – there are so many contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but this one seems atypical.   It certainly talks about the dangers and the failure of the American dream, which is perhaps why it has grasped the public’s imagination for so long (and why it is being remade as a film and also currently onstage as a musical these days). The long sentences, the tentative statements, the moral ambiguity make the novel feel European in many ways.

There are some things that struck me instantly when first reading the novel and that have stayed with me since: the description of Daisy’s thrilling ‘money’ voice, the green light at the end of the pier, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes towering on a billboard above the grey badlands.  Oh, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald is clever with his symbolism, foreshadowing of tragedy, the recurrence of the eye image, all of that.  I remembered that clearly from my previous readings.

But here are some things that I did not quite remember, or maybe only just now noticed:

1) Although it’s such a short novel, it does not feel rushed.  The pace is leisurely, gentlemanly.  For heaven’s sake, it does not even plunge straight into the story, but opens instead with a statement by the narrator, Nick Carraway, of just how uncritical and non-judgemental he has taught himself to be (thus breaking all the rules given to fledgling writers).  And the novel does not end with Gatsby’s death or pathetic funeral, but with the author painstakingly tying up all the loose ends, while the narrator muses cynically and at length about all of the characters in the drama.

Book cover for the Great Gatsby2)I had forgotten just how long and complicated his sentences are, abounding with semi-colons, commas,  adjectives, piling of details – accumulation which works wonderfully in the chapter describing Gatsby’s extravagant parties.

‘By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums…. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there, among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.’

Occasionally, this can lead to some meandering but intriguing side alleys, which just adds to the unhurried pace of the narration.  And yet each details feels perfectly placed and not all superfluous.

3) I had also forgotten that Nick Carraway is such an unreliable narrator, despite his initial exhortation that ‘I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’.  I had initially taken his character assessments at face value: ridiculed silly Myrtle, condemned brutish Tom Buchanan, despised shady Wolfsheim, was wary of the golfing Jordan Baker.  My perception was coloured first by Gatsby’s naive dream, then by Nick’s cynicism.  Now I have begun to distrust Nick’s version of events, his critical and often far too self-righteous tone, his tone of omniscient interpreter of events.  I feel more pity and empathy for all of the characters, even Daisy, who ultimately fails not because she is a horrible, weak, selfish and self-centred person (although she is all of that too), but because she is human, not the goddess that Gatsby had built her up to be in his memory.

4) There are layers beneath layers beneath layers in this rich book – which is why I never tire of it.  There is no simple answer or explanation or solution.  There have been so many interpretations of it: a condemnation of wealth and excesses, the hollowness of materialism and the American Dream built upon it, the impossibility of replicating the past… yes, it is about all of that and more.  It triggers something within the readers, puts all sorts of ideas in their heads and feelings in their hearts, which cannot be easily summarised.  There is one instance when Nick says ‘Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all’.  And supposedly we are looking at this story though a single window, Nick’s window of insight.  Yet Fitzgerald has the skill to hint at multiple windows and to reveal the complexity and ambiguity of something far deeper.  There is something here we can barely explain but can only feel, like an image half-glimpsed, half-imagined in the moonlight.  There is always that hint of something ‘almost remembered’, an ‘elusive rhythm’, which we have to believe in to get through the everyday.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Great Gatsby': did you love it or hate it, especially if you had to read it at school? And do classics get better when you reread them?  What have you recently discovered upon rereading an old favourite?

 

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