Sunday, 12 August 2007

So, what is good writing?

I suppose I set myself up for this. If you moan about bad writing, you really do have to defend the position, no matter how controversial. It is not that long since I was jumped on and called an arrogant monster for daring to criticise the quality of writing in a popular series of books. But I have never been one to avoid argument if I believe there is a valid point to be made.

Let me start by coming at the subject from a tangent. I finished my last post by asking, “New authors? Who needs ‘em.” In this different context, the answer is, “We all do.” (Especially those who are trying to get into print or establish some sort of name for themselves).

The problem is, getting into print is not easy. Given that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of new books are printed every year, it might seem that getting published was never easier. However, for every book getting into print, thousands are being rejected.

All that rejecting is first done by agents and editors. They are still (and self-publishing will have to be left for another time) the gateway into the land of publishing. They do not choose manuscripts according to some rational pre-set checklist; they do not consider themselves the guardians of ‘literature’; and they are in it for the money (they have to put food on the table like the rest of us).

This means that manuscripts are chosen for reasons in addition to or other than their literary merit. An agent or an editor has to like the manuscript. It has to grip them. If they like it, they will bend over backwards to see it in print. This is as it should be. No author wants to deal with people who have no enthusiasm for their manuscript. Sadly, it does mean that it is impossible to predict what any given agent or editor will find attractive on any given day.

One thing, however, is essential. Good writing.

Content, style, genre, layout, all these things are subjective. But good writing? I would contend that this is not. I do not, for example, read hospital romances. They are not my cup of tea. However, I am sure I could tell the difference between one that is well written and one that is badly written.

We do not expect that such books (or indeed most books) will be considered great literature in two hundred years from now. We do expect that they reach a certain standard of literacy, that they are clear, well constructed, and allow the story being told to take centre stage. So, to ask the question again, what is good writing?

The English language is gloriously flexible and has a stock of words that no writer can exhaust. Even when the basic rules of grammar are ‘broken’ (it is descriptive not prescriptive), it can be done so that it still makes perfect sense. It is a remarkable tool and every writer should glory in and have respect for the resource that is at their fingertips. There are so many who do not.

Clarity is important. This does not mean simple sentences. It means sentences and paragraphs you can get to the end of without needing to go back to the beginning to find out what they are about. It does not mean a simple plot. It does mean being able to follow the complexities without having to make notes or without falling through the holes. It does not mean lack of subtlety. It does mean that complex ideas, characterisation, and plot twists are within reach of the reader.

The other point about clarity is that when you read a book, it is annoying when the language gets in the way of the story; a bit like music on film or TV that drowns out the dialogue or commentary. I enjoy clever use of language, I can even appreciate a well-written phrase or sentence as I read it, but if that is all you are getting, or if that cleverness is always to the forefront, it begins to pall.

Some books can be badly written by being over-written. The author is showing off. Look how good my command of the language is; look how much research I have done; look at my cultural references; look at my stylistic devices. I am not saying a book shouldn’t have these, but I would contend that if they get in the way of telling a story, they are badly used.

Style, plot devices, syntax and all the other tools used to create a piece of written work are just that: tools. If I buy a hand made cabinet, I don’t want to see tool marks, joints, or where a couple of duff bits of plank were nailed on to the back to hold it all together. I don’t expect that from a simple, workaday kitchen unit any more than I would from an armoire with marquetry panels. If I buy a book, I don’t want to see the author at work unless I want to at a time of my choosing.


Telmis said...

Interesting Grum, and welcomed by the novice - thank you!

Graeme K Talboys said...

My pleasure. I might be wrong, but at least it is worth thinking about.

Kerenhappuch said...

Reassuring to read, I will watch for the next lecture and the next. We need directions like this to keep us going!

Graeme K Talboys said...

Many thanks. Very kind of you to say so.