What makes a decent writer?

I read a great article yesterday on the Huffington Post site and I thought I’d just ponder it a bit here. If you want to see it, this is where it is: The Orange Prize has Let us Down. In summary, it talks about the latest winner of the prize and how her book is competently written but completely uninspired. I haven’t read it myself, but I’m less interested in that assertion than I am with the one Ruth Fowler goes on to make about MFA writing courses being the worst thing to happen to literature this century. Again, to summarise, she makes the point that they produce writers who can construct sentences and paragraphs, often self-indulgent and overwritten ones but sentences and paragraphs nonetheless, but who then think they are the complete package despite having little in the way of life experience or originality of thought.

Do I agree with this? In part, I suppose. Her argument actually sounds a lot like the one I’ve been making against British literary fiction in general for the past few years. Personally, I don’t think writing courses are the problem. I think the assumption that being able to string words together automatically makes something worth reading is the problem. There are a lot of different things you can do with writing, but for the sake of argument I would break these down into three general areas:

1. You can entertain people with a decent story

2. You can try and expose the realities of the world in new and interesting ways

3. You can revel in the glories of language itself and make readers do the same thing

Any one of these, or any combination of these, is perfectly valid to me. But if you pick just one of them, you really have to go for it. Some examples of authors I like:

Raymond Carver, because he examines human relationships in a way I’d never come across until I read him. He unearths complexities and nuances I wouldn’t have thought of. He makes me see the world in a different way.

Stephen King, because he writes narratives that make me want to turn the page and see what happens next. Does he surprise me in the same way Carver does? Not really, but he’s doing something different which I like equally as much.

Richard Brautigan. No great surprise there considering I wrote my thesis on him. But what he does is a combination of points two and three above – his metaphors stun me into submission. He twists language about in a way that absolutely delights me.

Ruth Fowler objects to insipid and cliched sentences like “these stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life”. I object to sneeringly ‘clever’ sentences like those written by my eternal favourite Martin Amis that I read and think, hey that’s clever, and then wonder what the hell they tell me about anything. Anything at all.

Ultimately, I think a lot of stuff falls down between the cracks of those three over-simplified categories I put up there. It’s easy to wander into the trap of something sounding nice without it actually meaning anything. Don’t get me wrong, I often use hyperbole to get me started on an idea. The problem comes when hyperbole is all you use, and there is nothing of any real note around it, underneath it, next to it. Unfortunately, it seems it’s the way of the world these days. Everything needs to be a soundbyte. From political spin over moral substance, to the moronically superficial shite that people seem to love TOWIE for. Why should literature be any different? It’s a facile world out there and there’s not a lot of point in trying to reject it. The best you can do is try and subvert it – but for god’s sake don’t just embrace it.

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2 thoughts on “What makes a decent writer?

  1. Iain Manson March 31, 2012 / 10:52 am

    Sorry to be so late with this. I must try to keep up.

    I like Ruth Fowler’s piece. You’re probably correct in saying that it’s not writing courses in themselves that are the problem, but they do reflect an attitude to writing which I don’t like.

    There’s an analogy with politics here. Today’s top politicians frequently went straight into politics from university, effectively sponsored by one of the big parties. Why do you think Ed Miliband so signally fails to connect with “the people”, while the admittedly dubious George Galloway does it so easily? Well, writing, like politics, should be almost a by-product of living. To treat it as a career or profession seems to me to miss the whole point.

    • Neil Schiller April 1, 2012 / 11:23 pm

      To be honest Iain, my blog is so sporadic these days you’d struggle to keep any sort of pace with it. Days and days of nothing, then a sudden burst before silence again…

      You’re right, there is a very good analogy with politics here. In most things in life, to me anyway, there are two sides to the equation. Technique is all well and good, but it needs substance. Substance without techinique can be too easily overlooked and wasted. I wrote plenty of stuff at 16, 19, 21, 23 and none it actually said anything about anything. Which is not to assume I’m any better now, but it feels like I have a better grasp on my ideas at least. (Or, at least I HAVE ideas, however ill formed or badly executed they may be).

      I tend to get a bit suspicious of anyone that goes directly into something creative/socially representative/academic without putting themselves out in the world somehow first. I just don’t quite understand how you can form perspective otherwise. I thought differently at 16, 19, 21 and 23. I was wrong.

      Loved your latest war reportage by the way – brilliant.

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