Saturday, 30 June 2012

What is good writing - one reader's advice

The Sister's Brothers vs. Fifty Shades of Grey

I get to read a lot of books. This month I have read, or reread, the following titles:

How To Eat Out
Dog Collar
Double Cross
The Sisters Brothers
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
What Will Survive
a lot of James Ellroy

and I have also given up on many books, the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey being one.

I had just finished The Sisters Brothers when I read that Fifty Shades sold 1,000,000 copies in 11 weeks, overtaking Dan Brown and J K Rowling in the process and making it something of a record breaker.

I loved The Sisters Brothers and could not get beyond the first chapter of Fifty Shades. It reminded me of some self-published novels I have read. While it might be unfair to single out this particular book - there are many other books I haven't liked - the gulf between it and Sister's Brothers was so wide, so obvious, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two. 

In doing so I am trying to approach the question, 'What is good writing?' concious that the answer should always be, 'Something you like.' Taken at face value this is as good an answer as any. I like it so it's good for me. So why is it that millions of books get written every year and only few are published? If you want to be a writer what should you be doing?

For me, good writing elevates itself above the ordinary because it never tells the story, it shows it. Let me give you an example.

New York writer and journalist Pete Hamill tells the story of one of his first newspaper articles which was about a fire. He described the event and finished with the sentence 'It was a tragedy.'.

His editor brought the article back with this sentence underlined. 'It was a tragedy? Write it like it happened and let the reader decide if it's a fucking tragedy.'

Quite so.

We find this kind of show-don't-tell writing in the first chapter of The Sisters Brothers. The narrator is talking about his new horse Tub. We learn how he got it, 'in partial payment for the last job', why he got it, his last horse died violently, why he doesn't like it, '[he] could not travel more than fifty miles in a day' and why he has to keep it, because his brother got first pick while he was in bed with a leg wound.

In less than 30 lines we know everything we need to know about Eli and Charlie. They are living and breathing for us and we know that bad but exciting things are about to happen to them, and all because the narrator is talking about a horse.

The writer is showing us the action and letting us draw our own conclusions. He is allowing us to unpick the subtlies of the brothers' history and relationship. He could have said, 'Me and my brother Eli are gunslingers and we were at our bosses house to get a new job. Our last job ended badly and I got wounded. I don't get on with my brother all the time but we work as a team'  - and that would have been both dull and shallow.

By comparison, in Fifty Shades we learn that the narrator Ana is going to be subjected to 'an ordeal'. She is a brown-haired girl with blue eyes who is currently frustrated and exasperated. Her friend Kate is 'gamine and gorgeous...articulate, strong and persuasive.' Kate has volunteered Ana to interview a 'mega-industrialist tycoon' the CEO of Grey Holdings.

I just don't find this as gripping. The author is telling us what is happening in primary colours. She is not asking the reader to untangle the relationship. It is presented as fact and we are not allowed to draw our own conclusions.

I don't care for the scene either. A good author creates tension by explaining the stakes. We know that these are high for Eli and Charlie, it's life or death . It doesn't always have to be so dramatic, but suspense compels the reader to find out what happens. Fifty Shades starts with Ana brushing the knots out of her hair. What is at stake is the success or failiure of an interview with a 'mega-industrialist tycoon' for a student paper. I am unconvinced that I should care about this.

I gave up with Fifty Shades on page five where the author describes a view as, 'Wow.' This might be a shame as there is possibly a good story to come but I am reluctant to invest my time in finding out. I need writers to try a bit harder, to show me they are serious.

Here's Jonathon Saffron Foer describing his grandmother who survived during the war on scavenged ends of potatoes and scraps of meat, 'And so she never cared if I colored outside the lines, as long as I cut coupons along the dashes.' Elegant, entertaining and persuasive.

Here's Colum McCann on the first page of Let The Great World Spin: 'He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning.  A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker, Or a jumper. Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.'

And just to show I'm not singling out Fifty Shades, here is Wm Paul Young in The Shack, 'March unleased a torrent of rainfall after and unusually dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind...' Why? Why? Why start with the weather? Is this a book or a forecast?

'The articulation of perception', as Geoff Dyer has called it, the ability of good writers to delive beyond the exterior and articulate what they see. 

Marcus Brigstocke Washes God's Socks

God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke

Now the move has been completed to the new shop, it is great to start up the blog again, particularly with a an excellent book.

I was in England recently and bought God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke on impulse. I knew of the author because of his famous appearance on the witty BBC news show 'Have I Got News For You' - you can watch a short clip here.

I hesitated getting the book because the only blurb came from The Big Issue. Also, the book is a spin-off from his God Collar tour and I was worried it would be simply a disappointing cash in.

Brigstocke is an athiest, albeit a reluctant one. He wishes he could have the calm and security that he finds amongst believers. Essentially he is trying to find if he and God have anything in common.

As you might expect from one of the UK's leading comic talents, the book is a laugh-riot. I do not suggest you do as I did and read it on plane, train and metro unless you don't mind the sidelong glances as you smother your giggles. Despite the levity in the writing the book's topic is deadly serious. He poses the question, 'How can we follow God if his followers abuse kids, blow themselves up and declare, "We have the only truth"?'.

This might appear to be a flimsy context for a 300-page tome but there are no soggy bits. I genuinely looked forward to reading more and was a bit sad when I finished. Having said that, there were parts where he started to simply rant or digress into an interesting story half-way through an argument. He does warn the reader that they won't necessarily find anwswers in the book, and that is certainly the case. The lack of conclusion does not detract from the book and I highly recommend it.