State of the Art

Torygraph bloggers Harry Mount and Michael Deacon pretty much sum up the crisis of contemporary British fiction. Key points:

1) You can find better writing on top TV dramas than in UK fiction, particularly (I think) in its storytelling, characterisation and dialogue.  

The best writing I can think of from the past decade is TV writing. The Wire, The Office, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Thick of It (part-improvised I know but I love it so madly I’m going to count it). Let’s put it this way. If, these days, you’ve got a talent for writing stories, why waste it on a increasingly ill-educated reading public that thinks Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are the apogee of prose achievement? The only people who buy newly published novels these days are interested only in dunderheaded thrillers. Your choice: get paid a fat heap of cash to join a writing team on HBO, or a pitiful advance for a novel nobody will read because it’s got no vampires in it.

2) With honourable exceptions, high street fiction might as well be written by pro forma. 

Funnily enough, I’ve just been talking to a highly intelligent hedge-funder who wants to turn his hand to writing popular fiction. He’s studied the whole thing in an analytical way, and looked at what all the Dan Browns and John Grishams have to say about the process.

The main thing is, that it is a process. Make sure you have several hundred scenes, each of around four pages, with enough separate plotlines and characters that then interact. One popular fiction writer said that he spent 85 per cent of his year working out his plot, and the other 15 per cent doing the writing.

Any over-introspection is disallowed; good must triumph; there mustn’t be too much seamy immorality, otherwise the Midwest won’t buy it. Make sure there is some inanimate object – money, a code, an antique, that must be tracked down, and ideally make that object into several different objects. And none of that show don’t tell stuff; you must say how the characters feel at all times.

If this goes on, people looking for solid writing will switch on the TV rather than open a book, and the novel form will be devalued to the level of the Soduku or the Take a Break real-life story.

3) While commercial fiction races for the lowest common denominator, literary fiction becomes increasingly obscurantist and parochial. For the literary novel, readability has become a handicap, storytelling a crime, and comedy left to the boorish and scatologically obsessed.

Martin Amis got it right at the Hay Festival, when he talked about the fashion for ‘the unenjoyable novel’ that wins prizes because the committee thinks, ‘Well it’s not at all enjoyable, and it isn’t funny, therefore it must be very serious.’ 

Roald Dahl described the typical Booker Prize novel as ‘beautifully boring’. A few months ago Daisy Goodwin, who was one of the judges for the Orange prize, made a similar complaint, saying almost all the novels submitted seemed to be soul-draining accounts of loneliness, misery and rape. Whether this is the fault of publishers for publishing such novels, or of chain stores for over-promoting them, or prize judges in general for acclaiming them, or the public for demanding them (if indeed they, or rather we, are), I don’t know.

What I do know is that these days, more or less the only novels allowed to be primarily humorous are chick-lit and lad-lit, and these tend to be gurglingly inane – not the kind of intelligent wit you’d formerly get from Waugh or Kingsley Amis or, come to that, Martin Amis… If you want to be ‘taken seriously’, you apparently have to be serious, or, more accurately, joyless.

(Via Book2Book)


One Response to “State of the Art”

  1. Tim Chambers Says:

    Mr. Dunbar,

    Some people are stylists, others are story tellers, few author’s books seem to have the whole package. That is the way it has always been and why those that do tend to become classics. It is doubly difficult to find the potential classics among the contemporary output, simply because there is so much of it. Critics always seem to favor the stylists, while the public likes the story tellers, and rarely do you find a book that succeeds with both audiences.

    I’ve always prefered the whole package, myself, and I generally manage to find it, simply by reading the first sentence of every book I pick up. Ninety nine percent of the time I don’t like the first sentence. It’s either too mundaine or too fantastic or too something that emounts to nothing IMHO. But every so often an iconic first sentence will just reach out and grab me and that is the book I will end up buying, if I like what I see with some more perusal, and normally I do. Everything else go back on the shelf without so much as a second glance. I have never been disappointed with this method of selecting books.

    So I would have to disagree with you that literary fiction is invariably boring. It’s just that you might be listening to the wrong reviewers and reading the wrong literary fiction.

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