Saturday 30 October 2010

A Literary Editor Speaks Out!

It's good to see someone - someone in the business, what's more - pointing out one of the things that's clearly wrong with modern fiction. On the rare occasions when I've made it to the end of a recently published novel, I'm nearly always left with two thoughts: 1. So what? and 2. That was surely about a third too long. I don't suppose Claire Armitstead often concurs with 1 or she wouldn't be in the job she's in, but she seems to agree with 2 - much to the chagrin of the publishing industry, an industry which, it is clear, has only itself to blame.
Another scourge of contemporary fiction (encouraged no doubt by the 'Creative Writing' industry)is the fashion for present tense narration. Philip Pullman has called it 'a silly affectation' and he's surely right, at least in those cases where there's no good reason for it; it's a lazy short-cut to bogus immediacy and 'significance'. Worse still is the use of the present tense and the impersonal 'he' or 'she' to lend spurious mystery and yet more 'significance'. Any book that begins in such a mode is almost certain to be worthless. Unless it's this one:
'From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star's revenge...'
That's Samuel Beckett. The rules don't apply.


  1. I've been hawking a novel about. One agent said she'd take it on if it were a third longer. But I think making it a third longer would ruin it. It would go from pointedly taut to pointlessly baggy (it's got a Buchan-like plot).

    Apparently, you can only sell this sort of book nowadays if it has a minimum of 80-90,000 words. Which, incidentally, would disqualify a good part of Buchan's oeuvre!

  2. Just finishing Wolf Hall and, if I may be so bold, there is a real sense that the present-tense narrative drives it along wonderfully, notwithstanding the odd ambiguity in the identification of who is speaking, and to whom.

  3. Yes - sometimes present-tense and first person narrative work beautifully - though inevitably over-used these days. And there doesn't seem anything wrong in driving a narrative along at times, nor in the interiority and energy of first person narration, as long as used with skill and discrimination to bring the work to life - not because it's fashionable and everyone who's anyone is doing it. Surely to allow the imagination this freedom should be a good thing, if challenging?

  4. Very interesting Gaw - so the publishers are doing a kind of reverse or negative editing, to ensure that 'the package' comes in at approved doorstop size. Madness. Why is it that in very other area of life it's assumed (rightly, by and large) that people live busy lives and don't have great slabs of time to devote to one thing - but when it comes to novels we've suddenly got all the time in the world? Fiction should be getting shorter (esp as most of it's no good), not longer.

    Mahlerman - you nail another exception there, I'm sure, tho I haven't yet tackled Wolf Hall. It just sits there looking so damned big...

    Tricia - 'skill and discrimination' are indeed the key, and too many novelists have little of either - they always have, in any age, I'm not blaming it all on 'Creative Writing'! If only these devices did drive the narrative along - then we'd have shorter tighter books. They seem too often to drive it inward and round in circles. It's just a shame that a device that once packed a considerable punch has been so overused as to lose all force...

  5. Of course I agree with you about over-use. But I was walking and thinking about voice and the way a character can come to life so vividly if first person is used skilfully - when the reader can actually hear the voice and intimacy is created between character and reader.

  6. Just about every literary technique is overused these days. Pullman likes to make Big Pronouncements which usually need careful consideration and qualification.

  7. Why is it that in very other area of life it's assumed (rightly, by and large) that people live busy lives and don't have great slabs of time to devote to one thing - but when it comes to novels we've suddenly got all the time in the world?

    It is an interesting anomaly, but anomaly it must be or else the publishers wouldn't insist on big fat books.

    It must be something to do with bookbuyers wanting 'value for money' and a good escapist wallow in an alternative universe, which is what the epic novel promises. Whereas if you have a microscopic attention span, even a novella is too long.

    But actually, I wonder about that attention-span theory. Poems and short stories are quicker to read than novels, but nobody buys them.

    Also, epic feature films (Avatar is approx 13 hours long, and a double-sequel is imminent) are popular, and cinematic shorts are not.

  8. There's also some truth to the allegation that most best-sellers are bloated in terms of number of pages and could use a good editing, but they can also be read quickly and easily, since they're mostly written in the "no-style style," as it's been called: all plot, all action, no digressions, no reflective moments. Thrillers usually top the best-seller lists, and they're easy candy to read fast.

    More "literary" fiction tends to be a slower read. So if it's bloated, overwritten and underedited, it's no surprise that finishing a book can become a chore rather than a pleasure.

    Beckett is absolutely the best example of a "minimalist" writer. No chaff there at all. It gets so compressed at times that it turns poetic. Which I rather like about Beckett.