Wednesday night saw the London Writers’ Café meet near Marylebone for one of their new intensive workshops. This involves four writers reading a passage of their work, followed by analysis and comment from the rest of the group. The format gives each writer half an hour to split as they wish between reading and discussion – a considerably longer segment than the usual meetings. A side effect of this excellent idea, however, is more air time for one or two of those people who remind you that there’s a stereotype of writers as bookish, eccentric types who have to put their words on paper because they’re incapable of interacting with people one-to-one without causing offence.
The offender on this occasion – and I use the term advisedly – was sat next to me, muttering and sighing his way through other people’s readings, making snarky remarks about the quality of the discussion and generally making himself a royal pain in the arse. The convenor put a stop to his worst excesses by challenging him to comment constructively (and had a word with him afterwards, so let’s hope the performance isn’t repeated) – but a couple of his comments stuck with me because they chimed with a rather unattractive phenomenon I’ve observed elsewhere: the tyranny of the anti-story snob.
I should have known it was coming: my muttering friend introduced himself to the group as being 92,000 words through his novel (I can’t remember how he described it, but it involved a lot of syllables and almost certainly the use of the word “post-modern”). He then noted that he was approximately half-way through.
He didn’t think much of the first reading – it didn’t “cohere” apparently – but he was much more keen on the second, the first chapter of a novel featuring a chap with missing limbs and a drinking problem. This was indeed beautifully written – and equally beautifully read – but nevertheless, running to eight A4 sides of tightly packed prose, without so much as a line of dialogue, I found my mind wandering. By the time we got to the end, I was breathing a guilty sigh of relief.
This point was raised in discussion: as a first chapter, perhaps we needed more of a sense of what was actually happening to this character; what the story would be about? Mr Mutterer wasn’t having a bar of it: “My problem,” he said, “Is with the criticism, rather than the writing!” Indeed, he suggested, the only thing that might be improved was the length: it could do with being a bit longer. He cited Faulkner with approval, noting that he wrote twenty pages on a character walking down a path. “Nothing happens,” he said, “But it’s absolutely gripping!”
Now I confess I haven’t read any Faulkner. I suppose it may be possible to write twenty gripping pages about a person walking down a path; but in all honesty, I find it hard to imagine. But it made me think: why is it that this kind of impenetrable writing gains so many plaudits in arty circles? Why is it that, to so many “serious” critics, the relationship between accessibility and virtue is considered to be inversely proportional?
Googling Faulkner I came across a review of The Sound and the Fury by Guardian writer Sarah Churchwell. This describes the novel as “notoriously, intransigently difficult”. It says it “turns inference into an extreme sport” and notes that attempting to write a summary of its plot would be “an exercise in futility”. Interviewed in 1956, Faulkner was asked what he would say to people who complained they couldn’t understand his writing, even after reading it two or three times. His answer? “Read it four times.” It hardly needs adding that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 2011, Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize for his novel, The Sense of an Ending. One of the panel of judges had the temerity to suggest that they had been looking for “readability”. Uproar ensued. The judges were criticised for being overly focussed on plot. The Booker was being dumbed down! The end of the world was nigh!
All this seems to me symptomatic of a particularly BDSM approach to reading: the greater the pain involved in getting to that back cover, the greater the pleasure to the critic. In fact, to enjoy a novel is positively a mark against it. Even worse, having lots of people enjoy it means it must be trash. I recently heard of a literary agent who claimed as a matter of “principle” never to read anything on the Times bestseller list.
What arrant nonsense!
What, I ask you, is wrong with wanting a book both to be populated by interesting, three-dimensional characters, and wanting something exciting or frightening or otherwise stimulating to happen to them? Surely one doesn’t have to be at the expense of the other? Jane Austen didn’t seem to have a problem with writing a story. Nor Charles Dickens. Nor Anthony Trollope. Nor George Eliot, nor Thomas Hardy nor any of the Brontes. Should we be re-evaluating their worthiness because millions of people still read and – heaven forbid! – enjoy them?
An end to this stupidity. We should stop pretending that storytelling isn’t important. Getting to the end of a book shouldn’t have to be endurance test.
My campaign starts here: Susan Hill for the Booker!