Books

Put the book back on the shelf

Everyone has a novel in them, they say. That particular idiom doesn’t make any judgement on whether it’s a good novel people contain. If you have ever dabbled in fiction writing, you’ll know how much harder it is than you could have ever expected. Great writers make it seem so natural and effortless. How could we anticipate the hard slog, lack of inspiration and ease with which we slip into cliché and banality? Think about how a good idea suddenly seems thin and flimsy the moment you try and write a chapter on it.

It’s not surprising that many people’s early (and later) efforts at writing are terrible in one way or another. “How Not To Write A Novel”, a new book by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, is something of a prescription for bad writers, setting out “200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them”. From the Guardian’s review, it sounds clever and insightful:

It will have a ludicrous plot, of course, or none. It will have characters who are unbelievable or extremely tiresome, or both. It will be studded with clichés and riddled with the author's prejudices. Newman and Mittelmark make up typical examples of dreadful prose, often so accurately that even the vainest are likely to recognise their own howlers and lapses of taste.

Naturally, this is going to be hard medicine for most of us to take. Such a brutal assessment is pretty confidence-destroying at the outset. Should this book have really been titled How To Not Write A Novel? Is there any point writing at all?

If you have any pride in your writing, you might get a little defensive. Aren’t your efforts at least as good as the appalling dog turds that adorn bookstore shelves everywhere? Think of all the risibly bad books that make it past the publishers for a variety of reasons -- celebrity authorship, easy categorisation, general trendiness. Let’s face it, though. You and I are not celebrities and no self-respecting publisher is going to take a chance on a self-indulgent, badly-constructed debut novel. You need to write something good.

There is a point, however, when it all becomes a matter of personal taste. What Newman and Mittelmark consider inessential digression may be another reader’s climactic scene. We’ve witnessed this before, in countless works on what novels are supposed to be like.

James Wood, acerbic critic par excellence, recently published “How Fiction Works”. It’s full of Wood’s own unique prose style and fuelled with his intense literary passion. It’s also heavily biased towards Wood’s own preferences and tastes -- in particular a love of description and characterisation over plot and story. As Louis Bayard in Salon points out, characterisation and description alone do not great novels make. Even the most sublime writer needs a plot or story to give the words purpose and shape. In the end, we’re free to regard or disregard Wood’s (or any other critic’s) opinion at will.

There’s undoubtedly a lot to be learnt by reading about novel construction and learning some basic dos and don’ts. But in the end, you’ve just got to chance it that someone else is going to like what you do.

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