Knitting up the nuts and bolts
From the Lascaux caves to the Booker dinner...

Up close, and impersonal

Close writing and close reading seems to be what we've been talking about in the comments trails of the last couple of posts, and this from Writer Girl resonated particularly:

I think I first discovered the power of individual words in a story when I began to translate parts of novels from French into English... The translater has to find the right combination of words that will provide the correct meaning, rhythm and flow to the sentence. The writer does this without having an original script to work from. My question to you is this: do agents and publishers, with their eyes on the bottom line, appeciate this? Or is story and saleability the only thing that matters? I really wonder.

My experience of booktrade people is that they do care, a lot, as anyone who's had a line-edit by a good editor will tell you. But beyond that they may not be best placed to do the kind of close teaching that's needed to turn okay close writing into terrific writing. And, as always, they see it in terms of market: the kind of writing they want to put on Faber's list is different from the kind they want for category fiction, though both must be good for their purpose. Story (arc?) has to be paramount though, because that's what keeps readers turning the pages, so the job of the words as the medium has to work, while the job of the words as texture is something that only some writers and readers, and the publishers who are the marriage-brokers between them, care about, or are willing to try harder at.  One reader's gorgeous, startlingly original prose is another reader's baffling obscurity. Though I think because sometimes difficult originality is necessary for a good literary writer to say what they want, other soi-disant literary writers take obscurity as the defining feature - rather than an occasional, regrettable necessity - of highbrow art. As Nick Hornby says, it's fair enough (his example was Marilyn Robinson's Gilead) if the writer couldn't get it done any easier. The trouble with some modern literary fiction is that quite often they could.

WG, your post linked in with something that was posted on the mailing list of the Glamorgan MPhil, which I'm going to quote, from novelist, poet and translator Christopher Meredith:

Translating leads into some strange places. It's good for a novelist, I think... Makes you realise, if you write fiction yourself, that you aren't quite the paper method actor you thought you were... When it's that much more complicated thing, the voice of the whole piece, the author, then the translator's struggles start. In a way the translation can become a sort of meta-novel in which the author of the source text becomes another character whom the translator must act.

I was interested in this idea of the writer as a method actor living a part, as a transparent medium for the transmission of the story, or for someone else's story. Having done a certain amount of acting I know that what I feel when I'm writing an important scene and it's going well is very, very close to what I used to feel when acting. That's the writer's 'high', isn't it? And yet on another level we're still making micro-adjustments of word and phrase just as an actor is: our equivalent of being seen, being heard, not falling over the furniture, and remembering to extinguish cigarettes before going off-stage. Maybe even sitting in our studies we embody this dual involvement, this divided self: we're in the story, and outside it. But then in the rest of life, too, writers stand slightly outside their world as well as inhabiting it, don't you find?

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