Not too much reality
Fingerposts and celluloid smiles

Brainy and sexy

I've just come across this, in a terrific book about the Short Story, and it seemed to me to encapsulate what we're all up to in writing fiction. Talking about how in many of the best short story writers' work - Borges, Poe, Maugham - specific subjects and techniques recur, Valerie Shaw says that

Where originality comes over is in the skill with which a writer can simultaneously meet the demand for comforting sameness and divert it into new and often disturbing areas.

To traditional literary snobs only the new-and-disturbing is important in writing, and anything easy to apprehend is pap for the masses. To inverted literary snobs anything that's not one of the traditional pleasures of storytelling is so much high-falutin', deliberately obfuscatory nonsense. But what is a story but something we want to read? And why do we want to read it? Because we know that narrative - events and sensations that we at least partly recognise, arranged to have beginning, middle and end - gives us pleasure, and a familiar pleasure at that. And yet we also read stories to tell and show us new and strange things: making our own world new and strange, more thought-provoking/exciting/funnier/more dramatic; or showing us entirely new, strange worlds/lives/passions.

It seems to me that the more in a story that's new to the reader, whether it's language, world, ideas, form, genre-rule-breaking, the harder work it will be to get a satisfying amount from it. Some readers relish the challenge all the time; others rarely stray from comfortable ground; most of us probably move between those poles, depending on how tired we are. Whether the hard work was worth it is always going to be a largely subjective judgement. Literary criticism will always lean towards studying the new and original, because academic interest can't help looking most at difference, history, development. But just because a writer who doesn't want to try something at least a little bit new each time must be a rare beast, it doesn't mean that writers should scorn the familiar.

When I first discovered that what I wrote naturally was known in the trade as 'literary-commercial crossover', and therefore almost impossible to sell, I was baffled and frustrated. 'But that's what you are,' said my sister, and I did have the writerly wit even then to realise there was therefore precious little I could do about it. I started to think about 'crossover' in terms of how fiction operates, because I couldn't see what was wrong or impossible about what I was up to; or rather, what I would be up to when I'd learnt to do it well enough. I want to say what I hope are some quite subtle and interesting things in my fiction, about photography in The Mathematics of Love, for example, or about the nature of pilgrimage in the new novel, or about history in just about everything. I also do demand - of myself and others - really good word-by-word writing, and weak writing is most often why I reject a book that looked promising. And if that means my writing takes a bit more reading, then so be it.

But I don't see why that means I can't give myself the pleasure of writing - and I hope readers the pleasure of reading - a good tale, well told by all the traditional measures. I like 'proper' endings, thrills and spills and whodunnits, heartbreak and happiness, love and sex. I want to be desperate to know what happens next, and to care about the characters even when I hate them. Fiction is nothing if it's not human.

I hope I'll be forgiven a perhaps boastful anecdote, because it is relevant. I did, in the end, discover how to write crossover that overcame the booktrade's resistance. When I first met my editor at Headline Review, Charlotte Mendelson, I explained what I'd been trying to do: write something that pleases (pleasures?) both intellect and feeling. 'And you succeed,' she said. 'You really do. It's brainy and sexy. I can't tell you how rare that is.'

Comments