Sometimes you have to stop
Brainy, sexy and starbursts

What does a blackbird singing mean to you?

It's nearly dark outside (yes, it's taken me all this time to get my cold-sodden brain round The Wasteland, for tomorrow's seminar) and out in the street a blackbird is singing. Not the full song that's like the trickle of spring water on stone, but the chink-chink-chink alarm call. It's such an evocative noise: for me it's a London sound that evokes layers of childhood, specificities of light and scent that I can't begin to write, but I think many people would find it had a very particular resonance, metaphorically speaking. Just not the same resonance.

And thinking that, I was reminded of the one time I've been asked to read a film script for a friend. Yes, the questions of structure and narrative were not dissimilar, but where was everything else I would put in a novel? Subtext, thoughts, patterns of ideas and images (in the literary sense). Some, of course, is supplied by director, actors, director of photography. But there's so much that film simply has no way of showing. Human consciousness, for a start: without making a character say it, how could a film show what that blackbird evoked for them? Yes, of course, there are things that can be done with montage, flash-back and so on. But in a novel you don't have to resort to specific techniques outside the normal narrative flow: what characters are thinking and feeling is all part of the same forward-movement of the prose, the stream of that human consciousness.

I'm not trying to be rude about film as a medium or an art form: there are all sorts of things it can do that prose can't easily. Because I tend to 'see' scenes before I write them, I've often thought of a joke or a point I could make, then realised it's purely visual, and would take longer to explain - feebly - in words than the point is worth. But prose and poetry are the only art forms which have no sensory content in themselves. Paintings (including abstract ones) evoke images, but the colour and texture of the paint is part of them; songs have words which say things, but some of what they do is about sounds that strike our ears there, in the concert-hall or the club. This immediate physical experience the artist can control, as she or he can't control what the work of art makes the audience think. But a book is just paper and ink under the fingers.

So I'm wondering if the less tied a narrative art is to the realistically visual, and the sensory experience of the moment, the more free it is to expand its audience's experience in different directions. CGI is a wonderful thing, but am I the only person who finds most special effects faintly plastic-looking, begging for a kind of knowing wonder not so different from how we look at Tinkerbell on her wires? Whereas with a bare stage and a few props good actors can travel the world before our eyes. And, with even less physical presence, there's nowhere a novel can't take its readers. Only, of course, where the readers go may not be where the writer intended.

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