In Nothing Remotely Trivial I was thinking about how moving the subject and setting of a novel away from the readers' world - in time, or space - can help to make sure the reader isn't snared by the familiar stuff of here-and-now and so held on the surface of the story. But it came up in the comments that language is another way of doing the same thing.
It can be words, as well as time or space, that make the familiar stuff unfamiliar, new, slightly different or slightly off-kilter, or strip off a layer to show me the depths. The words don't have to be weird or minimal or all-but-incomprehensible, though they may be, and if any of those mean it's also horribly, self-consciously clever, then I'm certainly not interested. It may simply be that each word is so exactly right that everything in the novel appears as things do on a day when the rain-cleared air, or the mood, or the company you're in, strips away the usual smog and shows everything afresh, extra-vivid, not transformed so much as more itself. Language that works like that give the ideas a texture I want to run my mental fingers over, makes the voices sound in my imagination as clearly as a radio play, makes my body-sense imagine the press or distance of theirs; and suddenly a scene of ordinary life that might be played out in my own High Street seems as intriguing, thought-provoking, deep-rooted in the eternal verities and peculiarities of human existence, as anything set long ago or far away. I realised that the first example that came to my mind in the comment trail was Woolf - specifically, as it happens, To the Lighthouse - because so much of what she deals with is the quotidian, and yet the result is anything but, literally, day-to-day.
I've realised that that's what I probably mean when I say something's 'well written'. Certainly, if a cover and blurb suggest that a book on the bookshop table is one I'll like, the thing which makes me set it aside again is finding that the words - prose - language - just don't grab me, let alone give me a little shake, and put me down in the world of the book. In his book about narrative, On Stories, Richard Kearney describes the origins of storytelling thus:
Someone, somewhere, sometime, took it into his [sic] head to utter the words "once upon a time"; and, so doing, lit bonfires in the imaginations of his hearers ... a tale was spun from bits and pieces of experience, linking past happenings with present ones, and casting both into a dream of possibilities.
That final phrase always chimes in my head with John Gardner's description of the goal of fiction being to create a 'vivid and continuous dream' out of building blocks of imagining and writing so convincingly solid and textured that the reader happily 'forgets to disbelieve' in the world they find themselves in. I know exactly what both he and Kearney mean, and I can't think of a better term, but I think the word 'dream' is unfortunate. Indeed, it's a classic of how a word can have an ordinary, quick-bake surface meaning that our minds skate over without gripping. To me, 'dream' implies blurry, soft-centred, impossible, unrealistic, a highly desirable cloud floating quite separately from human life. And good writing is the exact opposite of all these things: however 'other' the world it evokes, however bare-bones or elaborately baroque the language, that world must seem possible while we're in it, its textures palpable, its mores and politics self-consistent, its emotions trackable along both high roads and cul-de-sacs of feeling, the aerodynamics of its dragons and the sexual acts of its aliens convincing. I don't know about you, but my dreams aren't nearly so believable.