It ain't what you do...
A Modest Proposal

Storied creatures

I've never read any of Michael Crichton's fiction, but Mark Lawson's discussion of his work in The Guardian got me thinking. I've always maintained that, far from being sniffy about huge-selling writers with no apparent literary merits, all writers, whatever their ambitions for their own work, should have a long, hard look at what it is which those mega-sellers do, and readers in their millions so clearly want. Not just because snobbery is an unattractive quality, and even more unattractive in writers than in others because writers have some pretensions to seeing further into human nature. It ill becomes us to assume that so many millions of our fellow-humans are simply so coarse in fibre or ignorant that they don't know any better, and we had better bar the gates to these barbarians now. (Don't believe me that there are writers who think like that? Drop by a writing forum full of wannabe literati and listen in for - oh, all of ten seconds.) 

But nor should we be long-hard-looking because we'll write whatever it takes - distort our natural writing into whatever shape it needs - to achieve Martina Cole's sales. Indeed, I agree with Mark Haddon that there's no moral obligation on an artist to appeal to the largest possible audience: if what you want to do is make art for a small audience who will utterly 'get' it, then that's fine by me, and if I'm part of that audience, that perfect fit may be one of the great aesthetic moments of my life. But writers by definition are trying to be heard: in a very real sense a piece of writing only exists when it's being read and, clearly, whatever the megasellers are getting so right has the potential to be a carrier-signal for all the other things we're trying to do with our fiction, and get those things heard. And when you look, what those mega-sellers are usually doing so well is plot. Mark Lawson hits the nail on the head, not just about that, but about fiction in general. 

Broadly, there are three basic elements that a novel can contain: narrative, ideas and prose. Novelists can still flourish within different markets if their essential talent is storytelling (Jeffrey Archer), thinking (John Berger) or crafting sentences (John Updike), but it is exceptionally rare for an author to have the gift of all three: John le Carré is the primary example. Crichton was unusual in a genre obsessed with narrative in also being fascinated by ideas, but his prose, a bare and sometimes ugly scaffolding for the facts and twists, held him back from higher literary standing: one reason that The Andromeda Strain is the most accomplished of his books is that it is deliberately written in the neutral tone of science reporting.

This seems to me a brilliant exposition of what's going on in a novel, and not just because for me, too, LeCarré is as good as it gets. For example, I still have terrible trouble answering the question, 'What's The Mathematics of Love about?' because the questioner wants me to tell the viewers about the story - it's two love stories - but my natural answer is 'Voyeurism, transgressive sex and lost children': the ideas, in other words. To some extent the stories in the novel are my scaffolding for the things I want to say, from the nature of love against the rules, to how it feels to look at a portrait of yourself made by someone else. Even the prose becomes part of the ideas, as well as being a pleasure in itself and a means of communicating the story and the ideas, because my narratives are almost always characterised. When I'm thinking about a new novel - which I'm doing very busily at the moment - I'm trying to work out a plot which will bring out the ideas, and the characters which embody them, and will make the most of my strengths as a prose writer.

Only of course there's no point in carefully doing all that, if the plot isn't one which keeps people reading. Whatever you think of Jeffrey Archer's novels, in the end, I think we have to realise that narrative is the sine qua non of fiction, which is why plot dominates most mega-sellers. Indeed, it's one of the reasons I and so many writers subscribe to what you might call the NaNoWriMo philosophy: writing first drafts fast and furiously means we approach the reader's experience of our plot, and feel as nearly as we can its pace and shape and rhythm. Everything else - more subtle ideas, more perfect prose - can come later. As a fascinating post on a relatively new blog, by a narrative psychologist and writer, describes it we are storied creatures: the only way humans can apprehend anything of past or future is by casting them as stories. Storytelling can do without brilliant thinking, or beautiful writing, but ideas and prose without narrative - however demanding the narrative is of the reader's input in something like Ulysses - may be many things, but they're not a novel.

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