How would you describe it?
Comma-nd Performance

Real readers won't notice?

Shortly after a bunch of aspiring writers start wrangling over the rules (which aren't rules, but tools, of course) someone will say, "But real readers won't notice, so why should I worry?" This is particularly true if some professional feedback has indicated that something technical is awry: point-of-view, say, or showing-and-telling. One way of fending off such feedback is to say that it's missing the point: who cares, if it's a good read? And it's backed up by the first handful of books you grab off your shelf. If it was good enough for Woolf/Rowling/Dickens/wotsername-who-wrote-50-shades-of-grey then it's good enough for us.

To a degree it's true, of course. As Mark Lawson said a propos Michael Crichton, of the three aspects of fiction - narrative, ideas and prose - a weakness in one can be made up for by the other two's brilliance. Aristotle points out that story is king, so a good story with limited/unconvincing characters-in-action is better than the other way round. But, still, truly gorgeous prose and/or thought-provoking observation will keep me reading (for quite a while) even if the story is apparently quite small-scale, and a fantastic storyteller can carry the reader too well for jolting changes of point of view to spoil things ... or not too much. But one of the side-effects of working on my own writing is that I find merely-functional writing does spoil my experience even of a good story; leaving Eden like that is both a good and a bad thing. And I can see how infuriating it is for Lorrie Moore who says that she suffers sometimes from doctrinaire editors who won't let her move point of view at all; most of us would say, "But if it works, why not?". Only, of course, it hasn't worked for that editor: once you're sensitized to technical things, you can sometimes trip up on them to the point where you just can't get into the story - even though another reader would read on happily.

But, it seems to me, there's noticing, and there's noticing. One of the reasons I enjoy CD Review on Radio 3 is that when they compare different recordings of the same piece, I begin to learn what my intuitive reactions to a performance are made up of. Few of us have perfect pitch, only some of us will consciously notice that a choir isn't in tune, but many, many more will just not feel/get/enjoy/be-swept-away by the music as we would be if it were. And the same goes for rhythm, or timbre, and above all by the musical thinking and understanding that are controlling them. There is a reason that the Berlin Phil gets the recording contracts and your nice amateur orchestra doesn't, and it isn't that Simon Rattle has a better publicist. So I'd argue that beyond those few, and those some, there are many/a majority whose experience of the story will be affected by technical things, even if they're not conscious of them at all.

So I don't think it's a matter of noticing the tense, or point-of-view, or psychic distance, or any other technique, in a conscious way. Yes, we've trained, as writers, to notice consciously what writers do, but that's not really what the author wants of us, or why they use the techniques we all work with. Only writers who have totally lost touch with what storytelling is for write novels mainly in order to express their interest in technique. (And I'm very interested in technique, but that doesn't mean I want or expect my reader to be, and that's not why I write my novels.) For all other writers, technique is a means to an end. And, as ever, you know that a writer is writing really well when even as a fellow writer you stop noticing how they're doing it.

So one of my criteria in judging competitions is that, among the 2% of the entries which are good enough to make the longlist, there are a few in which I stop noticing technical things and become an eager reader again. It's those those which will probably win, not because their technique is so good, but because the technical engineering is working so well to express the writer's project that the engineering is invisible, even to the likes of us writers. 

So what can you do, if you have become super-sensitized, but don't want to become the kind of reader or editor or teacher who judges only by rules kept or broken because they don't know good writing when they see it? The best I can come up with is to "think in pencil"... which is how I mark my students' work: prepared to re-consider a "mistake" in the larger context. Because students and other aspirers are supposed to be learning technique, I can't just ignore places where they don't put those techniques into practice, even if this time it's doing no harm, or even doing good, in the story. So you will, often and often, find me writing something like, "Normally I'd say that these comma-splices (or this Telling) should be sorted out (or made Showing), but here I think it works, because you want her to sound confused and incoherent (or bored and office-speak-y)." On the other hand, often and often a comma-splice is a just comma-splice, not an effective creative decision, and office-speak is a hangover from the day job.

Of course, hearing the "mistake" alarm-bell, and then trying to see if it's actually a good "mistake", takes longer, and explaining it takes longer still, than either ignoring or just "correcting" the comma-splices or the Telling, to what they should be by orthodox standards. It's confusing to some aspiring writers, too, to be told that X is wrong, except when it's right, because you're taking away their life-raft of certainty. Sorry.