The struggle to write

I wrote a couple of posts earlier this month that I want to clarify, as I think my meaning was not as clear as it could have been.

First, Garrison Keillor wrote what I thought was an interesting article about the lot of writers not being as bad as all that — compared with having to spend 25 years in a dull, repetitive job, for example. Some writers found this point of view irritating.  "A writer", in the shape of one H. David Sapp, has hit back in an article in the Duluth News Tribune. This quote pretty much sums up Mr Sapp’s point of view (echoed by the people who commented on my earlier posting): "Of course it’s easy for a hack like him [Keillor]. He is spoiled by his fame and success. His fawning fans love everything he does, so why should he bother to strive for perfection? Writing was not so easy for great writers like Proust and Henry James, whom he dismisses. He is not worthy of sharpening their pencils. Great writers take pains with their prose and poetry because they are attempting to create immortal art, not disposable and facile entertainment. Good writing, let along great writing, is hard work, and not always a labor of love." (Thanks to Dave Lull for sending me the link to the Tribune article.)

Second, I posted a couple of times about rules for detective stories (1929 vintage) in light of Bibliophile’s thoughts on their relevance to the genre today. Some of the commenters to my posting said that their books did not or should not need to fit into "rules". I completely agree, and I did not mean to imply that all books should follow any particular rules.

The detective rules were created for the highly stylised, circumscribed "locked room" mystery or Agatha Christie-type of novel. They apply to a genre without literary pretension, which people who like plot-driven stories read for straightforward enjoyment. They are not intended to apply to any type of fiction that includes an element of detection or crime. At the time of writing the rules, detective stories were written that presented a mystery which was "solved" by a death being caused by an unknown poison that left no trace. Or the murder was done by someone who had not previously appeared in the book. Presentation of a conundrum as the main point of a story, then not solving it, is the kind of thing that lets the reader down after 200 pages of not much else apart from setting up the mystery. The rules were an early attempt to set out some basic principles for the genre, to maximise reader enjoyment.

J K Rowling’s novels are fresh, original, non-genre, commercially successful, and all the rest of it. I do not think she breaks the core rules. Her books are very tightly plotted (I am not commenting on how loosely some of them are written, but about the actual plots). Ends are not left hanging, or if they are, they are relevant to themes explored in a future book. Hints are given in earlier books that are developed subsequently (eg in book 1, Hagrid’s first appearance on Sirius’s motorbike or Harry’s ability to understand and speak to the snake in the visit to the zoo). Plots that thread through several books, eg the life of Tom Riddle, all hang together within the universe created by the author. The plotting is one of the many reasons why I completely and utterly adore JKR’s books (even though I can’t remember how to spell Patronus, as Debra Hamel pointed out).

I am not suggesting that all books should neatly resolve everything on the last page. Or that authors should be in any way constrained from writing whatever it is they want to write. All I was saying, and I think the same applies to Bibliophile although I can’t speak for her with any sure knowledge, is that if a book is presented as a "genre" detective, mystery or crime story, I enjoy it a lot more if it does not "cheat" the reader. I think most other people who like this kind of fiction would agree, because the best-selling (or most read) authors in the genre do, by and large, stick to the rules (with exceptions as previously noted).

4 thoughts on “The struggle to write

  1. I wonder if part of the issue could be in the term ‘rules’, which implies a strict universal prescription and raises hackles in a way that a list called ‘tips for detective fiction’ or ‘advice on detective fiction’ would not? A whole series of ‘Rules’ for sub-types of historical fiction were posted on various blogs earlier this year (see http://lostfort.blogspot.com/2006/02/rules-for-writing-scottish-romances.html, http://readeryblog.blogspot.com/2006/03/official-rules-for-writing-victorian.html and http://readeryblog.blogspot.com/2006/02/update-on-official-rules.html), but these were all (obviously, I hope) for fun.
    Incidentally, when you say “…a book presented as…”, how do you decide what genre it’s presented as? I ask because I’ve noticed some historical novels that have been misleadingly presented as romances or as military adventures by the cover art and cover blurb, and wondered if it also happens with mysteries?

  2. H. David Sapp’s response to the Garrison Keillor article disturbs me with its lack of civility. To call Keillor a ‘hack’ is a personal attack. Sapp might have got the same message across by using a less offensive description such as ‘prolific’. Keillor’s original comments after all were not personal attacks on any writer. As to Keillor’s prose, he has a comfortable, easy style which is exactly what one wants to read sometimes.

  3. Totally agree with Susan, can’t stand these personal attacks. Sapp should use his writers creativity to greater effect and put his money where his pen is!

  4. Thanks, Carla, I will check out those links. I think the problem was that I did not mean to convey that all books should follow rules. I guess at the end of the day, the readers will read what they like and not what they don’t!
    On the Sapp guy, Frank Wilson also agrees with Minx and Susan, see http://booksinq.blogspot.com/2006/05/second-thoughts.html.
    I have not read much of Keillor, though Malcolm has read at least one of his books. I did like his “writers don’t have it so tough” piece, but perhaps you have to be 150 to have the perspective to appreciate the position he is coming from. I can see that if you are 20 it might seem completely wrong-headed!

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