Grand writing

There’s a risk, when putting words on the page, of drifting so far from the rhythm and style of everyday-speech, that we alienate potential readers.  Just to be clear, by speech, I don’t mean dialogue, I’m talking of general prose, and writers voice…like this piece, for instance.

Although I’m addressing you in the first person, we both know you can’t interrupt, raise a query, or set me a counter argument.  This page is my podium, and the rule I’m exploiting is that only I can speak.

Consequently, I’m using words in a way that I wouldn’t in conversation.  A lot of us prosy-people like to do this.  It’s partly because of my enjoyment of language, and using precisely the right word to convey my meaning.  That’s good, that’s desirable.  But, why did I need to begin this paragraph with ‘consequently‘?  And I could have said, ‘I love words, and like to use them accurately.’ – it’s to the point: it’s just as true.

It’s not so impressive, though, is it?

I seem to be a narrator with an ego.  I try not to be, but LOOK, I’m writing, and you’re reading.  You are reading every word, aren’t you?  I want you to, but what I really want is that you enjoy these words so much you follow their route all the way to my final full-stop.

So how can I keep you?

Well, Chekov said, “Good writing is like a windowpane”.  I take that to mean that my words should not get in the way of what I’m trying to convey, whether that’s fiction or fact or something that straddles them both.  Turned the wrong way round, language can become more about the writer than it is about story.

I’m not trying to claim that all fiction should be written in the same way.  This isn’t about the vocabulary we choose, it’s about our syntax – which the Oxford Dictionary defines as, “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences”.  Sometimes it pays to think about whether that arrangement creates a tone that overpowers our content.

It’s easy to slip into a writing-style that borders on archly-academic – or do I mean, academically arch?  But be warned, using the type of prose that ‘feels’ writerly is instantly dating (don’t you think?).

pierre-bonard-painting

Pierre Bonnard, Young Woman Writing.  1908

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Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.