Literary criticism from The Simpsons

I was watching an old episode of The Simpsons the other day which had a scene set at a literary festival. As authors stood disregarded by their piles of books there was one long queue in the whole place.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newAt the head of it was Krusty the Clown touting copies of his latest biography. He pulled back a curtain to reveal his ghost-writer – the late John Updike, esteemed literary novelist, a man acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in living memory. Krusty roundly abused Updike as a cheap hack and Updike humbly took it – happy to be earning a living churning out celebrity dross.

It was funny, perhaps a little cruel. Like all good satire it had a sliver of ice in its heart.

It made me think about the way that our culture actively discourages people from writing at all, and particularly from writing good quality books. If you want fame, success, significant financial rewards then, first of all, you are better off not writing books of any kind and, if you must write, then you are better to write what sells which is celeb biogs, mechanically written romance novels, self-help books, genre pot-boilers and the rest.

Heaven knows, there is a place for all of these, and if people want to read them then well, I’m just glad they are reading something in this age when not reading books at all seems to have become the default setting. And I also think that there are writers producing all of the above types of book who do so professionally and well and produce great reads.

But writing surely should also be an art form where the aim isn’t just to make money but to produce good work. Work which resonates and adds something to the cultural debate and has a chance of lasting. That’s the part I fear we are losing in the modern age.

I have said before that one of the big surprises for me since my book was published is how many writers there are out there. How the explosion in self-publishing has lead to a huge surge in the number of people producing books. The ought to be a good thing, and in many ways of course it is.

But I think we should be concerned about the quality of a lot of what is being created and, in some cases (not all) about the mind-set that has gone into creating it. So often I hear writers boasting about how many words they have been able to churn out that day on their ‘WIP’ (the jargon shorthand some have started using for work in progress). Or how many books they have managed to produce already in their series of genre novels. The assumption seems to be that more is better, that quicker is better. There is never once a mention of quality, never a word about the joy of writing well.

The whole thing has the feel of a mass production line – a literary McDonalds, a fast-food for the soul. Is this really what we want to be as authors?

What I believe is this – if our dream is to write then that’s fantastic but please, let’s do ourselves, the reader, the world, a favour and set our sights as high as they will possibly go. There are so many bad books around and more coming every day. Why add to that pile? Society makes it difficult enough for writers without us adding to the problem.

Be the best writer you can be – that’s all anyone can ask of you, all you can ask of yourself.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Q and A – What do you read?

Today a question from L.R. Ryan, scriptwriter and author from Florida, who was kind enough to favourably review Song of the Sea God recently. You can take a look at Mr Ryan’s website and find out about his work here. If you have a question for me on writing, my book or anything else then please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to answer in a future post.

I would like to know where your reading interests lie, when you are not busy writing such a good book as Song of the Sea God?

L.R Ryan, Florida.

780px-Carlo_Dolci_-_St_Catherine_Reading_a_Book_-_WGA06372Thanks L.R – great question. I think reading is a tremendously important thing for any writer – in fact I would go so far as to say that you should never trust a writer who doesn’t read!

I’ve always loved literature, it’s been a passion of mine since I was old enough to read. Since then I’ve read constantly – mostly novels and short stories with a little poetry too. I tend to go for literary fiction rather than genre fiction, it’s just my personal preference.

I also read non-fiction, often I switch to this more or less unconsciously once I’m working on a book – perhaps so the fiction I’m reading doesn’t too much influence the style of what I’m writing. During these periods I’ll read history, biography, philosophy, popular science books of different kinds – all sorts of things. Some just for personal interest, others because they are research for what I’m writing.

infiniteCurrently I’m in a fiction reading period and I’m tackling Infinite Jest by the late lamented American author David Foster Wallace. I seem to have been reading it for an infinite amount of time. It’s a mammoth tome, a thousand pages of tiny type before you get to the notes. The end is in sight I’m happy to report! It’s regarded as a modern classic and I am enjoying it – I’d describe it as brilliant in parts – there are sections which take your breath away, but it’s a long road.

I’d say the first set of books I remember affecting my writing style and making me want to write like they did were the novels written by the generation of American novelists now recently departed. I was very influenced by authors like Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Updike and many more. These were writers with a powerful and distinctive voice, a great sense of humour and a willingness to tackle big issues with flair and gusto. I wanted to be like them. At the same time, as a short story writer I was swept away by the brutal honesty and deceptive simplicity of Raymond Carver. I still admire all of these writers. But they are just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

In terms of books which influenced Song of the Sea God, it’s quite a wide group of novels I would say. People often compare Sea God with either Lord of the Flies by William Golding or The Wicker Man, which most people remember more as a film than a book. But my own go-to comparison for Sea God is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If I’m trying to impress posh interviewers I sometimes say I based Sea God on The Tempest. It has an island, magic, a Prospero, a Caliban.

439px-CarsonmccullersBeyond that though I know there are a whole raft of books which influenced me in various ways in writing the book. These would include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, The Magus by John Fowles. There are key aspects in the plot, the characters or the telling of all these wonderful, luminous books which have made their way into Song of the Sea God.

Yet I don’t believe my book is too similar to any of these – I have taken something of their essence and tried to use it in my work. That’s the fantastic thing about reading – you are never alone when you write. You are part of a literary tradition. You produce an original book – but it depends on the wonderful work which has gone before it.

Hope that has gone some way towards answering your question LR – and thank you so much for asking it!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

The best laid plans …

How do you go about planning a novel? It’s a question an old friend and former colleague of mine asked me recently. He told me it’s been a vexed process for him has this planning stage, and I wonder if that’s perhaps because he’s become inclined to over-think the process. You should think about it of course, but not so much that it paralyses you.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newUpdike, wise old sage of American letters, suggested that, when writing a novel, you should have a good idea of where you are going to end up. You owe that much to the reader he said. I like that, because it suggests simultaneously that you do have responsibilities when writing, but that you shouldn’t let them become so crippling that you don’t get anything done.

There are many ways to plan a novel though two get talked about most, I suppose we could call them ‘all’ or ‘nothing‘. There are the ‘Planners‘, who work it all out in advance and the ‘Pantsers’ who do it by the seat of their pants.

Both ways of working out what you’re going to put in your book seem a little alien to me as my truth is more organic – a mix of planning and intuition – an evolving process which gets you both where you want to go and where you surprisingly end up. As far as planning goes. I believe you can over-think it – I also believe you can not think about it enough.

I don’t believe you can plan a book until you know what it is – you need to feel your way into it, it seems to me. This involves writing parts of it, before knowing where you are going. A few scenes, a few ideas.

Sooner or later though you realise you are on a journey with no map, and it’s never a bad idea to know which direction you are heading in. So at that stage, it might be a good idea to do some cartography – when you have the general gist of the thing, the essence of it, in your mind.

800px-Watchers_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1804638What does it feel like to have that impression in your mind, or in the pages of your notebook? I once heard that two particular groups of nerd share a curious specialist word which means a lot to them. If you are a plane-spotter or a twitcher, (a bird-watcher), then you might use the word ‘giss,’ pronounced, unfortunately, ‘jiz’. This refers to the way you can glimpse a particular aeroplane or bird in flight out of the corner of your eye for a quarter of a second, and still have a clear idea of what it is. You have got its giss. Some people say the word giss is an acronym which stands for ‘General Impression, Size and Shape.’

That’s what I like to have in my mind before I start planning my novel – the giss.

Once you have it then plan away I say.

I like to do chapter by chapter, scene by scene. As Saint John of Updike said I like to know where I’m eventually going to end up, but that doesn’t mean I do the whole thing, soup to nuts, in one go. So I like to plan for a few chapters in front of me, while at the same time being clear about my final destination.

I like to call this my ‘Underpant Gnomes’ approach to novel planning.

The Underpant Gnomes, as I’m sure you know, appeared in an early edition of South Park. They stole all the kids’ underpants under cover of darkness and, when Cartman and the gang followed them to their underground lair, they found a big Underpant Gnomes manifesto written on the wall. It read:

Phase one – collect underpants

Phase two – ?

Phase three – profit

You really do have to work out the middle ‘?’ section at some point though – otherwise you just end up with a big, useless, pile of underpants.

Oncle_VaniaSome people do drawings and plans and stuff while planning their novel – and I am one of those people. If you saw these at the end, they might seem like some genius piece of pre-planning. In fact they often happen mid-way through, to focus things, clear things up, explain them, realign them.

ErnestHemingwayHere’s something else which might help – I know it helps me: Your whole first draft is planning. If it’s not good – you can make it good. Ernest Hemingway said ‘the first draft of anything is shit’ your job is to make it not shit.

And that, my friends, is my basic approach to novel planning. I start with the underpants, aim for the profit and fill in the route between the two several steps ahead of myself as I go. By the end of course I could show you a full plan for the whole thing and make it look like I did it in advance. But in fact, I did it before, during and after.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.