What we say vs how we say it

Which matters most then – what we say or how we say it?

I bet I can guess your reply. The first thought most of us will have is that, of course, what we say is most important – the message is always more important than the medium.

But we are readers of fiction, writers of fiction some of us too. Surely we are seduced by the beauty of words? If not, then why bother?

Winston_Churchill_cph_3b12010And anyway, isn’t everyone seduced by beauty? Aren’t we all stirred by eloquence? Otherwise why did Churchill slave over his wartime speeches? He could have had a civil servant bullet point the facts for him and read that out on the radiogram, without all the three-part lists and falling cadences.

Don’t bother saying:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Just say ‘We will fight wherever necessary,’ and leave it at that.

It was the poetry which mattered – in tough times, with little food and too much work and bombs raining down – it was the poetry which counted.

And why do advertising agencies exist? Surely a brisk summary of a product’s selling points would suffice?

170px-TrumanCapote1959Here’s something Truman Capote once said:

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

He was one of the most beautiful prose stylists in the language on his day old Truman. Not so much with In Cold Blood where he was trying to fit in, be liked, impress. Instead read his stories, and read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his crystal clear paean to a beautiful boy, who he had to pretend was a beautiful girl – because of the times.

02p/43/arod/15356/P2774143One of Truman Capote’s childhood chums was Harper Lee, another wonderful writer, though by no means a poet. Her one novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, I suppose, if you are only going to write one, you might as well make it a fantastic one.

It’s a curious book in some ways – more like two bundled together. One, a gentle rural remembrance, Cider with Rosie in the deep South, the other, a gritty courtroom drama about racial tensions and cultural upheaval. Both are brilliant.

That book staked Harper Lee’s claim as a great novelist, what she wasn’t, I don’t think, was a great prose stylist. Her writing was functional rather than beautiful, it was more about the message than the medium. And when her book came out, Truman, her old friend, couldn’t really understand what the fuss was about. Where was the poetry, the sublime music of the words – where was all that useless beauty?

But it was a book which meant a lot, still means a lot, to many, many people, including me. And yet, so, quite rightly, does Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So which wins – the medium or the message?

Which matters most, what we say or how we say it?

I’m calling it a dead heat.

Don’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.