Thirty Seven Summers Old

My son (13) is taking a look at some of the stories written by my customers, as part of the lit. crit. syllabus of his home schooling.

Among his various insights was that people didn't seem to know what year it was; instead they say "it were nobbut three summers gone" or "he'll be of age two winters hence". Even after I pointed out that the stories were set in a fantasy world more or less analogous to Medieval Europe (aren't they all?*), he insisted that people would have known what year it was even if they weren't themselves literate.

The convention of "rural folk" using "charming" expressions like these seems to have been a largely nineteenth century invention (I find very few references to it before then, but it seems to explode after Thomas Hardy. I've searched the text of four Hardys without finding it in them, yet books that are described as "reminiscent of Hardy" all seem to contain it!).

Indeed we have historical and archaeological evidence that people have known what year it was going back thousands of years.

Now if you are writing a fantasy set in a world you created, this little bit of poetic licence might be apposite if you really can't avoid referring to a specific year (for which you would have to go to the trouble of inventing a calendar), but why wouldn't you just say "three years" ?

The word "year" itself appears to be unbelievably ancient and almost unchanged. Doug Harper shows that the word is common across many languages, modern and ancient, and may have originally been an idea representing a "complete cycle" – a frankly more probable and useful image than that of summer's lease – as evidenced by the durability of the word.

Like many literary conventions, writers have got so into the habit of seeing "twenty summers" in the rural/historical genre that they start to feel uncomfortable with "twenty years". You should not. It has a long and distinguished pedigree, and a power and meaning that is more complete and more significant that the twee poetic charm of any individual season, so you should claim back the word "year" and use it with pride and confidence!


* at least two of my customers manage to deviate from this norm, so no, they aren't all.


The difference between …

If I was one of those no-nonsense, hard hitting, no punches pulled kind of editor, this is one of those posts where I'd claim that I was trying to get you to "face up" to a "harsh reality".

Thankfully, I don't believe in natural talent or that some writers are "innately special".

Some writers are special. It's just that there are reasons for it.

And here's why this might not be about facing a harsh reality: you might be one of them.

There is a difference. The difference between a story and "things that happen". The difference between a character and a person. The difference between narration and "saying what happened". The difference between, yes, art and reporting.

Again, I don't think art  is magical. Great artists are usually extraordinary people, but it takes an extraordinary person to study their art obsessively for their whole life, in an unending and insatiable search for ever-shifting perfection. So it's hardly surprising that the people who become great artists usually bend that way.

Today, there are a lot of writers who are doing something that not everyone can do. They are inventing intriguing and engaging sequences of events involving intriguing and engaging personages, and writing those into novels using sound, clear and often lively and engaging English.

And don't get me wrong - there is room on the virtual bookshelf for them. But what they are creating is, to put it dryly, lacking an extra dimension that is found in the classics of literary art. To put it more colourfully, what they are creating is a microwave lasagna.

The common factor in everything that I have grown accustomed to calling art, is that it uses its medium to communicate ideas or feelings that are difficult to express otherwise, and which is some cases are more strongly expressed through the chosen artistic medium than they would have been if expressed (the way I, a non-artist, generally expresses them) through a few carefully selected words.

Novels are no different. The medium of the novel is the narration, characters and plot, in the same way that the medium of a painting is paint. The message of a novel can be as subtle and subjective or as blatant and obvious as the message of a painting.

Am I saying that a novel without a message isn't art?

Yes, I suppose I am.

One of my clients wrote a science fiction short story; it has spaceships and monsters and clones in it (but no ray-guns). I know it was art because I could sum it up with:

This is a story about motherhood.

If I took the time (and I try not to deconstruct my clients' work too much), I could show that there were clues in every layer of the story: choice of words; sentence structure, paragraph structure, imagery, metaphor, scenery, action both as itself and as a symbol for the theme. Conscious and unconscious imagery abounds in the story, and while part of the plot is (in a very limited way) about a mother-daughter relationship, the story's underlying message is about a universal ideal of motherhood.

Not every writer, either consciously or unconsciously, even attempts this level of thematic integration. However it has come as something of a surprise, dipping into some of the better known indie successes of the last couple of years, that some writers make no attempt whatever at even having a message, let alone thinking of it as a theme and introducing resonant symbolism and harmonic (or discordant) language.

I have gone on record as saying that you can learn to be a better writer by reading, writing and telling stories aloud. But if your stories do nothing beyond saying "this is what happened to these folks" then you are a reporter, not an artist.

Even if your stated purpose is "just to entertain", you should know that many, if not most, readers will be more entertained by a book with a message than one without.

But as I say; no harsh realities. My job (thank goodness) is not to tell you you're no good. It is to teach you how to get better. Without a message, all art is meaningless*. The first step to getting a message is to find a theme. You can "end up" with a theme "unconsciously". But don't count on it. Better to select one.

To begin with, there's no need to be clever or complex. Pick a character trait that annoys you in others; pick an aspect of being alive that fills you with joy; think about something that's fundamentally wrong with the world; think of something good that is undervalued.

You will soon discover that incorporating this idea into the events, the characters and even the very words of your story is remarkably easy. It's so easy, indeed, that sometimes the difficult part can be avoiding laying it on too thickly.

As you start to develop the idea, start thinking of ways to represent it visually. This can become a motif. An image that is repeated in different forms.

Exemplum: your theme is the way that people repeat their past mistakes. You select as a visual motif a circle. The circle appears in the events of the book as a roundabout; a water wheel, a racetrack, a coin. The plot involves a McGuffin that the main character has at the start, loses, and regains by the end. The first and last chapters have remarkably similar titles. You begin and end one of the chapters with the same sentence. One of the characters tends to keep using certain words, in different contexts, but always in the same order, cyclically.

It can begin to sound like this is playing a rather exclusive and somewhat academic game, like the Times Cryptic. But the above example isn't an example of how to do it well, so much as how to do it at all. As you practice your touch gets lighter, your motif harder to spot and more changeable, you introduce uncertainty to the theme as you try to strike an ever finer balance between communicating your message and convincing the reader to keep going to the end.

Maybe you don't want to create art. Edward Lear (of the nonsense poems) created some of the most astonishing illustrations of birds ever made; each hand-coloured lithograph strikingly vivid and alive. These illustrations demonstrate prodigious skill with the lithographer's toolkit. I really don't know whether they have a message at all, but when I compare them with Lear's poetry I'm left in very little doubt that they aren't what I think of as art, since each illustration communicates as much as possible of what is needed to identify the bird, but nothing more.

It is the same if what you do when you write a story is communicate as much as possible of what is needed to give the reader an experience of what happens in the story, but nothing more.

So don't tell me you're not an artist. I won't complain, however, if you tell me you're not an artist yet.

* Unless, Tristan, since art must reflect life and life is absurd, art must also be absurd.


A Good Review

It is a common preoccupation in the arts in general. We worry about what others are saying about our work. And for writers, the review can seem like it's the most important response we can get; those stars on Amzn can rather dominate your view.

I'm inclined to feel that it is a mistake to attach too much importance to the number of stars. Unless they are almost all * or **, I'm not sure that they will influence the potential reader as much as the content of reviews.

So the question arises: what is a good review, who is a good reviewer? And what makes a review influential. It's easy to get caught up in the fallacy of subjective vs. objective opinions.

Anyone who has an "objective" response to your work can't possibly like it - what you create when you write, whether you want to or not, is art, culture; it can only be understood, interpreted, experienced, in context. This means that the only meaningful review is a subjective one.

That out of the way, there are (very broadly speaking) three types of commentary on written work:

1) the textual analysis. This gets as close as it is possible to get to being objective, by describing only the writer's techniques, devices, conceits. 'Author seeks to affect the reader using technique X.' This is dry and academic, but is essential to learn to do it if you mean to do the next type:

2) literary criticism. This arose in the mid twentieth century as a means of discussing and informing. Google F R Leavis for the background. Lit Crit does not seek to be objective but to place work in a broader cultural context. The aims of lit crit are what were essentially bastardized to create the literary review culture of the second half of the twentieth century.

3) book reviews. Book reviews are a comparatively recent phenomenon, which arise from a classroom exercise devised in the mid twentieth century in order to teach children the basics of critical sense. The first step is "I liked/disliked this book because ... ". That step, originally intended to awaken the critical sense, has the side effect of convincing the student that it is how he feels about the work that matters most in the review. In my opinion, he is right to think so, and all reviews should take this ultimately honest and somewhat biographical approach. If a reader can't give you personal reasons for liking or disliking your work then he is hiding something.

I don't think that writers have some magical knowledge, nor any specific technical knowledge, that makes them better reviewers. It probably makes them better at writing reviews but as story editors like me will tell you, content is not the same as execution. Ultimately, the purpose of a textual analysis is to examine writers' technique. This is of great value to the writer as well as the academic, because it helps him to get to become more conscious of himself and his habits. Literary Criticism is perhaps of lesser value to the writer; it is intended as a means of discussing writing, though, so it is a worthwhile study to those writers who seek to improve their work through writer's groups and fora, or working with a developmental editor. The purpose of a book review is to help readers to decide whether or not to try the book. That might sound pretty narrow, but it's a really big thing.

The most influential reviews reveal as much about the reviewer (if not more) as they do about the book. This information about the reviewer gives other readers a cultural context in which to gauge the subjective content of the review, and through this to form an expectation of what their own reading experience might be.

So, any review which takes the form "this book is X, this book is Y" is not a useful review. Any that takes the form "I like/dislike this book because" is both valuable and influential.

There is no such thing as "objective" evaluation of culture. Even style is chimeric enough that writers will feel differently about it. Being a writer, even a good writer, does not make you a good critic nor a good reviewer. Each of these is a different (though related) skill, and as in all such cases, practice, good examples to follow, good advice and more practice are what makes you good at it.

In a sense, a good negative review is beneficial to the author. A reviewer who states clearly that he didn't like it, and expresses why in a way that reveals his personal and cultural context, will be helping those readers who ought not to read it. And their avoidance of your work means they won't be posting negative reviews.