I have all kinds of problems with novels. I enjoy the telling of a story, but that seems to conflict with everything that a ‘grown up’ book must be if it’s to fulfill the complicated criteria of novel. There’s a prescriptive definition of what we’ve decided a novel should be, and I don’t understand who made these decisions, or why, but everything about these grown-up books seem arbitrary to me. And post-modern books with footnotes are still responding to the same demands and market so can’t escape the charge either (and yes, I know I wrote one like that. But mine doesn’t count, because it’s not a real novel, or attempt at a work of art. The idea of it being subjected to any kind of cultural exegesis terrifies me. It’s simply a piece of opportunistic fun).
But there are mighty and beautiful books where everything about their structure makes excellent sense, and the cleverness and lucidity of them stands out like lonely inspiration. I can’t help but notice these are very often children’s books, and one of them is Winnie the Pooh – a creation so stunningly well-written you’ll fall out of your tree reading it. The writing is funny, you see. Not just the situations. Not just characters, and not just the things they say. The writing itself.
One very seldom comes across such entertaining and unpretentious writing, but here it is again in the shape of Catherine O’Flynn, whose first book What Was Lost was rightly decorated with prizes a few years ago, and whose second The News Where You Are has just come out. Now, Cath has a very special way of looking at the world. The new book has been critiqued a little for its unconventional plot structure, but it seems to me that this one isn’t really about the plot arc at all, any more than Winnie the Pooh is. Who cares about what event appears in which order? The fact is that Cath is a joyously brilliant writer. Every single page has a fantastic surprise on it, a turn of phrase, a very funny line, a sensitive character note – which makes you want to keep going to find out what will be the next great thing she can do with writing. Where will her writing take you? Which motivation or theme will she spear next with a few very well-chosen words?
Because that’s what it comes down to when I’m reading a book – the writing. Aside from thrillers and those other genres where structure is everything, the plot of a novel need not be the point. Novellists spend months of their lives and entire pounds on post-it notes creating labyrinthine plots, but I don’t think that’s what makes a book worthwhile. I don’t think it’s even what makes a story worthwhile. If you want the benefits of plot, the suspense, the revelations, the visceral thrills and the spills, you might as well see a film. And many do.
With books, all I care about is the words. Not the big picture of the book on its historical shelf stretching waaaay back to the birth of the novel. Not even the story, really, in the sense of one damn thing happening after another. No, the words are the reason it’s a book. They are the bottom line, the detail, and I notice them. I notice the hell out of them. So, writers, if you have characters saying things in a book, for god’s sake make them talk like they would talk. Get over yourself and listen to people in the world speaking. That’s all you have to do, stop listening to yourself, and listen to everyone else.
It sounds so simple, but it must be extremely difficult because I so rarely see it happen – and I’ve never even attempted it myself, because I am not over myself. Most of the books I’ve read in the last year are written by people who are not over themselves. There they are everywhere in their book, pointing me this way and that, puppeteering their mini-mes around the place, veils wafting up under the force of some cliched breeze to reveal their grinning faces everywhere, like in Being John Malkovich.
A writer once told me, “All your characters will sound like you. That’s fine. All my characters sound like me.” But I don’t think it is. It really really gets in the way. Bad dialogue is one of the key things that turns a light bulb on over the author’s head. It turns a book into a complicated, culturally meaningful artifact that demands to be understood on some level other than as a great story. That’s its defense mechanism: throwing the reader into special meta-understanding – and a language of language always divides people. But this is just one of the many tedious things that transform books from accessible stories into demanding rule-riddled disciplines; an unfathomable self-importance stands between me, with my love of an involving fiction, and the stories people write for adults.
All of this – the ubiquitous author-presence, the anxiousness to place in a ‘tradition’, the impossible glory our society showers on anyone who’s ever had a book published – all of this comes from our inability to let go of some desperately imagined cultural heyday. It’s smoke and mirrors, and even with the best intentions they’re all saying “My book must mean I’m clever because books like this are clever”. Novels seem continually to be asking me to make allowances for them, to permit that the possibility that it might be me who’s in the wrong. For what they are – for what they REALLY are – books punch far above their weight.
It makes you wonder if writing books is something people do because they rather like the sound of their own voice. Catherine O’Flynn is brilliant to read because she likes the sound of other people’s voices. I think she is my favourite writer, maybe ever. Give her a go.