Muses on writing (and a little bit about Twilight & Breaking Dawn)

The game of writing has changed. It is no longer the case, as it used to be, that the people reading books are as informed as the people writing them. In the days of Hardy, of Dickens and of the other Victorian masters, for example, only the rich and the well educated reached for their spectacles and, removing their books from their libraries and reclining at ease in front of their fires, placed trembling fingers against the pages’ edges. A shared pool of knowledge and appreciation led to wonderful sprawling tales, decedent language and testing moral questions.

Lest you think I am an Imperialist hankering for the days of British dominance (which I am) let me tell you some American books have made it onto my radar. Of course they are still English, so to speak, in as much as they are written in the Queen’s language, but I’m willing to grant them a certain level of independence. Where now would you find a writer of Steinbeck’s ilk, for instance, whose fantastic Grapes of Wrath opens with a long and languid description of the red dust towns of Oklahoma, where the harsh beauty of the characters’ surroundings resonates fiercely with their struggle to survive the Great Depression? And Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville – how are we now to find a book so intelligently littered with classical references?

All that once was, is no longer now. No more is reading restricted to the hobby of the refined, us plebs can join in too. Of course this can only be a good thing, but, as one finds with Socialism, there are certain disadvantages to the spreading of wealth. As more and more people began picking up books it was inevitable that the delicate balance between writing and reading earlier described could never be maintained. Many new and shiny markets emerged where previously there might have lingered only a few old and dusty ones. In short, reading became popular, the curse of all things once great.

It is simply not feasible to write a book in the style of yesterday unless you are satisfied with the fact that only a very small percentage of the world’s audience will be interested. Books that used to take the fancy of the traditional reader do not take the fancy of their modern cousin, whose tastes are rather more fleeting.The overwhelming majority of today’s readers are all about fast plots and catchy themes.

Of course it is not the case that a book can no longer be beautifully written, indeed it often helps if it is. But the times are long gone where an author might go on for pages at a time about the gnarl in a tree trunk, or move their readers to tears simply by describing the way in which the gentle winter sun catches the shining grief in a character’s eye. Descriptive language is subservient to plot; it must be there for a reason. If it isn’t then the book won’t sell. Simple as.

To my mind, at the moment the books bringing home the most money (not always the best measure of value) tend not to be remarkably written. Indeed it seems there are only two things you need to produce a successful book these days, and neither of these actually has anything to do with writing. The first is a smouldering front cover, preferably featuring some hunky looking young men without many clothes. The second, of course, is an attention grabbing lure along the following lines – “She married him for love, he married her for blood…” The bait is thrown, the fish is caught, hook, line and sinker.

Indeed, this powerful combination, if put to correct use, creates so much hysteria that the fact that the book could have been written by a less than gifted five year old does not appear to matter. The success of the launch can then be measured according to how many screaming teenage girls wet themselves awaiting a signed copy.

To see this phenomenon at work one must look no further than the US box office, where the film adaptation of Breaking Dawn, the final instalment in the disturbingly average ‘Twilight‘ series took $139.5 million on its opening weekend. Now compare that, if you will, to the paltry $5.135 million taken home by the Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s take on Hunter S. Thompson‘s Puerto Rican romp. I have not seen either of the films, indeed it might be the case that Breaking Dawn (film) is better than the Rum Diary (film), but as a measure of interest it is clear where the power lies. The books, of course, are incomparable.

Do not take me for a snob. I am one, of course, but I would like to hide that fact. I am not a particularly gifted wordsmith; I am not writing this post out of frustration because I am not able to tell the stories I want to tell – I would not be able to tell them anyway. Rather I just want to highlight the fact that, when standing in Waterstones surrounded by all the books about Vampires and Werewolves, an honest reader can sometimes feel a little lost.



Filed under Rants, Raves & Reviews, Raves

11 responses to “Muses on writing (and a little bit about Twilight & Breaking Dawn)

  1. sarahjaneprosetry

    Well crafted, and well stated.

    My analogy of the Twilight series. They are like a bag of Lays potato chips. You devour the entire bag in one sitting, feeling empty and queasy and possibly a bit nauseous, wondering why on earth did you ever do that? But when the next bag crosses paths with you, you do it all again with the same results.

  2. alee9

    Admirable courage in this that you’ve written. A mob could have swarmed and smothered you if this were louder said on the streets. I have long given up trying to figure out what makes a book a best seller. It’s true readers turn up everywhere not only in buses these days but on pedestrian walks, reading something in a tiny tablet the size of their palms. Did you know that it is now possible for authors to self-publish in an instant? Those days when mailed manuscripts would take years of refinement in publishers’ confines and through editors’ eagle eyes and claws have fallen into autumn dawns. It should be a good thing and maybe years from now, if the trend goes the way the early days of reading from chapbooks of folk stories to literature, our lamentation will end as this dreadful slide would right itself. But please do keep up reminding the reading world, and prop up those like you (and me) who relish indeed a page of description to hint at character and mood in a story, that words exist not so much in reality but beyond it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this fine blog. Thank you, most of all, for visiting jornales and your kind comment on my haiga.

  3. I find it at once refreshing to stumble onto a conversation regarding classic literary works. I must confess that I am not entirely partial to the classics, though I feel they are often the target of much neglect. As a child, I learned to read mostly by studying a king james bible written in “obsolete” English. I found it quite beautiful, especially compared to the newer translations. I carried around an old tattered copy of Shakespeare in my pocket for a long time, and wondered why writers do not strive to move readers beyond the common tongue today as they did then. On the other hand, there were many people at that time who felt the same about their generation’s literature. Poe is among my favorites. I don’t think he is especially brilliant in form, but I relate strongly to his concepts and construction. Sometimes that humanity is the key to enjoying literature for me. I have read the Twilight series and I quite enjoyed it. It currently sits on a shelf not far from Milton, Homer, C.S. Lewis, and Michael Chrichton. Not that any of those share similar categories, but I read and enjoy them all. I remember studying the origins of the Latin Vulgate and thinking how interesting it was that the Latin it was written in was termed “vulgar” or common when, in my society, knowing any Latin at all makes you seem intelligent to the average person. As the debates raged in the courts where Mozart composed about which language was the finest for writing operas, so the quality of current culture will always be brought into question, and rightfully so. We face a highly under-literate generation that has never learned the value of timeless literary expression. I look forward to the day when the teens who relate with Twilight can emmerse themselves in Dickenson, and the snobs can see the cultural expression in Twilight. There is value in all forms, but ignorance in biased cultural isolation. Your thoughts highlight a desperate need in our culture for literary refinement. If you can bless the world with a higher expectation of written art, then I for one will thank you 🙂

  4. Thanks for the (epic) comment. I agree with you entirely that there is value in all forms. If only there were some way for the truth to be exposed.

  5. Ahhh, another diatribe on the superior sales of poor writing, while fitting into a hackneyed genre all of its own. 😉
    I imagine writers must also hate smilies. I must say, this blog could do with more visuals — careful choice (or better yet crafted creations) to illustrate the words. Or do you also valorize the day when readers would treasure pure black and white verbosity. As you say, there were few readers back in that day — and for good reason: poor marketing.

    Sorry, your writing brings out my playful side. Thank you.

  6. I think the fact that there were few readers back in the day might have had something more to do with poor widespread education than poor marketing but it is an interesting suggestion re. pictures. I guess I feel that an author’s words should stand on their own, but I confess that, in certain cases, a picture or two might take the experience to the next level.

    No problem re. your playful side. It is always exhilarating to have my writing so eloquently described. I am only sorry that you feel it matches such a description. One does wonder quite how my ‘diatribe’ might fit into a hackneyed genre if it is standing there alone.

  7. Out of the ordinary information. Credit on behalf of the info!

  8. Yeah, I am sure you were right. Prosperity was low, education few.
    I never feel an author’s words should stand alone. I taught university for 12 years and had colleagues that said the same. The would just lecture or just show powerpoints with words — lots of words. I experimented with audio, visual and even kinesthetic learning to reach all side of various brains. To push myself outside my preferred mode was a great exercise.

    Concerning diatribe: I meant that I have heard many authors, over the years, lament those who want more than words. The hated Japanese Manga (graphic novels) and even movies. They wished for the days of living by candle and only reading pictureless books.

    I had a period of my life where I valorized something similar. I lived in a thatched hut with water from a stream and a kerosine lamp. I read a while, but I found my vision wasn’t what is was cracked up to be for me. But I know people who do love that simplicity — I just learned it was not me.

    (thanx for letting me ramble.)

    • I accept the diatribe remark, but I rather thought I might have distinguished myself from the hordes of people saying similar things by explaining why I feel the game of writing has changed resulting in less ‘classics’ and more ‘pop fiction’ which, rightly or wrongly, does not float my boat.

      I enjoy the image of you in thatched hut with fading vision. I like my laptop too much to try something similar.

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