The Flaws That Hold Us Back
Every writer, no matter how brilliant she or he is, eventually becomes aware of the flaws in their work. They’re usually things we can’t do much about because they stem from our personalities, and going against the grain is very difficult. JG Ballard and Arthur C Clarke have often been criticised for not writing more rounded characters, but if they had would it have detracted from their main purpose, to explore big ideas? I wonder if Jim Ballard ever sat down and thought ‘I must make this character more likeable?
In much of Tom Stoppard’s earlier writing he would kill a scene stone dead in order to make a clever verbal joke. Stephen Sondheim is regarded as the greatest of all theatre lyricists but is a technical fusspot more concerned with the purity of internal rhymes than he is with character. Many female British crime writers make the cardinal mistake of giving their male investigators too many feelings – these are men who are rarely in touch with their inner femininity. I’ve lost count of the number of times a copper looks back at a colleague and starts mentally beating himself up about saying the wrong thing. That’s simply not how men think.
Equally, there are many male writers who cannot write female characters. One bestselling author I personally know is utterly incapable of writing woman’s roles – but he mystifyingly remains in the Top Ten lists. Some authors can only ever write one book over and over, disguising and permuting it. Others, like myself, hop about too much, part of the short-attention-span generation.
I’m always being pulled up by editors who want more scenic detail in my writing, but I assume my readers stay with me. You don’t need to know the colour of the leaves on the trees. Inevitably, though, I return to certain themes. I’m a middle-class white male, and some subjects are bound to keep arising.
Recently I completed the first draft of a thriller set in the Middle East, in which I suppressed my natural instincts to be warm, to make jokes, to introduce fantastical elements. I kept everything very straightforward. Two people read it and detested it – a friend in New York thought the setting ‘uniformly unpleasant’, and an agent here thought it unsaleable. I was trying something new. I still think they’re wrong and it’s good, and as it has only been judged by a sample of two, I should return to it at some point.
My good friend Joanne Harris has a hit every time she writes about France and food, and softer sales when she writes more edgily – but her big secret is that she’s a rock chick at heart and can write what she likes – unfortunately the public is keen to retain a single image in their collective head for each author’s style.
It’s something that affects most of my fiction-writing friends. Jake Arnott, looks like an East End gangster and found fame writing to that image, but he has many other excellent styles. China Mieville doesn’t take new readers where they think the book they bought will go – the terrific, mad ‘Kraken’ is hardly about the theft of a squid at all.
The answer is to write to the chocolate cake principle. This is the idea that when presented with a bowl of fruit or a chocolate cake, people choose the fruit because they think they should, but when presented with the same choice after a hard day’s work they pick the cake as a reward. I should probably write a mad, surreal, fantastical funny novel that flies off in all directions – in theory, I’d have a ball and my energy would transmit itself to the page.
Unfortunately there’s the market to think of. Right now, it’s deeply conservative, backward-looking, repressed. So in the meantime I’ll have to iron out my naturally perky personality and do the glum stuff – outside of Bryant & May stories, of course!