Writing 101: The Year We Went Dumb

Reading & Writing


“The love of the painter standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. Standing with him in the room the rearing canvas stares back with tentative shapes halted in their growth, moving in a new rhythm from floor to ceiling. The twisted tubes, the fresh paint squeezed and smeared across the dry upon his palette. The dust beneath the easel. The paint has edged along the brushes’ handles. The white light in a northern sky is silent. The window gapes as he inhales his world. His world: a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. He is in love.”

That’s from Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, in a section about the act of artistic creation. I hope writers still feel this level of passion, because I’m not seeing much sign of it in popular novels this year. They’re starting to dumb down very quickly indeed.

For decades British TV comedy shows relied on some kind of historical knowledge for its sketches. Apparently the national loss of interest in ‘All the history you remember’ has hastened the decline of comedy. What’s the point of infusing your work with learning if no-one’s going to get it?

It’s the dilemma I have with Bryant & May – how clever should I make them? Because I can go a lot smarter with the jokes if you want. But when I included a funny bit in ‘The Burning Man’ that even my editor didn’t get I realised maybe I’d gone too far.

Someone posted me this, which I found clever and hilarious, then I realised I had to ration who I sent it to.


So should we not try to elevate stories with humour and knowledge? Do we risk being called elitist if we do? Looking at the bestseller list there’s a hit book by a female crime author about a woman being raped and abused that I find unreadable, dumb and insulting, but it seems female readers can’t get enough of it. I can’t and won’t write like that, which is why I’ll never have a bestseller.

Most of the time I’m a happy chap in a good mood, and I find it very difficult to wallow in self-pity and cruelty – but clearly readers like this kind of thing. Where does it leave even the moderately smart readers? Ned Beauman’s ‘The Teleporation Accident’ was one of the smartest, most pleasurable books I’ve read in a long time, and happily, he’s found his demographic. But I cut across demographics, writing crime novels that are something else. You either get them or you don’t. It confuses people.

And I can’t change. I’ve tried and tried to produce a mass-market thriller and it has still ended up being too complex for the average girl on the train.

‘Hamilton’, the show Trump thought important enough to tweet about, is a brave intelligent hybrid, for which there is always a market in the theatre – it takes a well-heeled audience to afford the tickets.

The bottom line is that you must write to your strengths, because if you don’t the result will feel false. Then you have to hope that your readers will trust you enough to go wherever you want to take them.


13 comments on “Writing 101: The Year We Went Dumb”

  1. Gary Hart says:

    I came across Bryant and May by accident, around the time of ‘off the rails’.
    I started reading it and, it seems, almost immediately finished it. That was far too short, I remember thinking.

    I immediately went back to ‘full house’ and started from scratch. I fell in love with the characters and the situations they got themselves into. These are, to my mind, perfect.

    Since then I may have switched to e-books (so that I have all of them with me all the time, in case I need a quick fix), but I can still think of no way to improve them. (Except maybe two a year? Worth asking I suppose?)

    So carry on my friend, beef up the brains by all means. After all we all possess a dictionary don’t we.

    Thank you for the many hours of pleasure.

  2. Jo W says:

    Please Chris,don’t dumb down your writing. Put in more clever jokes and literary ‘nods’. As was just pointed out, it is possible to use a dictionary if you’ve found a new word,that’s how we continue to learn through life.
    I would,however,add a caveat here. Apparantly my six year old granddaughter was playing scrabble with her mother. “Mummy,is ed a word?” After reference to the dictionary, her mother decided to let her use the word,but thought that her education didn’t need updating with the explanation! 😉

  3. SteveB says:

    There was a whodunit writer called Reginald Hill who wrote material that was consistently easy to read but also reaching for the dictionary and spotting the allusion. It’s a balance that’s really hard to achieve.
    If you go to the Waterstones at Islington Green, and just browse around, there are loads of books finding a readership.
    And after all the Bryant and May books are hardly UNsuccessful.
    That Brechtian joke. Can it come across a bit snobbish?? I mean it’s speaking to a pretty rarefied group of people. Just a feeling. So I’m wondering, and this is just a question: where’s the line between the author challenging his/her readership and the author stopping to communicate with his/her readership? People like to be challenged, but don’t want to feel the author forgot about them.

  4. admin says:

    That’s a really good question, Steve, and I would ask you to read the Ned Beauman, which steps dangerously close to being too clever and elitist – having said that, I find his books a joy. It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy ‘readable’ books, and I would cite Magnus Mills as an example of simple language throwing up complex ideas.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Sorry, Chris, but that sample you’ve quoted would drive me away from Mr. Peake if I hadn’t already given up on him. That description leaps about, changes focus, drags in all sorts of extraneous stuff and upsets my system. And I read it not knowing the source until you gave it.
    If the reader misses a reference in your writing it doesn’t ruin the reading experience because your narrative is cohesive without. The plots don’t depend on obscure (to some) references but the pleasure is all the greater if you do “get” them.
    I saw that 4th wall joke on my Facebook feed and applauded the wit involved. That is scarcely an obscure reference – to either wall.
    Carry on.

  6. admin says:

    Perhaps you have to read it in context, Helen. I reread the book at different periods of my life and always get something different from it. But looking at the passage cold, it may seem daunting.

  7. Rh says:

    I suppose it could be argued as intent. Personally i will enjoy an allusion i dont get if it’s there to lead me on playfully to something i will enjoy… which is kind of where i think you are… but to show off, no…

  8. Charles says:

    I have to agree with Helen. Perhaps it’s because it’s out of context, but in general I don’t like extraneity.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Ah, Charles, thank you. I shall refrain from cheering or other unseemly signs of enjoyment, but imagine me clapping quietly.

  10. SteveB says:

    Hi Chris
    OK I -will- give the Ned Beauman a try, and report back as and when the conversation takes an appropriate turn 🙂
    Agree with you entirely on the use of language. I’m interested in history and read quite a bit of fairly academic work. It’s interesting how a fairly arcane subject can be made readable by clear, direct prose; and equally a subject that should be interesting made unreadable by prose that is waffly, repetitious or imprecise.
    By the way, reading (or even watching tv) in another language in which I am middling-competent, it’s surprising how sometimes I can understand and even forget it’s not English, and sometimes it’s a real battle. I think that’s also about clarity on the writer’s part.
    @ Helen just try Titus Groan and get at least to Steerpike’s escape over the roofs. Then I think it will take you and you will understand better. In isolation, it’s more hard. I truly recommend those books and especially the first two as books you can always re-enjoy your whole life. Steve

  11. Helen Martin says:

    SteveB, Peake comes up every once in a while and I have to decide yet again whether to hang onto my son’s copy and try again or just give up and return it. Another vote for retention.

  12. Vivienne says:

    I love Mervyn Peake. Surely the thing about oblique references is that you either get it, which enhances your connection with the author, or you miss it entirely and it doesn’t intrude on your read.

  13. John Howard says:

    Thank god for writers who make their readers think a bit. I force them on friends and children alike…. The tactic even works… A good writer is a good writer and a reader who likes to read will read them.
    OK, the last sentence is a bit mangled but, not being a good writer, I cant seem to improve it. I know it might seem simplistic but surely as, it seems to me, the requirements of grammar and spelling have disappeared over the years then why should, or could, the new writers write well.?
    God, that sounds gloomy, I know lets put on the Goons. Now there was a popular show that made you think about how it was written and it was still funny.

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