Writing 101: The Year We Went Dumb
“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.