Careers In Word-Smashing 3: Pleasing Yourself

Reading & Writing

I don’t know of many writers who admit to being happy. The good ones are deeply critical of their own material; Alan Bennett seems perpetually amazed that anyone would want to read him, and many writers I know are looking to the next work to properly correct the mistakes they see in their last one.

Not that we get to hang out much; it’s not a club (although perhaps it should be). Our paths cross at literary festivals but we don’t talk as seriously we should about the art itself and what we hope to achieve – and heaven forbid we should ever collaborate, even though I’d jump at the chance. But there’s one topic that is in the back of many writers’ minds; when – and how – will they write The Big One?

Not many of us set out to write one book that will be more successful than the others; it’s largely out of our hands, catching the tone, timing the delivery, hitting the exact mood of the public. You can’t back-time a hit, and you have to build two years into the publication date (a year from delivery to hardback, another year to paperback).

Plus, the nature of the business is changing; it has become just a business. It’s often pointed out that the purpose of publishing is to sell books, not to be the arbiters of taste. So who makes sure that good writers reach public attention?

We look to the agents, who can build a career on a single discovery. New York’s Kirby McCauley rose to fame representing Stephen King but also had George RR Martin, who attracted critical attention long before he started the ‘Ice and Fire’ book cycle that became the world-beating ‘A Game of Thrones’. Deborah Rogers, who I think represented Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, also worked for the thrill of discovering a new manuscript, placing excellence and innovation above market economics. The theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay became almost as famous as those she represented. Her biography proved popular and she was played by Vanessa Redgrave in the film version of Joe Orton’s life, ‘Prick Up Your Ears’.

So, the agents wrestle the art into shape and the publishers find commercial places for the art, but who knows if the next book is going to be the perfect balance of art and commerce? And this leads to another problem; how far should you lean toward public taste and away from your own (because rarely do the two coincide)?

Here’s an interesting point that may help to settle the argument. Nicholas Hytner, the former director of the National Theatre, suggests that writers’ work ages and eventually becomes meaningless. He says that when he was a child you could still perform Ben Jonson’s plays, but that now you’d have to translate them because the language has altered so dramatically, and that eventually we’ll have go do the same to Shakespeare’s texts.

The same goes for restoration comedies, once massively popular, now utterly mysterious. I once took a lady from Los Angeles to see what I regard to be a very accessible play, Goldsmith’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer’. At the intermission she turned to me and said, ‘I can’t understand a f*cking word, but I love it.’

I’m drawn to the abstruse, and am tempted to write dialogue that’s highly ornate and non-naturalistic. But if I do that too much, you’ll eventually find yourself stumbling through my prose and hating it. Hytner argues it’s what keeps Oscar Wilde fresh; it’s all about the abstraction of the lines. There’s no sense of realism or topicality.

So which do you choose, pleasing yourself or pleasing your readers? I would argue that sticking to your guns and writing something demanding – impossible even – can land you a place in the temple of posterity. Writing for your readership and ensuring it’s all accessible may make you more popular, but it will never be The Big One. Ronald Firbank wrote in such an extraordinary way – akin to being an abstract artist in a time of pre-Raphaelites – that he had to pay for all of his books to be published, and they all failed. Now he is revered as an iconoclast.

But who now will settle for fame after death?

How you go about writing your magnum opus is a question that cannot be settled. It’s best just to do what you most love, and do it best.

11 comments on “Careers In Word-Smashing 3: Pleasing Yourself”

  1. Debra Matheney says:

    Sat behind 2 Americans at a production of Stoppard’s “Travesties” in London. I am an American, too. At the intermission, he turned to her and said, ” I have no idea what is going on.” She agreed and they left. My English date and I had been laughing our heads off but then we knew the plot to “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

    I love Restoration comedies. The characters’ names alone are hilarious.

    Keep writing what you love as I love it too.

  2. admin says:

    I’d love to see Ben Jonson’s ‘The Alchemist’ because it has a great plot – 3 con-persons (2 men, 1 woman, from memory) con dupes into thinking they’ve made gold, but it’s bonkers.

  3. Roger says:

    It’s amazing what you can get away with on film, though – Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, The Revenger’s Tragedy (in Scouse accents, even!) and quite a few others have been successfully filmed recently.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    I have no idea who Firbank is, and having had a quick look at wiki I’m not going to pursue his work, unless I’m convinced other wise.

    I disagree Wilde feels very dated, especially the attitude to class.

    Oddly enough one of the writers who seem to have weathered time is Conan Doyle and with the prevalence of what some people call Historical Noir, he and his creation seem still relevant.

    Wayne.

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    I really enjoyed seeing ‘She stoops to Conquer ‘,- had an amazing cast; Donald Sinden, David Essex, James Frain, and Miriam Margolyes .
    Miriam was hilarious!

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Our drama and senior english classes went to a local performance of She Stoops… A couple of the boys (16/17 yr. olds) went only because it was a night out on a school night and we had to take the ferry so two 40 min. intervals. We’d been told that whether the performance was finished or not we had to leave in enough time to catch the last ferry (9:30 pm) One of those boys became so caught up in the drama that we almost had to physically pull him out of the theatre and we almost did miss the ferry. Johnny thought the play was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen. Goldsmith survives.

  7. Jan says:

    Wayne perhaps it’s just me being a pleb but I just find Conan Doyle’s work so tedious to read.

    Plots are wonderful but the prose….maybe it’s just the time lapse between creation and reading.

    Maybe storytelling splits on this. Something with funny witty delightful writing doesn”t guarantee a great plot.( Unless you are reading PG Wodehouse perhaps.)

    And it splits the other way also – great story line crappy storytelling.

    Seems you are getting above my head with all this Mr Wowler it’s just about telling a good story well isn’t it? Or am I missing the point entirely?

    I probably am

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    I agree Jan, Conan Doyle is not the best prose writer and he is and I think will remain a well known writer for the foreseeable future, but the plot and the what next always kept me reading. To be honest I did pick Conan Doyle on purpose as he is not a great writer but he did create memorable stories and incidents, as well as some wonderful characters and plots, but I do enjoy reading old pulp which has some deathless prose but also has mad free-wheeling ideas and plots, so my opinion is firmly in the thrilling adventure as a go to for reading.

    I do read a lot of horror so sometimes just atmosphere alone can carry a story, well a short story at least. There are some novels that are mainly atmosphere but very few.

    Wayne.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, I agree as well, but if you slow down the whole reading process the tiresomeness fades considerably and you are left with a process that matches with the time in which the story was written. You can hear the skirts swish across the floor and feel the slower pace of life. Even when Holmes is leaping down the stairs, calling for a cab and sending reminders in to Mrs. Hudson there is time for it all to happen. See, there’s breathing space in there. Good for a quiet evening at home.

  10. Eliz Amber says:

    Personally, I liked Sir Arthur’s style, but I’m one of those people who is transported over Jane Austen’s work. I simply like words, and I especially like to see them employed with meanings we have discarded over the centuries. (I’ve enjoyed Arthur’s – our Arthur – recent dives into the dictionary for obscurity.)

    One thing ACD did very well was accents – in ‘The Hound’, I knew immediately that Sir Henry had spent time in America – western Canada, actually – by his dialogue alone; he used slang that I recognised from, of all things, the ‘Little House’ books that I read to tatters as a child. That’s a bit of labour in itself, particularly in a time when most readers would never have met anyone from the ‘new world’. (This is one of the reasons I preferred Benedict Cumberbatch’s public school accent to Johnny Lee Miller – on film, an actor has to bring all the unspoken prose into the dialogue.)

  11. Ken Mann says:

    I’ll be interested to see if the ease of communication increases the speed of language change or slows it down. After all evolution does to an extent require the isolation of communities.

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