Toward More Meaningful Prose
It’s been said that nobody can set out to write something meaningful; you can only write what you feel passionate about and hope that it means something. I was struck by a recent quote from an author who said he ‘set out to write something important and got sidetracked into his career’. We could ask ourselves how important Shakespeare thought he would be – did he think his work would live down through the ages?
Watching ‘The Hollow Crown’, the BBC’s superb new filmed versions of the second batch of history plays, starting with Ben Wishaw’s Michael Jackson-like Richard II (complete with monkey), you couldn’t help but be struck by the sheer storytelling oomph in these dramas . They’re traditionally considered quite hard to cope with, but these readings were clear. How should the judgement of kings have relevance to us now? Well, here they were laid out in their lyrical glory, their purpose divined – to explain nothing less than England itself through those who set out to wield its power for good or abuse it.
Most authors aren’t working with such a big canvas. Hilary Mantel is – and you feel in the presence of ‘important’ writing with her triptych of Thomas Cromwell, although she makes sure to give you readability, that strange indefinable quality some authors have and others will never manage. I’m not sure that JG Ballard thought himself a particularly meaningful writer until others told him, although he knew he was prescient. But he was incapable of a non-subversive thought, and his body of work, taken together, feels like a giant survival manual for the 21st century.
Bodies of work take on more meaning often because their authors cannot see their own worth – they’re too close to their own prose to even notice if they have a personal style. It’s why I dislike books that have been through workshopping in university writing courses – they often feel self-conscious. There’s some wonderful New York writing, but much of it carries this unbearably smugness. The worst example I can think of this is ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, an appallingly pretentious novel wherein the writer is in thrall to his own important subject (9/11), yet unable to tackle it in any meaningful way.
You don’t have to be JM Coetzee or Salman Rushdie for your words to carry meaning. A simple short story can convey more than a sweeping novel. Read HG Wells’ ‘The Door In The Wall’ and you’ll find that its simple story leaves an everlasting impression. We consider Kafka meaningful, but he was a clerk writing about the frustrations of his life in fictional form – and he never finished any story he started! But it’s this unfinished quality that gives his prose such power to remain in the mind.
I recently discovered the US author Jim Shepard, and although his subjects are more narrowly focussed you feel everything he writes illuminates the world just a little bit more. Then, in his novel ‘Lights Out In The Reptile House’, he takes you further, placing his character study in a darkening fascist state, as Karel, the young hero, finds himself forced to choose between personal safety and moral idealism – and the prose takes on new depth. It’s a remarkable book, and yet disgracefully unknown here.
You can pick quite abstract or even unsavoury subjects to write about and find meaning in them. One of the best pieces of prose I ever read was an article on car engines (!) that won a Pulitzer prize. The writer Gary Indiana is almost unheard of. In ‘Invisible Ink’, I look at his work:
‘A loose trilogy lightly fictionalised criminal cases and their accompanying media frenzies; ‘Three Month Fever’ follows the disintegrating personality of Gianni Versace’s murderer in Miami and the grotesque sensationalism of its press coverage. ‘Resentment’ is based on the circus following the trial of the Menendez brothers, wealthy Californians who killed their parents and left a screenplay version of events on their computer. ‘Depraved Indifference’ explores more charismatic sociopathy, as a pathetic heiress is killed by mother-and-son confidence tricksters. Indiana’s language is precise, literate and shockingly funny. He bravely surfs through these end-times with a reptilian eye that watches who gets to eat and who is eaten. His characters are disappointed with their share of American dream, and become slowly poisoned by it. Indiana is as detested as he is adored, for his all-encompassing cynicism, his cruelties, his refusal to sentimentalise, his immense vocabulary, his stylistic inconsistencies. He is addicted to the world that repels him so much, but moments of tenderness seep through the cracks. When he describes a conversation with his mother or the sadness of fading glamour he seems a direct descendant of Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams.’
He’s not setting out to explain the world or to be ‘important’, as Foer clearly was – he’s just being himself. Colin Wilson’s first book, ‘The Outsider’, was published when he was just 24 and examined the role of outsiders in the arts, suggesting that social alienation might aid creativity. Rather than studying technique, writers benefit most from developing their most personal thoughts and ideas, and setting them down on paper. Readers will judge what’s meaningful.