What makes a book, a film, a scene, a song or a play stay in the mind? It’s a question writers wrestle with constantly. Often it’s a case of the ‘sevens’; when you’re seven years old everything is exciting and new, and any old rubbish sticks with you forever. I’m horrified at how often the things I loved at that age turn out to be truly dreadful.
One of the problems is that as you age, you feel you’ve seen, heard or read virtually every version of every story going, and you’re just experiencing variations now, although music often retains its freshness. When I was seven I saw ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, and still recall scenes from this rather strange film, climaxing with a dozen screaming people on the top of a swaying fireman’s ladder. Its co-writer, Tania Rose, once explained to me the serious ideas that went into making slapstick (and were excised).
Set pieces in books and plays can stick, obviously, because that’s how they’re designed – the rejection in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the kite scene in Iain Banks’ ‘The Wasp Factory’, the hot air balloon in McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’, Romeo at the balcony, Prospero breaking his staff, the angel in ‘Angels In America’, the sinking of the boat in ‘Lord Jim’, the ball in ‘Anna Karenina’, the dinner party in ‘Our Mutual Friend’, short stories by Pushkin, Guy de Maupassant, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
Jesse Green at the New York Times recently wrote an intriguing article about why some Broadway shows become more memorable when divorced from their stage origins, citing an argument with Tim Minchin over the score for ‘Groundhog Day’, which I saw in London (reviewed here). Several of the scenes and numbers, notably the hero being treated by New Age quacks and two bumpkins drunkenly careening in their truck, have stayed in my head, but most of the best scenes and numbers belonged to the bystanders, leaving the central character with no music of his own.
Green’s main complaint is an interesting one; that lyrically, the casual assonance of the score denied memorability. The point not appreciated is that while the US expects linguistic exactitude, the UK (and Minchin) pride themselves on undermining expectations with undermined language and broken tempos. The result is cleverer, but less appealing to the mainstream. I fight this issue every time I sit down to write, reigning in what I want to do in favour of what may be easily comprehended by a wide audience. The world has become a much less ironic place, so we now tend to spell out more. That’s why I keep my experimental stream going alongside Bryant & May; I don’t expect everyone to like ‘The Sand Men’, but those who are intrigued by the writings of JG Ballard may enjoy it more.
I do think there are authors who grab you from the first page and drag you through to the last – Hilary Mantel, Phillip Pullman, Norman Collins, Roald Dahl, E Nesbit, Alan Bennett, Robert Harris – and others whose style crushes your desire to read on, from ‘Moby Dick’ to ‘The Girl On The Train’. Can stickability be taught? I’m not sure – the key is to always remember the reader’s reactions. It’s not a crime to be readable – something Booker judges struggle with, especially after the nigh-on unreadable winner ‘The Sellout’.
Stickability can get you to read, watch or listen to works that you would otherwise not be interested in; I once read an article on sports cars (probably the subject that least interests me on the planet) because it was written by a thrilling Pulitzer Prizewinning author. There are certain books I would defy anyone not to be interested in. As a child, one of the first books I read straight through was ‘Treasure Island’, and I suppose Conan Doyle shares the same quality with Stevenson. I tackled ‘Lady Susan’ by Jane Austen, and despite the elegant prose found the machinations of the rich little more than soap opera.
So perhaps we can come up with an equation;
Stickability = Good Writing + Appealing Subject x Reader Interest