Writers Who Haunt Their Readers
The steps between thoughts must be cut shallow to travel.
Several years ago I ran a free writing course, some of it I posted here. Although I have taught before I have no formal qualifications to teach, so I should probably shut up. Still, I thought I might periodically add writing thoughts and notes on the blog for those who’ve developed an interest during the pandemic.
Having done my fair share of casting, I know there are certain actors from whom you only get one performance. It’s who they are inside and can’t be kept down (Ray Winstone springs to mind). They may have wonderful careers just playing themselves and or have one brilliant hit. They also go at their own speed, so it will always take them half an hour to read a 23 page script.
Just like actors, career writers can have multiple styles, but many don’t; After the extraordinary ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ Richard Hughes struggled to write anything different and it seems clear that Harper Lee wasn’t interested in exploring the range of her writing. They go at their own speed, and keep the tics and quirks of their style intact.
Stephen King has one highly relatable style that relies largely on plotting to carry the weight of difference, although I would say that ‘The Shining’ is the anomaly that offers a slightly more distant approach. Kate Atkinson’s very British coldness, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s forensic eye, PD James’s understanding of human failings all mark out their works as clearly as if they had pressed an identifying seal upon each sentence.
My curse (and pleasure) is to have the multiple styles of the jobbing writer, the easiest being this one for the blog, which is pretty much unrevised stream of consciousness and not remotely concerned with style. If I put it through an editorial process, as I would for in a piece in the Times or Guardian, I’d spend three times as long on it. Blogs are ephemeral and require a light touch.
There’s a risk of writing above your readership; too much complexity puts people off. The steps between thoughts must be cut shallow to travel. Obviously, you don’t reveal intelligence simply by using long words. One of my favourite writers, Beryl Bainbridge, manages to convey enormous complexity in simple language that I imagine would be hard to translate. I’ve noticed that one of her few obvious tricks is to provide slivers of timeless relatable detail in her historical novels.
My agent has long been nagging me to try writing a literary novel. Crime fiction works in the opposite direction to ‘literature’. It provides closure, a returning sense of all being right with the world, or at least explicably wrong. Literature opens out rather than closing off, providing wider possibilities. It can do this because part of every literary novel is left unexposed. Secrets and motives can remain obscured, whereas the crime detective is all about uncovering roots and causes.
What if the two are combined? I can think of a handful of books that do this, from ‘Thérèse Raquin’ to ‘Snowdrops’. Most come from world or European literature. American novels seem to me to be more about precision, whereas European books have an obscuring fog about them that allows one to impose other meanings.
Any list of authors whose stories have the haunting power to stay in my memory would have to include Albert Camus, JG Ballard, Beryl Bainbridge, Éric Vuillard and Kate Atkinson, all whom understand the ‘Jamie Bulger Hypothesis’ – that part of everyone is unknowable. In Ballard’s case there’s often a level of atavism that’s recognisable in all of us. The others use regret, blindness, unthinking cruelty and the need to become involved in their stories.
How you turn those mysterious, haunting ideas into a satisfying mystery is what fascinates me.