Story versus Style

What’s more important – that a book is well written or that it has an engaging story? I’ve always been firmly on the side of story. If the story isn’t compelling then it surely doesn’t matter how beautifully it’s been written. That’s what I’ve always thought, at least. However, I am now reading a book that’s making me rethink my position. I managed to get my greedy fingers on not one, but two, of the titles for World Book Night, one of which was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is 348 pages and I am up to page 116, and I am completely and utterly gripped – not by the story, but by the writing. It is one of the most exquisitely written books I have ever come across – and I do consider myself to be pretty well read. There is an effortlessness in every sentence and I feel like this book is showing me just how great the written word can be.

So far this year I have read a lot of just-released books, and have found many of them to be insipid and bland, and now that I am reading Marquez, those other books seem even more insubstantial and unsatisfying – like having a glass of water for dinner as opposed to a three course meal. Time of Cholera is something to really get your teeth into and, right now – just over 100 pages in – I feel like the book is nourishing my reader’s soul. I am not massively engaged with the characters or their story (although I suppose that could still change), but, with this book, it honestly doesn’t matter. I feel almost hungry for Marquez’s words. How refreshing to read a book that is not a fast-driven frenzy of activity from beginning to end. What a welcome change for there to not be some sort of fight scene or car chase on every page. This is a book that allows itself to breathe – and is all the better for it.

Pace is something I am painfully aware of with my own writing. I’m aware of a constant pressure to make sure the action doesn’t slow down, even for a second, in case – God forbid – the reader gets bored, and the reviewers begin baying for your blood etc etc. Surely we have not sunk so low as a society that all we want to see is pretty people running away from explosions? It is a notion that I dislike intensely. Not so much for Lex Trent or other comic fantasies because they’re naturally more fast-paced – but for serious adult books I find it very frustrating that there should be such a single-minded focus on grabbing the reader’s attention by doing the writing equivalent of bashing them over the head with a heavy object. Personally, I generally dislike books that start with action scenes or fights or chases. They bore me. If I don’t know the characters yet then I couldn’t care less what happens to them as they run madly through the house whilst being pursued by a werewolf/man with gun/love-sick sparkly vampire. Still, I am told that this is what most people want in an opening chapter.

In the story versus style debate I would hold up Dan Brown as a brilliant example of the former. I realise it’s dreadfully unfashionable of me to like Dan Brown, and many people (some of whom openly admit to having never even picked up one of his books) seem to almost fall over themselves in their eagerness to proclaim that the man cannot write, or that his writing style is clumsy at best. I do not accept this. I think Dan Brown is a very skilled and intelligent thriller writer, and no aspirations to literary snobbery will make me say otherwise. Dan Brown does not write beautifully but the stories he tells do not require that he should. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code but I absolutely loved The Lost Symbol. I devoured it because every time I got to the end of a chapter I couldn’t wait to learn what was going to happen next. It gripped me very differently from the way Time of Cholera is gripping me now.

I am in awe of Marquez’s writing – literally, I am in awe of him – but I’m still more likely to take a Dan Brown book on holiday with me, or reread a Dan Brown book, or rush to the cinema to see a film adaptation. I am still more likely to eagerly seek out other work of Brown’s that I have not yet read – not because I think his books are better than Marquez’s but because, for me, story is still more important than style. I read Brown’s books – and others like them – for a different reason. Fundamentally, I read those books to enjoy them as a reader, whereas a book like Love in the Time of Cholera I’m reading mainly as something to aspire to as a writer – a fondly nurtured dream that perhaps if one worked at it solidly for fifty years or more, one might become even half as good.  

And now, as a post script to this post, for anyone who hasn’t heard about this yet, my good pal, and blogger extraordinaire, Amanda Rutter, along with several other very fine people, have organised and set up an auction in aid of the Red Cross Japanese Tsunami Appeal. I’d like to encourage you to head on over to http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/ where you can bid on all manner of exciting things, including rare signed books, critiques from authors and the chance to have your name in an author’s upcoming book. There is some super exciting stuff up for grabs – and, as a genre fan, some of the lots have left my fingers itching to reach for my credit card. As an example, if you’d like to be a baddie who dies horribly, but has some great powers (and who wouldn’t?!), in my friend Suzanne McLeod’s upcoming Spellcrackers novel then go here http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/item-27-appearance-in-the-next-suzanne-mcleod-novel/ and place your bid. I’d bid on this myself if I hadn’t just donated to Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support. Sadly, animals tend to get overlooked in natural disasters of this type but they are just as much in need of aid as their human counterparts. If I and my whole family were killed in an earthquake and my spoilt, pampered pets were left to fend for themselves I would hope to God that there would be someone there to help them. If you’d like to donate to their ongoing efforts on behalf of animals in Japan then you can do so here: http://japanearthquakeanimalrelief.chipin.com/japan-earthquake-animal-rescue-and-support/

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Mr Darcy versus Mr Bingley

I’ve recently been reading Jessica Morrell’s Bullies, Bastards and Bitches, which is, ostensibly, about writing villains, but also discusses heroes, unsympathetic protagonists, dark heroes and bad boys. It’s a fantastic book, nicely set out, with some very interesting observations about characterisation, and I would highly recommend it to any aspiring (or, indeed, professional) writer. At one point it talks about alpha males and beta males and uses Mr Darcy as an example of the former, and Mr Bingley as an example of the latter. Morrell suggests that women want to marry a Mr Bingley but want to read, and fantasise about, Mr Darcy. It’s an interesting and, I think, accurate suggestion.

Mr Darcy – and most of the romantic male leads in the Madeleine Brent books – are, in some ways, anachronistic. Women do not depend on men in the same sort of way in the modern world, and marriage is not a woman’s sole preoccupation. When I studied A Level Sociology, we looked at articles from the 1950’s giving advice to wives and I remember being particularly horrified by a passage suggesting women take a nap shortly before their husbands were due to arrive home so that they would be suitably refreshed to receive him. They were then to change their dress, put a new ribbon in her hair, and greet the husband at the door with his slippers. In addition, they should not be the ones to instigate conversation because the husband has had a long day and might be tired etc. That being the case, the last thing he wants is a chattering wife bleating dull, domestic trivialities in his ear. Garghh! It’s just too awful! And only fifty years ago!

So, this is a problem with some male romantic leads like Mr Darcy. It might have been fine back then, but modern women do not want such over-bearing coddling. The feminist in me revolts against this character type.

And yet . . .

Who can deny that there is an appeal in spite of all this? I have recently watched the excellent Lost in Austen and am now re-watching the definitive Pride and Prejudice (of Mr Colin Firth renown), and I will admit that I am as much enamoured with Mr Darcy as the rest of the female audience/readership. I will also admit that I am an avid reader of the Madeleine Brent books, even though I feel they are something of a guilty pleasure. I feel I ought not to like them – being modern and all – but I am hooked regardless.

But much as I enjoy Darcy’s character in the book and TV adaptations, a real life version is really the very last thing I would want. And that is because, for me, a Darcy ceases to be interesting as soon as he professes his love. As soon as he does that, he is no longer cold and immovable but just another silly sap mooning after a woman. The book has to end with the marriage because nothing would be interesting after that. You want the characters to get to that point but have no interest in reading beyond it. Nobody likes gooey love, after all.

This is why I think that Jessica Morrell’s suggestion above is an accurate one. Marriage to Darcy may sound great on the face of it, but in reality? Surely one of the most important aspects of a relationship is that you are able to have fun with your partner. For example, I’m not sure that I could have a long-lasting relationship with a guy who refused to wear a silly hat at a Christmas party. There is always one whose vanity forbids it. And there is always one who collects the spare hats, and ends up wearing two, or even three silly hats all at the same time. The cold aloof Darcy routine is fine for creating mystique etc, but it might start to wear a little thin once you were actually married.

So although at first it seems quite odd to suggest that women might prefer one kind of man in dreams, and another in real life, I think there is definitely some truth to this. I don’t know if the same thing applies to male readers having an ideal female character in film/literature but quite a different ideal woman in real life. Presumably the same principle might apply, although I haven’t seen as much evidence of it.

I suppose the point is that characters like Mr Darcy drive the story more, so they are far more exciting and entertaining to read about. Characters like Mr Bingley (or, say, John-Boy Walton, or George Bailey), whilst being ideal husband material, are not exciting, so they do not get to take on the smouldering romantic roles in a book (or film). Perhaps the difference is that real life cannot be exciting all the time – and who would want it to be? As Morrell points out, alpha males are not going to be the types to stumble out of bed to see to the baby in the middle of the night, or clean out the cat tray – or, indeed, take great delight in wearing lots of silly hats at a party. And, much as I love Mr Darcy in the context of his own little fantasy world, in real life I would always rather be with the guy wearing three hats rather than the guy who is too far above himself to even pull a cracker with someone, let alone wear the paper hat inside it.

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My Name Ain’t Gabriel

When my Dad joined the merchant navy (in the brief time before deciding that stockbroking was the way forwards) he was told that there were three subjects that must never be discussed in the officers’ mess: religion, politics and sex. If you don’t want to upset people then this is generally sage advice wherever the conversation happens to be taking place. Obviously I endeavour to ignore sage advice whenever possible on principle. And, indeed, the above rule is why I was very often shushed at any dinner party my parents threw for clients back in the day (although admittedly this was more because I wanted to talk to them about religion and politics rather than sex – even I am not quite that odd).

The point is that religion is a tricky subject. People get upset much more quickly when talking about religion than they do discussing, say, Hungry Hippos (although I guess it depends on how competitive you are at games). It’s therefore not my intention to go into great detail about religion on my blog, nor do I plan to respond to reviews (be they good or bad) for the simple reason that I find blogging about my animals and my love for strange headgear more entertaining.

But I’m going to make a bit of an exception with this post because I’ve seen – a couple of times now – reviewers state that Gabriel’s religious views in The Ninth Circle are clearly my own. When I talk to people about the book they often expect this to be the case as well. This week I spoke to a book club about The Ninth Circle. I’ve never done this before and I thoroughly enjoyed it. They were a lovely bunch of people who asked me some very intelligent and thoughtful questions about the book. I did, however, get the impression that some of them expected Gabriel Antaeus to walk through the door rather than me. Hopefully by the end of the session they realised that we are two entirely separate people – after all, at no point during the evening did I attempt to attack anyone, or suggest we engage in group prayer (that I can recall).

But – for the record – I am not Gabriel.

Gabriel is a fictional character that I made up and just because the book is told in first person does not mean that I’m simply writing down everything that I believe. It’s probably unavoidable that a little bit of the author seeps into the character, but it’s something I actively try to avoid even to the extent of deliberately distancing myself from my characters (this is another reason why I generally prefer to write male protagonists).

Gabriel is a fiercely religious man, but I do not believe in God. I’m not an atheist, but I am an agnostic. In its attitudes towards women, slavery, gay people, working on the Sabbath etc, I think much of what the Old Testament says is utter – utter – nonsense. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of good in the Bible too. But I would never blindly accept every word it says even if, much of the time, Gabriel does.

My name is not Gabriel, chaps. When I write about his faith I’m not writing about my faith, but imagining his. The first thing they always told us in creative writing classes at school was “write about what you know.” I’m afraid I would have to dismiss this completely. Where’s the fun in that? I might even go so far as to say “write about what you don’t know.” I don’t believe that I need to be religious to write about a religious character. Much in the same way that I don’t think I need to cut off my own hand before I can appreciate that it will hurt. Surely you can conceive of these things using your imagination alone.

It’s not that I would ever be offended by people mistakenly believing me to be religious. Far from it. Nor do I get offended when people see my name and automatically assume I’m a bloke. It’s not insulting; it’s just that it isn’t true. But considering what an odd character Gabriel is, it concerns me a little that people sometimes think I am him. It should be a common sense thing, really, and I’m sure most people don’t believe it. Otherwise no one would talk to me at the author parties (or at family get togethers, for that matter). But for those people who do suspect that I am Gabriel, I guess you’re just gonna have to take my word for the fact that I’m not. Honest.

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