Well, I am taking a few of my ten minutes (almost a month) for a holiday from England. I am going to the back of beyond to play Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson on the west coast of Ireland. So I thought I’d leave you with some thoughts about books I like in case you are very bored and have nothing to read without my blog. Ahem.
These books are the ones I am finding helpful in writing my novel.
This is a whole new approach to reading for me and one that doubtless would have helped me a lot on my course but one I somehow couldn’t ‘fake’. What I mean is, this approach only works if you are really struggling with the technicalities of writing and want to see how someone you admire, or enjoy reading, does it.
I think you can’t know what you don’t do well until you try to do it. Or at least that’s how it’s working for me.
My first recommendation, therefore, is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. He got the 2011 Man Booker Prize for the book and in my view deserves it three times over. This is high literature but it does not disdain the conventional plot or characters. When I read it my heart sank as it uses a very similar device to the one I’m using. Then I had an immediate reality check. No one is ever going to worry about my over-similarity to Barnes. In the unlikely event they do, that will be a very good problem to have.
I found the novel absorbing and troubling. It is very easy to read his writing but his meaning is fearful and it ends on a note of ‘great unrest’. Barnes, I have read, suffers from acute fear of death and the book seems full of that despair. That is not to say it’s a cheerless read. It’s quite funny in parts although it’s not a comic novel. But it seems to look at life with few comforting illusions.
When I sit down to write my novel I find the traditional conventions of novel-writing, plot, character and dialogue, so easily slip into banality, into offtheshelfness, into tired clichés of form. James Wood in his How Fiction Works discusses this problem and notes that it is not a problem inherent in the form but, all too frequently, with the execution, not to say murder, of it. Ouch.
Barnes does little new in his novel and I think that is the most daring thing that he does with the form. Because despite the lack of innovation there is nothing tired or clichéd in his writing. So I read it again and again, searching for enlightenment.
I have learnt a lot from Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Queen of the South. I like the moment of transformation where the heroine steps up, to save her life. Pérez-Reverte writes simply and directly and does action very well. It’s a mysterious book, at least to me. I can’t understand why it’s so compelling, why I’m turning the pages. I think the setting explains some of it. The world of the drugs barons of Latin America and Spain is a world we seem to want to know more about. But it’s also the narrator’s total conviction that his subject is interesting that keeps me reading.
I have also been reading Jennifer Egan (see previous blog) and Kate Atkinson. Jennifer Egan is never afraid to experiment with form and seems especially keen on trying to work out what technology offers, writing one story in tweets and another in a Power Point presentation or flow chart of some kind.
I am trying to learn from Kate Atkinson how to do interior voices and speech as she does it so easily and fluently. I see from The Guardian that I should also be reading James Kelman for this. Finally I have two of Elizabeth Taylor’s books on my reading list. BBC Radio 4 recently billed her as the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike so I’m intrigued.
I’d love to know who you read to help you write (if you’re a writer), or, who just helps you get through the day.
Happy summer holiday.