Sunday, May 31, 2015

Writing for the marketplace? No thanks.

There are a great many people in the world who read books. You may have noticed. As varied as the people themselves is their taste in reading material. Of course it’s true that some genres or authors are particularly popular at any one time. But alongside those who like the current trend are—dare I say?—millions of readers who would prefer to read something else.

There are those who would suggest that it is necessary to tailor your writing to accommodate the current, dominant market. I suppose, if you are primarily interested in making money, that’s a good suggestion. Those who wish to write differently are often told, ‘There’s no market for that these days.’

This is rubbish. The potential market is huge. Somewhere out there are at least thousands, almost certainly tens of thousands, and possibly millions of people who will want to read your book.

As a writer we have two choices. We can either write what we think the ‘market’ wants to buy at this microsecond—or, at least, what someone, somewhere in the mystical, magical world of market research says the market wants. Or we can write our own work in our own way and try to reach those who will want to read it. They are there, somewhere.

None of this excuses bad writing, of course. Anyone who has been following my blog will know how adamant I am about ensuring our work is of the highest possible standard. Nevertheless, it does not have to tick all the boxes the marketing world thinks it must tick to be a winner. A genre or style of writing that is not currently fashionable can still appeal to the hundreds of thousands if not millions of readers who are not interested in the latest trends.

I am not for one moment suggesting that it is easy to tap into this potential market. I would, however, suggest that that is the real challenge. The challenge is not to write a marketable book, but to write your best book and find the market for it. They are out there somewhere, your eager readers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This is Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, published in 1998. A Baptist minister, Nathan Price, relocates his family from the state of Georgia in the USA to work as a missionary in the remote village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, in the late nineteen fifties, early nineteen sixties. Nathan is a man very sure of himself and his faith. We witness—largely through the eyes of his four daughters and occasionally his wife—his total failure to relate to the people of the village in which the family now lives, and the gradual disintegration of the family as it deals with a number of calamities, whether they be natural, personal, social or political. The title derives from the ambiguity—or perhaps complexity and subtlety—of the Kikongo language. Nathan finishes each sermon with these words: ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala.’ He wants this to mean: ‘The Lord Jesus is precious and dear.’ However, the way he pronounces the word ‘Bangala’ it means: ‘The Lord Jesus is the poisonwood tree.’ ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends’ says Adah his daughter during her narration, ‘for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.’

The story is told largely as a first person narrative through the eyes of the daughters: Ruth May, the youngest, who is five at the start of the novel; Leah and Adah, twins, who are fourteen; and Rachel, who is fifteen. Sometimes the narrator is Nathan’s wife, Orleanna.

I know nothing about life in a Congolese village in the middle of the last century, but I could not help feeling that we were not being presented with a ‘real life’ story here. Rather this was a vision of the world shifted slightly out of phase into a reality in which the natural laws to which we are accustomed do not always apply. To that extent the novel has a magical realist flavour. Certainly this is also due to the fact that this world is seen through very young eyes. To younger eyes, perhaps Kingsolver is telling us, the world is a less comprehensible, more magical, more mythological place.

The youngest daughter, Ruth, is playful, curious and adventurous. She is the one most able to adapt to this new world into which she is thrown. She is less fully formed and therefore more malleable. She has a less rational approach to reality and is more accepting of the strange, the unusual, the different. She is able to communicate with the other children in the village, when necessary at a non-verbal level. Leah, one of the twins, is deeply devoted to her father and tries hardest to accept and understand him. She is also independent and something of a tomboy. Although in the end she departs radically from her father’s views, she retains some of the passion, conviction and even dogmatism with which he holds them. Adah is the other twin, hemiplagic from birth (only one side of her brain develops), with apparent physical disabilities and a limited ability to speak (at least at this stage of her life). She is, at the same time, brilliant in a ‘Rainman’ kind of way. She also has a very distinctive way of perceiving and dealing with the world. The oldest daughter is Rachel, self-obsessed, superficial and enraptured with American culture.

Orleanna is deferential towards her husband but gradually begins to assert her independence as the family suffers hardship and, ultimately, tragedy. Eventually her maternal instincts take over, and she is a lioness defending her cubs.

I never really felt moved by this novel, its characters or their fate. I was intrigued, fascinated and interested, but not deeply, emotionally involved. I think this has to do with the fact that I never felt that these were real, flesh and blood people. Rather, they were mythological representations of different world views or philosophies. After the family leaves the village and the characters go their separate ways, I thought this became even more the case: these were politico-socio-spiritual embodiments rather than people. This was particularly true, I thought, of the daughters. And amongst them, particularly Rachel and Leah, who represent polar opposites. I would have been quite happy for the novel to end when they left the village, and was not really satisfied with the way it developed subsequently.

There are so many themes dealt with in this novel: religion and spirituality; politics and society; colonialism and the clash of cultures; the domination and callousness of the West. What was the final message that I took from this? Perhaps that no culture can ever hope to fully comprehend another. All of this was fascinating, thought provoking and would generate excellent discussion groups. It no doubt has in the years since its publication. But for much of the time, the concrete flesh and blood of humanity was buried beneath this intellectual load. For example, was the relationship between Leah and her Congolese husband Antoine a real relationship, or was it a vehicle for exploring cultural relations and political oppression? More the latter, I think, than the former.

This novel is no doubt a masterful achievement. I thought perhaps Kingsolver dragged it out too long. It could, as I have intimated, have finished satisfactorily about three quarters of the way through, after the family leaves the village. What comes after that is less and less story and more and more philosophical, political and social commentary. There are certainly moments of beautiful prose here, and the novel is always thought provoking. Nevertheless, because it is overlong, and because I never quite made an emotional investment in the characters or their story, I give it four stars.

Sculpting Wet Clay

So many analogies with other art forms are appropriate when considering writing as art. Painting with words. A verbal symphony. Recently I have spent several weeks wrestling with a chapter in my new novel. This book has been difficult to write from the word go, but this chapter just wouldn’t come together. I knew more or less how it needed to end, but getting to there from the beginning was like swimming through treacle.

In that previous paragraph I notice I have applied two non-artistic metaphors to the process of writing: wrestling and swimming (through treacle). I hope when I mention wrestling this doesn’t conjure up images of the theatre that appears on our televisions. Or sumo wrestling. Actually, I hope it conjures up no visual images at all. I can think of no form of wrestling which is even remotely pleasing to the eye. No. Think of wrestling with the lid of a stubborn jar, or a flat-pack piece of furniture. Something that just won’t bloody work!

As for swimming through treacle ... Well, I’ve never actually tried it, though I can’t imagine it would be very pleasant.

The image I actually had in mind when I began this post was of writing as a form of sculpture. Here is a piece of clay that we must keep wet, pushing it here, pulling it there, slicing away this, adding that. This is what writing sometimes feels like to me. I have a lump of something that I must mould and shape. Perhaps I see the final form inside this lump, as a sculptor might see the man in the chunk of marble. But drawing out that shape ... That is difficult and time consuming. This is how physical writing can sometimes be for me.

I think I have the shape of that chapter correct now. On to the next.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Don't Dangle (Your Participles)

‘Walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’

Some of you will read that sentence and realise immediately what is wrong with it. Others will stare for hours and see nothing wrong at all.

That, my friends, is a dangling participle. We all do it from time to time, dangle our participles, without realising we have done so. I can sometimes read past them without noticing.

A participle is an adjectival form derived from a verb. ‘Walking’ is the present participle of the verb ‘to walk’. We use it as a verb with the auxiliary verb ‘to be’: ‘he is walking’; ‘he was walking’. But we can also use it as an adjective to describe something: ‘He is a walking, talking dictionary.’

In the sentence above ‘walking’ is not being used as a verb. The subject and auxiliary verb are absent. It is being used to describe something. It is being used adjectivally. We might say, ‘There he was, walking along the beach.’ Here, ‘walking along the beach’ describes ‘him’, much as ‘dressed’ does in this sentence: ‘There he was, walking along the beach, dressed in a pink kimono.’ ‘Dressed’ is a past participle.

So what is wrong with the sentence at the head of this blog? ‘Walking’ needs an accompanying noun to describe. Taken as it stands, ‘walking’ describes the sun. If we rewrite this sentence we can see the problem more clearly: ‘The sun, walking along the beach, shone brightly in my eyes.’ Now perhaps the sun is walking along the beach in the strange world we are creating here. But probably not.

What is meant by this sentence is: ‘As I was walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ If this is what you mean, then, well ... it’s probably a good idea to write it. You might also want to say, ‘Glaring up above, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ ‘Glaring’ is quite happy to describe the sun. ‘Walking’—I have it on good authority—generally is not.

We are quite capable of dangling other things as well; participles are not alone in suffering this indignity. ‘At the age of eight, my family emigrated to Australia.’ Ah, okay. My family was eight years old? Clearly I mean: ‘When I was eight years old, my family emigrated to Australia.’ A useful rule of thumb is: If you mean one thing, don’t say another.

Of course it is easy for our eye to slip over things like this when we have written them ourselves. We know what we meant, so that’s what we read. Indeed, dangling bits are so common that we usually know what the person meant even when we didn’t write it ourselves. But they do jar. When I come across one I do just have to shake my head momentarily to dislodge the image of Old Sol strolling along the beach on (what would be) a very sunny day.

So be very, very careful about what you leave dangling out there.