Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Do Authors Read For Pleasure?


Since my own novels went into print, I no longer read for pleasure, but to study other styles, content, character expectations and plotlines. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but since I started critiquing other writers' work, I home in on the inappropriate dialogue tag, or an unnecessary gerund.

My local bookstore – not a small independent who would welcome a local author sitting inside their front door at a rickety table with a pile of my own, signed works – but a three story branch of Waterstones the British Library would envy. They are currently promoting a reprinted range of ‘Classics’ for the appreciation of, well I don’t know exactly what. A more leisurely time when we were able to enjoy pages of convoluted description and introspection from our main characters, perhaps?

Curious as to what was considered ‘stellar writing’ in times gone by, I bought a copy of a work entitled, ‘The Enchanted April’ by an author named Elizabeth Von Arnim. Born in Australia but brought up in England, Ms Von Arnim's second husband was Francis, second Earl Russell, although the marriage lasted a mere three years.

The story is about four women from diverse daily lives, two of them downtrodden by today’s standards, who rent a medieval villa in Italy for a month. A storyline which would work well in a contemporary novel, I imagine.
Published in 1922, this novel is described in the introduction as, ‘akin to Noel Coward’s 'Hay Fever', and contains the head-hopping, author intrusion and slipping into omniscient point of view within scenes which was acceptable then.

From the first few pages, it occurred to me why modern publishers require a more succinct, ‘clean’ method of writing in a specific point of view. e.g. on page two:
Looking out of the club window into Shaftesbury Avenue - hers was an economical club, but convenient for Hampstead where she lived, and for Schoolbred’s where she shopped, - Mrs Wilkins, having stood there for some time very drearily, her mind’s eye on the Mediterranean in April, and the wisteria, and the enviable opportunities of the rich, while her bodily eye watched the really extremely horribly sooty rain falling steadily on the hurrying umbrellas and splashing omnibuses, suddenly wondered whether perhaps this was not the rainy day Mellersh – Mellersh was Mr Wilkins - had so often encouraged her to prepare for, and whether to get out of such a climate and into the small medieval castle wasn’t perhaps what Providence had all along intended her to do with her savings.’

Evidently written during the days when Critique Groups were unheard of, editors were minor clerks and an author was allowed, nay encouraged, to retain their own unique style, as long as it was wrapped around an engaging story with memorable characters.

However, despite the rambling tone and over use of gerunds, author intrusion and all the other technical difficulties, I still understand what was being said. I could see the drab London Street with its ‘hurrying umbrellas’, the sadness of the woman trapped in a frugal and mundane life who longed for the hot sun and a view of a wisteria climbing a medieval stone wall.

Ms Von Arnim also has a pithy way of conveying a character as well. Grey little Mrs Wilkins, ….who must be at least thirty…., describes her own husband as a man who …..produced the impression of keeping copies of everything he said…. It’s worth ploughing through the heavy narrative to unearth sparkling lines like that.

My question is, are we better writers than they were in the first quarter of the last century, or are we simply different? Do our readers want fast paced stories with no ‘dead space’ and a satisfying ending, as our publishers tell us, or do they like to see a situation or a character from the author’s point of view?
One line of ‘The Enchanted April’ says: ‘….She became very earnest, just as she did when trying patiently to help and enlighten the poor…’ thus telling far more about the author’s views about charity than it does of the character she attributes the words to.

While I was in Waterstones - Because they keep closing the gap on the shelf I make between ‘Da – De’ in the Fiction section, I brought up a copy of my first book on their website on the computers in the ‘Customer study Area’ and left it emblazoned on all eight 23 inch screens.

They were still visible from the door!

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