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TheRejectAmidHair

Writers on failure

I had better warn you all beforehand that this is going to be a curmudgeonly rant, but you all expect that of me, don't you?
Wink

***

In the Guardian this weekend, seven well-regarded contemporary novelists were asked to contribute a few paragraphs on the subject of failure:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2...ing-short-writers-reflect-failure

Now, as I guess is well-known around here, I am generally not too keen on contemporary novels. I do read them once in a while, but whenever I do, I find myself automatically lowering my expectations. So, I thought, here is an opportunity: seven contemporary novelists are given a showcase to display their talents. Can they construct sentences elegantly? Structure their contributions in a satisfying manner? Have interesting things to say, and say them in an interesting way?

Well, in a word, no. As far as I can see, only Julian Barnes and Howard Jacobson come out of this with any credit at all. Julian Barnes offers us, in effect, a miniature short story, giving a thumbnail sketch of a man who seems a failure, but who, as the author finds out only after his death, had succeeded in certain areas the author had not previously considered. And so, by implication, the author himself is shown to be a failure for not previously having recognised this. And Jacobson writes in his usual exuberant prose that I, for one, enjoy. I don’t know that Jacobson has anything of much substance to communicate, but he does have a skill in constructing his sentences, writes in an engaging manner, and frequently has me chuckling. This little piece proved no exception. (He is also culturally conservative, as am I, so I generally do find myself in agreement with him when he writes of cultural matters. On other matters, I can find him frequently exasperating, but the quality of his prose often, to my mind, compensates.)

But as for the rest? Dear me! Let us leave out that they all see this as an excuse for a bit of self-pitying navel-gazing, and that none of them, not one, has anything of any interest to say. Let us just focus on the quality of the prose. Here, for instance, is a sentence written by Diana Athill:

Quote:
Having fallen in love when I was 15, and become engaged to marry the man I loved three years later, I had known exactly what my future was to be.


It’s hard to believe that a sentence such as this was written by a professional writer, let alone a highly-regarded author who has won prestigious literary prizes. Was she engaged to marry this man in three years’ time (“…engaged to marry the man … three years later”)? Or did she love this man three years later (“…the man I loved three years later”)? Didn’t she even notice this? It can be put right so easily:

Quote:
Having fallen in love when I was 15, and having become engaged to marry in three years’ time the man I loved, I had known exactly what my future was to be.


On to Margaret Atwood, who, I believe, is very highly regarded indeed. Here is how she starts:

Quote:
Failure is just another name for much of real life: much of what we set out to accomplish ends in failure, at least in our own eyes. Who set the bar so high that most of our attempts to sail gracefully over it on the viewless wings of Poesy end in an undignified scramble or a nasty fall into the mud?


I am having trouble coming to terms with the fact that a professional writer could write that last sentence. How can someone with such a tin ear for the rhythms of prose even think of choosing writing as a career? And what purpose does that clumsily inserted reference to Keats serve? Go to any writer of the 19th century who is still published (and I don’t merely mean such masters of English prose as Austen or Dickens) and one finds a care for construction. But this? This is just embarrassing! Even I write better than this in my blog!

Skipping over Barnes and Jacobson, we come to Anne Enright:

Quote:
The zen of it is that success and failure are both an illusion …


I’m not sure what “zen” means in this context (it is a school of Buddhism, I believe), but I am certain that success and failure are both illusions, and that someone who writes  “success and failure are both an illusion” is not very literate.

(Yes, I know, I make careless mistakes as well, but I am not a professional writer showcasing my writing skills in a national newspaper.)

There follows a characteristic piece of empty navel-gazing from Will Self, leavened occasionally by self-consciously euphuistic and utterly irrelevant parenthetical phrases such as “a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind”: this sort of thing proves, presumably, that he is a serious writer. Fair enough - I believe him.

Finally, Lionel Shriver:

Quote:
In fact, one underside of success is that it's nearly always penultimate, and so every accomplishment merely raises the bar.

As I understand it, “penultimate” means “the one before last”, and I can’t see how that word makes sense in this context. What she means (I am guessing) is that even if one’s previous work has been deemed a success, one will nonetheless be judged not on that previous work, but on one’s latest work; and hence, any success enjoyed by one’s previous work raises the standards by which one’s latest work will be judged. But she doesn’t express this simple and commonplace thought very well.

Later:

Quote:
I'm fascinated by failure, a far more difficult experience to ride out with grace than victory, which tends to bring out the best in all but gloating arseholes: magnanimity, generosity, ease, confidence, joy, relaxation, energy, festivity, and a positive outlook. In contrast, failure…


There’s something not quite right about that sentence. I had to read twice to ascertain that “victory” is intended as a contrast to “failure” rather than to “grace”: I’d have added “is” before “victory” to clarify that point. And I’d have ended the sentence at “victory”, and continued “Victory brings out …” in a new sentence. As it is, the sentence is far too meandering, and lacks a centre. And I don’t like “…in all but gloating arseholes…” either in its phrasing (which seems to me clumsy), or as a sentiment. Perhaps something like this may have been preferrable:

Quote:
I'm fascinated by failure, a far more difficult experience to ride out with grace than is victory. Give or take a bit of gloating, victory tends to bring out the best in us: magnanimity, generosity, ease, confidence, joy, relaxation, energy, festivity, and a positive outlook. Failure, in contrast…


I am constantly doing this. I pick up books in the bookshops, often by well-regarded writers, read chunks, and find myself re-writing their sentences for them. Sometimes though, as in Margaret Atwoods’ sentence quoted above, one accepts the sentence is beyond repair. But it shouldn’t be like this, though, should it? I am currently reading Austen, and can but admire her keen ear for the rhythms of the English language, and the exquisite construction of each sentence. Why do I feel such admiration so rarely when it comes to contemporary authors? However, to be fair to Lionel Shriver, she does gravely inform us that she has not yet won the Nobel prize for Literature:

Quote:
I've not been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and may never be.


I love that “may”.

Not the best advertisement for contemporary writing, I fear. Is this really the best these highly regarded could do when they are given a showcase in which to display their skills?
Caro

I must have a very tin ear - I can't see anything wrong with the Margaret Atwood quotation.  I'm not fond of the word Poesy, but that aside, the sentence is structured perfectly well; she doesn't lose the sense of it as some writers might, and it expresses her meaning well.  What did you object to so much in it, Himadri?

I am sure you could write better sentences in your blog, but if this is the worst Atwood managed the rest of it must have been very good.

I didn't have any trouble with the Lionel Shriver sentence either - it read perfectly easily to me on a first reading.  And at any rate, I often have to read sentences from classic writers twice to understand their meaning; I don't think this is an automatic disqualification from good writing.  Wouldn't you have to do that with much of Henry James' or Proust's writings, for instance?

I would also say that you certainly have the abilities to be a professional writer, definitely of book reviews, but most likely of many other forms of non-fiction at least too.  It's a while since I've read any of your fictional writing but I would expect it to be excellent too.  Just because you're not a professional writer doesn't mean you don't have the abilities and style to be one.
Castorboy

Caro wrote:
I am sure you could write better sentences in your blog, but if this is the worst Atwood managed the rest of it must have been very good.

Caro, I take it that you haven't read the article in full. I have to accept that Atwood is considered one of the highly regarded writers of the day but if this example is typical of her usual writing I shall not bother reading her novels - I reserve my limited reading time for some of the recognised excellent writers of the past.
TheRejectAmidHair

Caro wrote:
I must have a very tin ear - I can't see anything wrong with the Margaret Atwood quotation.  I'm not fond of the word Poesy, but that aside, the sentence is structured perfectly well; she doesn't lose the sense of it as some writers might, and it expresses her meaning well.  What did you object to so much in it, Himadri?


"Viewless wings of poesy" is a quote from Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, but has no bearing on what is being said here. (And incidentally, one doesn't "sail" on wings - one flies on wings.) As for what is wrong with it - let's just say that I'd be embarrassed to write a sentence as clumsy as this in my blog. And let's just leave it there.

Quote:
 And at any rate, I often have to read sentences from classic writers twice to understand their meaning; I don't think this is an automatic disqualification from good writing.  Wouldn't you have to do that with much of Henry James' or Proust's writings, for instance?


The sentences of James or of Proust are necessarily complex because they express complex things, and matters subtle and elusive. The sentiments expressed in the exampes i have given above are, in contrast, simple and commonplace. James's sentences (and Proust's too, my Francophone friends tell me) are exquisitely constructed. I find myself re-reading them partly to understand better the complexities they express, and partly to savour the beauty of phrasing. The sentences I quoted above I found myself re-reading for quite the opposite reasons: their difficulty is a consequence not of the complexity, subtlety or elusiveness of what they are attempting to express, but because they are sloppily constructed; and I read them over because I find it hard to credit that highly rated professional writers could write so badly.

But obviously you feel otherwise about the quality of the writing of Atwood and the others, so let us agree to disagree on this one. I am now off to catch my commuter train and read some more Austen, an author who, despite whatever reservations I may have about her, could not, I suspect, write inelegantly even if she wanted to.


[/i]
Caro

I haven't read Margaret Atwood either, but she is consistently voted in some NZ book poll as their favourite women author. Her subject matter doesn't seem to appeal to me.  The one I do mostly want to read of that list is Howard Jacobson - everything people say about his writing makes it sound highly enjoyable and interesting and funny.
MikeAlx

Well at least none of this can be blamed on modern education! (Athill is 95, Atwood 73, Jacobson 70 etc.) Unless, of course, it's all the fault of Grauniad sub-eds. Wink
TheRejectAmidHair

Don't haver any problem with the Jacobson piece: he is among the best at putting together sentences in an engaging and witty manner. Barnes's piece is also quite engaging. But as for the rest...
MikeAlx

"The zen of X" is a usage that seems increasingly common these days. A quick google reveals that there is a zen of social media marketing, of asking a date to a prom, of entrepreneurship, of CSS design, of work, of seeing, listening, making and running. I think the usage is similar to "the art of X", but implies something more holistic, incorporating philosophy, mindset and approach as well as mere technique or rational process. It seems a reasonable usage given that zen apparently doesn't translate exactly but means something like "contemplation" or "enlightenment".
blackberrycottage

I shall have to see if my manager can get "the Zen of" into the next management meeting. On the subject of writing, I found Attwood's Handmaids Tale difficult, and having just started Lionel Shriver, the economy of some sentences is pointless due to the length of time taken to understand what she means.
TheRejectAmidHair

Hello blackberry cottage,

I can't comment on their novels, but it does strike me that when offered an opportunity such as this to showcase their writing skills, one might have expected a bit better from people who are, after all, regarded as noted writers. In most cases, I didn't get any kind of impression that they could write at all!
TheRejectAmidHair

Incidentally, I take back my criticism of Diana Athill: I hadn't realised she was 95. If I get to such an age, I think I'd be lucky to have a mind at all in any kind of working order ... let alone one still capable of writing!

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