Yellow trees, November winds

Yellow trees, November winds

I’ve just finished reading a novella, Small Things Like These, by the Irish writer, Claire Keegan.

People liked that book – a lot. Hilary Mantel said, ‘wastes not a word … exquisite.’ Colm Toibin said, ‘The best novel I read this year.’ It was a Book of the Year in more publications than you can shake a stick at.

It starts like this:

‘In October there were yellow trees. Then the clocks went back the hour and the long November winds came in and blew, and stripped the trees bare. In the town of New Ross, chimneys threw out smoke which fell away and drifted in hairy, drawn-out strings before dispersing along the quays, and soon the River Barrow, dark as stout, swelled up with rain.’

The simple, accurate, unshowy style is applied to descriptions of the hero’s inner life as well. Like this:

Eileen was fast asleep, and for a while he watched her, feeling the need of her, letting his gaze idle over her bare shoulder, her open, sleeping hands, the soot-black darkness of her hair against the pillowslip. The longing to stay, to reach out and touch her was deep, but he took his shirt and trousers from the chair and dressed in the dark, without her waking.

More is happening in that passage than it first appears. He lets ‘his gaze idle’ – that’s a good phrase. And he’s looking at a ‘bare shoulder’, which is nicely balanced. The word ‘bare’ suggests a waft of sexual attraction, but the humble word ‘shoulder’ keeps the moment restrained and almost innocent – exactly matching the couple’s interactions. Even hat last little touch about him dressing in the dark is a light but telling way to suggest the husband’s basic kindness – his willingness to suffer (a tiny bit) to allow his wife a better sleep.

So: good writing, but also humble. ‘Bare shoulder’ might be a good phrase, but it’s hardly showy. ‘Soot-black hair’ is pretty darn close to cliché (albeit a cliché that works nicely here, in a domestic setting with a coal fire downstairs.)

And in a way, that’s what a lot of people think novel-writing is all about. Find a character. Find a theme. Find a story. Connect all those things up with a vividly realised sense of place. Use prose that is as accurate as possible. Make sure that characters feel real. That emotional moments connect.

Claire Keegan, no question, did all those things – and the critical response was amazing. She was shortlisted for a few literary prizes and won two.

So: that’s one model for excellence. Spare, accurate, cumulative. Plenty of writers come to this game thinking that’s what they have to aim at. That that’s what good writing is.

But it isn’t.

It’s what one model of what good writing is. There are others, and just as good. Here’s another author opening a very different sort of book:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the Hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches pulled out ready for the guests.

In one way, that passage is a simple enough description of a traditional Oxford college hall. Except -that fourth word. You know immediately that Philip Pullman (the author of the book, Northern Lights) has created something strange and fantastical. A world where a girl moves through it with a daemon (in this case a brown moth) alongside.

That fourth word instantly eliminates any possibility that this book is going to be an accurate description of any world there’s ever been. Whatever follows that fourth word, Pullman’s excellences are not the same as Keegan’s. He’s taken her model, and trashed it.

Now, OK, Pullman was writing fantasy and kids’ fantasy at that, but there’s more than one way to pull away from Keegan. Here’s the first paragraph of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase … He looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

There’s no daemon, but this certainly isn’t Claire Keegan either. On the one hand, this is an acceptably accurate description of a non-fantasy world. But at the same time, McCarthy’s language is busily reshaping the world. He’s not entering the world as a mere reporter-of-detail. He’s entering the world with an intention to remake it.

Take that sentence about the black suit, the dark glass and the leaning lilies. McCarthy writes, ‘In his black suit he stood in the dark glass.’ That sounds accurate enough – but it isn’t. He didn’t stand in the glass (a mirror), he stood in a room. By putting the man into the mirror, McCarthy takes an ordinary scene and transmutes it into an oil canvas, painted in lights and darks. It’s a canvas where where the lilies (leaning ‘so palely’ from their waisted vase) seem just as alive as the man.

With his opening paragraph, McCarthy is effectively telling us, ‘Look, this world might be as real as Claire Keegan’s, but I’m going to show it to you in my way. I’m going to take an ordinary moment – man, flowers, mirror – and put a twist on it, my twist. You’re going to be reading what follows as much to see what I do as to see what the characters in my story do.’

McCarthy and Pullman both draw attention to themselves. Pullman says, ‘I’ve created an astonishing world. Do you want to explore it?’ McCarthy says, ‘I render my world in an amazing way. Do you want to explore all that I can do?’

The reason for hammering away at these things?

Because a certain type of creative writing class can often tend to present the Keegan way as the only real way to write literature. And that’s just not true.

Literature is baggy, expansive and creative. One strange line, one strange thought, can set the tone for an entire book. (‘Lyra and her daemon …’). Some books spring from exactly that disruptive impulse.

My Fiona Griffiths books arose, more than anything, from her voice. Who the heck talks the way she does? Who has her humour? Her craziness? Her toughness? Her brain? Her dislocation? Her introspection? By creating a voice – an assertive, non-standard voice that takes the Claire Keegan model and shatters it – I created a book or, in fact, an entire series.

So, yes, write like Claire Keegan if you want to. That’s a wonderful way to write and the people who are best at it are terrific writers.

But if you don’t write that way, don’t think you have to. The best disruptors write wonderfully too. Literature is huge and capacious. Enjoy the space.

And (go on, why don’t you?) behave disruptively and see what happens.

PS: You know the Ultimate Novel Writing Course? The one that’s had over 600 prospectus downloads in what seems like little more than a week? Yes, well I forgot to tell you last week that there’s 10% off the price to anyone making an application before the end of this month. Good to know, right? Details here. And, yes, places are limited and demand seems very strong …

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