Saturday, March 04, 2006

Against Paraphrase

A few things recently have made me consider what I'm trying to do with fiction and poetry, in the bigger sense. It's difficult these days to have any "stylistic" aims, since there's clearly a preference by publishers, editors etc. for narrative and clarity, and a distrust of the oblique. This, I probably agree with, in general, but I think what we are seeing over a period of time is a creative body of work that can easily be paraphrased. Whether that's in the 2-liner of a Hollywood pitch, or a Guardian condensed read. All writers should be against such easy-paraphrase, since over time, it means there's no real need to read the book. Some of this is inevitably marketing hype, or the short attention span of both booksellers, and, presumably, bookshop browsers. Yet, increasingly I feel I've read books, when I've not turned a page of them, and when I do read them, I find that they're actually a disappointing fulfilment of the marketing promise. A poet like John Ashbery is the ultimate when it comes to avoiding paraphrase; you cannot paraphrase a stanza, never mind a poem or a collection or a career. This is not about difficulty - I think its more about the writer having a slightly higher aim (an additional aim if you prefer) than just telling the story, or - in a poem - exploring an emotional state. A dozen pages into Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" I know I'm in a clever contemporary version of "Howard's End" as the reviews informed me. I'm looking forward to being surprised, and sure I will be since she's a wilful writer, but you can perhaps understand the tiredness in discovering only expected pleasures. When someone says "What's it about?" then the answer should be, "I can't really tell you, you've just got to read it." Again, individual pieces can be very straightforward, but where they fit in a wider work, or in a career, that is what interests me. In music, albums as diverse as "Trout Mask Replica", "Tusk" and "Cats and Dogs" (Royal Trux) repay relistening because however many times you listen you never quite get to the end; it's why I like intelligently compiled boxsets - they turn away from the hit song into some uncharted territory. Sometimes there can be narrative in this - I think of how the Pollock exhibition in London several years ago contextualised the major splatter paintings by showing the arc of the development, creating a narrative where perhaps there previously wasn't one. Art and music are already difficult to paraphrase, of course, whereas literature, which explains itself in the same/similar language that is used in its creation, runs the risk of becoming explicable to the point where it loses its most valuable sense.


Quillhill said...

Did you hear about the author who worked on his 85,000 word novel until he had pared it down to one single word?

Perhaps literature should adopt music or painting as ways to describe itself. When someone asks what a book is about, show them a Charpentier score or an original DeVity.

Adrian Slatcher said...

What was the word? I always liked the character in Camus's the Plague who is constantly working on his first sentence, aiming to get that right, and once that's done the rest of the book will obviously follow. Some days he just changes a word or punctuation, other times, he changes the whole line.