On a recent Facebook thread, there was an interesting debate about "longeurs" in prose. Do people forgive poor writing in prose because its part of a longer work and so matters less? In a lively debate about the merits or otherwise I ended up standing up (as I often do amongst poets) for prose; or at least my belief that it is exactly what a good novelist attempts to do - write well in every sentence. Despite there being many competent poetry collections out there, the tendency towards bigger books (80 plus poems are not uncommon) makes me find most poetry books overlong. The whole here tends to be less than the parts, however competent the parts are. Ironically we can expect a poorly renumerated poet to be better edited by his poorly renumerated editor than a novelist by his. Or so it seems. Not just that long books like "Freedom" by Jonathan Frantzen needed pruning, or that "Wolf Hall" has passages that are utterly incomprehensible (in sense, its not about Mantel being too clever), but that many novels contain snippets of poor writing that get glossed over in a way that they wouldn't in a poetry collection. The "longeurs" of poetry books tend to be intellectual, rather than stylistic in my view. Too many poems about the same subject, or with the same worked-on feel. I've enjoyed reading my fellow authors in the Salt Modern Voices series at least partly because they seem books of about "the right length." Some Salt authors have been remarkably prolific over the years (and that goes for other imprints as well), but some of the Modern Voices are pamphlet plus in size; a nice length, more mini-album in an age of the double.
Yet the point made, which I didn't disagree with, reminded me of Pound's exasperation of the poetry of his day - and his desire that poets write with the same care as prose writers; clearly a hundred years ago some sea change had happened where the novel, that unruly ruffian, had usurped poetry in the quality of its writing. A lot of this seems to be about what we mean or don't mean by "style." I was away when the Late Review was talking about John Lanchester's "Capital" but from what I heard, there were opposing views about his prose style. There are no "darlings" to kill in "Capital", it reminds me of the utilitarian, non-showy prose of Jane Smiley or Yann Martell; every sentence perfectly okay in itself but doing a job, no more. Our best writers' prose does more than a job of course. And this seems perhaps a fundamental difference between poetry and prose. The "job" in poetry is also about the line, the words, the style - whilst in prose it can be "man walks through door." When the poet Sean O'Brien's novel "The Afterlife" was respectfully reviewed by other poets and others, they made a great play that there was no "showy" "poetic" prose. That it was a badly written novel was kind of glossed over, as if it was just a relief that a metaphorist had left that particular toolbox at home. Another poet-fiction writer, David Constantine imbues his stories with clear linguistic designs on the reader. His fiction is "doing a job" but not just a utilitarian job. His prize-winning "Tea at the Midland" uses style to withheld, to prompt. There's a question about whether, as a reader, one wants to be so manipulated, but there is no doubt that style is used here for a very particular purpose. I have sometimes found poets treat prose as being their "weekend art" - as if it doesn't matter if its sloppy. Worse though, I think, is where a workmanlike prose, perfectly adequate, but simply "doing a job" is then trumpeted as being literature. The prose stylist appears to be a rare beast these days - and can be a matter of taste. If the "workshop poem" has created a patina of glossy competence smoothing off the edges of many well-worked contemporary collections, then the "workshopped extract" has possibly done the same for prose. In a highly media-literate age, the fiction writer is asked, sometimes, to underperform, leave his linguistic tricks at home.
The "longeurs" are therefore less concern than a flatness that too many stories have. Part of this, I think, is the current dominance of the present tense and the first person narrative, often from an unreliable narrator. The sustained act of the non-authorial voice is in itself a triumph; and perhaps does so well because we want to hear "personal stories" but when I hear Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield speaking I hear something far more musical, far more messy, than the contemporary first person narrative - perhaps its the stuff of distance - but what Twain and Salinger give us is so much more than an everyman; more savant than idiot. In the sustained work that all novels are, the pursuit of "perfection" or the "right words in the right order" is a fool's gold, clearly... yet the tuned ear finds inconsistency more jarring than excitable prose. It is not, I'd contest, "your darlings" that need "killing" so much as your shopping lists, those pages and paragraphs written when your creative module is switched off and you're just concentrating on getting a job done - moving character from A to B. "He walked through the door." Martin Amis said his father said he should write more sentences like this, and that he thought his father should write less. Kingsley, of course, read "The Rachel Papers" (I think) and never bothered with any of his son's other novels. Despite more recent novels being disappointing, I'm glad we have John Self and Keith Talent.
Poetry - to me - seems in a fine old state; certainly in the 25 years I've been aware of it, its never seemed healthier - if only for its diversity, the panoply of voices and the range of opportunities. Many flowers bloom. I'm not so sure about prose - or the contemporary English novel.The stylist isn't dead, but he (or more likely recently, she) is hardly lauded. And style is something different than form, I feel. There is a type of well-bred English prose that cannot in all honesty be called bad writing; but the limits of what it can achieve are there to see in the well-bred English middle class novel. Writing better, at some point, means writing different.
I'm interested by the topic, but only feel competent to repeat what others have said about the inbetweens. Are short stories more like poetry than novels? Several people have said so. Forche's "The Colonel" has appeared both in poetry and flash-fiction books.
In 1961 CS Lewis wrote that "poetry is now more quintessentially poetical than ever before; 'purer' in the negative sense. It not only does (like all good poetry) what prose can't do: it deliberately refrains from doing anything that prose can do".
In 2007 in Seam magazine someone wrote "Perhaps one of the more interesting developments in poetry over the last fifty years has been its overlap with short story writing. It's unsurprising that poetic language has relaxed into an easy colloquial manner but maybe what wasn't expected is the way poetry's taken on the subject matter of prose forms".
An overlap can lead to the weaknesses of both styles coming together. Aristotle thought that "Many poets are good at complication but handle the resolution badly" which may still be true in poet's prose.
Meanwhile, Novels seem to have grown longer rather than shorter, an excess of words not being considered such an evil sin. Lists of poorly written sentences are online but don't seem to alarm people who are reading for meaning. Novels unlike poetry have the fallback position of being entertainment, of filling a train journey.
As ever Tim, you've found the elephant in my room - as I'm not sure what to say about short fiction in this context. On the one hand it seems to be having a renaissance of press, performance, publication which I'm very grateful for - and lots of good, well written stories appearing: sometimes by poets. That Seam quote is on the nail in a sense. Where I struggle with short fiction is that despite the hyperbole, I'm not that convinced that we are in any "golden age" for the short story - and part of that is that very few of the successful ones (I'm thinking of the Manchester Prize, BBC Short Story Prize, Salt Best Stories of the Year, Dalkey Archive's European Fiction, Granta) are, to my mind, doing anything at all with language. I've certainly chose to call a piece of work a "poem" when it began in a prose work, and that intersection interests me - in the work of Luke Kennard for instance.
BTW, you began your post with "On a recent Facebook threat" ...
Not even Mr Amis has walked through a door - unless it was by mistake. I do love our language.
Facebook threat, indeed. (Changed.) And yes, Vanessa I really shouldn't try and include half-remembered quotes in quickly written blog posts. Strangely, that's how the quote has manifested itself in my head however, which probably shows that Martin is a little unparaphraseable. If I can find the real quote without too much hassle I'll update it. I think it's in Experience somewhere!
Wasn't commenting on you - but on the phrase we all use hundreds of times... and thinking about it, it is rather strange.
Don't you think when writing a story that its these everyday phrases that can be harder to get right? We need them to move our characters around, and visualise where they are, but they can be troublesome!
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