Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Something about books

I tend not to talk very much about the process of writing, unless I'm specifically invited to. There are so many ways of approaching it, so many areas of conflicting advice, that it’s difficult to find universal truths or even anything reliably useful to say on the subject. Certainly there are few unbreakable rules in the pursuit of ‘good’ writing.

It was heartening, therefore, to hear a critic give an insider’s view as to how a book might be judged. Here also, on the other side of the fence, there seems to be no one standard by which the worth of a book can be measured, no straightforward method of reaching a conclusion. ‘Good’ writing isn’t that easy to pin down. (Or maybe it’s simply that good writing isn’t that easy to put down.) I read the following newspaper article a week or so ago, and enjoyed it so much that I asked its author if she would post it to me.

This is Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian, and for my money a voice of reason:

25 Aug 2007: The Guardian - Page 42 - (332 words)
Readers’ page: Questions, questions: How do you judge a book?
By: Claire Armitstead

The question I’m most often asked, when people hear I run a literary prize, is “what makes a good book?” Putting aside the obvious answer - if I knew that, I’d have written one - it tends to throw me into a frenzy of shrugs and approximations. I had an argument with a Booker-winning author about this, and he was adamant a great novel had to work on the level of the sentence: every sentence should be beautifully balanced, free from cliche and redundant wordage or sentiment. I rarely encounter one of those, and if I do, I fear I might dismiss it as precious.

Isn’t it possible a great book can be constructed from individual sentences that aren’t that perfect?Might that not be the whole point? How can you evoke a rough, porous old world in sentences that are smooth and impermeable? It’s an impression confirmed by my reading for this year’s Guardian first book prize: several works of fiction were so glassily accomplished that I longed for some fissure, some tree root to trip me up and make me feel something, anything, beyond cool admiration.

At the other end of the faultline are the great galloping books with a big story to tell and no particular elegance in telling it. These are often stories of extremity - personal, political in either fiction or non-fiction - that seem to get by on some notion of authenticity. If they connect with the reader, who am I to say they are not good books?

All I can say, in the end, is that a good book is one that does what it intends to do (surprising how many first novels lose the plot towards the end). Yes, they do need to be well-written and they do need to tell an interesting story, but they also need to have an energy, a spark that is easier to recognise than it is to analyse, for the simple reason that a really good book is unique unto itself.

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