Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The making of good prose

I have been reading quite a few novels recently and have found myself wondering - do poets make better prose writers?  I can't help but read prose with a poet's eye for detail and because of this I am keenly aware of mistakes, mixed metaphors and unintentional repetitions - things that you would never get away with in (good) poetry. It seems that one can be more sloppy in prose writing.

I am currently reading "Double Vision" by Pat Barker. It is not a bad book although I would not call it literary, the story is compelling but I feel that it could have been better edited.  There are repetitions of description  - for example she uses the metaphor of fire to describe the way light falls on snow or ice, the first time it was fresh and original but she uses it three times in as many pages.  There are also other annoying little niggles - most of the time the characters either drink coffee or whiskey whatever the time of night or day - this seemed unrealistic to me, not many people roused in the night by nightmares would choose coffee as their drink of choice.

This may be nitpicking and it could be that being so successful means that Barker is less rigorously edited by other people - a criticism which is often levelled at J.K. Rowling. But it made me think about the books I come back to again and again because not only are they good stories but they are well written, and I realised that most of the authors I love are also poets (Louise Erdrich, Anne Michaels, Paul Auster, Mervyn Peake). As a poet the economy of words used means that you have to be more rigorous with your editing - there is no choice, so it follows that this would also apply to your prose writing. However I also find that fiction writers who are also poets use language in fresh and original ways. That's not to say that there aren't fresh and original prose writers because of course there are.

This led me to look at what I as a reader want from a book. What makes a book great for me is if I am moved by both the story and the writing. With Pat Barker's book the story is moving but the writing itself is not. Maybe I am greedy but I want both, I want the prose to have that indefinable quality that makes it memorable and makes me want to read it again.


Tim Love said...

I have trouble with the pace of novels, the care with which one is expected to attend to the words. After a few pages I manage to adapt, usually. In "What Ever Happened to Modernism" Josipovici puts McEwan's under the microscope, but how much prose could survive that type of examination? Even poetry might struggle - how about this for an ending: "A width of water still Lies between us and The far shore". Water? Well I never!

Julia said...

Yes I have adapted now and am not finding it so annoying and I agree it would hard going to put a novel under the kind of scrutiny that one might apply to an individual poem but it does seem that some prose is sloppily written - or lazily edited.

as for the poem ending - maybe she should have followed my editing practice and ditched the last line it is rather stating the obvious!

Anonymous said...

The two forms of writing are hardly comparable, not least because there are a minimal number of words to edit for a poetry collection compared to a novel, and because poems usually have a more intense focus on one idea rather than a multiple stranded plot. Writing of all kinds sometimes gets through despite being sloppily edited or lazy, often due to the fact that publishing houses and editors are committing less and less time to polishing and supporting their authors' work.

Julia said...
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Julia said...

Yes that is probably very true - I think I was surprised that a Booker Prize winning author wasn't more meticulous though and it made me think about what it is that in my eyes makes for really good writing. I suppose it is personal taste as much as anything but I do find that some books feel like there is no word out of place whereas there are others I would like to edit a bit more.

Tim Love said...

To calibrate your taste-buds have a look at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (named after the author of "It was a dark and stormy night") - see the 2010 winners - and at the other extreme Stanley Fish's "How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One" - see the top 5 sentences

Julia said...

Thanks for those links - very entertaining.

With regards to the book in question I do think it just needed more or better editing. I am now reading "Never Let me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguo which is better written and has no mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous 1, that the two are not necessarily comparable, anyway. A very successful poet (of our joint acquaintance) apparently gained funding to write a novel - the dream of many prose writers - only to then find that, despite the brilliance of his poetry, he was incapable of writing a decent novel (or so he told me).

Novels usually involve a minimum of 80,000 words, and are therefore very different beasts from poetry collections, obviously - but I do think you have a point about some successful authors being less rigorous than they should be in editing their own work, and in questioning whether their official editors are reluctant to do anything about it.

If you add to this the fact that editors generally edit far less now than they used to, then this suggests that the date of publication of the novel is also something that would need to be considered, as well as the period of time that was allowed for the editing process when the book was sold. (Several authors I know pay someone to edit their work for them, independent of the editor provided by their publisher. )

Nice to catch up on your blog, anyway!
Mel x