Wednesday 16 March 2011

Here's something that caught my eye in an interview with horror writer John Langan:

 4. As an academic, what are your thoughts on teaching writing, and learning how to write:  do you believe it's something that is taught, something that is just there, or something else?

I guess I’d have to say, “Yes.”  There’s no denying that some people have that facility with language and storytelling that we stuff under the name talent.  At the same time, no matter that raw ability, there’s always more that can be done to refine it, not to mention, to develop the discipline required to sit down at the page every day until the story or poem is done.

A lot of this, I’m absolutely certain, has to do with how much and how well you’ve read.  We learn through imitation, and if you have that nascent ability with language and storytelling (which I suspect is far more widespread than we might think), then you want to allow yourself the maximum number of examples to learn from.  I know that writing workshops are very popular and certainly, they can be useful, but I’d suggest that it may be as, if not more, useful for a beginning writer to engage in a program of intensive reading, take a year or two and just soak yourself in the written word.
 This is a part of what I was trying to articulate in a recent rambling, inchoate mass of words that was posted on this blog. A lot of what seems to have gone wrong with the IWE stuff (there, I've used the dreaded acronym of doom - happy, Sridala?) is not the anxiety of influence but the narrowness of it.  A  little talent, less immersion in what the great and not-so-great writers of the past and present have done, predictably under-cooked results.

A commenter noted that I used the term 'kitsch' in various versions all over my earlier wordsplurge. And it's an important part of my point too. The less you delve into the medium you want to be a part of , the less of a yardstick you have. Jeffrey Archer only seems great until you read John Buchan. The Harry Potter books only seem dazzlingly different and original until you've tried Earthsea, Books Of Magic and the odd Jane Yolen novel. That terrible Year Of The Tiger book I reviewed last year only seems like literature until you've read some Atwood or Nabokov. Kitsch has its place (I am told) but until you also have an understanding of genuine artistry and find a permanent place for it in our aspirations and affections, no amount of ironic or faux-naive posing will change the fact that you have no taste.


Space Bar said...

I think we should replace all instances of IWE with AoD (Acronym of Doom™).

More seriously, one grouse I have is that while many writers have varying intensities of tea-bagginess, they have very little immersion of general experience. So what they write is derivative, wears its influence on its sleeve and does nothing for me.

After all, when I read Sebald or Mann, I don't read them because they've read deeply and widely but because of what and how they write.

JP said...

What is tea-bagginess?

Your point is good, but it doesn't cover everything; Mann's first (and some say only) masterpiece, Buddenbrooks was written when he was quite a young man, and with both Sebald and Mann the depth and variety of their reading frequently informs what and how they write, especially Sebald.

If intensity of experience conferred literary merit, Alice Walker would be a much better writer than she is. I think the problem is with the way the AoD writers you describe engage with whatever experience they may have been privy to; William S. Burroughs once said that a writer has to be an invisible man, observing and chronicling life but never really getting caught up in it himself; Isherwood famously said 'I am a camera'. I think the problem is not with depth of experience but shallowness of insight in integrating that experience into one's persona and the creativity that it feeds.

Man I sound arrogant.