Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reading and Writing and Work

Last year I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to edit John Bart’s novel Middenrammers, which has now just been published. I should say at once that it required very little by way of editing—and that it was and is a very great pleasure to read.

It’s easy to forget the virtues of simplicity in the world of today’s literary fiction—a world that tends to place a premium on certain forms of literary stylishness. At a sentence-by-sentence level, striking metaphors are often disproportionately valued, as are sentences designed to impart vividness through every verb, every adverb, every adjective. We are assured that such work will repay slow and careful reading, that it is worth taking the time to reflect on the poetic qualities of what we read.

At the level of narrative structure, complexity is often disproportionately valued—flashbacks, flash-forwards, and various other devices that often force the reader to spend a good deal of time figuring out what happened when, and to whom (or perhaps I should say what happens when, for the historical present has largely taken over between the covers of literary novels). Again, we are assured that the effort invested will be repaid; at some level, we are often told, the novel we are reading is not just about the characters, or about the things novels used to be about—love and money—but “about language itself,” or “about memory itself,” and it’s worth taking the time to work all that out.

At some level, certainly, all this is work; “literary fiction” might well be defined as “fiction the reader is expected to work at appreciating.” That’s not to say that such work can’t also be a pleasure, of course; indeed, there can be few greater pleasures than reading a great literary novel. But when a literary novel is less than great—and such is the case most of the time—the reader can surely be forgiven for wondering if the work is worth it. When the sentences start to creak with the strain of all that vividness imparting, and the tangles in the narrative start to seem as pointless as they are dense, we can be forgiven for wishing we had opted instead for a book that aimed to please without making us work.

Stylistically, Middenrammers does precisely that. It tells its story straightforwardly, from beginning to middle to end—and a gripping story it is, too; a doctor and a midwife take sides against the medical establishment in a 1970 Yorkshire community where women still struggle for reproductive rights. At a sentence-by-sentence level the narrative never calls attention to its style. Descriptions—including several memorable descriptions of crises being dealt with as women give birth—are entirely matter-of-fact; metaphors are rarely employed, and even adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly. About as close as the book comes to a “poetic” passage is this nicely understated end-of-chapter description of the book’s protagonist leaving the hospital after a difficult delivery:
I was surprised to find it was evening outside. The rough grass at the edge of the path to the prefabs was wet. Perhaps it had rained. Perhaps it was just sea spray. The standard lamps along the way had a stippled halo around their bulbs. Everything looked washed and worn, and I felt the same.
If Middenrammers is straightforward so far as its style is concerned—an easy read, from that angle—its subject matter certainly does not always make for easy reading. The story is emotionally wrenching at more than one point, and it certainly carries with it an important message about medical practice. Though the style doesn’t make readers work, in other words, we may have to work a bit to come to grips with the novel’s content.

I want to make one more point about Middenrammers and work—which is simply to say that the novel concerns what happens at work far more than do most novels. (Television programs deal with the workplace a good deal—literary novels, not so much.) Most novels in any era—and certainly most novels of the past few decades—foreground personal relationships outside the workplace. Love and money are the traditional topics of the novel, not love and work. To be sure, personal relationships are part of the story of Middenrammers too—but the heart of the novel is what happens at work—in this case, at a small Yorkshire hospital.

The closest literary analogy to Middenrammers I can think of is the fiction of Nevil Shute—novels such as Landfall (about the struggle to develop better planes during WW II) and The Ruined City (about the struggle to revive a shipbuilding town that has fallen on hard times). Like Bart, Shute wrote in an utterly matter-of-fact style; like Middenrammers, these novels of his deal with personal and romantic relationships as well as business and professional ones. But in all these cases, the work developments are at least as important to the progress of the story as are the personal ones.

Like Shute’s novels too, Bart’s Middenrammers is entirely engaging—and no less well-written for being written with clarity and simplicity.

Let me end with a thought about writing and work more generally: writing and work can go together far better than many aspiring writers assume. By “work” in this context, I mean of course work other than writing—but, more than that, work that you find truly engaging (not “day jobs” that you don't care about and work at only in order to give you time and money to write). Working at something you care about can of course provide raw material for your writing—and for most of us, it beats sitting at a desk staring at blank paper when you’re finding creative writing difficult. But arguably it can also help develop habits of caring about life in a broader variety of ways than can a more purely writer’s life. It’s surely not coincidence that both Bart and Shute, who write so well about work, did not make writing their life’s work. (Though he became a best-selling novelist later on in life, Shute worked in aviation and as an engineer for several decades; Bart has worked as a doctor for over forty years.) Young writers sometimes assume that the key to success as a writer is to find time to write—the ideal being a position in a Creative Writing Department that does not impose too heavy a teaching load. It’s certainly true that some fine writers have followed that route—and remained fine writers even after having done so. And of course many great writers—Jane Austen perhaps chief among them —never took paid employment of any sort at any time. But the body of work done by writers who worked at work other than writing is pretty impressive; among them are Geoffrey Chaucer the comptroller and diplomat, Anton Chekhov the doctor, Joseph Conrad the sea captain, George Eliot the periodical editor, T.S. Eliot the banker, Henry Green the industrialist, Thomas Hardy the architect, Philip Larkin the librarian, Wallace Stevens the insurance executive, Virginia Woolf the publisher, and Anthony Trollope the Post Office inspector. Whatever works for you, I say.

PS One related idea is simply that having some experience in the world helps when writing fiction. On that theme there was an interesting piece in the Globe recently--Want to write a novel? First Novel Awards finalists say it's better with age (April 16).

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