“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fair Thee Well Then, ‘Good Writing’, I Hardly Knew Ye

Uber-agent Darley Anderson was profiled in The Bookseller last week, with this snippet appearing near the end of the piece:
What authors need
For fiction, he wants his agency to look for character first and plot second among the over 1,300 submissions it gets monthly. “Good writing is the last thing, and we can work with authors on that.”
  The first thing to say about that is Darley Anderson’s clients sell. Lee Child, Martina Cole, John Connolly … these are writers that any agent would be delighted to have on their books. The second thing is that, if Darley Anderson’s position in publishing’s pyramid is somewhere near the apex, yours truly is pretty much buried away in the rubble of said pyramid’s foundation. But a cat, as they say, can look at a king, and I hope you’ll pardon me if this cat looks askance at his particular king.
  When I read a novel by choice (as opposed to reading it for review, or as prep for an interview, say), I read it first and foremost for the quality of its writing. Two of Darley Anderson’s clients, John Connolly and Tana French, make a good case in point. Now, it’s worth say that ‘good writing’ takes many forms, whether that’s the prose poetry of Lawrence Durrell or the hardboiled staccato of James M Cain, the brutalised rhythms of James Ellroy’s recent work, the refined elegance of John Banville, or the heightened formality of Mary Renault. ‘Good writing’, for me, is writing that is persuasively authentic to the story it is telling. To paraphrase @allanguthrie’s tweet yesterday, plot and character are bound up in ‘good writing’.
  This notion that ‘good writing’ is somehow a decadent luxury, or an anachronistic optional extra, is an insidious one, and the phenomenal success of the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham and (particularly) James Patterson suggests that it’s already too late to stamp it out. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M Cain weren’t just ‘good writers’, they were great writers for whom the medium was very much the message. When they employed a pared-back, direct style it wasn’t for fear that some feeble-minded reader might be jolted from his or her feverish page-turning, it was because the style created a mood and atmosphere vital to their stories.
  Anyone who has read either of my books (hi, Mum) will know that I’m unlikely to ever win a literary prize for the quality of my prose. So this isn’t me railing against market forces on behalf of my fragile, sensitive, elegant wordsmithery. What I’m railing against is the absurdly reductionist attitude that novels can be reduced to character and plot, (mangled metaphor ahoy) with ‘good writing’ finessed onto a framework once the meat and bones have been tossed into the pot. I mean no offence to screenwriters or graphic artists, or computer game programmers for that matter, when I say that a novel is not simply another mode of storytelling. The reductionism is the equivalent of eating a stew by picking out only the pieces of meat. It may be tasty, but it won’t be very satisfying in the long run. It won’t be very healthy, either.
  I’m offended, too, by the idea that the Darley Anderson agency ‘can work with authors on that’ when it comes to ‘good writing’. A good agent is a good editor, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with two good agent-editors to date. But editing is not writing. For that matter, plot and character (if I may belabour the ‘stew’ analogy one more time) have more to do with the preparation of ingredients than they have with actual writing. Good writing, for writers and readers alike, is an ineffable magic, or should be. A good writer is not simply a flesh-and-blood computer into which we feed ‘plot’ and ‘character’ and then print off the results.
  The Darley Anderson quote above was/is the single most depressing thing I’ve read in the two and a half years since I started this blog, and I include in that the email I received telling me that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt weren’t picking up the second book of the two-book deal they’d agreed on signing THE BIG O. A knock-back is one thing, and small enough beer in the grand scheme of things, and as often as not a matter of the opinion and taste of one person. On the other hand, the idea that Darley Anderson is making pots of money (for his agency and his writers, it must be said) according to a philosophy that explicitly states that ‘good writing’ is the least of his or his writers concerns, suggests that the race to the bottom just hit Mach speed.
  I love crime writing. It’s why I write crime novels, it’s why I run this blog. But no kind of writing can be reduced to plot and character without losing the unquantifiable essence of why we read.
  A couple of months ago, John Banville was pilloried at length by crime writers and readers for suggesting that he writes his Benjamin Black novels faster than he writes his John Banville novels. Banville’s slur, or so some suggested, was that crime novels didn’t require the same level of craft as his literary novels. Will those who pointed the finger at John Banville for denigrating crime writing now point the finger at Darley Anderson? Somehow I doubt it.

11 comments:

bookwitch said...

I find that 'good writing' can be about absolutely nothing at all. If it's good enough, it's good to read as it is.

Uiscebot said...

I couldn't agree more. Posts like this one are why I keep coming back to this blog. If I had a school desk I'd be up on it now giving it all that 'captain my captain' shit.

Well Said Sir.

Ali Karim said...

Don't get depressed, just keep writing Declan

Ali

Dana King said...

I wonder if the real problem here isn't that Anderson's answer was inelegantly phrased. By saying he can work on good writing later, he may well be referring to editing. We've all read books, especially recently, where the services of a good editor would have helped the writing greatly by tightening, improving word choice, making suggestions for more realistic dialog, or any number of other things. Unfortunately, the mega-sellers too often don't seem to care, and it doesn't seem to affect their sales.

As for your writing, sir, I have ALL THREE of your books, and can take your mum with one hand behind my back. You also do yourself a disservice when assessing your writing. If there's one writer you remind me most of--especially in THE BIG O and CRIME ALWAYS PAYS--it's Elmore Leonard. Ain't no one saying Elmore Leonard can't write.

Bill H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill H said...

Declan,

I agree completely with Dana. don't sell yourself short... your writing is what draws me back to your books. Hopefully there will be many more.

I must admit that I too read Dan Brown and John Grisham once in awhile. Usually as a quick read between books by better authors.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm very much an outsider on this, but perhaps Anderson is saying something like it doesn't matter how polished a writer's sentences are if he or she can't tell (or sell) a story.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

John McFetridge said...

As the swine flu hits Toronto the headine in the newspaper today is, "Did we learn nothing from SARS?"

If 'good writing' is the last thing we look for then I have to ask, "Did we learn nothing from the movie business?"

Sure, the movies still make money, but almost every prize-winner, almost every movie for grown-ups, almost every movie with real people and not cartoons or cartoonish stories is based on a novel filled with 'good writing' because it turns out that's the part you can't 'work with,' so you have to buy it somewhere else.

The 'original screenplay' movies are for kids - cartoons or slapstick comedy, action and horror.

The book business has started to show that those 'big budget blockbuster' style books are worth less - nine bucks, I think they're selling for, so maybe someone will realize that the 'good writing' books are actually the backbone of the industry.

Anonymous said...

You're doing yourself an injustice, Declan, when you say you'll never win a literary prize for the quality of your prose.

I think you're a fantastic writer.

Declan Burke said...

Folks - Apologies for not replying to the comments until now; I was away this weekend, hence the delay ...

Much obliged for the kind words on my own scribbling, but to be honest I'm more worried about the kind of books I like to read rather than write. And I'd hate it if 'good writing is the last thing' became the paradigm of the publishing industry. But it won't. Worst case scenario, in the event of some kind of 'good writing' apocalypse, there'll always be a few mavericks on the fringes worth reading, because they like the way words go together as much as what they say, and can put it altogether and make it sing.

I suppose it all depends on what you want from a book, but I think things like plot and character are aspects of novel-writing that can be improved on with outside help, but good writing isn't something that can't be taught, only learned.

Cheers, Dec

Anonymous said...

Some books we read for the story, others for the quality of the prose and sometimes, oh glorious sometimes, they come together. Who'd want an agent called Darley anyway ? You are a fine writer Declan and yes it matters. Keep the faith (In the beginning was the Word etc!!)
Evelyn