“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.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

‘Good Writing’, Redux: Hooray For Hollywood

I posted last week about Darley Anderson’s comments on how ‘good writing’ was less important to his literary agency than character and plot when assessing writers, which prompted John McFetridge to weigh in thusly:
“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.”
  One of my paying gigs is as a movie reviewer, and one of the joys there is the fact that, when it comes to movies, no one – filmmakers, critics, the audience – discriminates against a movie on the basis of its genre. Two of the last three Best Picture Oscars, for example, have gone to crime flicks (The Departed and No Country for Old Men). If you check out the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Movies of All Time, the list runs like this:
Voted the number one movie was CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, which he directed, produced, wrote and starred in at the age of 25. The rest of the top ten, in order, are: CASABLANCA (#2), THE GODFATHER (#3), GONE WITH THE WIND (#4), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (#5), THE WIZARD OF OZ (#6), THE GRADUATE (#7), ON THE WATERFRONT (#8), SCHINDLER’S LIST (#9) and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (#10).
  Now, there’s a couple of things that need to be said about that list. (1) It’s an American list of movies. (2) Schindler’s List – wtf?
  That said, it’s interesting to note how many of the movies listed above are what the publishing industry would term ‘genre stories’ (this may have something to do with the fact that the movie industry, being rooted in the early 20th century, is a much more democratic form than the novel, which is 500 years old and rooted in a time when democracy was something the ancient Greeks once tried out). Crime, fantasy, romantic fiction, war – they deal in the kind of subject matter that does not routinely feature in the Booker Prize shortlist, say. Or, for that matter, win the Impac Prize, which is the most lucrative prize in publishing today.
  It’s also worth noting how many of the movies above are based on pre-existing stories – eight in total, seven novels and one play.
  I’m not going to make any grandiose claims on behalf of said novels (Darley Anderson would surely say that it was character and plot that made GONE WITH THE WIND or THE GODFATHER best-selling novels, for example, rather than ‘good writing’, and he would have a very good point). But, given that this is a crime fiction blog, let’s take The Godfather as a movie. It’s a superb character study, and has a great plot, drawing as it does on classical themes of guilt, loss, power (and its abuse) and redemption.
  Law Abiding Citizen is also a crime flick, a character study that trades in guilt, loss, power (and its abuse) and redemption. Released this year, it stars Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, and is so bad it’s probably toxic.
  What makes The Godfather a great movie and Law Abiding Citizen a terrible one? The latter has nothing like the quality of actor the former has, which is a significant handicap, although it’s fair to say that the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and James Caan have starred in some turkeys. Neither is it as simple as saying that Francis Ford Coppola is a genius director, because – as the last two decades have proved – he’s patently not. I’d argue that it’s the blend of Coppola (as director and screenwriter) and Mario Puzo (as screenwriter) and the great Gordon Willis (cinematography) and William Reynolds’ and Peter Zinner’s editing, and Warren Clymer’s art direction, among others, who contributed to what was (eventually) regarded as a masterpiece. The Godfather isn’t simply a triumph of story, character and theme. In cinematic terms, it has a beautiful grammar, an unerring instinct for when less is more, for the visual ‘mot juste’, for the barely perceptible nuance that fuses story, character and theme into an indivisible whole.
  It’s the equivalent, in other words, of ‘good writing’.
  This isn’t just an exercise in aesthetics. The Godfather was just another movie when it was first released, and as I understand it, Coppola was none too pleased to be asked to direct a ‘mob movie’. But three decades and more later, The Godfather is recognised as a classic, and – finally, here’s the point – continues to sell. I have no idea of what its figures are like, but I’d imagine that Law Abiding Citizen is highly unlikely to cover its costs by this time next year, let alone be still selling on DVD (or whatever the format is) in 30 years time.
  The notion that ‘good writing’ is an optional extra that grows more redundant by the year is given the lie by the likes of The Godfather. The beautiful (and latest) re-issue of the Raymond Chandler novels earlier this year is another case in point. ‘Good writing’ endures. It requires investment, of course, but it’s an investment that delivers and continues to deliver. The pursuit of short-term gain (quantity over quality) that got the world’s economy into the mess it’s in today is mirrored in the attitude that sees ‘good writing’ as an optional extra, or the least of a writer’s concerns.
  ‘Good writing’ isn’t enough in itself, of course. The number of very fine novels that have fallen out of print, never to see a shelf again, doesn’t bear thinking about. But this is where crime writing has – or should have – the edge over its counterparts in the publishing industry. Yes, plot and character are vital, and its relevance to its time and place means that the best crime novels will always be relevant. Take all that and put it in the hands of a writer who instinctively understands ‘good writing’ and you have a gold mine that may never tap out.
  There’s a mate of mine, you may have heard of him, called Adrian McKinty. I told him recently that he was too good a writer to ever make it really big, that he’s cursed by his obsession with ‘good writing’. But even if McKinty never sells on a par with James Patterson or John Grisham, he knows in his heart and can take it to his grave that he’s a good writer. That’s a thing that used to matter. It still does, and it always will.

5 comments:

adrian mckinty said...

Dec

Thats awful nice of you to say, but I'm not sure how many chances you get to prove that you can actually sell a couple of books. Ultimately its a business and unless you're published by OUP you have to make money for the press especially in this market where they cannot really carry any loss leaders.

My gut tells me that the male reader is a dying breed. The boys who read Harry Potter and Philip Pullman now play video games and when they do want to read a book they want it like their video game: uncomplicated, linear, uberviolent, simple minded, lots of T&A, with clear delineations between good and evil; in other words exactly the sort of books you and I hate.

Dana King said...

Someone made a comment at Bouchercon about the age of the attendees, and how that boded poorly for the future of crime fiction, as our readers will soon start to die off. I look at it completely opposite. People mature and grow tired of the video game culture. Eventually many of them return to books.

As for good writing, I can forgive a plot hole and a lot of other things if the writing is good enough. But no matter how tight the plot, bad writing will get me to put down the book.

Declan Burke said...

Adrian - I hear your pain, squire. But, for this post at least, I'm talking about the writing of books, not the selling of books. And you're a hell of a writer.

Dana - I'm with you, sir. Hell, if the writing's good enough, I can do without any plot at all.

Cheers, Dec

Mike Dennis said...

Declan, this is a very intriguing post, especially your comparing the subtleties of "The Godfather" movie to good writing. I couldn't agree more.

I would go one step further to say that, in a novel, the creation of characters and plot which force the reader to turn the page is itself good writing. After all, if you have a good story in mind, with breathing characters, yet are somehow unable to tell that story in a compelling fashion, you're not a very good writer.

In addition, I'll take issue on one very minor point you made: "The Godfather", when released, was anything but just another movie. It was a blockbuster in every sense of the word from Day 1, accompanied by heavy buzz and an agitated public anxious to see it. Multiple Oscars were expected of it even before it was released, and Marlon Brando's comeback appearance was heavily hyped. I can remember long, long lines at every showing for weeks after it opened.

And don't forget, it came from a novel which was read seemingly by every human on the planet. Everywhere I went in 1969, people were reading it...on buses, at the beach, on park benches...it was ubiquitous.

A great tale well told, with strong characters who live on in our memories forty years later...that's good writing.

Declan Burke said...

Sorry, Mike - consider me chastened. I wasn't too impressed by the writing in The Godfather (novel), but what I was getting at was that The Godfather (movie) was 'just another movie' when it came out - in other words, there might have been high expectations, but until it hit the screen and interacted with an audience, nobody knew anything.

Cheers, Dec