Posts Tagged ‘Evelyn Waugh’

Who’s a pretty boy, then?

One of my maxims is that bad writing draws attention to the author, and good writing draws attention to the content. The corollary is that writing which draws attention to the writer is bad; that which draws attention to the content, and where the hand of the author is invisible, is good.

Glen Baxter

This is not an original thought. Stephen King wrote that: “The object of fiction is ….to make the reader … forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.” Garrison Keillor talks about “keeping your fine sensibilities out of it.

Elmore Leonard said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

The more an author pushes themselves and their message forward in a story, the less effective the story, and the message become. This isn’t very different from real life; the harder you try to persuade someone that they’re wrong, the less convinced they are, and the harder you try to be funny, the less amused your audience is.

To my mind, there’s nothing that pulls a reader out of a story quicker than the author trying to muscle into the action, and saying: “Hey, readers. Look at me, how clever and amusing I am!”

This is very common in journalism and the media these days. If you have ever tuned into BBC World, for example, you are bound to run into the field reporter who says: “Next week, tune into Forgotten World with me, Droopy McFlaccid, when we’ll examine raffia basket-weaving amongst the Congo pygmies.

In truth, I don’t need to know the reporter’s name. But the tendency is to make the reporter bigger than the story. Much mainstream journalism is often opinion disguised as news.

In fiction writing, this is of crucial importance. Nobody is going to wade through 300 pages of wincing self-promotion by an author. Authors must absent themselves from their work, as Evelyn Waugh famously pointed out.

One has for one’s raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish-heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving until one finds a few discarded valuables.

Then one has to assemble these tarnished and dented fragments, polish them, set them in order, and try to make a coherent and significant arrangement of them. It is not merely a matter of filling up a dust-bin haphazard and emptying it in another place.