Tuesday, 12 August 2014

I suppose it's time to go back to the novel again...

Over recent weeks virtually everything I have written (in this blog) has been in a sense journalism, but my real ambition is to become a novelist. Next month I am going to the Festival of Writing at York and will be attending workshops on various aspects of the novelist's craft. I will also be pitching my work to two agents in face to face meetings- my chance to hear what professionals might actually think of what I have written. And since that is only a month away, maybe I should stop writing these blog posts and get back to my novel.

The question is whether the two sorts of writing can coexist, and whether blog post writing such as this will tend to help or hinder my novel writing. Robert McCrum seems to argue here that there is no conflict, and cites a number of novelists who have been journalists, including PG Wodehouse, Graham Greene and George Orwell. However my initial surprise was that the list he compiles is so short. Writing is writing, isn't it? If you are good at one sort, why would you not be good at the other too? Why do far more writers not work in both genres?

When you look a little closer, there are actually a number of quite significant similarities between novel writing and journalism. Both types of writing depend for their effect on an understanding of character, narrative and the power of language. Both use research and/or creative imagination to a greater or lesser degree and both, crucially, are required to engage the reader quickly and maintain their interest.

Yet novelists (and others) have always seemed to look down their noses at journalism as "hack" writing, seeing novels as unquestionably the higher form: as an art rather than a trade. Stella Gibbons satirises this attitude brilliantly in the spoof dedication of Cold Comfort Farm to "Anthony Pookworthy Esq.":

The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are so adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realize the magnitude of the task which confronted me when, after spending ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favourable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible."

Her point is, of course, that if journalism is a trade it is a very demanding one. Both forms of writing may be required to engage the reader quickly, but whilst a novelist probably has a chapter or two a journalist has the amount of time it takes to get from Highbury and Islington to Kings Cross on the Victoria line. A novelist may be asked to cut 20,000 words from their novel prior to publication and be given three months to do it, but a journalist will be told to get the bloody piece down to 200 words by one o clock or it's not going in the paper.

However, though it would be pointless to debate which form of writing requires more skill it is clear that they are very different, both in intention and (therefore) in form. The purpose of a piece of journalism is (in the words of John Reith) to inform, educate and entertain, probably in that order. It seeks to engage its readers in an issue or situation in the world and encourage them to think about it in a new way. A novel would seek to place the three verbs in the reverse order, with almost all of the emphasis on "entertain." Rather than seek to engage its readers in a real world situation in a new way it encourages them to inhabit an entirely new world (even if it is one that closely resembles the real world).

What is interesting is the role of the author of a piece of journalism vis-a-vis the reader. I would argue that the reader is always very much aware of the presence of the journalist. In opinion pieces this is obvious of course. Many use the first person, whether single or plural, but even where they do not it is very clear that this is an individual's opinion being expressed. In reportage the presence of the journalist may seem less obvious, but such pieces always read (in my head at least) as an account being given by someone who has collated all the relevant information for me. The journalist in a sense stands between the reader and the events being reported. Even at its most engaging and immersive, journalism does not truly make us feel we were there: rather it makes us feel that we can imagine the journalist being there.

Novels are rather different. Gone are the days when authorial voice intruded directly into novels (as it does in Tom Jones, for instance, or the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman). Now we expect the author effectively to disappear when we read a novel, because we engage with the events and characters of a novel directly and personally. When a novel is engaging and immersive we truly do feel we are there and have no concept whatever of an author intruding in that process.

The form of such writing reflects some fundamental differences too. Journalists know that the first paragraph must essentially carry the entire import of the piece (because many readers will never make it past the first paragraph). Indeed, wherever one stops reading an article that article must be able to hold together as a complete and coherent argument up to that point. No holding back the key point until the killer last paragraph, because a proportion of readers will never even get there.

A successful novel is the precise opposite. It builds in tension, complexity and engagement with characters. Sometimes the start may seem slow or baffling or you may be unsure where it is going, but you stick with it because you are confident that the author knows what they are doing. Then slowly the novel gets its teeth into you, so you can't stop reading until the end, which duly floors you with the intensity and force of its emotional energy. Whilst a fair proportion of readers do not read every word of a newspaper article (including many who found it quite interesting, but couldn't be bothered reading it to the end) hardly anyone gets properly into a novel and then fails to finish it.

However the biggest difference for me between journalism and novel writing is an element of the process by which it is produced: namely the time it takes. Journalists write quickly- they have to. There is simply no point in producing even an opinion piece about something if people have stopped talking about it. Journalism is about deadlines and quick turnarounds and responsiveness to changing events. What is more it results almost entirely from the functioning of the conscious mind. A journalist cannot afford to go for a long walk or sit daydreaming and waiting for vague ideas to coalesce in her head. Her job is about obtaining, collating and processing information and presenting it in a form that is readily accessible to the reader. It is partly why the journalist is so upfront in the finished piece. We are aware that she worked to produce this- that this article arises from the sweat of her brow.

Some novelists write quickly (though nowhere near as quickly as journalists) but extensive periods of waiting seem utterly intrinsic to the process of getting a novel onto bookshelves. Jane Austen reputedly put a draft of a novel she had completed into a drawer, locked it, gave the key to Cassandra, and told her sister not to give the key back to her for a year. Only then would she be able to redraft the novel well. And even today every stage of producing a novel seems designed to take the finished book away from any sort of journalistic immediacy of writing it.

And novels are produced at least as much from the unconscious as the conscious mind of the author (as I have argued here for instance). The effect of this, I would argue, is to reduce still further the sense of the author's presence in the finished work, because it is the novel we engage with, not the author's efforts in producing it. In fact when we start noticing the latter too much it can kill our enjoyment and engagement entirely. A successful novel takes us directly into a world of the author's unconscious imagination and we live in it and explore it as if we were the first people there.

So what does this tell me  in regards to the questions I posed in the second paragraph of this piece? Well, not much I suppose. Except perhaps that a novelist needs time away from their creation in a way that a journalist simply does not.

So maybe it's no bad thing that I haven't so much as looked at my novel in weeks.

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