Issue 50 / December 2012


December 2012 Update

As stockings fill with books, Nooks and other indeterminables, in honour of Christmases past we're drawn to a continuing chance to champion your favourite literary haunts - and win £250 of National Book Tokens (now redeemable against ebooks too, naturally).

If the festivities prove too much in the coming days, do sneak away and tuck into our recent interviews with A.M. Holmes, Eduardo Halfon and Lawrence Norfolk, alongside Colm Tóibín on how he writes, fiction from Ronald Frame, Suzette Field's Top 10 literary parties, and features by Sara Maitland and Jason Wallace. Writers amongst you may also want to consider this brand new competition from the savvy folk at The White Review.

In our latest issue Lucy Scholes looks back at the fiction highlights of 2012 and looks forward to what's coming in 2013, kicking off with Nicholas Royle's First Novel, Emma Chapman's How to be a Good Wife, Chloe Hooper's The Engagement, Deborah Levy's Black Vodka, Lucy Caldwell's All the Beggars Riding and Amy Sackville's Orkney. Look out too for Scott Hutchins' Working Theory of Love, Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be, Lottie Moggach's Kiss Me First and James Salter's novel: All That Is. We're also intrigued by celebrated New York Times literary critic Michiko Kukatani's books of the year list. A self-published title, The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall, made the cut.

Have a very happy Christmas, and here's to plentiful good reading and writing in the new year...


0 comments / Comment now

Monday, 24 December, 2012

Origins of awe and wonder by Sara Maitland

Sara Maitland's Gossip From the Forest is a magical and beguiling blend of nature writing, history and imaginative fiction that makes memorable connections between ancient and primal landscapes and the vital human impulse for storytelling.

When I was writing A Book of Silence I discovered that I was avoiding forests and their silences because I was frightened. Startled, I took myself off to Glen Affric - one of the remaining fragments of ancient pine forest in Scotland - to challenge and examine my fear. The forest was very beautiful, in a weird and ancient-feeling way. I discovered that, in reality, it was not 'fear' that I experienced, but something rather stranger. Glen Affric is famous for its lichens; they trailed from the birch and rowan trees like witches' tresses, long, tangled and grey. Perhaps initially it was that image which triggered an unexpected response: the forest gave me the same set of feelings and emotions that I get when I first encounter a true fairy story. For me, this is a visceral response and hard to articulate - a strange brew of excitement, recognition and peril, with more anticipation or even childlike glee than simple 'terror of the wild' because of the other sense that this is somewhere I know and have known all my life. The hairs on the back of my neck do not actually rise as the cliché would have it, but I know exactly what the phrase is trying to express.

getimage.jpgI have always had a strong imaginative reaction to fairy stories. As an adult, I have read a lot of them and a lot about them. It was not hard to recognise the almost identical feeling that the Glen Affric forest gave me, but it was surprising. Naturally, then, I was intrigued by my so similar responses. I started to think about this, and have come to realise that these feelings do have a real connection, lying buried in the imagination and in our childhoods, as well as in the more regulated historical and biological accounts. I grew up on fairy stories. Luckily for me, from early childhood my parents read to us widely and they also told us stories. Although, like all oral storytellers, they moulded and edited the stories to their own ends, they did not - as I remember it - make up new stories for us, but gave us a wide range of traditional ones - history stories, Bible stories, and, particularly in my father's case, classical myths. But fairy stories have some big advantages for parents with six children because they are age appropriate for nearly everyone; they can be shifted and altered to match the moment's need; there is a fairly even balance of male and female characters; they are mercifully short; and they are memorable.

'Once upon a time,' the stories would begin . . . no particular time, fictional time, fairy-story time. This is a doorway; if you are lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please.

These stories are deeply embedded in my imagination. As I grew up and became a writer, I found myself going back to them and using them, retelling them ever since, working partly on the principle that a tale which has been around for centuries is highly likely to be a better story than one I just made up yesterday; and partly on the deep sense that they can tell more truth, more economically, than slices of contemporary social realism. The stories are so tough and shrewd formally that I can use them for anything I want - feminist revisioning, psychological exploration, malicious humour, magical realism, nature writing. They are generous, true and enchanted.

My parents also gave us an unusual degree of physical freedom and space. We were allowed to go out into the big bad world and have adventures, both rural ones and - more surprisingly for middle-class children in the 1950s - London ones. I have not fully worked out the connection here, but it feels important to make a note of it.

I honestly do not remember when I became aware that there were mediators of these parental gifts - printed fixed versions of these stories. At some point I must have learned that they were different sorts of stories from Joseph's coat of many colours, from Helen's great beauty, and from Drake's game of bowls. By the time I reached that recognition I had also begun to separate out the different strands. Well into early adulthood I thought of the Classical Myths as being somehow superior to the fairy stories, more important and more dignified; more grown-up indeed, because adults around me read Greek mythology, admired and encouraged references to it, and thought the acquisition of Latin a necessary part of education, but to the best of my knowledge then, fairy stories were for the children. I suspect that this was both a learned response to my adults' preference for high over popular culture, but also, with the best will in the world, it is impossible to tell Greek mythological stories without at least hinting at sexual shenanigans of a pretty exotic kind, while this element can be much more efficiently repressed in fairy stories. Sex seemed highly grown-up and sophisticated to me then. It probably was not until 1979, when Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber taught me a thing or two, that I realised just how sexy the bog-standard fairy story could really be. And as I learned these distinctions about genre, I also learned to distinguish between different sorts of fairy stories and different ways of telling them. Quite early I discovered that I did not like Hans Andersen's stories. I knew they were fakes: they were too pious, too complicated and often too sad as well - all traditional fairy stories, I knew, have happy endings, it is one of the central codes of the genre. Oscar Wilde's got nearer to the real thing, but they only worked when they were read, not told; Tolkein was like that too, and also he wanted you to care about, rather than identify with, particular characters in longer sagas, and there was always an inexplicable sense that he was up to something else, even when he touched some deep roots.


Excerpted from Sara Maitland's Gossip From the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales (Granta Books).


0 comments / Comment now

Friday, 23 November, 2012

Writing in the margins by Jason Wallace

Jason Wallace was born in Cheltenham in 1969, grew up in London, then emigrated to Zimbabwe at the age of 12 when his mother remarried. His experiences in a tough boarding school during the aftermath of the war there form the foundation of his first novel, Out of Shadows, which won the 2010 Costa Children's Book Award. The book is now repackaged as a crossover novel for children and adults.

Out of the many frustrations that arise from being a novelist, the one for me that sticks out the most is when I'm introduced to someone and the conversation might kick off something like this:

"... and this is Jason. He's an author."

"Oh really? What do you write?"

"Books," I say. "Fiction."

"Golly. Anything published?"

"He's won awards," the host will put in, and eyes light up.


"He won the Costa Children's Book Award."

It's at that point in the conversation that I sense the change. A shift of feet or a casual glance to the other side of the room, as though they've suddenly lost interest and the ball of string is unravelling.

"But it's not a children's book," I hear myself explain in an attempt to draw them back.

And that's where I have to stop and ask myself: Why? Why did I feel the need to do that? Is it them or is it me? And what do I mean by that?

Out-of-Shadows.jpgI should probably explain at this point that Out of Shadows, my first published novel, was never written as a children's book. For a start, there's a difference between 'children's' and "teenage/young adult". Awards often don't distinguish the boundaries, but in the world of bookshops there is a line, and Out of Shadows is most definitely not for the 'children's' section.

Secondly, I wrote the book without any market in mind. It's a story. I had an idea in my head, and the more I picked at it the better it got, so I had no option but to put it onto paper without any thought of who was going to read it. For fear of sounding conceited, it was the kind of book I knew I'd like as a reader, and I'm amazingly fussy, so I had a pretty good idea I was onto something.

It was my agent, Carolyn, who threw the idea of a 'children's book' into the air. "I think it would work," she told me. "It's strong on issues, characterisation and narrative. Schools will love it."

I was surprised, to say the least. A children's book? Surely not. Looking back, I dare say I shifted my feet a little and cast my eyes to the other side of the room, and Carolyn had to draw me back.

Rushing forward from that moment to now, Carolyn was spot on. Out of Shadows worked in the teenage market very well. Andersen Press snapped it up and - with three national awards under my belt - my writing career so far has exceeded anything I could have hoped for in those dark days of trying to get published.

But the question remains: Why does mentioning the 'teenage' aspect of it make a difference? Why do strangers sometimes switch off at the mention of the word and why do I feel I have to explain? There are, after all, many excellent books for younger people that grown-ups are more than happy to read - Lord of the Flies, Winnie-the-Pooh and Harry Potter, to name but three. So why?

When I was about fourteen I came down with a horrible virus that laid me out flat for almost two weeks. However, being in a boarding school, I didn't have the comforts of home to help me recuperate, rather it was the sanatorium, and boredom took on a whole new meaning. So I read. I read books. I devoured them. William Boyd, Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Ian McEwan... In those days there was no such thing as a 'teenage book', at least not in Zimbabwe, just books, and to be frank I didn't care who wrote them or what they were about as long as they kept me entertained.

It's hardly surprising, then, that every time I talk in a school I urge my audience not to get stuck in the teenage section and feel they can't browse elsewhere. I offer them an 'adult' novel in Out of Shadows. I haven't tried to hide anything or patronise. And, at a time when they're moving into adulthood themselves and starting to think more freely, I present them with questions and issues they might not recognise in their own lives (the novel being set where it is) and ask them to form their own opinions. Needless to say, I find teenagers like being treated like adults.

I'm not against distinguishing books into age genres in the way the market does. Far from it, I think it can be an effective way of getting younger people to read. What I am against is censoring or dumbing down content because it needs to 'fit' a certain age group. One of the awards for Out of Shadows was chosen by teachers, and apparently some parents were outraged that a book such as this could have been selected to win. The response I've often had from teenagers themselves, meanwhile, is that they find the book a breath of air and so different to anything else they've read.

Now that the book has crossed over from a marketing point of view, I'm hearing equally positive things from readers of all ages. In fact, it goes the other way, with comments like, "But it's not actually a children's book, is it? I don't see why they call it that."

So when someone now asks who my next book's going to be for - adults or teenagers - I simply reply with a slightly enigmatic, "Both," because ultimately my stance remains the same: a book needs to be a captive, entertaining story above all else, and I believe it's how the story is told that makes it so. It doesn't matter which market you're writing for, if indeed you are, the book simply needs to be good.


The new edition of Out of Shadows is published by Vintage.


0 comments / Comment now

Monday, 19 November, 2012

Forty Cakes by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is the award-winning author of noir fiction including Queenpin, Bury Me Deep (nominated for the 2010 Edgar Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and The End of Everything (a 2011 Richard & Judy selection.) To mark their fortieth anniversary, Picador asked forty of their authors to respond to the idea of forty, leading Abbott to reflect on cakes and memes and childhood memories.

You would, very likely, be surprised to know there are hundreds and maybe thousands of Americans of a certain age who hear the word 'forty' and, from somewhere in the warps and winnows of their brain, comes the echo of a peculiar phrase, 'Forty cakes'.
    Forty cakes. In this short, quizzical locution, there lies something both utterly au courant and deeply eternal about the power of books.
    Let me explain: Several months ago, I came upon a particular fascinating example of an internet meme - one of those insidiously contagious concepts, conceits, catchphrases (e.g., Snakes on a Plane!, 'Rickrolling', which involves sending putative serious emails to individuals that then unfurl to rollicking Rick Astley clips from the 1980s) that spread across the web, social networks, even among real live people at cocktail parties.
    These memes, transitory but powerful, seem on the surface to be nothing more than in-jokes, serving as a means of distinguishing those in the know (and those who knew first - before, as another old meme goes, it 'jumped the shark') from the vast unhip. Yet one could easily argue that, rather than a means of excluding, memes are, in an increasingly sprawling and faceless world, a means of connecting.
    Consider the case of the forty cakes. Its derivation lies in a 1978 publication called The Super Dictionary, a children's book that used Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and other superheroes from the DC Comics universe to teach young readers their numbers and the meanings of basic words. Here is how it educated readers on the number forty:

When no one was looking, Lex Luthor
took forty cakes. He took 40 cakes.
That's as many as four tens.
And that's terrible.

The associated illustration shows the famed nemesis of Superman in full sprint, yanking a rolling cart of desserts behind him. It's mystifying on many levels - why would monomaniacal supervillain bother with stealing pastries? What does he intend to do with them? And, perhaps most of puzzlingly, what are we to make of the fact that the desserts in question are clearly pies?
    And so, in various forms, portions of the text, its illustration, are scattered across not only the internet but, in a canny bit of meta-meming, back into comic books themselves (fans rejoiced at a reference to it in a recent issue of Superman). The most tenacious portion of the meme seems to be the last line - And that's terrible - which has become an 'in-group' shorthand for an extraneous assertion.
    Beyond its puzzling content, one of the fascinations of Forty Cakes is the way the text 'scans', its odd metre, the repetition and its unusual phrasing, calling to mind an attenuated haiku, even a zen kõan. Its idiosyncratic rhythm lingers in the head, like a phrase a childhood song, like a line from a fairy tale ("Grandmother, what a great mouth you have!"). And, of course, when we riff on it, we are whispering in the ears of all of us who know the hidden reference. An in-joke with authentic emotional heft. We are children again, sharing secrets behind our hands.
    Forty Cakes, then, is not a meme that sprang from the internet; it was merely expressed there. It derives from something older, more primal but also more internal and personal. It derives from our childhoods. Not the 'generational' childhood of common pop-cultural references, but the part of childhood we all share. Our half-forgotten memory of what it feels like to be at the age when we are trying to figure out the world, piece by piece. When we yearn to gain experience and unravel the mysteries of life. A yearning that, as the years skitter by and experience feels more like a burden than a beacon, we conveniently forget.
    Ironically, I don't explicitly recall The Super Dictionary and don't quite trust the faint déjà vu I felt when I first came upon the Forty Cakes meme. Still, it hums in me because of the kindred memories it stirs. We all remember moments from our youth when knowledge was passed to us that seemed strange, mystical. That didn't seem to fit. As a child, I was a rapacious reader of Archie comic books, which documented the sunny lives of fictional small-town teenagers with deeply uncomplicated lives. My favourite issues were always those devoted to Betty and Veronica, the main heroines of the series, both of whom fought for the favour of boy-next-door Archie and who comprised the archetypal good girl-bad girl dyad that I've come to realise has - in its light (teen movies) and dark (film noir) forms - informed the books I love to read and the ones I write.
    Decades later, the plots or intrigues of virtually all of the Betty and Veronica tales have tucked themselves into various inaccessible corners of my head. But one has always remained. In my memory, Betty, the fair-haired girl-next-door, develops wildly crimson blotches on her cheeks. This wasn't typical teen complexion anxiety. I recalled with stunning vividness the image of Betty standing before a mirror staring at her face, the cheek blotches recalling bloody smears. Over the years, I have doubted the memory. How could, I have asked myself, this have been a real Archie comic plotline? Archie, the world of first kisses, school dances and soda-shop hijinks.
    In recent weeks, however, inspired by the Forty Cakes meme, I have tracked down the comic in question. It belongs to a multi-issue Archie storyline called "Betty Cooper, Betty Cooper" - an attempt to mimic the 1970s American TV show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a soap opera parody. To my mind, however, "Betty Cooper" owes far more to Dark Shadows, the gothic vampire TV series I loved as a girl. Rife with plot strands about bloodlines, witches, gypsies, secret fortunes, "Betty Cooper" is narrated in the breathless, hushed tones of a sensation novel.
    Paging through the comic a few weeks ago, I was elated to note that there is indeed a plot line in which Betty discovers, as I had recalled, inexplicable red blotches on her face, as does Veronica, suggesting the two might be sisters. Suddenly, I remembered my initial shock over this - what would it mean if the already complicated Betty and Veronica relationship (sometimes they are friends, sometimes arch-enemies, sometimes ego and id) developed this additional complication? It was almost more than my seven-year-old brain could bear. I recalled pondering it endlessly. Could a girl be good and bad?
    The experience of returning to the comic highlighted to me just what we see in the Forty Cakes meme: the capacity of books we discover as children - particularly the ones that stir and puzzle us - to burrow into our heads, to inform, in ways large and small, the way we see the world but also understand ourselves, our own fascinations. As one online Archie aficionado recalled fondly, "That 'Betty Cooper, Betty Cooper' story was where I first learned the meaning of the word 'bloodcurdling.'" The dark world that might lie underneath the pleasant small-town of the Archie comics clearly enthralled me, stuck with me in ways hundreds of other comics did not. Perhaps indeed led me to other similar tales of 'the underneath', from Peyton Place to Twin Peaks.
    There is another layer to this, of course. And it resounds as I think of Picador's extraordinary forty years, forty years of books that have had made deep impressions, both visible and invisible, on millions of readers. Indeed, while comic books have a unique capacity to stamp our brains, traditional books hold still more magic because of the pictures we conjure in our own heads. How many of us recall our first introduction to, say, Jane Eyre's red room or Fitzgerald's glittering East Egg? When we first found ourselves 'painting' physical spaces, whole worlds in our head? Making them real and their mysteries vivid as those in our own lives?
    Then, the Forty Cakes meme is not merely the dross of a buzzy, irony-laden culture of engineered advertisements, viral marketing or cynical hoaxes and pranks. It speaks to the power of books we read as children, our minds still open, unblinking, rapt. And they linger the brain, their rhythms pulsing through us decades later, whittling their way into our unconscious, to unsettle and unearth our most hidden corners. And just as potent as the knowledge we gained from books (from learning the number forty to learning about the French Revolution), is the knowledge that seemed to elude us, or be just beyond our grasp. Part of the fundamental power of books - their true exceptionalism - is the way they can, if weird and wonderful enough, both illuminate and obfuscate. Not just as a children, but always.
    Books write (or, later, rewrite) the world for us, especially the hidden worlds shuddering behind the worlds we know so well. All books are ghost stories in that way, pulling back heavy curtains and showing us things we both never knew and things we somehow knew all long, on some lower register. The cadences of long forgotten sentences that sneakily tattooed themselves on our brains... they last. And that's beautiful.

The Picador Book of 40
is edited by Charlotte Greig.

0 comments / Comment now

Monday, 22 October, 2012

The Landscape of the Long Sentence by Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer's debut novel The Infinite Tides is a lyrical, tragicomic and redemptive tale of an astronaut who comes back to earth with a crippling bump after he learns that his teenage daughter has died in a car accident and his wife has abandoned the family home. For Kiefer the craft of storytelling is rooted in the well-turned phrase.

9781408828038.jpgWhen I first sought an agent to help me publish my novel The Infinite Tides, I was given a piece of advice: to look to those writers I admire and send the manuscript first to their agents. This remains a solid plan, as the agents one might approach from such a self-generated list are those whom, you hope, will be disposed to understand and enjoy what you have done, but it only works if you are, in the first place, able to create some kind of list - preferably a long list - of contemporary writers whose work is, at least vaguely, in your wheelhouse. I recall poring over my bookshelves soon thereafter, expecting a goodly number of volumes to leap out at me, volumes by writers who were very much alive and very much agented. And that was when I realised just how woefully under-read I am in contemporary fiction.

In the end, this essay may have more to do with my reading habits than it does with its purported subject, "the long sentence", but I feel I should start by admitting that I do not generally read for entertainment. I am usually unconcerned with characters and plot, or rather I am concerned with them only after being swept up in the beauty of the language itself. For me the sentences are the engine that pushes the car forward, and if the interior is a mess - the plot stagnant, the characters trite or nonexistent - I'm quite slow to notice. I read for sentences first. It is not as if I lack an appreciation of plot and character, but I am willing to read for many pages if the sentences are interesting, beautiful, gripping, or innovative. If the language and syntax aren't working very hard, I'm quite likely to lose interest.

There are some exceptions, of course. I love Larry McMurtry, for example, a wonderful storyteller and creator of characters and a writer whose sentences tend toward simple and direct elegance. A great story and great characters together are an amazing and pleasurable treat for me as a reader, but they are like dessert, and when I'm looking through possible reading material I'm generally looking for dinner. This is why I'm apt to notice that there remain an increasingly small handful of Melville novels I've not read - and some Flaubert, Proust, Mann, and Hawthorne volumes as well - and I'm sorry to say that those folks are simply better writers than 99% of my contemporaries, myself included. If I'm going to reach for something to read, I'm more likely to pick up one of the masters than something the newspaper has reviewed favourably this week, for how could that well-reviewed novel be as good as anything Hawthorne wrote?

Part of this is a simple change in the values of readers and of writers. We love plot and character these days and, apparently, care much less for the sentence. But again, that's not to say that I disparage active, living writers and indeed there are some holdouts who love the sentence the way I do. I adore Cormac McCarthy. Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled made me a devoted follower, and Ian McEwan's masterful Atonement and devastating short novel On Chesil Beach did the same. I relish the breathtaking translations of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai's weird dark volumes and have been working through the prose and poetry of the late W.G. Sebald, gone too soon at age 57. What I love best about all of these authors is their attention to the language at the sentence level and, at their best, the ways in which that language is employed to weave a sense of being, of life, of mystery into the text. For Ishiguro that language is used to mould breathtaking characters. For McCarthy it is his sense of place and idea more than anything else. McEwan's best sentence-level writing moves between character and idea and setting and in some ways is more in line with nineteenth-century prose than with most of his contemporaries, as in this description from Atonement, the opening paragraph of Chapter Eight:

In the early evening, high-altitude clouds in the western sky formed a thin yellow wash which became richer over the hour, and then thickened until a filtered orange glow hung above the giant crests of parkland trees; the leaves became nutty brown, the branches glimpsed among the foliage oily black, and the desiccated grasses took on the colours of the sky. A Fauvist dedicated to improbable colour might have imagined a landscape this way, especially once sky and ground took on a reddish bloom and the swollen trunks of elderly oaks became so black they began to look blue. Though the sun was weakening as it dropped, the temperature seemed to rise because the breeze that had brought faint relief all day had faded, and now the air was still and heavy.

This could well have come out of Hawthorne or Melville but of course it has not. What we have here are three sentences here of diminishing lengths - 62, 38, and 33 words long - and while the description is, obviously, incredible, what I am momentarily interested in is not the quality of that description but the quality of the three sentences that contain it. We start with a short prepositional phrase, then a brief noun phrase followed by a second prepositional phrase before we get to the verb, itself the start of a participial phrase leading to what was Faulkner's favourite, the relative clause (starting with 'which'); this ends at the comma, indicating our move from the independent clause that begins the sentence to the dependent clauses that will run out towards its end.

We could go on like this but I believe to do so would fundamentally miss the point. The lengthy sentence is a kind of highwire act and when handled by a master, as McEwan clearly is, it can be breathtaking not only in terms of control but in terms of extending the possibility of beauty. As readers, the long sentence demands we travel, feeling for its turns the way we might were we to navigate a mountain road on a motorcycle, sensing the angle at which we will lean the bike over, the trees whizzing past, gravity pressing us toward the asphalt, and then loosening as we hit the straightaway again. The short sentence is a sprint or dash and as such it remains an entirely different experience. The short sentence simply cannot accomplish what the long sentence can.

Here's another, this from the mid-nineteenth century via the pages of Herman Melville's Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, a forgettable book but for a few key moments, not the least of which is the novel's opening chapter, which beings with this:

The traveller who at the present day is content to travel in the good old Asiatic style, neither rushed along by a locomotive, nor dragged by a stage-coach; who is willing to enjoy hospitalities at far-scattered farmhouses, instead of paying his bill at an inn; who is not be frightened by any amount of loneliness, or to be deterred by the roughest roads or the highest hills; such a traveller in the eastern park of Berkshire, Mass., will find ample foot for poetic reflection in the singular scenery of a country, which, owing to the ruggedness of the soil and its lying out of the track of all public conveyances, remains almost as unknown to the general tourist as the interior of Bohemia. (3)

I will hold off on the grammatical laundry list this time; suffice to say that while McEwan's long sentences tend to move forward - modifying, suggesting, complicating, but generally containing momentum - Melville's 125-word opening revels in interruption. His major phrases are broken by appositives and with shorter clauses, sometimes, as with the first instance ("neither rushed along...") being used to define and perhaps negate a reader's possible assumptions about the preceding phrase by offering a clarification of the traveller's proposed "Asiatic style". McEwan's paragraph floats us above a landscape, offering a sense of that landscape's palette and texture; Melville's twists us into that landscape, starting with the qualities of the traveller and ending in an idea - but not yet the reality - of the Berkshires. The traveller is us, we readers, and he is giving us a taste of the road we have already, and perhaps unwittingly, embarked upon.

McEwan's notwithstanding, there are fewer examples of lengthy sentences in contemporary writing than there are in novels past. Péter Esterházy has commented that "the nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, meaning wandering through long periodic structures" and he's correct in this, but god how I miss those sentences and how I wish more of us were using them today.

In an interview before the Edinburgh International Book Festival, László Krasznahorkai called the short sentence 'artificial', commenting that the short sentence "is only a custom, this is perhaps helpful for the reader, but for only one reason, that the readers in the last few thousand years have learned that a short sentence is easier to understand". We have indeed learned that a short sentence is easier for us to understand, not because it mimics our verbal communication style but because it does not. We do not speak in short, direct sentences very often. Instead we speak in bizarre run-ons. Our reliance on short, direct sentences in fiction is a kind of play on how we might or should or possibly could communicate: subject followed by verb followed by object. Bill kissed Ernest. Ernest kissed Susan. And so on. It's clear and direct and has purpose, getting quickly and succinctly to the point. But there's little magic there, little of the gauzy beauty in which great fiction is wrapped. And we know that. We know that McEwan's paragraph could not be reduced to "It was sunset", nor could Melville's be "A traveller walks to the Berkshires. It is pretty there." Instead, both authors give us the warp and woof that weave the setting and the characters and, yes, even the plot into our hearts.

I should note here, in closing, that the sentences of which I speak are purposeful. They are not simply an exercise in excess, nor do they need to break all possible rules of grammar in order to create their length. Molly Bloom's soliloquy, for all the length of its two sentences (11,282 and 12,931 words respectively) is not really two long sentences, for Joyce has dispensed with grammar in order to make his stream-of-consciousness writing more streamy. Not that we care, when it comes to Joyce, a master of a different sort entirely. I should also note that despite this particular interest, the opening sentence of my own novel, The Infinite Tides, is a scant three words long, albeit followed by a bruiser at 108 words. Nor is the point to count the words, in fact something I've never done until the composition of this short essay. The point is to understand the gauze, the magic, the weave of excellent prose so that we can, like Melville's traveller, under the power of our own feet and thus in the Asiatic style, come into the landscape undeterred by the roughest roads and the highest hills, trundling under the control of language unloosed from the confines of the endstop, to roll out across that geography and into the yellow wash of the setting sun.


The Infinite Tides is published by Bloomsbury Circus.


0 comments / Comment now

Saturday, 20 October, 2012

Recent posts

Three Things I Learned About Writing Habits by Will Schwalbe

0 comments / Comment now / Saturday, 20 October, 2012

Some failsafe writing tips by Gideon Defoe

0 comments / Comment now / Monday, 10 September, 2012

The death of the editor? by Julia Bell

0 comments / Comment now / Sunday, 9 September, 2012

Black, White & Colour by the Vintage Design Department

0 comments / Comment now / Tuesday, 4 September, 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover ...

0 comments / Comment now / Tuesday, 4 September, 2012

August Update: Herman Koch, Louise Welsh, Ned Beauman, Amy Hempel and more...

0 comments / Comment now / Monday, 20 August, 2012

Ned Beauman Interview by Alex Peake-Tomkinson

0 comments / Comment now / Sunday, 19 August, 2012

The Coming of Age Collection by Lucy Scholes

0 comments / Comment now / Sunday, 19 August, 2012

The difficult second book (and first novel) by Christopher Coake

0 comments / Comment now / Thursday, 16 August, 2012

July 2012 Update

0 comments / Comment now / Tuesday, 17 July, 2012

Read all posts


Untitled Books

Your account

Register for an account and review books, comment on articles and build a list of your favourite reviews. Coming soon.

Arts Council logo
untitledbooks banner 120x600.jpg