Tuesday, 20 September 2022

A Miscellany on Books and Writing

Literary novelists

from 'Diary' by P D James, published in The Spectator 30 January 2010

A recent prize-giving has awakened my interest in discovering the definition of a literary novelist. I can define, at least for my own satisfaction, what is meant bya literary publisher: that is, one who would never publish a book he or she would be ashamed to be seen reading on the Underground. But defining a literary novel is beyond me. There are no sour grapes about this inquiry since only the most fragile egos would be bruised by omission from this mysterious category. Does the secret lie in the subject matter? It seems not, although a high proportion of literary novelists are apparently attracted to post-colonial stories, the recent or remote past, or fantasy. Does the distinction lie in literary style? Certainly a few literary novelists develop a style which makes demands on the reader’s comprehension, but others write with exemplary clarity and grace. That said, I doubt whether P.G. Wodehouse has ever been regarded as a literary novelist. Today Mr Ishiguro is a literary novelist, and Mr Le Carr√© is not — or so it appears. I doubt whether either writer is much concerned either way, but why does this difference arise and who decides? Once awarded the accolade, by whatever method, it seems that the distinction is never lost, and however disparaging or hostile the reviews of subsequent books may be, a literary novelist apparently remains so for life.


On the perception of reality

"The young boy who plays the part of the queen - we know he is a boy because Hamlet lets us know this when he begs to hope that young man's voice hasn't broken. Think of the Elizabethan audience though! They are watching a play, which has inside it another play, with a young boy in it - the young player - playing the part of Hamlet's own mother, who is herself a character we are watching on the stage, who is also sitting watching a play. So, we, the audience, are watching a play about an audience watching a play in which a young lad is dressed up to play the part of a woman who is watching him. And her part is also played by a boy, but this time we are supposed to be fooled by it! And what is it all for - this 'glass of art'? To reflect back to us our own preening, pretending selves. Can you image a more amusing introduction to the enigma of 'reality'?" - -- Salley Vickers, instances of the number 3 (pp285-6)


Samuel Johnson, on an essay: "I found your essay to be good and original. However, the part that was original was not good and the part that was good was not original."


Oscar Wilde on his writing

Thomas Wright, whose lovingly researched Oscar’s Books looks into all aspects of Wilde’s bookish passions, stresses Wilde’s proficiency in ancient Greek, proven, better perhaps than by his double first at Oxford, by copious and learned annotations in his copies of Homer, Plato, Euripides and many others. But the external beauty of books, too, mattered greatly to Wilde: though he considered books practical objects and would sometimes cut pages out of them for his own use, he delighted in elaborate bindings, exquisite first editions and cream paper with wide margins. Wilde’s bibliophilia (like his other passions) was tempered by intelligent humour. Wright reminds us that Wilde once declared his intention of bringing out a limited edition of his poem ‘The Sphinx’ in a print-run of just three copies: ‘One for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I have some doubts,’ he added, ‘about the British Museum.’

from a review by Alberto Manguel of 'Oscar's Books' by Thomas Wright published in The Spectator, 11 April 2009


Tom Stoppard on Language and Words

[Brodie]’s a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech… Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more, and Brodie knocks their corners off. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

from Act II Scene 1, The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard


Writing for Children

"Up to now, a whole lot of grown-ups have written reviews, but none of them have really known what they are talking about because a grown-up talking about a children’s book is like a man talking about a woman’s hat." -- Roald Dahl on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Advice for Writers

Until we know what a character wants, we don't know what the story is about.
Until we know what the stakes are, we don't care.



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