Writing well - or writing, well...


the magic machine

We all say we’re story-tellers, don’t we? But the simple expression covers a world of difference – the difference between those writers (and readers) who value the first part (story) over the second (teller) and others who think the opposite. In a nutshell, what’s more important to you, the story, or the way you tell it?

In the Red Corner, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Kate Atkinson, Marlon James. Don’t read any great significance into the choice; these are examples. But they’re writers for whom (let’s call it) good style, good writing is as important, or more important than the plot. Not so much what happens – if anything does – but how and why it happens, and to whom.

And, my lords, ladies and gentlemen, in the Blue Corner I give you Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, and J K Rowling. Fabulously popular, prolific – and wealthy – writers of stories. Their works are driven by plot first and second, with a tiny smattering of character and – let’s be honest – not a great deal of that “style” thing. Don’t misunderstand me: these writers and others like them provide enormous pleasure for millions of people. But their facility with the nuts and bolts of language is rarely something to aspire to.

But why not? After all, they do sell books in their millions. Isn’t any reading a good thing? (I might have a go at that one later on.) What’s wrong with producing compelling, page-turning plots that keep people entertained?

Well, nothing, of course. But two things: firstly, they’re not to my personal taste. (Speaking only for myself, I have as much difficulty reading them as their fans might have with James Joyce, Dickens or Murakami.)

But more important, I have the feeling that they’re not really in charge of the magic machine they’re driving at such breakneck speed. Because it is possible to write well and to keep the story moving along. And so I give you, in the Green Corner, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Rankin, and Tana French.

All writers use the same tools. It seems to me that we should take the trouble to use them as skilfully as we can. Don’t you think?