Sunday, 29 August 2010

What makes a good novel?

or

Should we fire the canon?

In Nancy Lamb's informative The Art and Craft of Storytelling, she gives the would-be author a plethora of hints, tips and rules on how to create readable prose; and more imporantly publishable, readable prose. One of her tips is not to overdo the poetic description, that it makes the reader bored/tired/liable to close the book never to open it again. I'm with Nancy on this, decriptive prose has its place - in my mind interjected amongst the action. So my question is, How come so many of the literary classics are filled with seemingly endless passages of description?

I can recall the groan I emitted, almost as long as the passage itself, when I first encountered D. H. Lawrence's penchant for in-depth description in The Rainbow. Lawrence not only painted the scene he showed you every stroke of the brush. Tedious. If Nancy had been Lawrence's editor I would probably have been saved the agonising hours ploughing from cover to cover. That is not to say that the premise and themes in The Rainbow are not good stuff, it would have been a marvellous read if he had dispensed with the excess of adjectives, metaphors and smilies. I like a well-placed metaphor as much as the next man, but used sparingly.

Another author of classics fame that I struggle to enjoy is Charles Dickens. One of his novels is a cracking read, A Tale of Two Cities, but who amongst you has suffered the interminable Dombey and Son? This novel was one of the set books for my degree and I am ashamed to admit I didn't finish it. I didn't make it to the mid-point and even that was a chore. Dickens breaks a number of the 'rules' of good storytelling (and these aren't just Nancy's rules):
  • He introduces coincidences in order to make his story work
  • A number of his characters are idealised and he inserts some highly sentimental scenes
  • He is didactic -he puts his morals into the plot and mouths of his characters
I should mention he also helped create some of the rules. A number of Dickens' works were intiially serialised and so his ability to create suspense, by ending a chapter mid-scene, is a trick used by many modern day authors.

This may sound like an un-prompted attack on two of Britain's revered authors, but in truth I am questioning whether the literary canon needs a little revision (and I haven't even mentioned Shakespeare - he is for a whole separate series of rambling and rants); or perhaps that the methods used by some of these writers be honestly critiqued rather than slavishly accepted as good writing. As with all things, the passage of time renders some works obsolete or requires others to be re-appraised. Perhaps the Victorians and early twentieth century readers enjoyed coincidence and acres of description, but the modern reader tends not to; so lets consider and evaluate the canon from a fresh perspective, the modern view-point with an open mind.

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