I am a churchgoer, something which surely comes across in my writing from time to time, though normally I would hesitate to mention the fact, lest offence be caused to readers of a different persuasion. Well, the overly touchy ones, at any rate. Notwithstanding which, I must confess to having considered the holy water font as somewhat suspect since the onset of the swine flu epidemic in 2009/10. Moreover, looking at things from that same hygienic viewpoint, it strikes me as most peculiar that so many Communicants of my persuasion should be willing to quaff transubstantiated altar wine from the same chalice, consecutively and as many as a congregation of them at a time, despite the obvious threat thereby posed by pandemics ranging from the common cold to the Norovirus which laid the population of the UK low from Christmas, 2012, to New Year. Meanwhile you may call me an old fuddy-duddy if you will, but, on similar grounds, I made sure I avoided the sacrament itself last week upon realising that the priest distributing Communion was streaming with a head cold.
It seems to me there is a connection here with what I (and you), being writers of serious intent, should do and want to do – indeed, have every intention of doing in order that we might become better writers. That is to say we should become acquainted with the canon (whole and entire), as Martin Amis so alludes to it in The War Against Cliché). Yes, indeed, we should read, should want to read what I, personally (until very recently) had every intention of reading. That is to say, all those texts that form the groundwork of English literature as we know it, ticking the blighters off as (in my dreams) as I went – Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy etc. etc. etc.
But I never did do that, did !? Get around to reading them, not all of them anyway. I read very few of them, in fact. What is more, I now know I never shall read them. Instead, on occasions too numerous to mention, I have perhaps bought the venerable tome in question (Middlemarch was such a purchase, unread; Joyce’s Ulysses, too.) and in each instance never got around to reading either one of them until – well, finally, the two books were sold on in pristine condition at a car boot sale for a tenth of the purchase price to somebody else who’ll never read them, despite picking them up at a bargain price.
In my more imaginative moments, of course, I reckon it will take a prolonged stay in hospital before the complete works of Anthony Trollope are crossed off my reading list. On the other hand, it has occurred to me lately, that perhaps I ought, instead, to state a case for NOT reading any of the aforementioned canon in the first place – and for reasons, two, herewith formally stated:
- The sort of English prose with which the canon is considerably over-stuffed is
quaint, convoluted and quantitative to a deplorable degree.
- Perish the thought that we writers of the 21st century should make the mistake of writing the same kind of prose as our literary predecessors did. Because that kind of prose won’t win us an audience nowadays.
Take Thomas Hardy for instance [1840-1928]. A poet, novelist, an architect by trade. Hardy wrote upwards of a dozen novels, the prose of which is (as I have already suggested): quaint, convoluted and deplorably quantitative. Hardy’s prose is overlong, even turgid – and, though I have no way of researching this, I suspect Hardy’s prose was perhaps overlong and turgid even at the time he was writing it.
Nevertheless, writers such as ourselves must not make the mistake of dismissing Thomas Hardy out-of-hand. Because, overlong/turgid prose notwithstanding, Hardy’s imagery is magic, his sense of symbolism is superb, his summation of character by means of a single pinpointed event is what every writer worthy of the name should be aiming to effect.
“Action is character”, F Scott Fitzgerald wisely advised us, to which effect Fitzgerald himself made use of items and a particular event originally revealed to us in Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, as follows:
- Are not Gatsby’s shirts another version of the upwards of 50 gift-wrapped presents addressed to “Bathsheba Boldwood”, who was only ever “Boldwood” in Squire Boldwood’s wildest dreams?
- Is not the gunshot that ends Gatsby’s life at the hands of a madman an echo of the gunshot that kills Sergeant Troy at the hands of the deranged Squire Boldwood?
Ignore Thomas Hardy’s imagery at your peril, ye writers of serious intent. But, should you find him unreadable, get hold of his work on VHS tape or DVD.
To emphasise this point, I leave you with a forceful scene from A Tragedy of Two Ambitions, which was featured in the BBC’s Wessex Tales.
The elder of two ambitious brothers (a clergyman played by John Hurt) drops by his younger brother’s school and asks him to accompany him, cutting class short when there is still an hour to run. The elder brother quiets the younger’s protest with these words: ‘Whose future is more important? Theirs or yours?’
What a vile suggestion by a clergyman! And how awful that a teacher should acquiesce to it!
But what a stunningly succinct exposition of character by Thomas Hardy.
Readers – nay, writers – ignore Hardy’s genius at your peril!
(23 January 2013)
Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website, http://www.novelnovella.com.