The Keyboard Is My FuckMonkey:
Halfway through writing a novel is exactly the wrong time to start reading one.
Primates are notoriously easy to distract, and all those industrious Chimpanzees in the Random Genius Metaphor of your imagination – that’s the typewriter sound you can hear while you’re trying to sleep – are liable to get seriously waylaid if you start giving the shit-flinging noddies extra reading material while they’re trying to be Original.
But let’s pause a moment before we start panicking about accidentally pissing all over the Glorious Snowflake Of Stylistic Individuality. Here is a Warning:
Writers can get themselves completely soulshat over this sort of thing. Consider if you will the perceived importance of Stylish Language; or the necessity for snappy Post-Modern Syntax, or the trendy yearning for a structure so disjointed it’s not so much “Cutting-Edge” as “Hack-Your-Eyeballs-Out-At-Fifty-Yards-And-Mystify-Every-Fucker-Who-Tries-To-Follow-It Edge”…
Really, it’s all cockrot.
“Style” is a dangerous preoccupation for a novelist. It’s like the Awesome Band Name being endlessly sought by the nag-haired pimply rockers in next-door’s garage: so busy fretting over costumes and Cover Art they complete forget to make any decent music. The truth is that every writer has a unique “voice” whether they like it or not – some more Batshit than others – and if they’re spending any time consciously trying to be stylish they’ve already screwed the pooch, smoked its severed dong and used its diamond-studded leash to asphyxiate a vicar.
Let’s not worry too much, in other words, about Style.
But still: in the smaller, quieter ways – the nuances, the flourishes, the interesting Big Words and notable plot twists – it’s easy to cross-pollinate your brain with the washed-up flotsam of Other People’s Work.
For instance: this slab of prosey evil I’ve been squeezing out of my fingertips for the past couple of months is – notionally speaking – a Contemporary Crime novel. The idea was to strive for something a little more commercially approachable than my last book, so for a month or so before starting-out I guzzled through a teetering pile of Bestsellers. Whodunits, whydunnits, howchatchums; all the better to exorcise the lingering tendrils of the various (but uniformly Odd) stuff I’d been working on before. This is the Positive face of being impressionable: dunking the pizzle of Intention into the juicy Meat-sheath of Oeuvre. As long as you don’t leave it there so long it goes crusty, you’re fine. It’s like visiting a tan-booth before going on a sunny vacation: an act of acclimatization so you don’t look like an out-of-place Albino.
The big problem with this sort of Genre Osmosis is that a lot of best-selling crime novels are, for the record, really badly written. I mean it. Sub-retard vocabulary, sudden leaps in perspective; even abrupt shifts in tense (as if the narrator’s been casually time-travelling and couldn’t be arsed to sort it out). What unites this dreary underclass – marked “Bad But Successful” – is that in each case, fuck-dreadful clichés and all, the reader is dragged on towards the end by nothing more than the desire to Get It Over With. It’s often said the engine of a really good story is a hunger to learn “What Happens Next?”, and this is no different… It’s just that the reader is desperately hoping what happens next is, well… The End. In one particularly suckgasmic offering I diligently read 3 pages out of every 20, and still felt vaguely satisfied by the conclusion. I didn’t appear to’ve missed anything important.
In other words, it’s as if the genre comes complete with an utterly depressing Cheat-formula: you establish a mystery in the first few pages and – just as long as you solve it by the end – you can merrily fill the intervening space with Infectious Unintelligible Arsewipe and still be confident that a lot of your readers will push-on to the final page. It’s a shitty setup, and in all-too-many cases it encourages the writer to display a shocking contempt for their audience. “They don’t care… Nor will I.”
Strangely, it does help to read this category of Awful Yet Popular dross in one sense, because it truly does hammer-home the lesson that the vast majority of your audience couldn’t give a figgy fuck about Style. This – to the wouldbe writer – is a tough reality to accept.
The good news is that the best writers – and there really are some ludicrously good crime books out there, for the record – care enough about the readers who do want a unique and characterful “voice” to stitch-together a cohesive and stylish read, without going overboard.
The bad news is that if you’re aiming to create a novel along those lines yourself – and I am – then reading other peoples’ is amazingly dumb. The shit ones will only depress you – particularly when you learn how many hundreds of thousands of copies they sold – and the good ones will only infect your Mental Chimps and dilute your Voice.
All of which is the Scenic-Route version of me telling you that I was going to review a Crime Novel this week, oh gentle reader, and make Insightful Comments based on an understanding of trying to Write something similar.
But I can’t, on account of not having dared go near any for a while. So, um, sorry.
Here, instead, is a Sci-Fi/comedy/religious/peculiar recommendation. I AM KULTCHA, HEAR ME PAGEFLICK.
Scepticism Inc., by Bo Fowler, is notable in the sense that it cheerfully and successfully breaks the Big Rule I just spent 886 words ranting about above. It oozes style. To me it doesn’t feel forced – if flows with a lunatic liquidity without ever getting annoying, and behind the bubblegum schizophrenia are some of the cleverest considerations on the nature of Religion I’ve ever read – but I can guarantee purists (which is to say: anyone who likes their paragraphs to contain more than one sentence… or indeed, often, more than one word) will trip-up halfway through the first chapter and not get much further.
For instance: following a good-natured curryhouse disagreement some time ago, about the distinction between atheism and agnosticism (Dansak and Divinity go surprisingly well, for the record) I sent this book to a fellow Comic-Writing chum by way of the Last Word. I should’ve known better, really: said chum is an oft-stated devotee of the Fuck Style, Just Tell The Fucking Story school of narrative excitement, and he duly returned the book – One Year Later – with a polite note saying he didn’t think he’d ever get around to reading it – too much on his plate – and thought he’d better send it back before he forgot. Which is the very polite way of suggesting he’d read the blurb on the back, thought it sounded fucking silly, possibly tried the first page – even sillier – and gave up in disgust.
Scepticism Inc. is narrated by an A.I. supermarket trolley. Yes. It’s the story of Edgar Malroy: proprietor a string of licensed Metaphysical Betting Shops, where punters can put-down money on religious assertions… let’s say, ten dollars on “God Is Love.” They get a badge to show-off to the rest of their congregation – see how strongly I believe? – Edgar gets their money, and of course there’s no way “the nuts” (as he affectionately calls them) can ever prove a result and collect their winnings.
See, Edgar’s noticed that people with firm beliefs – be they monotheist, polytheist or atheist – will do just about anything to demonstrate how fervently they know their own article of faith to be true. And so he challenges them to “Put Your Money Where Your Metaphysics Are.”
…And it’s not until a lot of very nutty people are competing with one another – who can give away their money the fastest, to prove their strength of faith? – that they begin to twig what’s going on. Edgar’s commitment to the Agnostic Principal (“Who Knows?”) is so strong – and he believes so firmly that metaphysics is not just inherently silly but that the world would be better-off without it – that he’s cheerfully devised a way to bankrupt all the world’s organised religions.
Things get stranger, twistier, and more ludicrous from there on. Not least because Edgar – devoted enemy of Organised Faith – has accidentally fallen in love with God’s One True Representative.
Did I mention the A.I. Supermarket trolley?
Listen: when people normally say “this is a book you’ll either love or hate”, we all know it usually means: “You’ll hate it.” This one, I think, really will Divide. It comes down to whether you’re prepared to accept the (not trifling) excesses of logic, syntax and plausibility in pursuit of a fun, chewy core of wonderful originality… or whether you’re so easily shunted out of your suspension of disbelief that minor acts of whimsy like surfing Popes, deep-frozen Dalai Llamas, psychotic Jehovah’s Witness androids and – yeah – sentient supermarket trolleys, will spoil your enjoyment of a thoroughly bloody good novel.
I hope it doesn’t. Particularly if – like me – you’re a little bored of Richard Dawkins being the closest thing you’ve got to a spiritual spokesperson, and you’d like to feel represented by someone who isn’t just as preachy as the godbotherers they claim to oppose – and certainly isn’t so fucking fusty. In which case you could do a lot worse than Bo Fowler; a teacher by profession and a fucking lunatic by trade.
Buy it. Suspend your disbelief to the silliest extent imaginable, and give your inner-literary goblin – the one who waves a spiky sign marked “Style Is Always Bad” – the day off. And come back to tell me what you think.
Anyway… I’ve been trying to think of a neat and tidy Moral Of The Story to sum-up all this rambly bollocks on the subject of style – something to help all us aspiring writers and open-minded readers alike – but frankly I’m already seven hundred words over-limit, and this is the best I can do:
Style doesn’t matter. Except when it does.
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C/O William Christensen,
515 N. Century Blvd.
Rantoul, IL 61866
(Disclaimer: Secretly, I’m nice.)
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