Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Piggybacking on Giants - Charlie Butler


Is it possible to convey the particular essence of a writer’s style – its unique flavour? That’s no easy task, but luckily for reviewers and blurb writers in a hurry, there’s a convenient shortcut, which is to suggest that a book be seen as the literary lovechild of two others. Philip Reeves’ Here Lies Arthur, for example, might be described as Morte D’Arthur crossed with House of Cards”, while Animal Farm would entice new readers under the banner of “Charlotte’s Web meets The Lord of the Flies!” If you don’t like the idea of these Frankensteinian creations, or are simply squeamish at the thought of beloved classics making the beast with two backs, an alternative is draw on the vocabulary of mind-altering drugs, as in “Coraline is like Alice Through the Looking Glass on speed!”
This way of putting things makes life easier for the reviewer, and can be a service to the reader too, to whom it says, in effect, “You liked Author Y, why not give Author X a go?”
Well, that’s fine, but what does it say about the writers themselves? Writers tend to be ambivalent about the whole notion of influence. Of course, all writers have influences, and most will admit to them. I was delighted when reviewers said that some of my books were reminiscent of Alan Garner. Garner was (and is) a hero of mine, and someone whose influence on me has been palpable. What better model could one take? At the same time, I didn’t want to be seen as just an Alan Garner knock-off. I wanted to be recognized for my own voice. So my pleasure in such acts of recognition was never entirely free of chin-jutting rebelliousness. This quasi-Oedipal anxiety is of course exactly what Harold Bloom’s classic, The Anxiety of Influence, is all about.
Besides, we live in an age that fetishizes originality and novelty. Nothing could be more complimentary than to be described as a “A unique talent”, “A fresh voice”, or “A writer who shows as little respect for convention as a hyperactive toddler at a society wedding.” In that sense, to be compared to anyone is a little galling. Thus, J. K. Rowling (remember her?) caused some irritation with her refusal to admit that her work was steeped in the tropes of children’s fantasy literature, presumably because she feared that to do so would diminish her achievement. In fact, much of her work only makes sense in the context of those tropes.
What would I recommend to the hapless blurb writer, torn between praising a book in terms of other books and praising it for being one-of-a-kind? If I had to pick a cliché, I think I would go for “In the tradition of...” It’s a phrase that settles the matter equitably, paying due regard to the fact that writing comes from somewhere, without closing off the possibility that it may be going somewhere else. So, blurb writers of the future, remember the phrase: “This is a highly original book in the general tradition of Alan Garner.”
Alternatively, just go with “The Bible crossed with Shakespeare... on speed!”

10 comments:

Nick Green said...

Interesting, Charlie... I was planning to blog soon about the topic of 'originality' (and whether or not it's really the Holy Grail we all think it is).

Personally I think that those short-cut descriptions and comparisons are just the excuse of copywriters who have too much in their in-tray to do a proper job of it. I speak from personal experience. I wrote some wonderful blurbs in my first few weeks in such a job, and then a load of derivative pap thenceforth...

Nick Green said...

Moi encore. Leaving aside the questionable notion of selling books to children via reference to mind-altering drugs, this strikes me as a wonderful parlour game. Name That Book:

'"Paradise Lost" meets Susan Cooper on a cocktail of LSD, Night Nurse and a rather crafty 18-year-old Glenmorangie.'

Seriously though, kids... don't do Milton.

Charlie Butler said...

That would be His Dark Materials, right? Do I win a prize, Nick?

Nick Green said...

Sorry, I think I just drank the prize.

Elen Caldecott said...

OK, I want to play.

"Shawshank Redemption meets A Hundred Years of Solitude on lithium"

Yes, it is a kids' book!

Charlie Butler said...

Beats me!

Elen Caldecott said...

Holes by Louis Sachar!

Maybe a career in advertising doesn't await me...

Charlie Butler said...

Say not so! I should have got that one. Let's see now... How about Death of a Salesman meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Elen Caldecott said...

OK. I give up.
And, dammit, I hate giving up with word games!

Please put me out of my misery.

Charlie Butler said...

Okay - I was thinking of The Chocolate War.