Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Existential Thanks - Elen Caldecott

Usually I live on a literary diet that ranges from the Gruffalo to the Gallagher Girls and the munchables in between. I rarely pick up books intended for adults. But this week has been different. I've had two experiences that have made me, not change my view of books exactly, but have made me think more carefully about what I do.

First, on the recommendation of Rosy Thornton, I'm reading James Wood's How Fiction Works. It's a short book of literary criticism. It's a manual on how books function. It's a thesis on modernism. It's pretty good, really. I have found that what I thought was writerly intuition, is in fact a cultural construct that I can't escape. The close-third-person points of view of my characters have come to me in a line of influence directly from Flaubert. Who'd have thought?
The second experience I had was hearing Hisham Matar speak about his work at the Bath Festival of Literature. He discussed the process of writing In the Country of Men. So much of what he said sounded so right that I was a bit dazzled by it all. In much the same way that people with faith might feel when they hear an inspirational preacher. (As an aside, he read from his work and described being in the shade in Tripoli as being in 'grey patches of mercy' - yum.) What I took from the talk was that Matar is secretive about his work as he writes, then confused and surprised by it when it's done. He also said that to write was an act of praise; that by taking, naming and recording we were celebrating living.

I loved the idea that I am part of a tradition of writing that goes back centuries. Like a beacon fire passing information across great distances, our words record what it means to be alive now, our concerns and preoccupations, our joys and fears.

Reading what were contemporary novels when they were written, but are now 'classics' offer us a way to time travel. Austen is a favourite writer of mine; her wit is surprising to us, given the ponderous length of her sentences. But her sentence length is just when she was. Her wit is what she was. She was a product of her time as much as we are and we can visit that time by opening her books. She noticed, named and recorded the early nineteenth century

Next time I sit down to write a novel (which will be in April, I expect), I will have a deeper understanding of the tools I have at my disposal. I'll also bear in mind that every detail I choose to include can be seen as an act of praise. An act of celebrating life as I'm living it. Unless it's a book about squabbling siblings, or missing animals, or urban covens. In which case it will just be business as usual. But right now, I'm inspired.

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Martin said...

Nice post, Ellen.

Matar is a new name to me (one more for the list) and I find myself heartened by his view of writing as an act of praise, and a celebration of our times. Something to bear in mind, when we're in danger of losing the plot.

Sue Purkiss said...

I really like the idea of writing as a celebration of life - thanks, Elen.

Linda said...

A cheering and positive note on which to start the writing day. Thanks, Elen!

Penny Dolan said...

"Celebration" feels like a good word to have filling the air around my desk today. Thanks for this post!

Celia Rees said...

I've read James Wood, too, Elen. An excellent short summary of what we do anyway but know you know what the term is for it. Very useful to quote at editors when they start quibbling about point of view, relevance, detail, character, anything really. I've found it quite a boon. Being able to spout about realism, modernism and Flaubert really shuts them up!