This post is brought to you by an unseemly urge to over-expound.
Anna and I are now both on Twitter. Already, I’ve been involved in genre wrangles. Jonathan McCalmont is currently reading In Great Waters, which you might remember I liked, though not as much as some. Apparently, he’s been reading some classics, too, and remarked that moving from Fitzgerald and Camus back to genre writing was a curious experience: like moving, I guess, from cordon bleu to pub grub. I’ve some sympathy with this feeling – rare has it been that I’ve moved from a out-and-out literary text to a pure work of genre (which In Great Waters is not, despite its clear relationship to SF&F) and not felt the downwards gear change. This, however, is also true of moving from a canonical author to a contemporary novelist yet to prove his mettle – so the contest is somewhat rigged.
In Whitfield’s defense, her own eatery is a gastropub rather than a boozer with a few sarnies on the bar. And here lie the limits of Twitter – Niall Harrison objected to Jonathan’s use of the word ‘simplistic’ to characterise In Great Waters. I’d agree with him that ‘simplistic’ is not the word to use – because, yes, it suggests distorting naivety – but by the same token I think we both agree that In Great Waters doesn’t quite pull itself together. That is a fault, ultimately, of its prose style, which cannot sustain and stretch itself across the novel’s length and breadth. To this extent, then, the spirit of what Jonathan was saying was spot on – he was experiencing less powerful prose.
Twitter, however, is not the place to have a semantic debate – it pretty much demands poor choice of words. How is it possible to have a proper debate about difficulty in prose (and there is now a putative Obfuscatory Writers project abroad) when you are being forced to limit your own words to 140 characters? Whitfield’s writing is not simplistic in the way that – as again we all agreed – much genre writing can be; but it isn’t as rewardingly complex as the writers Jonathan cited. Again, important semantics are unexplorable in a Tweet.
What are the pleasures of difficult writing, though? A plain, unadorned style can be a thing of beauty – Kurt Vonnegut remains one of my very favourite writers, and it is stunningly difficult to emultate his spare, skeletal style. Whitfield’s own writing is comparably full of allusion and play, and, if it is without the on-the-other-hand poetry of a Fitzgerald, is that so bad a thing? Some baroque edifices are ugly; there is a limit to the virtue of ornamentation. But it also seems to me that the fault of Whitfield’s style – its ultimate failure completely to encompass its theme – proceeds from what Jonathan may or may not still call its ‘simplicity’. Moby Dick, for example, is a forbidding novel; but its success lies in that repulsion. Its discursive, Biblical, roiling style provides the echoing space and inward movement required fully to explore depths not entirely divorced from Whitfield’s. The difficulty of the style supports the easing of the theme.
Not all books benefit from an excess of style. Dorothy Parker wrote of Ernest Hemingway (not a writer I care for, but still) that “Hemingway stands as a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection. He discards details with a magnificnet lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path.” This control – a word used by Niall to describe (some of) Whitfield’s prose – is, like Vonnegut’s, key not only to the merits (as they may be) of Hemingway’s writing, but also the success of its content. It’s missing the point, of course, to think all good writing must be difficult; but there is still a difference between Hemingway’s unadorned prose and the simplistic failures of genre: a clarity, a precision. It may well be harder to achieve this trick, this stripping back, than Melville’s deep soundings. Parker on Hemingway again: “The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.” Even unadorned prose is difficult.
Jonathan was aiming, perhaps, at the descriptive rather than the evocative function of genre prose versus its literary counterpart’s. In this lies the real issue, not the ‘simplicity’ or ornament of the styles in question: it is not enough to tell; prose, as much as the story it strives to contain, needs also to show.