Friday, 15 February 2008

Talking about Good English

Feeling a bit better today so shall attempt to tell you what a lovely time I had at Sandwich Bookshop on Wednesday evening.

I’m reasonably used to public speaking, having done approximately a million training sessions for teachers and teaching assistants when I was working in primary schools as an NHS speech and language therapist but, as Louise, the bookshop owner said, it’s a different kettle of fish when you’re talking about you and your book. In fact, it‘s such a different kettle of fish as to make it a can of worms…

The audience, however, couldn’t have made it easier if they’d tried. If they weren’t interested they faked it well, they laughed at my jokes, asked sensible questions (not any of the 10 things…) and raised interesting points, both about my writing and about how it relates to that of authors who choose similar themes.

One thing was particularly interesting. We were talking about a particular author and one member of the audience said ‘Yes, I know the story rattles along but x doesn’t write very good English.’
As we dissected this comment, what emerged was an interesting discussion on what ‘good English’ is.
In England, our education system teaches us that good English was written some time ago by people we now refer to as ‘The Classics’ – anyone from George Orwell and EM Forster backwards. With more of an emphasis on the nineteenth century the further up the Eng Lit school curriculum you go (the Ultimate Frisbee Freak has just finished reading Wuthering Heights for A level, for instance) you could be forgiven for thinking that the best English was written in the nineteenth century and it’s all been downhill all the way ever since. And, therefore, that nineteenth century prose is what Good English sounds like – long sentences, somewhat archaically phrased, including words we don’t necessarily use any more and probably – by today’s standards – needing a bloody good editing.
Of course some of today’s authors seem prosaic and terse by comparison. Today’s vernacular – which lies at the root of every novelist’s voice – is vastly different (spot the Austenism) from anything the nineteenth century had ever heard.
It was then that I realised why I find writing in a historical voice easier – it’s so much easier to sound ‘writerly’ when you’re adopting a historical voice because you are allowed not to sound modern, you are allowed (in fact, positively required) to sound dated and a little bit poetically prolix.

Louise commented that she thought I’d enjoyed writing the historical strand of Testament more than the contemporary. I don’t think enjoyed is the right word but, despite the ton of research which was necessary, I did find it easier in the sense that the voice I used was easier to come by than any kind of convincingly literate-but-modern voice for the twenty-first century strand.
And if the voice comes more easily to me as a writer, I wonder if the story actually flows from that? Certainly, when the flow is good, I think it’s easier to uncouple the rational mind and write from the subconscious where all good writing (in my case, certainly) comes from.

So, I was asked, is there anybody whose prose style you admire who writes the kind of books you like? I thought for a bit. ‘Sue Gee’ I said and then added ‘But particularly when she’s writing historical novels!’

What do the other historical novelists out there think?


David Isaak said...

The historical novelist I love best, Patrick O'Brian, writes in the style of Jane Austen (but with very different subject matter).

Since he has stated he belives that Austen was the best novelist in English, I have to believe he picked his time period so he could write in that style.

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Alis said...

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Lane said...

Interesting. I do think it's easier to find your 'voice' if you have an affinity with the genre of that era.

I've been having a problem in this area re.tense. I know that what I'm writing screams outs for the present tense but I lapse into the past tense because that's what comes naturally.

Sue Gee! You've reminded me - I have several of hers yet to read. Thanks:-)

Glad the talk went well:-)

Tim Stretton said...

I agree with David's endorsement of O'Brian. He makes no stylistic concession to the modern reader: his novels use the language and cadences of the period.

The Napoleonic era is probably just about the earliest you could get away with the approach. Start looking for this kind of authenticity a century earlier, and the vernacular will be so different that the 21st century reader is lost.