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Some thoughts on literary style – 1

When, shortly after completing my first novel, I began submitting it to agents and publishers, there were invariably two questions which I was required to answer and which I found incredibly difficult.

The first of these involved saying which established writer’s output most resembled. I could see the reason for the question being posed, because agents, publishers and booksellers would like to be able to assess quickly whereabouts in a list or on a bookshelf a new work would fit. But my hackles rose every time I was confronted with this question, because I felt that my writing was my own, not anybody else’s. After all, if I wrote like Sebastian Faulks or Hilary Mantel, what would be the point of carrying on? Surely, I felt, the essential aspect of any person’s writing must be that they have something different to say or a different way to say it.

The second question was even more baffling. In what genre should my novel be classed? Up to a point it was easy, until one started to narrow down the classification; it was clearly fiction, and it was clearly not crime fiction, nor fantasy, nor sci-fi, and certainly not erotica. But was it general, commercial, literary or women’s fiction?

‘Commercial’ was most easily dismissed, for I recognised that no book of the type I was writing would sell in its millions, flying off the shelves of supermarkets and airport bookshops as soon as it appeared.

‘Women’s fiction’ I found perplexing as a concept. Indeed, I have difficulty understanding why women even tolerate the existence of such a category. (Perhaps they don’t.) What does it in fact mean? I assume it means writing that deals with the real essentials of life such as love, sensitivity, relationships, rather than with violence, war or sport. If it does, then I believe the very existence of such a term is as insulting to men as it is to women. I know that women on the whole tend to like my books more than men do. I’m immensely pleased that this is the case, but I have no idea why it should be.

But ‘literary fiction’ is the category that puzzles me even more, for, to me, it implies a qualitative judgement that is not mine to make. I know that the books I write are not crammed with images and metaphysical conceits – if I were able to write in that way I would write poetry – but I do care passionately about the way I write, its rhythm and its tone, weighing each word carefully before I select it and trying hard not to resent the attitude of the reader who skims rapidly through the story, and hoping that he or she will have been affected at least subliminally by the selection I made at the time of writing. It may be, of course, that my interpretation of the term ‘literary fiction’ is incorrect; does it perhaps mean the opposite? We have all, when all is said and done, come across authors whose style is literary to the point of being pretentious, and I cannot help harking back to a period of my life (long ago now!) when I lectured on 19th century French Literature, and thinking of the disparaging way in which Paul Verlaine used the word littérature in his poem Art Poétique, when, after describing the qualities which he himself sought in real poetry, he produced his final, scathing judgment: Et tout le reste est littérature.

About Tony Whelpton

I am an English novelist, and not one of the youngest you'll find around, although I'm both physically and mentally a lot younger than my Birth Certificate shows, and I live in Cheltenham, in the Cotswolds, a beautiful area of the South-West of England. In an earlier existence which seems to be a lifetime ago, I taught French in a university, and for many years I wrote books  designed to help people who were trying to learn French - many published through a company called TD Publications which I founded myself. I closed that business in 2008 when I was 75, thinking that it was time to retire and lead a quiet life. But then I started writing fiction and suddenly realised that this is what I should have started doing long ago, and here I am, six years later, with three successful novels to my name and still actively writing! The first, Before the Swallow Dares, was published in 2012, the second, The Heat of the Kitchen, came out in 2013, and they were followed by the most recent, Billy's War, in 2014. If you didn't believe what was said above about being younger than my years, three novels in just over two years ought to convince you!


3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on literary style – 1

  1. Your last comment reminds me of a conversation I had just last week with one of my French students. I was talking about the effect of reading a novel written in the third person limited narrative perspective and was using Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster as an example, a book I had just recently read and found the narrative form annoyed me considerably. My student hadn’t heard of the Irish author, he thought I meant Harlan Coben, I said no, Tóibín writes literary fiction, so he looked him up and said, ‘oh, he is a romancier‘ which is what all novelists get reduced to in the French language, as you will know well. Kind of brings us all down to size regarding genre doesn’t it. But I couldn’t help but feel irked by the label on Tóibín’s behalf.

    Knowing the genre we like to read is so much easier than trying to categorise our own work. Genre ends up meaning, which audience do you want to target, it’s almost better to focus on that, than over-analyse the work itself, when its a contemporary work that doesn’t fit the very clear genre categories like crime, fantasy, sci-fi etc. One must make a decision, knowing it will have an effect on how the book will look and who it will attract.


    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | October 26, 2014, 9:16 am
    • Hi Claire, and thanks for your interesting comment. I’m afraid I don’t know Tóibín’s work, but this, as you say, is a typically French reaction – they can be so damned snobbish and sniffy when they choose! It makes me think of a number of French people I knew who could never understand why the English revered Pagnol so much – a charming writer, Pagnol, and quite clearly literary, with his ability to evoke the atmosphere of Provence and so on. I think it’s connected with the tendency for French philosophers to prefer to write fiction in order to express their views – parables, I suppose you might say. It started with Voltaire, and continued into the 20th century with Camus, Sartre, Malraux et al. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it results in something which is neither a good novel nor good philosophy!


      Posted by Tony Whelpton | October 26, 2014, 3:05 pm
      • It is interesting to see what one culture favours of another,literature-wise, although this is perhaps less obvious of readers of the English language as so little is translated into English, while such a lot of literature of foreign origin is available to the French and merely because of its availability they read across so many cultures than we do.

        I always ask my students what they are reading as it is endlessly fascinating and I’m as likely to be recommended Colombian, Chilean, Austrian writers as I am French. It has made me seek out more translated works as a result, as well as the French. I’m currently enjoying Elena Ferrante, a Neapolitan writer who writes of the kind of poverty stricken neighbourhood she grew up in and the difficulty of rising above one’s upbringing regardless of academic success, with compelling insight.

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | October 26, 2014, 3:23 pm

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