Suspending disbelief – in a Nutshell

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was on my Christmas list in 2016. In 2017 one of my own nutshells noticed and as soon as there was a lull after New Year, I cracked it open and relished every morsel.

I wrote here about adopting the point of view (POV) of someone quite different to oneself and referred to Nutshell as an audacious attempt which would require a writer of McEwan’s calibre to bring off. I think he succeeds. The story is told from inside his mother by an 8½ month foetus. Our hero’s name doesn’t appear to have been discussed yet (although there’s a clue in Uncle Claude and mum Trudy) so I’ll call him U for Unborn. Some practicalities are deftly dealt with: U expresses the readers’ doubts for them by explaining that he has a good command of language and ideas because he overhears his insomniac mother listen to so many podcasts. Anyone who’s spent a day with the randomness of Radio 4 will attest to the vocabulary building properties of such a pastime. He’s also a budding oenophile who can distinguish with appreciation between “a good burgundy (her favourite) and a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”.

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I can’t see how this foetus will ever be a toddler, so sophisticated is his knowledge already, but as far as I know no one other than authors for toddlers (whom I applaud) has ever tried to write in a toddler’s voice. I’m currently trying to write in the voice of a bright seven year old and even that poses huge limitations on vocab and conceptual understanding. U can discuss the Middle East, modern warfare, the advantages of Norwegian tax arrangements, and he’s an accomplished poetry critic. He can provide a convincingly visual picture of his father’s “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Square”, market value included, but he can’t yet envisage the colour green, although it crops up frequently in his imagery. This may be because the men in Trudy’s life adore her green eyes, and McEwan makes it achingly clear that U loves his mother even through her many faults.

It’s true that young babies, especially before they learn to make much noise other than crying, can often look wise and reflective, fixing their stares, their expressions ciphers. They lose this as soon as they become mobile or verbal, so McEwan hedged his bets correctly in opting for an unborn.

U is going to need all his brains because he has unfortunate parents and his parents have unfortunate lovers. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.” (Surely this generation would talk in centimetres?) Obviously U has little physical strength, but he does find he can manipulate the action of both the penis and the novel with a well timed kick. He has plenty of chances to practise; there’s a lot of sex. In this nutshell of a novel, under 200 pages, McEwan fits the universals of birth, love and death into a tight plot and timescale – there’s no spoiler in noting it’s all got to happen within four weeks at the maximum, before U is born either still or kicking. I apologise for insensitivity but the way his adults behave he should clearly have been on the “at risk” register since conception. “Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads.”

Anne Corlett's scan
34 weeks gestation, with thanks to Anne Corlett. See below for links to Anne’s writing.

Of course, we have all been foetuses, and who’s to say we don’t remember the experience? McEwan is drawing on universals here, and as far as one can tell he succeeds – Nutshell is an exciting, funny, violent, shocking read although curiously unemotional, and the audacity of the author makes him self-conscious: “All the sources agree, the house is filthy. Only clichés serve it well: peeling, crumbling, dilapidated.”

Through U’s eyes – no, through U’s hearing, taste and touch which are so far his most active senses – McEwan describes the piqued poet father and the slimy brother. He’s poignant and perceptive on the pathos of a pleading man no longer loved, and has fun with U’s irritation with Claude, for example his ponderous reading of a menu. The supporting roles – young woman poet, detective – are well evoked from within the stomach wall and McEwan plays with stereotypes: “The sergeant thinks she’s a stickler. Bound for promotion out of his league.”

But McEwan hasn’t been a pregnant woman, and he’s least successful with mother Trudy. I was able to suspend (almost) all disbelief and root for U all the way but this POV of a first time heavily pregnant woman was unbelievable and not in the way tennis players use the word as high praise. Surely no woman at 38 weeks could sink so much drink, endure bags of rotting rubbish in her own hallway or appear so oblivious to the limits on action imposed by her near confinement.

Otherwise, a brilliant book. Now to try an even less comfortable POV, perhaps McEwan could venture out of the professional classes? (To be fair, he goes into this himself, in the Guardian, August 2016.)

Writing this, I’ve remembered another, lovelier, even sadder unborn POV, in “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis Mac Neice (1944). It’s read here by Mark Rylance Actor, director and writer at an Anti-War Mass Assembly in Trafalgar Square on 8 October 2011. (For light relief see the high vis jacketed soundman who arrives on stage just as Rylance is being introduced!)

The scan photo is the baby of Anne Corlett at 34 weeks. Anne, previously shortlisted for the Bristol and Bath short story awards, released her novel The Space Between the Stars in 2017. She offered the photo after I posted a request in Book Connectors, proving you can make some impressive literary connections through Facebook (I refer to the association with Ian McEwan and MacNeice rather than myself).

Below are my own nutshells in December 1993:

nutshell 1993

From next week I’ll be blogging monthly on books and literature for Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord. My posts there will appear on Saturdays, repeated here afterwards, but most weeks I’ll still be here on Fridays. Comments are always welcome wherever you read the posts!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

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Prologues – with hindsight

Browsing my favourite fiction authors, what do Helen Dunmore, Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Margaret Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) do, that Margaret Atwood, Ian McKewan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro (sometimes) don’t?

1411219Clue: It was good enough for Chaucer and (sometimes) Shakespeare, but has a reputation as a turn-off in submissions to agents and publishers. At the Guardian Masterclass I attended, the invited agent said: “Never send me a submission with a prologue!” And here are two more, quoted on the Writer’s Digest:

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.”

“Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

In the Facebook group Book Connectors the thread “Do you read the prologue?” has given me a blog theme for the second week running. (Thanks!) It’s turned into something of a straw poll. It seems most people do read prologues, regarding them as part of the story. I’m in that camp – in a well-written story, every word and section is there for a reason. If you skip something, you’re receiving incomplete information. But one BC, Melvyn Fickling, responded he’d skip the lot rather than read a prologue:  If I’m checking the Look Inside feature on Amazon and see a prologue, it’s not just the prologue I don’t read… 

In the BC discussion there are also references to prefaces and introductions. Let’s clear up the difference. Here’s an easy definition, from American Dorrance Publishing:

ExposureThe primary reason to include a prologue is if there’s an important element of the story that took place prior to your book’s main plotline. A rule of thumb is that the prologue will explain important information that doesn’t necessarily follow the timeline of the rest of your book. (It follows that an epilogue covers events that take place after the main timeline. But I might alter “prior” to “outside” – I’ve found a number of prologues whose events occur midway or late in the stories they introduce. For example, in the prologue to Helen Dunmore’s Exposure – reviewed here – a protagonist is going home towards the end of the story.

An introduction might be by someone else, and discusses the background, style, genesis and authorship of the story, but isn’t part of the story itself. It gives insight, and may contain spoilers, which is why I usually read it at the end. Introductions overlap with prefaces: there’s a useful discussion here, too long to quote, of what a preface should contain – the main thing is, it’s also not part of the story and it may or may not be by the author. Fortunately the thread hasn’t mentioned forewords – yet. Don’t get me started on those!

There’s general agreement that prologues should be relatively short, and contain business that occurs outside the main story that the reader needs to know in order to follow it. There’s a fine line between relevance to the approaching story and an information dump, though! I found a sober pro prologue summary by Carol Benedict and  elsewhere Kristen Lamb identifies seven deadly prologue sins in colourful detail.

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A lazy plotting style?

Lamb’s sinful prologues can be summarised as superfluous, irrelevant, tautologous or too long. The information they give could either be left out, or easily  communicated at some other point in the story, for example in a flashback, through a character remembering or recounting events, or as some form of story-within-the-story. Fickling was vehement: Too many times it presages a lazy writing and/or plotting style. 

Let’s imagine a heroine, Lazy Author. (No relation to me personally, oh no.) Lazy Author gets to the end of her first draft, realises she’s making unreasonable assumptions of reader knowledge – how could her readers know all the details inside her excited authorial head? So she sticks the missing facts in a prologue before the story opens. Just so we all know where we are.

I can’t believe the Dunmores and Ishiguros bumble along like that. What’s their approach?

28921The Remains of the Day opens with 17 pages of prologue, set in 1956. Chapter 1 then harks back to 1922. I make that two of some people’s rules broken, but Ishiguro is such a master, it’s fine. Memory tells me the film version used the same structure, so director James Ivory must have agreed.

Exposure: only 2 pages, their chronology within the story unclear until the very end of the book. One rule broken, but a tale told with such élan is above rules.

My Brilliant Friend – 4 pages of prologue, with chapter 1 onwards a flashback. Not fancying a scrap with Elena Ferrante, I’ll turn a blind eye to this and her many other broken rules (repetition, internal monologue, ranting…) Her prose screams along the page and seems to demand fierce interruptions the better to rebuff them, insert a blank page, and return to the fray.

The Twelfth Department, by William Ryan – who just before publication of it was running the very Masterclass on which his agent colleague banned prologues – has a 5 page prologue which establishes a setting and some characters, provides backstory for those who may not know his detective Korolev from previous books, and contains a violent, though not fatal, hook. Could that have been done in Chapter 1 instead? I was reading so fast I didn’t care.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith has 40 pages (40 pages!!!) of prologue before what she calls not chapter but Book 1. It introduces the main character and the unusual theme. I read it a long time ago and the enormous prologue obviously didn’t stick in my mind as a fault.

Margaret Forster’s non-fiction Precious Lives has a 14 page prologue, setting out her reasons for writing her memoir, but in anecdotal, quite emotional style, which distinguishes it (in my mind anyway) from a non-fiction introduction.

These are all authors whose sales and reputations survive their prologues unscathed. On my shelves I did come across one rather pointless prologue, that simply repeated later themes, in a recent highly praised debut by a creative writing graduate. Despite its evocative setting, impressive cultural knowledge, some lovely writing and a poignant subject, it was so badly edited that a redundant prologue was (in retrospect!) not so unexpected. There were no acknowledgements in the edition I had, so we don’t know who was responsible, and at least it was only half a page. And the one page prologue in Emma Healey’s touching, otherwise brilliant Elizabeth is Missing seems at first glance disconnected with the first chapter. Readers are frustrated if the prologue sets something up and then there’s no hint of it in the following chapter – maybe that’s why some claim to skip them.

18635113(I should add that for this post some of the books I’m glancing through were read long ago. It’s not always quick to rediscover where the prologue fits in! A sharper mind would have anticipated that difficulty, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.)

Another Book Connector dissenter said: I hate prologues. I even hated my own prologue the one time I wrote one. I just think I should be able to more eloquently tell the story than use a big, fat label like Prologue. I think if I feel I need a prologue maybe it is because I’m not starting my story correctly.

Fair point. But does it presuppose a linear narrative through a logical chronology (tautology? Ed.) Can a prologue save the situation when time, viewpoints and tenses are less traditional, or be something to refer back to during a complicated plot? I’m reminded of rewinding episodes of Inspector Morse and descendants to review the bit before the titles start.

In my first version of The Infinity Pool, I tried to increase the suspense gradually until (a thing) happened. A friend who teaches creative writing said: “You’ll lose your readers before they get there. Put the thing at the beginning, as a hook”. To all intents and purposes, it then became a prologue, but I didn’t call it that. (Did I just confess to the lazy writing/plotting style lambasted above?)

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I’m still learning my craft. My current WIP is done but for a decision on three possible beginnings. Should I introduce all the characters at once or one by one…nail down the theme or leave it to be discovered…frame the whole thing with a corresponding epilogue? Clever Dunmore, in Birdcage Walk, calls her first 13 pages Prelude – even though they take place “now” and (in the book) precede a story set between 1789-1793. I must be hoping to bring off a similar trick as I’ve headed one of my possible first sections simply: Before.

Prologues, duh! This blog post is just the start of my problems…

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author seeks genre, hook an advantage

NY resolution? I’ve resolved my second novel will be doing the rounds of the publishers by next month. First to tell them what I write. I think it’s literary fiction. Every now and then I look up some definitions to make sure:

Wikipedia: Literary fiction is fiction that is regarded as having literary merit, as distinguished from most commercial or “genre” fiction. The term and distinction has been criticised by authors, critics and scholars, especially because a number of major literary figures have also written genre fiction, including Doris Lessing, John Banville, Iain Banks, and Margaret Atwood…

Oops! I don’t want to offend anyone. My work isn’t necessarily better than the work of the genre writer next door. And Doris Lessing is (was) amazing. Serve me right for relying on Wikipedia.

Goodreads: Literary fiction is a term … principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction. 

Crashing in with the size 9s again…Then again, that “claims” to hold literary merit suggests anyone can join in. I expect Trump along any day with something he wrote between tweets.

In 2014 Huff Post’s Stepen Petit thought he knew what it isn’t:

…To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.

…Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.

I hope my writing does that. But where does his definition leave, say, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Pullman or the wonderful YA author of dystopian philosophy, Philip Reeve? And Lessing and Atwood are causing trouble again.

The recent Arts Council report on the plight of literary fiction authors also found it heard to define its subject:

Literary fiction…is not an absolute category. As with other art, it is what people believe it to be; hence we leave its boundaries undefined. What it definitely is not, for our purposes, is poetry or plays. We are looking at fiction.

Arts Council report

NowNovel (quoted for no better reason that that it’s flying high on the Google radar) says literary fiction…

  1. Is valued highly for its quality of form and creative use of language
  2. …explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. …Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction…

Hmm. Star Wars in any form makes incomprehensible demands on me but I’m quite happy with Jane Austen – surely it depends on the reader?

My favourite and final definition came from Sandy Day on a recent Book Connectors thread that started as a discussion of the Arts Council Report:  …literary is a style not a genre. Every literary book fits into a genre, love story, mystery, thriller, social drama, etc. It’s the style of writing, the subtlety, the metaphors and originality of language, that make it literary. (Do investigate Book Connectors: there are some refreshing discussions there with readers, authors, bloggers, reviewers…)

I work hard on subtlety, metaphors, originality etc but if they fail to ignite, maybe my book could sneak in as contemporary fiction. Waterstones, I notice, put both E L James and Kate Atkinson in this category and add “modern” to the label. It should be broad enough for me, then. If Zadie Smith doesn’t quibble at sharing a genre with Jeffrey Archer, why should I, veteran of the Great Amazon Dinner Party that I am?

Or do I write commercial fiction? Well, no, since I couldn’t possibly make a living, or even pay for another holiday, from what I earn as a writer. However, if my work did start selling by the shelf load, would it then become “commercial”? Having been to the Oxfam shop with duplicate Christmas presents yesterday, I could suggest one defining characteristic of commercial fiction is anything you can find multiple copies of there. But this definition from the grandeur of Curtis Brown Creative is probably better:

Lots of our students … don’t want to be told what they’re writing is “commercial fiction” – but really what we mean by this is that a novel’s strongly story-led and with potentially broad appeal. Commercial fiction is less about style, voice and innovative use of language/form than literary fiction but there’s also an area where the two meet and blur – that’s often called ‘sweet spot fiction’ and it’s top of many publishers’ wish-lists.’’

Sweet-spot fiction! That’s what I write (in my sugar coated dreams).

Hook 11
Ian McKewan hit the sweet spot for me in 2016, but Lionel Shriver (2013) didn’t.

How can I get from where I am now, to the sweet spot?

Harvey Chapman quotes literary agent Nathan Bransford:…Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It’s just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem – absolutely nothing is happening and thus it’s (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot.

Ah. I do have a plot. I’m just not sure where it is. It’s not heavy enough to have sunk below the surface (good), so perhaps its subtlety has floated it free altogether, flotsam on a sea of interior monologue (bad). We dipped a toe in the water with two submissions in 2017. One editor replied: I think Jessica is a very accomplished writer, and it’s great to see how much she achieved with THE INFINITY POOL, but I’m not sure this is for me – I felt it just didn’t have a hook that was quite commercial enough for (name of publisher).

Adrift in an over populated ocean, I need a net to gather in my shoal, or even just one hook. As the second editor pointed out:

While there was a great cast of characters I just felt that there were perhaps too many so it was difficult to really connect with all the characters and there were too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow. (Her words certainly flow,  unsubmerged by punctuation, but she makes several very valid points so I mustn’t carp. There’s a plaice for what she says – sorry, I’m away with the fishes.)

Stand by for a rail disaster or perhaps a bomb in the shopping centre. That should dispose of a few changing viewpoints, and at least I’ll be back on dry land. I never liked (him/her/them) anyway. Then for my hook!Hook 12From the same rejection email quoted above: I really liked the device of… (my secret device, patented to me: when it hits the sweet spot you’ll know what it is)… to bring out the stories, I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different.

The hook’s there, it just needs sharpening. Happy New Year and watch this space!

©Jessica Norrie 2018