Thursday, 6 November 2008

What is good writing?

Here's the opening of a novel about a psychiatrist who is having a breakdown while trying to help his patients come to terms with their own problems:

Professor Martin Sturrock was feeling stressed enough already, even before the phone call from Simon telling him Aunt Jessica had died.
Is this good writing? Jenny Diski doesn't think so. It is the opening sentence of the new book by Alastair Campbell, who was once spin-doctor-in-chief to ex-prime minister Tony Blair. (I heard him speaking on Radio 4 this morning, by the way, in the wake of Barack Obama's election, talking about what it was like 'when Tony and I came to power' - but that's by the by). Campbell famously suffered from mental health problems himself, so he should know what he is talking about. But, as Diski says in her very entertaining critique of Campbells' novel in this week's London Review of Books,

suffering and even observation don’t necessarily make a person think and write with more subtlety . . . Subtlety may not be an essential quality in a self-help book, but it goes a long way to making a good novel.
Which is good advice for any writer, I think. Diski goes on to say,
The craft of fiction is not working out a plan that looks balanced on a spreadsheet and then clothing it with words. The trick about writing a good novel is to be a good writer.

I think Sally Zigmond might agree with that sentiment.
I haven't read Alastair Campbell's book, so I wouldn't want to comment on whether the review is a fair assessment or not. But the article itself is a gem in terms of what constitutes good writing. You can read the full text here.


Kanani said...

From the first sentence alone, I'd say it's telling, not showing.
He's taken a short cut to showing us how he's stressed out. Is he thinking a million thoughts, is he sweating, is he writing and then not finishing things? Anyway, for a first sentence I'd say it's really weak.

Paul said...

Hi Kanani

The consensus of all the reviews of read of Alastair Campbell’s book appear to concur. Poor Alastair. To make matters worse, he has now been nominated for the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Award’ for the worst written sex scene of the year. The scene in question apparently begins ‘He did not know where his penis was . . .’