What is beautiful writing? A lesson from James Wood

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I am in the midst of reading a book which many readers before me have termed "beautiful."  In places, I would agree—there is a lush knowing, a seductive tumble forward of palpable scenes and words.  In other passages, however, the book gets uncomfortably stuck; the characters don't read as real; the dialogue, especially, trembles with information as opposed to charm or persuasion; the teens (and this is an adult novel with a teen hook) are, in my opinion, false constructions—their conversation heavy handed with genericized slang.  I read on, but I stop and think.  Analyze what works and what doesn't, and (most importantly) why.

I took a break from reading that book to read an October 17 New Yorker piece titled "Sons and Lovers" by James Wood. The essay is ostensibly a review of Alan Hollinghurst's novel, The Stranger's Child.  But because this is James Wood, we're also treated to a lively linguistic lesson by the man who wrote a little book that I hope you writers all have at hand, How Fiction WorksLove that book.  Need it.

In any case, back to the subject at hand, which is the word "beautiful" as it is applied to prose, and what James Wood has to say—with infinite brilliance—about that.  Here he is, at the essay's start.  Please read the whole.  It's worth it.

Most of the prose writers acclaimed for "writing beautifully" do no such thing; such praise is issued comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust.  Mostly, what's admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it's too obviously beautiful, feebly fine—what Nabokov once called "weak blond prose."  The English novelist Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few contemporary writers who deserve the adverb.  His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected.  Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary.  Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—into a stealthy equality.


Sarah Laurence said...

I love Wood's description of good writing and will look for his article in my New Yorker as well as his writing book. I also agree with your observation about adult novels that give teens an unrealistic voice or writing that in trying to sound beautiful makes for unrealistic dialogue and characters.

What I like about your writing is the balance between lyrical prose and realism. It's not easy to do. My first drafts tend to be too lyrical. My kids and other teen readers get me to tone it down.

Melissa Sarno said...

I'd like to read the rest of this article. I like the way he sees beautiful prose, as highlighting something otherwise neglected. And I do find it interesting that he mentions that the words work 'quietly'. Oh the fate of these quiet books... ;)

Lilian Nattel said...

James Wood is brilliant and now I want to read Hollinghurst.

kelly said...

Oh boy. How many times did I use the word "beautiful" just this week?

Some of us are just in a hurry, James. Thanks for slowing us down.

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