I barely read literary fiction any more. When I do it is almost always American writers:
McBride is a superb writer. But it is fascinating how she reaches out for story and then, just after halfway through, she simply doesn’t know what to do with her driving narrative voice. Perhaps it’s because she wants to subvert story form. Or she may simply not know or care about it.
This would not be uncommon. Worrying about plot and story has long been unfashionable on the literary scene. Style and voice are what gathers plaudits.
It might also explain why, when I went to teach postgraduate students at the University of East Anglia – the foremost writing course in the country – about the fundamentals of plot, I was astonished to discover that these superbly talented young writers knew nothing whatsoever about it after years of studying the form.
This has long been the brahmin stance that distinguishes “literature” from mere novels. It consigns storytellers such as Austen, Dickens, Golding and Orwell to mediocrity or redundancy. Literary novelists have been in thrall to modernism since Joyce and Woolf, and latterly postmodernism (a more potentially entertaining template, certainly in the hands of writers such as David Mitchell and Magnus Mills).
But you can be a great writer and a great storyteller as well. Nowadays, long-form television has taken the place of most novels. What distinguishes great TV such as
I have been teaching
The objection is that craft hinders creativity. Jonathan Coe sums up this point of view: “I have an instinctive horror of all systems which try to reduce writing to a series of rules to do with three-act structures and narrative arcs. It’s a sure recipe for formulaic writing.” With respect to Coe – a wonderful writer – I think he’s wrong. I stand with Delacroix: “You have to learn your craft. It won’t stop you being a genius.” The trouble is, novelists have chosen to forget that there is a craft to it.
Screenwriters have three main tools in their box: story, story and story. They know it inside out, because when you have to spend thousands of pounds for each frame to be made, you make damn sure you know what you’re doing. In the past, literary writers have had the luxury of ignoring this discipline. By confirming that this luxury, for most, no longer exists, the Arts Council has done us all a favour.
• Tim Lott is a journalist and author