intense sensations

Fuck the Prose

Posted on: March 21, 2014

“Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait”

So said Mavis Gallant, who is one of the world’s greatest short story writers. Or was, until she died recently at the age of 91.

I think stories can wait to be written too. They shouldn’t be forced. You don’t have to rush to read them and you don’t have to rush to write them.

Mavis herself waited many years to discover that people liked her stories. Her agent had been selling them to The New Yorker without telling her. Mavis couldn’t afford to buy the magazine but read a copy in a library one day and found one of her stories in it. Eventually The New Yorker published more than 100 of her stories, more than any other writer apart from John Updike or S.J. Perelman.

I read a very sad blog last night by a writer who was struggling to increase her output from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 to meet the demands of a ravenous publisher.

Wait! Take a step back!

Writing is not manual labour. It’s the least effective way in the world to earn money. It would be illegal if it weren’t self-inflicted.

Hanif Kureishi can vouch for that.

“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer.”

He was talking at the Bath Literature Festival, taking time off from promoting his latest novel and from his job at Kingston University where he teaches creative writing. Well, not really taking time off. Writers never take time off. He was pretending to take time off but really he was “working in the market.” He was making headlines.

“Creative writing courses are a waste of time.”

he announced. His students, he said, were talentless.

“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I disagree with him. I think you can teach how to tell a story. Syd Field has been doing it successfully for years (and many books for writers have copied his ideas). But I acknowledge that Hanif has a fair point. Writers get very anxious about style.

“They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”

Yes! Fuck the prose. That is a very profound point. Fuck the prose because what matters is the story.

I am putting these ideas out there because I want to refer to them in my next book review without cluttering it up with a lot of literary theory.

Talking of which, I want to leave you with another quote, this time from Stephen Fry’s book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled. Stephen Fry, you could say, was fucking the prose but in a different sense. He was fucking the prose and loving the poetry. But he still insisted that all his readers follow his first golden rule: Take Your Time.

“Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.”

That quote was not quite the one I wanted but I love it. Oh, wait, here is what I wanted to him say:

“It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time. As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.”

Actually he goes on and on and on about taking your time.

So, summing up. Stories can wait. It’s a nightmare making a living. Fuck the prose. Take your time.

That’s the literary theory. A book review will follow shortly.

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7 Responses to "Fuck the Prose"

indeed writing should be enjoying, but not when you have to make a living out of it !

Yes, it should be like softening your skin with delicious Argan oil, done sparingly and with the utmost pleasure.

I agree with Fuck the prose, did Kerouac, Burrows, Henry Miller worry about the prose? Just get it down and go from there. Stories and Plots come from the heart. I use the old Asian saying “don’t think too much” it covers a multitude of situations in life.

sorry Burroughs, I was confusing him with a colleague, lol

Just get it down? You wild, brutal, devil, you.

You know me only too well!

I agree, but would also say that I love prose, I guess in a way similar to Stephen Fry with poetry. I love the rhythm of language, the texture and color of description. But if the story is boring, it sure takes some fabulous prose to keep the reader’s attention. Better just to tell the story.

Who was the writer who said, write the story and skip all the boring parts? That was really helpful to me. If it’s boring to write it, it doesn’t need to be in the story anyway.

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