Sunday, 25 April 2010

Eighteenth-century thoughts on writing

by Anthony Gillam

In 1979, when I was an 18 year old English and French student, I was required to study 18th century literature. While I loved the satire of Voltaire, the humour of Henry Fielding and the lyricism of Keats and Burns, I'm afraid the cleverness of Alexander Pope's poetry left me cold. I was very taken, though, with some prose he wrote on the nature of writing and I copied it into a little red notebook. The other day, I found the notebook (that I have had for a mere 30 years) and thought it was time to share these words of wisdom that have survived a rather more impressive 240 years:

From The Works of Alexander Pope (1770)*
“I am inclined to think that both the writers of books, and the readers of them, are generally not a little unreasonable in their expectations. The first seem to fancy the world must approve whatever they produce, and the latter to imagine that authors are obliged to please them at any rate. Methinks, as on the one hand, no single man is born with a right of controuling the opinions of all the rest; so on the other, the world has no title to demand, that the whole care and time of any particular person should be sacrificed to its entertainment. Therefore I cannot but believe that writers and readers are under equal obligations, for as much fame, or pleasure, as each affords the other …

… I confess it was want of consideration that made me an author; I writ because it amused me; I corrected because it was as pleasant to me to correct as to write; and I published because I was told, I might please such as it was a credit to please. To what degree I have done this, I am really ignorant; I had too much fondness for my productions to judge of them at first, and too much judgment to be pleased with them at last …”

*Full Title: The Works of Alexander Pope Esq. In Nine Volumes, Complete. With His Last Corrections, Additions, And Improvements: together With the Commentary and Notes of his Editor. London: Printed for C. Bathhurst, W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, R. Baldwin, W. Johnston, T. Caslon, T. Longman, B. Law, Johnson and Davenport, T. Davies, T. Cadell, and W. and J. Richardson. MDCCLXX.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Tale of Gradual Inebriation at The Arches

On Tuesday 6 April we reconvened at the Arches to discuss Tony's latest offering, a short story entitled 'Kerry's Fleece'. The short story isn't a genre with which I'm overly familiar, and I asked myself what the point of a short story should be. To entertain, certainly; to inform, perhaps. These, however, are essential to all genres of fiction.

So why the short story? Annie told us that a successful short story is 'something you can read in under an hour and remember for a lifetime'.

Tony's short stories tend to act like the telephoto lense of a camera, bringing clarity, colour and detail to incidents that might otherwise be considered to be inconsequential. His writing is well constructed and controlled, his command of grammar, punctuation, description and dialogue assured. Nevertheless while I was reading, Kerry's Fleece, I found myself longing for him to abandon some of that control. I feel somehow that he tends to hold himself back when he writes, and the real Tony, the insightful and humorous Tony who appears at SVA meetings, is either subconsciously or deliberately kept separate from his prose.

Tony has an eye for descriptive detail, but I felt that Jason's encounter with an attractive teenager that led to an afternoon drinking session in her parents' house might have been given more psychological and sexual tension, perhaps by the inclusion of more dialogue between the protagonists, and the strong potential for humour in a scene depicting the gradual inebriation of two people was largely ignored.

Rob felt although that the story had a beginning and a middle, the end was anti-climatic and required a better resolution. 'Are you wondering why I've enticed you here?' (Kerry) would provide an unexpected change in the dynamic of the story and set up a final twist. Annie suggested that the unexpected reappearance of Kerry's parents from their holiday and finding their daughter in flagrante would have provided a more dramatic ending. The story ends instead with the sentence ' So Kerry put the peanuts in a little pan and warmed them through on the Aga and they ate hot nuts and drank wine as the sun went down.' The question uppermost in both Jason's and the reader's mind - whether Kerry is a nice girl, a seductress or manipulative - is left unanswered.

We all picked up on the allusion to Jason and the Golden Fleece, but we were unable to understand the point of it. In the legend of the Argonauts Jason trades the golden fleece for a kingdom and Linda wondered if Jason wanted a nice rich girl as the price for getting her fleece back for her.

Tony explained that the point was contained in that last sentence. The story is, of course, about 'Jason and the Aga nuts'. We all groaned. All successful puns should make one groan, but is a single pun powerful enough to provide the raison d'etre of a short story? Rob pointed out that the danger of this approach is that if readers don't get the pun, they won't get the point of the story. Although the pun deserves inclusion, the story needs to have an alternative raison d'etre than to provide a groan at the end.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Rowan Tree

The meeting was short and rather sombre. Chris did not attend due to a family bereavement. Our thoughts are with him.

Linda read ‘The Rowan Tree’ another extract from her novel ‘A Headful of Budgerigars’. The humour and vivid descriptions blended to create a piece that elicited many positive responses from the members that were present. Rob described it as ‘a near-perfect piece of writing’. One particular description ‘fairies dancing in wisps of silk the colour of a starling’s egg,’ delighted all. Linda revealed that this ornithological reference had come from a paint swatch card rather than a guide book to British birds, proof enough that the aspiring writer should always be ready to collect interesting and unusual expressions from a variety of sources.

As with all meetings of the SVA there was much discussion over the finer details such as the use of hyphens: zigzagged, harebrained and whitewashed all came under scrutiny.

Linda had continued editing and so the version that had been sent out and the version she read from had minor differences. There was a unanimous vote to keep in ‘checking for poos.’

The chapter ended with a surreal and dramatic paragraph – another excerpt from one of Lily’s dreams. This technique is working well and I am looking forward to the next chapter and its ending.

No -ly adverbs were used in the writing of this blog. Effortlessly, certainly and slightly were all totally annihilated from this passage. Having read the article ‘Those Pesky –ly Words’ I must admit that Rob may have a point. ‘I am certainly looking forward’ has become ‘I am looking forward’ and it is stronger as a result. I am willing to go adverb free as an experiment and see what happens!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Those pesky words ending in 'ly'

I posted something on my website blog ( about adverbs and it triggered a comment or two from fellow students at the National Academy of Writing. Fiona Joseph, who is writing a biography of one of the Cadbury family, posted the link which you follow by clicking on the title of this piece. All any writer needs to know about the use of adverbs in fictive prose.