During my writing life I’ve been equally inspired by men writers as I have by women. Unlike some readers I’ve encountered, I don’t make a special case for female authors, by which I mean I don’t tend to seek out certain titles because they are by women. Maybe that makes me disloyal to the writing sisterhood.
I’m more interesting in good writing for its own sake. When I find a good writer, then I am loyal. Casting my eyes over my bookshelves I see, though, that I am biased. On my shelves there are more male writers than female. My favourite writers are male. Among them I count the Irish writer Colm Toibin, whose wonderful novel on Henry James, the Master I can read over and over again. William Fiennes is there too with the Snow Geese and the Music Room.
I love these writers for their clarity, their sensitivity, their subtlety and the sheer poetic beauty of their work. One year I met William Fiennes at Dartington and gushed in the signing queue that I found his prose ‘utterly sublime.’ He took the compliment graciously: ‘It was worth coming all the way down here just to hear that.’ I know from interviews that he works hard on his style so that when you read him there is not a ripple to disturb, not a single false note. What agonies, what discipline and sheer devotion it takes to write so effortlessly well. Writers of Colm Toibin’s and William Fiennes’s quality spoil it for everyone else. After spending time with them, I’m unable to read clumsy work.
What do I look for in style? The sentences must be smooth and clean. There must be no attempt to impress me or manipulate me. I cannot be seduced. I must above all be moved. I must feel something while reading that either makes me think in a new way or engages my sympathy so that I feel as close to the characters as I do to my own friends and family. If I read a novel or non-fiction piece set in another country, I must immediately want to go there. If I read a description of food, I must immediately want to eat it. I want to fall in love.
Great style alone does not interest me. There are some brilliant stylists out there whose work just leaves me cold: Will Self, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan are all fantastic writers, but too knowing for me. If the author intrudes on the page, it puts me off. I need to be left alone with the narrative. I can’t bear having someone in the room with me telling me what to think. In this, I’m pretty conventional. That said, William Boyd does get a bit boisterous on the page sometimes, but I love it when he does. I’m usually smitten.
A friend remarked that I tended to adore music in a minor key. He’s right. I would choose Bach over Beethoven any day. This search for qualities of beauty and transcendence and luminosity continues throughout my appreciation of film and painting, sculpture and music. Hildegard of Bingen ‘s pure, soaring sequences have become part of the fabric of my inner life.
That’s not to say that all the work I admire feels the same. The brutality of the film Tyrannosaur was difficult to watch, but I loved it for its honesty and won’t ever forget seeing it. Likewise Roman Polanski’s the Pianist. The work I admire must feel like a whole piece. Toughness and violence I can deal with if it is essential to the narrative. For this reason I can no longer watch soap operas or horror films.
Now I’m warming to my theme. Dangerous! I want to give this more thought and write about style again next week. Have a good weekend.