Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Graham Swift on the Narrative Physics of Novels

I've just read an interesting article from the English writer Graham Swift (Waterland, Last Orders) about the slowness of writing. I've long admired Swift, though it would be over the top to say I've loved all his work. There are great snatches: the final image of the motorbike standing alone by the canal's edge in Waterland, the moment the old geezers have their puffing and heaving fight (they're trying to swagger) on the hillside in Last Orders.

Anyone who works on prose fiction likely knows the strange feeling that writing can flow, and you can get a lot done quickly in a scene, but a narrative as a whole is painstaking. I've written most of the passages in my current novel quite quickly, with a sense of being in the real-time 'bubble' of the scene. Hearing the spoken dialogue at the speed those words are spoken, watching characters move across the landscape in the time it would take in the world. And yet it's taken years to get to the point I'm at.

From the article.

I’m not disheartened by the thought that what takes me years to write may occupy a reader for just a few hours. To have made, perhaps, a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, and if that communication becomes for readers not just a means of passing those hours, but a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, then that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.

Most of us are probably not aware of exactly what we're doing when we read, and how we slip in and out of ticking-clock-time. Maybe that's one of the roles of the novel, and of reading itself, to disrupt that regimentation.

The answers to the question that arises out of my opening paragraph are simple ones. Why do novels take so long to write when so many scenes go by in real time?

* drafting and redrafting until it's the best we can do to have the text do the story justice
* writing isn't just the fingers on keyboards phase, it's the reading back, the thinking, the reframing
* the moment so often seen as the 'creative moment' is just a beginning. There's much work to do after that.

To read the full article, click here.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the link to the full article James, I enjoyed it - it's comforting to read someone who knows so much about their craft and role as a writer and who understands how important and transformative reading can be.