Thursday, June 2, 2016

Genre Fiction and Bad Prose

Bad prose is the bugbear of genre fiction. I get a lot of books sent to me to review and most of them are terribly written. If you're writing in a genre the rule seems to be that the more workmanlike the prose the better. Stephen King, in his famous rules for writers, has even suggested that if your prose is too interesting it will take the reader out of the novel and it should be rewritten to make it plainer and simpler. For King plot is all and the prose is only a vector for delivering that plot. At the Sydney Writers Festival last week I encountered a lot of wannabe writers who told me that they followed King's rule strictly and any time their prose got the littlest bit challenging they knew they were off the track.

I beg to differ. For me good prose is good prose and even if you're writing genre fiction you should take time over your words. Story is not all. I appreciate that I am in a minority here. If you look at the biggest genre fiction hits of the last few years the prose in those books has been perfunctory and written for the lowest common denominator. But fuck that. Do you want to write a book you're proud of or do you want to sell a lot of copies? If you're only in it for the money you should probably be in a different line of work anyway, a line of work where luck is not such a big part of the equation. 

If you still don't know what I'm talking about here's a little crime fiction home work assignment for you, check out: James Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, David Peace's 1980, Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls. Five crime novels from the last decade where the writer cares about how she or he is telling the story as much as the story itself. Ellroy and Peace in particular seem to have decided that they are going to invent an entirely new way of telling stories and if the reader isn't willing to go along with them on the ride, well to hell with them, that's not the sort of person they want reading their books anyway. Stephen King is all about expanding the audience, Ellroy and Peace are all about winnowing the audience - this is brave and even a little foolhardy, but I admire it. Sending your precious book out into the universe all by itself is a courageous act anyway, so why not send out the book you're proud of instead of the compromised vision that you think will attract the biggest possible audience.