Expat Magazine

Analysis Paralysis: The Guardian Master Class on Novel Writing

By Lisawines @omyword
In my last post, I gave you the back story of how I wound up taking a Guardian Master Class on novel writing. If you haven't read it yet, you should, or you won't get any of my jokes in this post. (You still might not get the jokes, but it won't be your fault.)
Now that you know about my nonexistent sex life...
...we can continue on with more cerebral subjects. Speaking of cerebral, on one of our breaks during the class, I sat there, not saying a word (shocking, I know), waiting for the other students to say how much they hated the class. They were mostly British, so hatred was not forthcoming. (I imagine the same thing might happen in Canada.) But one of the students, comparing the first famous writer who spoke to us (Sarah Hall) to the second (Adam Foulds) said, "Adam is a little more cerebral than Sarah." This is an excellent example of a literary rhetorical effect called, understatement.
Now, don't get me wrong. Sarah and Adam are both brilliant and were super nice to us fledgling writers. But basically, what we did for a day and a half was read samples of famous writers' work and analyze them. We didn't write anything. We didn't talk about how to write a novel. It was, therefore, not a novel writing class. It was a literary analysis class.
Here's what we analyzed with Sarah: Writing dialogue without committing the heinous writer's crime of "He said, adoringly." Check. Making the torture and murder of chickens interesting. Check. Artistic character development: At night, accompanied by a storm lantern and a cat, in preparation for a family party, a man strings lights into the trees of a 300-year-old orchard. He sits at the base of a tree and weeps at the thought of losing his mother, but not before carefully removing, folding and placing his glasses in his pocket. Check. Writing things that make no fucking sense, so as to confuse and dazzle readers with your deep and mysterious obscurity. Check. Showing (rather than telling) poverty through images of hanging meat and a flowered dress/combat boots ensemble. Check.
Here's what we analyzed with Adam: Studium vs. punctum. (Don't ask.) Chyeck. Making the torture and killing of bulls (and the goring and subsequent PTSD of the bullfighter) interesting. Check. Poignancy: A courageous wimp loses in a street fight against a bully butcher and his publican and chimney sweep pals. And colorful imagery: "...the butcher lights ten thousand candles out of my left eyebrow." Check. Experimental writing: Retelling a Greek myth using characters who wear flip-flops and outrageous dialogue such as, "Greek, cut that bitch." Check. Showing a husband's devotion through the procurement and grilling of a slippery kidney. Check. More dialogue: Dignifying the t in shit. Self-flagellating would-be poet who sees the writing of poetry as a condition requiring fits. The strength of a parson's rhetoric (stronger, it seems, than his arms) in calming the wrath of an unforgiving squire. How many pupils can say, one at a time, "Good morning, sir." before a teacher named Paul says "Oh, shut up." (Three.) How, if you put the character's name in bold caps above their dialogue, you don't have to use quotation marks or "He said, adoringly." Check, check checkity check. Sentences: Long ones. Short ones. And meaningless ones like this: "A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all." (Note to my formerly famous former writer boyfriend: the use of commas does fuck-all for this sentence.) Chee-yeck! Then a very long poem that we had to read five times but still couldn't figure out why there was a fucking haystack in there at all. (I've run completely out of checks.)
Thank the lourd we didn't have time to dissect this...
gedered þe grattest of gres þat þer were
and didden hem derely vndo as þe dede askez

...or I surely would have blown my brains out. (Hyperbole. Check.)
I defy you to name the books and authors whence the previous examples came. (Don't mind me. I'm practicing my Oulde English.) The good news about all this is that I now have quite a reading list. Despite my irreverent thrashing above, I liked almost everything we read and wanted to read more than the bits and pieces we sampled.
Needless to say, I've never been big on analysis. I'm action oriented. I learn by doing, rather than reading about what other people are or were doing. All the above just seemed like mental masturbation. (For clarification, see Jazz: musical masturbation.) I have to put a straight jacket on to do analysis (and listen to jazz). The Guardian served us cookies and tea, but there were no straight jackets. So, I fidgeted in my chair, tried desperately to participate and at the end of day one I seriously considered not coming back for day two. But there was one small problem. They were saving Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Buddha of Suburbia etc.) for last.
I read Kureishi's bio before I went to London. He started out writing porn. This was promising. He wrote a novel that was suspiciously close to his own story of leaving his partner and two young sons for a younger woman (Intimacy). He created fictional characters and stories resembling his family and upbringing, that were a bit too close to the bone. His sister is supremely pissed off at him because of it. He's controversial. My kind of guy!
Then he walked into the room. He looked and behaved almost exactly like my formerly famous writer former boyfriend. Smallish in stature, biggish in ego. Messy gray hair. Controversial sneakers. He made us all get up and move the chairs into a circle, while bitching about having to be there on a Sunday. I immediately hated him.
And I took more notes from him than I had all weekend. He also made us write and read what we wrote. I liked him, then. I was also delighted and awed by the writing of my fellow students. So was Kureishi. He was mostly gentle with his critique and always generous with his praise.
One of the students wrote about a woman of about my age, who suddenly understood that she had become invisible to men. It was like she knew me. My own desire to fade into the woodwork was exposed. Alas, I'm not the hot little smart girl I used to be. No longer sexual fodder for intellectual, existential, anarchist, skateboarding writers. I'm just smart. Finally smart enough to know that I don't have to sleep with writers to be one. I can just write. I spent about $150K for the privilege of sleeping with my formerly famously writerly former ex. I only had to pay £400 to listen to Kureishi and didn't have to fight off his ex wife, win over his children or argue with him about commas. ... Check!

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