Friday, 28 August 2009

TOO MUCH CRAFT?



In The Fix Marion Arnott reviews Issue 2 of The Yellow Room in which I have a story. She gives mini-reviews of all the stories in the issue. For my story ‘The Ouse’s Call’, she quotes a line and says it ‘whispered too much craft’. I read that, felt mildly irritated and wondered, of course, if it were true.

I took the comment to mean that the writing was too purple, too worked-on. ‘The Ouse’s Call’ is about Virginia Woolf’s last days and her death by drowning in the river Ouse. I originally wrote the story as a radio play featuring a disaffected woman who lived beside the river in which she planned to drown herself. I rewrote it as a story featuring Virginia, because I liked it and didn’t want to dump it when I decided it wasn’t working as a radio play.

The river is the star of the story, really, and the descriptions of it were based on the river Liffey, on top of which I grew up. The Liffey and other rivers feature strongly in my writing and I love describing river water and coming up with new ways of doing just that.

So, yes, I employed a lot of craft in the descriptions of the river in ‘The Ouse’s Call’. I didn’t labour over it and I didn’t work and re-work the wording as I wrote, most of it arrived fully formed and was edited many times, because that’s the way I work.

As a reader, I love crafted, ornate prose; prose that tells me the writer is in love with words and language. I adore the writing of Annie Proulx and John Banville who both employ rich, intricate language, and more recently Wells Tower’s staggeringly beautifully written stories. I enjoy their type of writing more than I like the spare, elegant prose of, say, Colm Tóibín or Jhumpa Lahiri. I like what the latter do but I love sparky, interesting prose more. Maybe it’s because I also love poetry and poets are the most playful of writers when it comes to words.

Is the writing ‘too crafted’ in my story about Virginia Woolf? Is it overdone? Maybe it is - it’s not for me to say. I just know that I always prefer unusual words to ordinary ones and the crafted writing of the Proulxs, Banvilles and Towers is what makes me, as a reader, gasp with delight.

27 comments:

Kar said...

Mmmm is there such a thing as ‘too much craft’?

I have always found your work full of craft and its part of why I love your writing.

There are writers I read and like and afterwards I can say I enjoyed that, it was lovely. But I love to find a story that leaves me with an open mouth and gasping at words that describe something normal and ordinary in a unique and unusual way. A gem of a sentence hidden in a story that I read and re-read wishing I could do the same. It’s raw talent.

I find it difficult to understand Ms. Arnott’s opinion.

I’m intrigued by this particular story and I look forward to reading it.

Kar x

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

That's what I wondered, Kar - is there such a thing as too much craft? One presumes that the advocates of plain prose would argue it is just as crafteed as 'decorated' prose - it's hard to pull of that seemingly simple style.

I'm the same - I like to be astonished by the words carrying the story. I want them to tickle me and to be jealous of the cleverness of the writer.

Totalfeckineejit said...

I would HATE my work to be criticised in any way,especially in public, I may want to kill the reviewer.Fortunately/unfortunately I'm not in,or anywhere near that position,so my detached unemotional logical pragmatic response would be 'fuck 'em' you can't please all of the people all of the time.And yet like all (proper, real) writers I bet WRW you will ignore the million words of praise and focus on the tiniest negative.You're lucky, you're brilliant, don't forget it!

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Ah, you are so sweet TFE!

Kar said...

Me again. I’ve read the review; it seems Ms. Arnott had a ‘but’ about nearly all stories chosen for this issue. I am now extremely irritated by her opinions and wonder if she ever reads a story and enjoys it for what it is or is she always looking to find fault?

I am amazed that as a short fiction writer herself she could give such a harsh review and be so negative. Based on her review you’d hardly be rushing out to buy this publication.

And now I’m going to shut up and waste no more time on this person and her silly opinions!

As TFE has just stated ‘you’re brilliant’, seems I’m not your only fan!

xxx

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Ha ha, my 2 fans!! Hugs to both of you (((Kar & TFE))) N x

Michael Farry said...

My basic standpoint would be that there is no such thing as "too much craft". If the criticism is of the use of too ornamented or unusual language or too involved syntax then the reviewer should say that rather than use a phrase which tells little about her real criticism. After all as you say yourself above "too much craft" could also result in a very simple spare language.

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

You're right, Michael. I got the feeling that that was what she meant. She didn't care for the prose because it was too 'stylistic', for want of a better word.

Rachel Fenton said...

There's a negative tendency for criticts to believe their purpose is to criticise...it's to do with the word critic...it's too crafty for 'em. The devil's in the detail, or the prose, and there will always be a percentage who are prosaically pious and dodge the devil...personally, I take him by the horns and pluck his purple prose from him with pleasure!

I adore your writing!

Rachel Fenton said...

You may choose not to publish this comment but I couldn't resist - forgive me - but "whispered too much craft" sounds just a tinsy bit like whispered too much crap...and I saw an interview once (think it was Parky and Dave Allen) in which Allen was telling a yarn about a kid being taught that 'whisper' was a euphemism for fart..."imagine telling the kid to whisper something in your ear?" Allen said, or similar...I aplologise, my immaturity has passed, I shall go back to my oh so mature and clever comments now.

Sarah Hilary said...

I wish someone would accuse me of too much craft, WRW. I mean, what an utterly DAFT "critique". Like saying Picasso drew a bit too well.

The word verification says Faccups. A message for your critic, I suspect.

P Nolan said...

Interesting one this - the phrase itself 'whispered too much craft' perhaps seems guilty of the same traits perceived in the story's language? Some kind of overly-arch self-awareness in the phrasing to the detriment of the writing's overall communication?

However, she's entitled to her opinion - too much craft can become baroque decoration - but then that's just a question of taste? She may well be wrong - but she does say 'to me' so she's stressing her subjectivity.

It's hard to tell out of context - but to me she's simply pointing out an interesting aspect of the writing for potential readers. I don't think the review would put anybody off. I've often sought out works from reading between the lines of a reviewers slights, as much as their direct praise.

While I like luscious prose, I like austere prose too. I also dislike both of those on occasion. I even like and dislike the same writer on different occasions. It's what makes art interesting IMHO - the shifiting vagaries and textures - moreso than the out-of-the-ballpark spectaculars.

I wouldn't sweat it Nuala. There's no point in playing safe - go with your gut. If the words tumble and slide with poetic brio, so be it. If they come another way, that's good too. It's writing, innit?

FYI, I'm still reading Nude - one story at a sitting. Too rich to handle otherwise. The overall impression is of a choice, substantial spread of tapas - lingering flavours like those pimentos in Xavier - 'smoky and sweet'. (Did I read that one in the Fly before?) I'm very aware too of a painterly approach.!

Elizabeth Baines said...

How annoying, to make a comment like that that you can't even fathom. Not enough craft in reviewing, I reckon.

OSLO said...

A very odd phrase to use - too much craft me arse, as one might say. Haven't read the story yet but still look forward to it. I imagine it's awfully difficult to hear such criticism but I think the consensus here is that the fault lies very much at the feet of this particular critic. Nice post defending yourself by the way :)

Anna May said...

Hello Nuala,
I haven't read the story so my comment is probably half useless, but I have read Ms Arnott's review and I think it was all downhill from the word 'proports'......

And as a writer I would rather be damned for 'too much craft' instead of 'too little craft'- you should be proud !

Anna May x

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

I go away for a few hours and y'all have a commenting festival - woo!
Thanks everyone for your thoughts. I feel a bit like a whingey witch now...
Marion Arnott is totally entitled to her view. The story may be flawed as it is and I don't mind that being pointed out but I (obviously) took exception to her phrase 'too much craft'.

Rachel - yes, I'm inclined to agree about critics. I am one myself on occasion but I always try to understand the intention of the writer.

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Sarah - thank you, it's always lovely to see you here!

PJ - thank you for your views, v well thought out.
I don't let reviews put me off anything either, especially when I am suspicious of the reviewer's motives (I'm not here, btw). I sometimes think if X reviewer hated a book or film, I'll probably like it!
Thanks for the comments on 'Nude'. Yes 'Xavier' was in the Stinging Fly. Well remembered!

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Elizabeth - I agree!!

Jo - thanks, girl. Hope you're settling back in after the hols.

Anna May - believe me, I argued with 'purports' too! I'd a bit of a bee in my bonnet, clearly, on reading the review...I'm half-mortified now!

Tania Hershman said...

As someone who writes, reviews and manages a team of reviewers, I don't think "too much craft" tells anyone anything at all. Frankly, all a reviewer should say, in my humble opinion, is: "This didn't work for me, because..." It's a subjective business, reviewing, I don't subscribe to blanket generalisations like "too much craft", even if I had the faintest idea what it meant! Keep on doing what you're doing, love, just finished Nude, almost in one sitting, I couldn't put it down!

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Ah, thanks Tania. Delighted you liked Nude - unputdownable, eh??! LOL! Can't wait to get your questions for my blog stop at yours. N x

Uiscebot said...

Fuck reviews! I love your book.

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Ha! Thanks Colm!

Ossian said...

"Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard." (John Steinbeck)

Critics always remind me of that that dialogue with "a popinjay" in Hamlet, "'Tis warm is it not?" "Methinks tis tolerably warm, sir." "But no, a bit cool." "It is, it is somewhat cool." "But yet, I feel a little hot." "Hot, milord, it is a bit hot." (Something like that, haven't googled it - obviously).

They're always wheedling on that something is somewhat hot and yet a little cool. And yet again hot, but cold, or maybe yes altogether warm. I agree with the Irish American writer above.

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Hi Ossian,

Shakespeare must've been from Ireland - that sounds like a v Irish conversation on the weather...

Which Irish American??!!

Rachel Fox said...

Someone called poetry books a 'necessary evil' a while back (details on application) but I think it's reviews that fall more into that category. We need them to spread the word about books (and other things) but they are so often annoying, hastily written, badly thought out (and I should know...I wrote some in a past life). Some are even biased (and therefore fairly pointless).

I look forward to trying to spot all the craft in your book now!

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Cheers Rachel - v well said indeed! I'd love to know who said that about poetry books!?

Rachel Fox said...

Oh OK then...it was poet Roddy Lumsden at the StAnza festival in St Andrews. At least I think it was there...it might have been on a blog afterwards or something (see - terribly vague and useless...you can tell I was a journalist once...for a bit). He was just promoting a new book so I think it was a mix of joke and serious comment....but I think I know what he meant. It's a complicated one.


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