Monday Morning Blether

Of Tolstoy, Enid Byton and Others

When did your local English Professor last study the pace of the narrative in a Famous Five story? Not since they were in school uniform themselves? They might well be missing out on something!

Recently I have read a few books on how to write. Just like eating good chocolate you pick up one and think that will be enough, but a moment later you have completed five and are shopping for the next.

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge is a favourite. This one goes deep into the text without ever descending into academic mire.
The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler is also a great read. It focuses on the standard components of a classic saga, which reappear almost constantly in myths, novels and films.

Classic novels underpin all of this. You see the same authors coming up over and again: Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen are all constants. I have never read Joyce' Ulysses, but I have read so many extracts that I feel I know the book well. Actually reading it would spoil all the analysis, I fear.

But, if you do a search for the best selling authors of all time, you meet different names which never appear in these textbooks: Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Enid Blyton, J. K. Rowling, Dr Seuss, Jackie Collins, Stephen King.

I haven't read all of these, but a few I know intimately. There's no need to admit which, we are all entitled to a few secrets. :-)

Works from this second list of authors are not as good, in some technical sense, as works from the first. They don't develop character in the same way, they don't draw the reader in to decisions made by the protagonist, they don't explore character change as brought about by other people and events, and so don't impact the reader's emotions in the same way. I guess this is why many academics ignore them.

However, I think it's a huge mistake to dismiss an analysis of these works. There are hordes of people writing in these genres. Those of us with many competition also-ran results in a back drawer somewhere know that all too well! The above authors clearly have, err, something which is very unusual and very effective. I am a bit mystified as to why textbooks on writing fiction don't try and draw this out.

Enid Blyton has stood out from her peers over generations of children's authors. I am not attracted by what little I know of her lifestyle much, I don't agree with many of her attitudes, I cringe at some of her settings and speech, but then I get caught up in the story and fall deeply into her world. Once again, for the umpteenth time, she captures me, the reader, and makes me hers.

Is it the wonderful Chapter 1 where everything is perfect before the adventure starts? Is it the way she allows children to be in charge and yet remain children? Is it the pace of the action? Is it the language? Is it the level of magic and adversary which tunes in so closely to the reader? Is it the use of rigid formula underlying individual adventures.

Agatha Christie's characters are a bit cardboard in the high literature sense. The reader does not empathise with their conflicting emotions. But they are absolutely suited for their purpose: unusual, different, outwardly placid yet seething with inner plans and secrets. How they act outwardly often conflicts with their inner thoughts, and this confict pulls the reader one way and the other as they try and get to the truth. It is expertly done.

Poke fun at the dialogue all you want, but as an examplar I think any aspiring writer ignores Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie at their peril. These writers are expert, natural storytellers. Inside their work is everything that is good about how to tell a story and hook the audience.

Tolstoy is a wonderful writer. His books are rich and deep. Reading him as a young man affected my character development and outlook on life. And the same is true of Enid Blyton. It is fascinating to try and understand how this can be true of such different styles.

Perhaps the greatest joy of literature is that it contains all of these writers, and such a deep, rich and vivid rainbow between them.

Which colour are you?