WHAT IS GOOD WRITING?
I recently read the novel Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s a wonderful book. The writing gave me such pleasure. On almost every page there is a sentence that gives me joy, that makes me think – what lovely writing. Such a clarity and truth to the writing but also such skilled storytelling in the way it cuts back and forth between different times to make sense of a life. It’s a great title that sums up exactly what it’s about from the perspective of one very troubled contemporary London woman (the central character Martha). I read this book in bed before I go to sleep and I found it very hard to put down. I can’t help myself comparing to it some of the scripts I read in the daytime for work and how (occasionally) they give pain rather than the pleasure Meg Mason’s writing gives me. Scripts in which the sentences grate. Sentences that mangle meaning. In which the story makes no sense, in which characters act strangely and stupidly for no discernible reason, in which the dialogue is formatted as action and the action as dialogue. Scripts that are 140 pages long when they would be infinitely better at 40 pages long. Scripts in which two characters sit in chairs and calmly tell each other the plot in case the audience can’t keep up. And above all scripts that are just bloody hard to follow and which make no sense to anyone but the writer.
So then I went back to Meg Mason’s previous and first novel – YOU BE MOTHER. It was as good as SORROW AND BLISS and once again stopped me sleeping. I kept waking up at 3am and thinking – I’ll just read a few pages; and an hour later, I was still reading. I engaged so much with the characters – the two lead characters are going through their own personal pain and it feels excruciating. One of those rare books where the ending made me cry (the lack of sleep may have contributed).
I love good writing. It plays such a big, important role in my life, it’s one of the things that brings me the greatest pleasure. I actually look forward to the end of the day when I can lie in bed for an hour or so reading – whether it’s a book, newspaper or magazine.
Here are a few other examples of what I mean by good writing, things I have read recently that I really connected with –
First of all, I was energised to write this by a song that randomly came up on my Spotify feed – A&E by Squeeze (the brilliant Difford / Tilbrook writing team). A wonderful combination of emotion, politics and melody.
I love sport and I think Jonathan Liew is one of the best sports journalists writing at the moment. If you don’t know / follow cricket, this may not mean much to you. But I think there’s a universal, emotional idea being explored here – a brilliant performer coming towards the end of his career, being replaced by younger players, not going quietly. While I’m interested in the cricket, I’m really hooked here by the human aspects of this story.
2 similar books – Vertigo by John Crace & Newcastle United Stole My Heart by Michael Chaplin.
Michael Chaplin is better known as a brilliant dramatist for TV and theatre and John Crace as a political commentator for The Guardian but these are both books about their lifelong obsessions with football.
While I’m hooked by the detail of the football, what I loved about both of these books is the personal stuff – the glimpses into their lives and loves – Michael Chaplin’s family history and its long connections to Newcastle and football; John Crace’s Tottenham Hotspur obsession, the friendships it has brought him – but also the self-inflicted pain. In fact, I think this is a common theme with all serious football supporters – the more devoted you are to your team, the more – meaningless – pain you put yourself through.
Euphoria – S2 Ep1
I watched the whole of the first series and thought it was brilliant – made with such flair and style, such imagination and scope. The first episode of the 2nd series was no different. In particular, the pre-title sequence which tells a self-contained story of its own is an absolute tour-de-force of televisual storytelling. The writing and direction by Sam Levinson is never less than brilliant. [At the same time though, I find the show increasingly had to stomach. There was one sequence in a car which, it seemed to me, dramatised the action in such a way that it was hard not to take away the message that driving cars dangerously fast is sexy. And while it is a brilliantly provocative mix of the disturbing and glamorous, I find the balance increasingly uncomfortable. The drug abuse and connected violence is undoubtedly disturbing – but it’s also portrayed as sexy and alluring.]
The brilliant opening sequence reminded me of the equally exciting, cinematic opening sequence of GOODFELLAS – the use of brilliantly-chosen ‘70’s music is also similar. At the time I didn’t have such an issue with the graphic violence in that GOODFELLAS sequence. My response to on-screen violence is far more sensitive now than it was when I was in my 20’s or 30’s.
This Is Going To Hurt – BBC1
I binged my way through this 7 episode series in a couple of days. The writing by Adam Kay is wonderful – the way the show makes you laugh out-loud but then almost instantaneously pulls you up short with an emotional punch is brilliantly achieved. The book is also excellent. It’s fascinating to see how different the TV show is, the creative decisions made in the adaptation (eg to focus far more on Adam Kay’s personal life). I was also fascinated by the creation / persona of this central ‘Adam Kay’ character. Clearly he’s very much like the real person who created the show. But one of the things I found really interesting was how he must to some extent have had to create an avatar, an equivalent persona. It’s particularly fascinating as, at times, this central character is unquestionably unlikable – but fascinatingly flawed, conflicted and complicated.
One of the things I loved about TIGTH was how angry it made me. While dramatising the chaos and terrible state of one department in an NHS hospital, it was at the same time a love letter to the NHS, a cry of pain about the way the NHS has been allowed to fall apart steadily over decades. Similarly Helen Black’s ‘Life & Death In The Warehouse’ – a story that felt personal and powerfully political at the same time.
More recently I’ve been watching concurrently two very different but equally excellent shows – on Amazon, HACKS season 2 and on BBC1, SHERWOOD by James Graham. I loved the combination of a gripping character-driven, crime story and the political history of SHERWOOD (political history that has such resonance for today) and in HACKS, it’s all about the wonderful central characterisation of the monstrous yet vulnerable and incredibly engaging Deborah Vance. This is character writing at its absolute best.
So what does this random collection of writing that I’ve enjoyed have in common?
The fact that it feels personal to the writers – not necessarily that it is about things that the writers have personally experienced, more that it’s about subjects, characters, people that they have strong feelings about.
They all seem to have an interesting, personal or emotional connection to the material they’re writing about. And this emotional connection shines through in the writing.
It’s also about the clarity and simplicity of the way these writers communicate their stories. Their ‘style’ such as it is feels like an integral, organic part of their writing, it doesn’t feel self-conscious or preconceived. All of this writing has a directness, an insistence, a sense of passion and dynamism.
It’s often about writers needing to say something to get it off their chest – this is so true of the journalists I enjoy reading – John Crace, Marina Hyde, Jonathan Liew, Tracey Thorn (and how impressive is Tracey Thorn – not only a brilliant journalist, but also one of the most gifted songwriters of her generation – in ‘Everything But The Girl’ and more recently in her solo career – try her wonderful song ‘Oh The Divorces.’).
Good writing is so often unvarnished, direct, committed, personal.
Ultimately for me good writing is about that human connection – those moments in fiction and drama that awake feelings in me, remind me of moments in relationships, that make me reflect on moments from real life, shared human realities.
The next newsletter will be on Friday July 22nd,
July 8th 2022