1940s Insight

During my recent holiday in Parkes I visited one of my favourite places to go: a used bookshop. As someone who loves books and is naturally inclined to collect things, I always jump at the chance to come across anything rare or unusual.

This particular used bookshop turned out to be well worth the visit: I bought two books, both of which were ultimately very rewarding purchases. The first was a trashy-looking book about Jeffery Dahmer, which I thought would provide some low quality entertainment on my holiday. Instead it turned out to be a very insightful, fascinating examination of a very diseased mind, and I’ve already read it twice with fascination.

The other book I bought was a slim hardcover volume – a book from the 1940s called The Writer’s Responsibility, which I bought on an impulse because I thought it would look cool on my shelf. However, I’ve now started reading it and have found it to be a very good book; an intelligent look at the way people wrote during the author’s time, and a discussion of his views on what makes a good novel. It’s particularly interesting because when it was written people like Earnest Hemingway were still alive and working, and the author talks about them without any of the baggage we have today since their books hadn’t been labelled “classics” at the time and were just the latest novels from popular authors.

Anyway, I have a feeling it would be hard for anyone else to find a copy of this book for themselves, so I thought I’d transcribe a passage from it which I liked. I’ve found I agree with pretty much everything the author says, but this part here finally made me see why (aside from natural prudishness) I’ve never felt the need to write a sex scene in any of my books:

If you are writing about a bore – a teller, let us say, of interminable and pointless stories – you defeat your purpose of you bring to your portrait of him a complete and literal transcription of his talk; you yourself become a bore… In all descriptive writing, whether of travel or people or food or sex, there is so much which the reader can supply himself, or which does does concern him, that a certain amount of selection and suggestion strengthens the picture and brings it into sharper focus; otherwise it is weakened and blurred by an excessive amount of detail.

“That is why the insistence of some writers upon the reader’s presence whenever one of their characters feels the need to perform a natural bodily function becomes so tiresome. We are all aware of Nature’s little imperatives, and the writer does not need to labour them; we are not all so pompous as the judge whose brother said of him that he should always have, in plain view beside him on the bench, a roll of toiled paper, to remind him that he was a man like any other“.

~J Donald Adams, The Writer’s Responsibility, 1946

The book has all kinds of interesting insights like this one, and I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s also entertaining that the author doesn’t shy away from calling books like Finnegan’s Wake a waste of time and talent (specifically, he says that there was absolutely no point in making it unreadable – Joyce was just stroking his own ego. It’s nice to know at least one contemporary felt the same way about that sort of thing as I do).

~KJT, just over halfway through writing a novel with an unprintable tagline

Neato text ornament here