A friend once tried to describe her new in-laws to me. ‘What are they like?’ I asked. ‘They’re at one end of normal’ she said, ‘and we’re at the other end.’
Fiction writing style is like my friend’s ‘normal’, in that it is a dimension of personality, the ends of which are opposed poles. At one end is the literary sensibility, represented by writers such as Philip Roth. At the opposite pole is the journalistic sensibility, represented by writers like Ernest Hemingway.
Writers of the journalistic sensitivity strive to exclude themselves, their feelings, their opinions from their writing. Even the tiniest authorial intrusion is painful to them and they will spend much time and effort finding alternative constructions that rule out any possibility of them putting in an unplanned appearance. They shy away from the spotlight. The journalistic sensibility was summed up by C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, when he said that ‘Comment is free but facts are sacred’.
Literary writers, on the other hand, thrive on their feelings, their opinions, their estimates of their subjects and have no hesitation about appearing as characters in their own books. They court publicity and love the limelight. The literary sensibility was best summed up by Oscar Wilde, in the voice of Gwendolen Fairfax, ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’
At each end of the spectrum there is a both an ideal form and a pathological or perverse form of these sensibilities. At its highest, the literary style uses prose to achieve the effects of poetry – conveying thoughts and images directly to the unconscious mind of the reader in original, imaginative and engaging words. In its degenerate form, the literary sensitivity is a kind of narcissism: the writing is as much about the writer as its subject and deliberately draws attention to itself, like a spoiled child showing off.
At its best the journalistic style is very similar to the literary in that it ceases to be noticeable and communicates ideas vividly and convincingly without the reader even being aware of it. In its pathological form the journalistic sensibility is repellent: a style so dry and devoid of humanity it can report the most horrific events without engaging the reader’s feelings, reducing literature to a lab notebook.
Deep down, the two sensibilities detest and distrust each other – often alleging identical charges in their indictment of the other. The other is self-indulgent. The other lacks intellectual refinement. The other doesn’t understand what writing is really about.
Curiously, while loathing each other, the two sensibilities sometimes give way to mutual envy and even wear one another’s clothes – ugly sisters who will swallow any indignity just so long as they go to the ball. Even the most unreconstructed journo sometimes needs a poetic metaphor to save himself from being tedious. Even the most poetic of literateurs sometimes needs to hit the nail on the head with a hard fact.
In this battle of opposites there can be no compromise. There is no market for a book that is neither journalistically ruthless nor poetically poignant, but hesitates anxiously somewhere in the middle. Compromise in this contest is not a golden mean, just a grey area.
So writers must choose their side with care. Which end of normal are you?