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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Modern Popular Fiction

Is Prose Dead?

A guest post by Mark Lynch

There was a show on television a few nights ago. Some-time crime writer and (of late) mainstream novelist and critic Stella Duffy was invited to try her hand at producing the first three chapters of a novel and a synopsis to submit to the romantic fiction publishers Mills and Boon. Because I’m always interested in watching shows on writers – popular fiction writers especially – I made sure to tune in. And I found the show something of an eye-opener.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the only truly successful writers of such novels – selling in the millions – were the ones who had a passion for the books and were doing their very best to produce the best books they could. I’ve always thought this a natural truth that’s hard to argue with, whatever genre a writer is working in.

But there were other areas of the business and in particular the approach to producing so specifically tight and narrow a type of book that did surprise me.

Duffy gamely leapt into the task. She met up with readers of the M&B books and the head editor, exploring the actuality of the modern books and their contents compared with her preconceptions. Gone were the blushing virgins and parlour language; instead the Eff-word could happily be invoked, full-on sex could be described (and not solely at the end of the book, though the preference was for suggestive and erotic content rather than hard, factual descriptions of docking manoeuvres), and the genres ranged from the traditional “modern” and “historical” through to new areas M&B had moved into with tremendous success: “intrigue” and “supernatural.”

There were standard demands of the books still in place: a female protagonist seeking love and finding it at the end of the book, an alpha-male to be the object of desire, rich and exotic locations, and anyone naked to be toned and well-built. All in 55,000-words.

What intrigued me the most, was the section of the show where Duffy sat in on a M&B writers’ course, and this harks back to what I mentioned above, the stuff that most surprised me, though I’d suspected by this point it was coming. It went like this: when given tasks to produce short snatches of scenes for the book the writers were collectively hypothetically writing, Duffy joined in, to her credit, producing rough first drafts.

The teacher, who had sold five million copies of her M&B novels, was quick to quash internal dialogue by Duffy’s characters. Thought processes were not encouraged on the page. Prose was swiftly relegated to the minimum, too, especially descriptive passages of environment and place, even actions. “More dialogue. Tell it through dialogue,” the teacher was quick to instruct. “It gives it all pace.”

Applying the things she’d learned, Duffy produced her three chapters and a rough synopsis, finding her original outline had gone out the window as her novel slipped into the “supernatural” genre and not the “modern” she’d originally thought she’d aim for. After much rewriting and some helpful commentary from the M&B teacher, she made it as pacey as she dared, full of dialogue, and with the bare minimum of description. Unhappy with the piece from her own point of view – remembering her own conclusion that no matter what the genre, you should always write your best and write what you want to write, whether your book fit the market or not — but seeing it met the requirements of a M&B novel as she’d learned them, she subbed her work, feeling happy it was all over. Of course, she admitted, she’d be gutted if the proposal was rejected, even if she’d no intention of ever completing the novel she’d outlined and worked so hard on creating.

Today, popping through a supermarket and thinking of that show, and the “rules” Duffy had learned, I sauntered over to the fiction section of the store. Browsing through novels by relatively new authors, I saw each was following the same pattern of short sentences (so short, some weren’t actually sentences but words with full stops after them), short pacey paragraphs, and yes, a lot of dialogue. Any ambitions in the direction of descriptive or lyrical prose was absent as far as I could see. The lot of them, these books by relatively new authors, followed the M&B template, if tilted to different genre expectations (mostly the detective novel and thriller). And each felt like it could have been written by the same author…

The only books with longer descriptive passages were by older hands: John le Carre, Ian Rankin and Stephen King, for example.

So I was wondering, if you’re still with me, does that make prose dead in modern popular fiction now? Is there a place for it in pop fiction, as there once was? Or have James Patterson and his imitators won? Should all chapters be three pages long, mostly a mix of stuttering sentences and dialogue, and a lot of white space on the page?

Kind of depressing to think it may be the case.

Oh, and yes, Stella Duffy’s book was accepted for publication, should she want to write it… As long as she made the opening chapters a little pacier.

7 Responses to “Modern Popular Fiction”

  1. I have heard that publishers didn’t want you to create some fantastic piece of work. They wanted you to follow the formulas of the bestsellers that had already been written. And I am sad to confess that I am a reader that cannot stand to much description. I mean that I do want some. But two or three pages describing the setting is a sure way to get me to close the book.

    Writing to a formula could make the job easier but creativity would be capped.

    I will tell you where I struggle. When writing, I often use complex sentences. I spend more time dummying up my writing to make it acceptable for the average person than I do writing the content in the first place.

    But where my writing sentence structure is complex, my ideas usually aren’t. Some of your articles are much deeper than what I usually write or read.

    Thank you for another interesting post on writing.


    jb says: Main thing – it has to be accessible. Once you’ve overstepped the mark of accessibility there’s no use for terms like good or bad writing.

  2. A very good and interesting article, which I enjoyed reading immensely and it led me into some navel gazing. Thank you.

    However, I am annoyed now – with myself – this programme was obviously on the in Mills & Boon celebratory week with the BBC (or was it ITV?) and I forgot about it. Damn! I suspect it’s now too late for iplayer, too. (I am so inattentive with the telly schedules!)

    I know why I ended up reading crime and thriller fiction as the main genre for me, and it comes back to comment Kelli made above. I like pace and descriptive narrative slows that down for me. Years ago when reading general or literary fiction, where I saw a chunky paragraph that started with something like how the sun looked as it set across the lush green field, I skipped it. Every time. I wanted more of the action, more of the plot, more of the actual interactions between human beings.

    Margaret Thatcher may not be for a U turn, but I am happy to say that I have developed over time and I am now more ready to accept some acutely and intelligently observed descriptive narrative in my crime fiction, and to enjoy it. It can add a bit of flesh to the bones, where relevant and enticingly written.

    Patterson and his immitators have not won, but do have a place in the world. I used to love JP’s books and waited for the next, but I stopped reading when they started to hang on a thin thread that made the book look more like a script. (And the presence of so much “white”, including blank pages between chapters, looked wasteful and the opposite of environmentally-friendly.) They became all fast-paced plot and little else for me. However, they sell in the millions and have a clear and successful market; so I say that it’s good that people are reading. And an introduction to one author leads on to another, as always, so it’s best not to overlook the power of one mega-successful author (and his tribe).

    We all have different tastes and these may change over time. Do publishers respond to reader tastes or dictate them? That, I think is an interesting question. For example, where did the current enthusiasm for historical crime fiction come from in the UK? Readers or publishers? I have felt bombarded by the stuff, but have read a good few now and enjoyed them, to my surprise (less surprise as time rolls on). But I wonder how that took off and and I continue to wonder who actually controls the marketplace – the consumer (who theoretically should) or the supplier of the goods?

  3. Sorry for the typos! I left both pairs of glasses downstairs…

  4. Stella Duffy says:

    Oh, so with you on the depressing desire for dialogue and no prose in pretty much anything! While I do appreciate that in the M&B form (55,000 word books) dialogue is a fast and useful way of telling the story, I find it sad that it’s being seen as the way forward in non-genre work as well. Maybe we need to find snappier (if everything MUST be snappy!) ways to tell story, if our audiences are wanting faster stories, but I’m still sure sure that dialogue isn’t the ONLY way to do it.
    hey ho.
    have written a little about the M&B experience here :

    jb says: Hey Stella, nice surprise finding you in this neck of the woods. Thanks for the comment and the link.

  5. Alpha Male says:

    I really enjoy reading books that follow the stock method (heroin in distress, with an alpha male to save the day). The books that were the origination for True Blood come to mind, as they have an alpha female also.

  6. Simone Olivier says:

    Ok so the short and snappy sells, but there IS a place for the descriptive and contemplative. My favorite authors are Carol Shields, Sheri S Tepper and Robertson Davies. Non of them snappy, and all descriptive, and masters of the language – which means being able to draw a picture without sending you to sleep in the process. And it’s nice to savour a book, without having to gulp it down to get to the end and Find Out Who Sleeps with Who/Who Murdered Who/Who blows up the World (delete whichever is not applicable).

  7. john baker says:

    I think most of us around here would agree with you, Simone.