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.