According to Raymond Chandler, there are basically two kinds of writers: those who write stories and those who write writing. In fact, when it comes to writing, there are never just two kinds of anything. The charm of Chandler himself was that he combined storytelling with a pretty fancy prose style. Taking a self-conscious pleasure in words should not be understood as the opposite of telling stories: it’s just one of the many things we might expect a writer to do.
Some writers, obviously, take more pleasure in words than others. Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson: they all took an extreme pleasure in words. Others are rather more brisk and inclined to plain-speaking. Having read the first chapter of Finnegans Wake, H.G. Wells wrote a letter to James Joyce: ’Your work is an extraordinary experiment and I would go out of my way to save it from destructive or restrictive interruption. […] I can’t follow your banner any more than you can follow mine. But the world is wide and there is room for both of us to be wrong.’
Fortunately, as H.G. Wells suggests, the territory of literature is indeed vast and the possibilities so endless that we can all find our own zones of comfort and pleasure. Some of us are going to be way-out wacky word-fiends who seek to startle and surprise. Some of us are going to be satisfied with achieving clarity and simplicity, and entirely happy to abide by old-fashioned principles of propriety and good taste. And some of us will shiftily shift between tones and modes and registers, according to whim and circumstance.
For those who find themselves naturally inclined towards what we might think of as ‘fancy’ writing, the accusation will inevitably come that your work is not ‘accessible’. In which case, you might arm yourself with the immortal words of the the late great poet Geoffrey Hill: ‘It is perfectly right to demand accessibility when you are designing a public lavatory […] But what is a proper term in civics and in architecture is not necessarily a proper term in literature or painting or music.’
For those who value plainness above all else, the great exemplars will be the likes of Dr Johnson and George Orwell: the custodians of clarity.
Wherever you find yourself located in the realms of language, and whatever company you prefer to keep, there’s just one cardinal rule: you must know what you’re talking about. In their book How Not To Write a Novel, Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman set out a number of rules for aspiring writers. One of the rules is to ask, ‘Do I know this word?’ ‘If the answer is no, then you do not know it.’ If you don’t know a word, you don’t know it – and you’re not going to be able to take pleasure in it. Words are a lot like people. To know them is to love them.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.