Ways of Saying: A Defence of Writing, Whatever That May Mean

Writers have it pretty hard. I'm not talking about money or status or the sheer hassle of it all - though there's that too. I'm talking about the way in which they are talked about. To look at the discussion around writers and writing as a writer is to see yourself adrift in a sea of impossibility. Literature - by which I only mean consumable words, be they in books or articles or blog posts - polarises people, and because it's consumed so voraciously, so constantly, and so publicly, opinions are expressed vociferously, and often as articulation of fact, not belief.

The question as a writer - and indeed as a consumer of writing - becomes: who do you trust? The critics who say writing should be about writing? The critics who say that it's all about telling a damn good story? The critics who say it's all about message and meaning? Or or the ones who say a piece of writing must have all of these components, and more?

Surely it shouldn't matter - write what you want, says the voice of reason, and let the world be judge only after - but the truth of it is that it does matter. I've written about this before. It's easy, even natural, to feel compelled to take some opinion or advice under consideration. No man is an island, as the saying goes, and what another man feels can be integral to the development of a piece of writing. The difficulty comes in discerning what, after all that, you actually feel about your own work. The storm that results when two opposing opinions converge upon a paragraph of yours obfuscates your own beliefs.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently. In a Books blog post on the Guardian website from 13th May, Andrew Gallix examines the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, writing, "The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to 'remove the novel from the realm of art'. Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message" (a sentiment which calls to mind Marshall McLuhan's famous assertion that "the medium is the message"). In this case, simply by choosing to write, the author is making a statement - and a commitment to that statement.

Gallix ends his piece with these thoughts: "Whenever an author envisages a future book, 'it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,' which leads Robbe-Grillet to state - provocatively - that 'the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of saying.' Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note."

There are several interesting points in these concluding sentences, the most obvious of which is Robbe-Grillet's "provocative" suggestion that writing itself - not the message or the story - is the true form of art. I'm not sure how provocative this is really - when we read books and poems in school, aren't we (ideally) taught to look at phrasing, structure, word choice? Literary criticism itself rarely begins with what an author is saying, but rather discovers what the author is saying by first investigating the author's method - Joyce's stream of consciousness, for instance, becomes a window into his work.

But it is provocative enough - even radical - in the context of popular culture. Story is often heralded as the be-all-and-end-all of "good" writing (good writing on its own being empty of meaning), or at least publishable writing. So perhaps to be reminded of Robbe-Grillet's statement that "the genuine writer has nothing to say" is alarming indeed, for it indicates that we have lost our sense of what makes a novel a novel, or even a poem a poem or an essay an essay.

The key is in the second part of the assertion, that, "He [the genuine writer] has only a way of saying." A way of saying. Superficially, a voice. But contained in that way of saying, that voice, is much more. Meaning, story, urgency. Recently I read a review in the Observer. "There are poets who have nothing to say but a feeling for words," begins the the author. "There are poets who have something to say but no capacity to say it. And then, rarely, you read poems…that have a tremendous, unshowy intent. The feeling is that they needed to be written." As one commentator on Gallix's piece writes, "Style over substance? Affect over story? Count me out."

For my part, I certainly would not be inclined to argue that we should write simply because we like the sound of our own voices, or that we find a particular phrase too pretty not to share - but to ignore the importance of pretty phrases in the context of a writer's way of saying would be an enormous shame, because it would be to ignore the medium entirely.

A further interesting point in Gallix's conclusion comes with the seemingly arbitrary inclusion of "creative writing classes" in his final sentence. In a way it reads as a glib jab at those would-be writers who want to "improve their craft" - a phrase which, by the way, I generally despise, but feel is appropriate here. Certainly the very first commentator on the post, who simply quotes Gallix's "creative writing classes should always start and end on that note" and adds, "can't they just end?", seems to have read it that way. This interpretation seems to be validated by Gallix's own response to the aforementioned comment. "That would be a more radical solution!", he writes.

The meaning is appropriately ambiguous - radical in a positive or negative way? a solution to what? - but it does bring up some interesting ideas about the study of writing itself. Classes and courses around creative writing are easy to dismiss as pointless, even harmful. "Can't they just end?" is a common enough sentiment, often spoken with a tone of intellectual superiority - which may be deserved, I don't know. The implication here is, again, that writing should come naturally, that it shouldn't matter what others say about it - write what you want in the way that you want, and it will either be good enough or not good enough.

But this is rarely the case. Good writing - whatever I may mean by that, and however you may interpret it - is rarely a completely isolated enterprise. On top of the fact that we are often heavily influenced by circumstance, context, experience, and other writers, there is also the simple fact that any author will edit and revise his work, often a number of times, and for better or worse, before publication or presentation. Sometimes, amidst all this, advice - an exchange of ideas, a reminder that we are not alone - can be immensely useful, especially before we have learned to completely trust our own instincts. Moreover, practice itself is valuable, and there are those (myself included) for whom a class or a writing group or a degree is a way to grant themselves permission to practice.

I have my own reservations about creative writing classes - and I say this as someone who holds a masters in the subject. But my reservations are different, mostly rooted in experience. It can be dangerous, for instance, to let too many vultures feast upon the carcass of your confidence. Helpful suggestions are not always helpful when they come too frequently, and too frequently unmediated. Furthermore it is not always productive, as an artist or an advocate or whatever else a writer may be, to overthink things. Too much time wallowing, too many conflicting opinions shared liberally, too much consideration, will ultimately only help you produce a work which is ambivalent at best. So I understand reservations about creative writing classes - I live those reservations.

But still such classes are not something to be eradicated. Consider what Gallix has written about Robbe-Grillet: "Every novel, according to Robe-Grillet, is a self-sufficient work of art which cannot be reduced to some external meaning or truth that is 'known in advance'. 'The New Novel,' as he put it, 'is not a theory, it is an exploration.'" And if we start to look at writing as an exploration, it starts to make sense that some of us choose to explore our writing in an exploratory context.

What this all really means is simply that, as a writer, you'll never win. You'll never be immune to hard-hitting criticism (though why would you want to be?). If you're too rooted to the past, too ahead of your time, if a sentence is out of place or a particular word not exact enough, you'll have someone saying so.

The interesting space is the space between these criticisms - and this, I think, is probably why we should write. Between one extreme and the other is a whole world ripe for exploration. It may be that Robbe-Grillet's "New Novel" has progressed again - "far from representing a rejection of the past," Gallix writes, "the quest for a new novel was…very much in keeping with the history of a genre which, by definition, must always be renewed". The new "New Novel" is not necessarily the novel itself but the area around the novel; indeed, the novel has been flattened, expanded, and democratized. Maybe it's the internet - I can go online and read a blog about a French writer and filmmaker I'd never before heard of and in a matter of hours create and "publish" my own response. We all have a say now; we're all in a creative writing class, and even those of us who wish such classes could "just end" are participants in it.

So I say again: writers have it pretty hard. They (we?) are standing at the centre of a battleground. It's noisy and nerve-wracking - but I can't imagine a more exciting place to be.