I’ve been going through Dan Simmons’ entertaining and strongly opinionated series on ‘How to Write Well’. I highly recommend it if you are interested in reading advice on writing from someone who does it brilliantly and knows what he’s talking about, and who makes you laugh (and cringe possibly a bit too…)

One of the key things Simmons recommends is that we read the great classics, not to imitate them (god forbid!) but to deepen our appreciation and awareness of style, language and technique. I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, I’ve decided to ‘take him on’ and broaden my reading diet, particularly with the classic novels. Madame Bovary seems to be a particular recommendation of Simmons, who argues that it represents a fictional fault-line, a before and after moment for the novel. So, I thought that might be a good start – I know, it’s unbelievable I still haven’t read it. Have you?  I downloaded a free copy, well-rendered as a PDF, here.

Simmons also highlights Henry James as one of the greatest stylists in modern English, managing to capture vast import and subtlety into what he says and, above all, what he doesn’t say.

I happen to have a copy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to hand and I decided to give it a go. It has some fine and chilling moments of horror, as well as an intriguing is she/isn’t she psychological plot-puzzle that has kept readers and critics entertained ever since its publication.

However, in my view, the style is somewhat opaque, particularly the dialogue, and is not a great model to learn from (except perhaps for what not to do). Nineteenth Century people may well have thought and spoke in the strangely periphrastic, stilted, and at times incomprehensible way that James makes them do here, it is hard for me to judge. But I’ve read Wilkie Collins and Dickens, and MR James for that matter, and their characters don’t seem to, unless it’s a particular trait and is fully intentional.

Simmons writes amusingly of his undergraduate attitude to Henry James and his layered style (he tried to avoid reading him as much as possible), but notes his growing appreciation for him as a master of deep and complex prose as he got older, and more experienced, as a writer.

I’m sorry to say, though, that I am still not convinced. So, in the spirit of fun, and to illustrate my problem with The Turn of the Screw, which I’ve heard so much about, and which has frankly disappointed me, I give you a sample from a lost early version of the story:

Whether he saw now the measure of it, or I of myself, was now no longer to be the question. If only, I forced myself to concede, it were. But no, that thought was merest whimsy, no more of the slightest possibility, or of even the grossest supposition or manner. Now, I was only too painfully aware, only the merest trace of what might not have been said or known was there left, mingling too unkindly with the sighs of the frosty evening air. But had I not known of it always? Was it for him, in that monstrous moment, to be vouchsafed that I, as it were, not from the want of it, but alone, as though at once, should perceive, in the most exquisite detail, the knowledge that he, were he only to share it with me in the merest instant or breath, to be? Was I that condemned? I think that if I had, at that precise instant, but paused a moment longer, to accept within myself the truth of it, then I would truly have been lost, As it was, the anguish of the instant all but rushed in upon my soul, and I confess I broke, with all the pent up fury and anger and hatred that the pettiness of not having known of it before could have meant, to him, for he it was, I understood that now, and I ran. Out into the silent garden, its cold embrace and bare winter branches seeming only to mock me now, and I flung myself down upon the close-cropped croquet lawn, and I wept. For how long, I shall never now recall, it might have been an eon. But at last, the sobs subsided and I returned, with slow and dreadful steps to the drawing room to watch a bit of tv.

There’s lots like that. Of course, I’ll give James another chance, and I’m aware I’m being very silly, but he’s lost some points with this story… unless the joke is on me and I have completely missed the point…

Perhaps the style is supposed to be like that as it reflects the state of mind and confusion and repression of the heroine. Oh dear… D**n you Henry James! You win again!

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