Mind your language, it’s the gateway to your story
Jessie Burton, Eimear McBride and John Kelly on the importance of style and linguistic vitality in your work
Jessie Burton: ‘Language is the political slippery eel. The arrangement of it can make you hate a person; it can make you cry. I want to say language is everything, but then that would make me an arch-stylist’
Eimear McBride: ‘Pulling the skin of English over the bones of Irish, with all the linguistic wonders and peculiarities, is what we do best.’ Photograph: Dave Meehan
John Kelly: ‘Style is something that just comes – at least initially. Afterwards you might choose to disrupt it somehow’
‘Works of imagination,” said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are, the more necessary it is to be plain.” An author’s sentence length or word order may be the more mechanical aspect of style, but the choice of language is surely the electricity that brings the book monster to life.
John Kelly has just published his third novel, a comic dystopian farce, From Out of the City. He recalls the importance of listening to stories growing up; of how the aural impacted on the written word when it came to penning his own work. “I remember people in my childhood telling and retelling stories. It was always done with extraordinary skill, and, for its Fermanagh mumble, with an extremely rich use of language.
“From a very early age, language and style has always been the turn-on. I know that stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but if the language is stimulating, then I’ll happily take a story with any amount of beginnings, a multitude of middles and perhaps no end at all.”
Inventive use of language
Eimear McBride has won numerous prizes – including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year – for her debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. The book was praised for its inventive use of language. Reviewing the novel for this newspaper, I wrote that “she captures each leaping, real-time thought with staccato phrases, half- sentences and perfectly formed rhymes”.
McBride, like Kelly, addresses this bond between locale and language. “Ireland has such a rich tradition of linguistic inventiveness. After all, pulling the skin of English over the bones of Irish, with all the resultant linguistic wonders and peculiarities, is what we do best. So any diminishment of our complex and singular approach to language strikes at the very soul of Irishness itself.”
What is being said and how it is being said are intertwined for some writers, but the way you tell a familiar story makes it distinct and individual.
“There are only a few stories in the world that we constantly retell, so how you choose to transmit them is essential,” says Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist. “It’s not a brilliant idea to have a novel full only of gorgeous sentences that do nothing other than abut each other, showing off. The happiest scenario is a compelling plot that raises questions, which the writer meets and manipulates with the right, gobsmacking lexicon. I look for the moment a reader will say to herself, ‘Yes. That is how life is. Except I’ve never heard it put like that.’ ”
Against the grain
Writers can opt for one word over another, or pithy sentences over full, unpunctuated paragraphs, but have little say over what constitutes the style of their book.
“Style is something that just comes – at least initially,” says Kelly. “Afterwards you might choose to disrupt it somehow. I find short stories a good way in which to challenge or mess with what comes naturally and may need work, a bit like a right-handed painter deciding to use the left hand just to break old habits and see what happens.
“People have commented on the style in my book but I’m not quite sure what it is or what it means. I certainly wasn’t conscious of it at the time of writing. It just came, I think, from the mood I was in and the time of day in which it was written, which was 5am.”
McBride agrees that the way writers tell a story is their “greatest opportunity to bring what is singular about their talent to the work”, but also that language doesn’t supersede everything else. “A sail won’t get far out to sea on its own. For me, the best stories are those where the balance has been evenly struck throughout, making story and language inextricable.
“To my mind, Ulysses or any number of Beckett’s novels are the best historical illustrations of this, with Joyce’s characters constantly generating language like breath; while Beckett’s are locked in a battle to bring themselves into being through language.”
Style, like tone, is an elusive thing, says Burton: “It only unifies once you’ve finished the whole novel and perhaps realise, finally, what you were attempting and whether you’ve succeeded. The language I choose informs the way I want the story transmitted, but is also informed by what I need to tell. It takes several drafts to have it properly embedded. Writers should also read a lot, and, through the distillation of other writers’ styles, you will hopefully find your own.”
If language is as distinct as a fingerprint, some might argue that it can do something for the novel that other elements – plot, character, structure – simply can’t.
Kelly elevates it above all else in his writing. “For me, the language is everything. It attracts me much more than narrative. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that narrative is overrated, but I often find that the language in much successful literary fiction leaves me cold. The market understands nothing but the market, and so it rejects everyone from James Joyce to Eimear McBride because they value everything else over the language, which to me is absurd, shallow and cowardly.
“The language is, in the end, the only thing that matters. I don’t think you’ll ever hope to engage a reader, no matter how market-friendly your story is, if the very language you’re using is deader than dead.”
The author’s duty and pleasure
Eimear McBride agrees that this approach to language can hamper modern writing and literary fiction. “Language is the gateway, and many a fine story lies ignored because readers can’t plough through the leaden prose. Being specific with language is the author’s duty and pleasure, for it is only by its careful application that they may draw their reader into – or alienate them entirely from – any story they wish to tell.”
Burton says that “language is the first thing that hits a reader’s ear as it passes through their eye, as each carefully selected word builds a castle, a character, a scene. The tricks of it are absorbed unconsciously. Language is the political slippery eel. The arrangement of it can make you hate a person; it can make you cry. How can you ever overvalue it in the construction of a story? Now I want to say language is everything, but then that would make me an arch-stylist, I suppose.”
All three writers urge reading aloud as a way of judging the pace and sound of the language, and McBride offers another piece of advice about showing your work to others, and spotting errors.
“There are very few writers who don’t possess a ‘first reader’ who they can trust to be objective and – more importantly – honest about their work, and whose opinion they respect. You must choose carefully, though, because the first reader has to understand something of your process as well as what you are trying to achieve. Picking the wrong one can be disastrous, but the right one is invaluable.”
How to Write a Book continues each Monday