The Same Again or Different Every Time?

9 Dec

Terry Pratchett or George Orwell? Magnus Mills or Italo Calvino? Novelists tend to divide into two types – those writers who compose the same book, over and again, and those who write a different one each time. Familiarity or the strange? This is, then, a companion piece to my post, To read widely or read deeply?, but from the writer’s point of view this time.

There’s comfort to be drawn from reading what is essentially the same book, time after time. For myself, I derive much pleasure from reading the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. On the face of it, no series could be more formulaic – a novel published every other year over the course of forty or so years, each with a similar title – A Family and a Fortune, A Father and His Fate and so on – all placed in a big house in that imaginary Edwardian world where an upper middle class family is  utterly consumed by the process of tearing itself to pieces. The novels consist almost exclusively of brilliantly written dialogue – barbed comment, cutting aside, snide innuendo… To be honest, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. And still I love them. Familiarity breeds content.

I wonder, though, how satisfying it can be, to construct the same book, over and over. Didn’t Ivy, even if only momentarily, yearn to write a thousand page experimental piece or an allegorical novella? Maybe not. There’s pressure from commercial publishers, of course, for a repeat performance. You’ve created a marketable brand with an identified target market, the elusive ‘winning formula’ or ‘cash cow’. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg? The so-called gentleman publisher used to employ this strategy to good effect, subsidising the work of his more adventurous and consequently less popular writers from the book sales of his mainstream authors. Regrettably, in the modern, oligopolised publishing industry, such houses are few and far between.

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Should the writer follow the same, familiar path?

Some of the authors whom I most admire have written oeuvres comprising radically different works, thematically, stylistically or by setting, perhaps even in all three ways. The writing of Georges Perec springs to mind. It’s a distant goal to which I aspire in my own writing. The English writer for whom I hold the greatest regard is probably William Golding (and who’s bound to be the subject of a future post). Golding’s first five published novels are inspirational, a sequence, to the best of my knowledge, unrivalled in English literature. After his best-known work, the pessimistic allegory Lord of the Flies, Golding wrote The Inheritors, his account of the extinction of the Neanderthals and then Pincher Martin, in which the eponymous anti-hero clings to a shard of rock in the middle of the ocean before sinking beneath the water. To my mind, there’s a slight dip in form with the story of damaged artist, Samuel Mountjoy in Free Fall but then comes the towering fifth novel, The Spire, that immense work of the fevered imagination, Golding’s investigation into the folly of mortal ambition. Following a period of such sustained brilliance, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Golding remained unable to write another novel for the next decade and a half. Julian Barnes, it seems to me, is another such. While my reaction to Barnes’ work is one of admiration rather than affection, and I’ve read by no means all of his output, his works strike me as markedly different in tone and style, one from another. Consider A History of the World in 10½ ChaptersStaring at the Sun and Before She Met Me. It’s a mark of his skill as a writer that they could almost have been written by three different authors.

Should the writer follow new paths, leading to unfamiliar destinations?

Should the writer follow new paths, leading to unfamiliar destinations?

Such matters need hardly concern the unpublished novelist. No commercial pressures for him or her. The chance to be asked to repeat himself or herself would be a fine thing. Published or unpublished, though, those committed to writing in the long term have that body of work to consider. In the final analysis, writing is about creativity and not about making pounds or dollars. If you have aspired to produce your ideal book and have remained true to yourself, even though it might fall short and there might prove to be no ‘market’ for the finished ‘product’, that, I would argue, is the greatest achievement.

So which type of writer do you prefer, the ones who stick to the tried and trusted formula or those who branch out into something new with each work? Which approach is better? It’s a false dichotomy, of course, but an interesting one, nonetheless. And since I’ve just discovered what that roundel button on WordPress’s post writing page does, here’s your chance to have your say:

Thanks for voting!

All text and images © PSR

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18 Responses to “The Same Again or Different Every Time?”

  1. hiyacynthia December 10, 2012 at 4:04 am #

    Paul, I was actually just talking about this today. I have so many subjects and types of books I am interested in writing. I hope they will all be well received. I think if the writing and thoughts are laid out in an appealing manner, you can do well in any genre. It just depends on whether or not you have the cojones to be diverse.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves December 10, 2012 at 5:59 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Cindy. I feel the same way, but unfortunately, time is so damn limited, I’ll only ever write a fraction of what I’d like. That’s partly why I’ve adopted my new twin-pronged approach of writing two books at once! Looking forward to reading your oeuvre!

  2. franny Lloyd December 10, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    One of the writers I took up recently and found very ineresting was George Gissing. He seems to writer a different books each time but as I’ve only read two so far it’s difficult to say more than that ‘New grub street’ is different from ‘Workers in the Dawn’, its being exclusively about careers in authorship whereas the latter has a variety of themes interwoven and is as melodramatic as ‘Mary Barton’

    The difference is startling; the one (Workers…) seeming to belong altogether to Victorian times with its engagement with poverty in London and being filled with stories and characters of almost carnival proportions. The other (New…) being very realistic about the publishing business and with a more realistic style well in line with 20th C styles.

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves December 10, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Thanks for your comment, Franny and welcome to my blog! I’m aware of Gissing but I’ve not read him. Worth a look?

    Critics and creative writing tutors are forever talking about a writer ‘finding his or her voice’. While inconsistency of style may sometimes be due to a lack of originality/imitation, for the more sophisticated writer, perhaps there’s a ‘voice’ that’s right for every individual book.

  4. franny Lloyd December 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Thanks Paul, the one book I would recommend without hesitation to anyone who is a writer or just interested in the business of writing/publishing is New Grub Street; I’m sure you’d find it fascinating, as it deals with all the things writers are interested in, and yet avoids boredom and is a fine novel of the lives mainly of two writers, one a success, the other a failure. Other characters are peripheral to these but still have some links to the business. He knows his material too as most of it is based on his own struggle for acceptance in the literary world.

    He wrote the other one, Workers in the Dawn, when quite young, in his twenties, but I’ve read somewhere that he became dissatisfied with it and wanted to expunge it from his ouvre. His own life was very dramatic at one stage and this experience becomes part of the story, a fascinatingly described relationship with a destitute girl whom he tries to save and who cast a shadow over his life. But no more, mustn’t spoil it for you if you do get around to it.

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves December 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    All very interesting, Franny. Ah, the struggle for acceptance in the literary world, eh? Grub Street is the one of his of which I’m aware. The idea as you describe it sounds very like Martin Amis’ The Information – though obviously written long before. Makes one wish one had a literary rival. Unfortunately, I don’t. Do you have one, Franny?

    I went to a wonderful wedding once in the idyllic village of Gissing, where a good friend of mine lived. I ended up lying on the lawn of the hall, reflecting the sky above me, stretched out in a star shape. But that’s another story…

  6. franny Lloyd December 10, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    No rivals but no ambitions either. I’d like to be able to write well but as for getting a novel published I’m never satisfied enough with my writing to even start on a manuscript. You have a novelist’s way of thinking Paul, I do wish you well in getting attention for your work, at least you have some experience of writing for a readership. If you have the ambition and you believe in yourself that’s a powerful booster.

  7. Paul Sutton Reeves December 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    Thanks for your kind comments and good wishes, Franny. Having one’s fiction published is by no means the be all and end all – it’d be nice, though! If I think like a novelist, that’s because I’ve been writing forever. I do have a very strong self-belief, though like any writer, I have doubts about my work from time to time. I can’t contemplate not writing – it’s just what I do. Are you a visual artist? It looks as though you are on your Twitter page.

  8. franny Lloyd December 11, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Hi Paul. I wouldn’t call myself an artist but others can call me anything! My bits are too imitative and scattered to be taken seriously; I try to make a little time every day for drawing/painting but only very infrequently do I produce something that I like myself. I’d like to be a lot of thing but have to satisfy myself with being nothing; life is a lonely journey of dreaming missed opportunities.

  9. Paul Sutton Reeves December 11, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    Well, creative endeavours don’t have to be great works of art to make them worthwhile doing. Creativity is good for you even if it won’t win the Turner or Mann Booker Prize. Just because you aren’t recognised as an artist doesn’t make you ‘nothing’. People have their intrinsic value, regardless of their external ‘achievements’. A lonely journey of missed opportunities sounds a bit pessimistic, though, Franny. There are plenty of other ways to feel fulfilled personally…

  10. franny Lloyd December 11, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    Words of wisdom Paul. That pessimistic streak came out in me a few years ago and I’ve had a dreadful time trying to shake it off. I agree, creative activity at any level is worthwhile activity and nothing to be ashamed of. I see my output falling off here and picking up there but I’m not one to enjoy competition, or even trying to reach high standards.

    I suppose I’m as satisfied with life as I ever could be when engaged with good reading, and the writing or painting serves an excellent purpose for me if by trying it I become more appreciative of the work of great artists. I think though pessimism can creep into even this worthy path in the sense that I live, as many of us to, in a culture that is showing less and less respect for the truly worthwhile in writing and music, and art, perhaps. Standards go down and the rewards go to the cheap and trashy we are all subjected to, particularly in music where the hammering beat is de rigueur for all of us.

  11. Paul Sutton Reeves December 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Ah, yes, dumbing down… you’re right there, Franny.

  12. Mari Biella December 12, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    I voted for the first option, but I’m a little torn about this. Personally, I want to branch out and explore different genres and styles, but I think it’s altogether possible that there are writers who prefer to stick to more-or-less the same thing (and become the master of it). And of course, established and successful authors may feel pressure to repeat the formula that made them successful to begin with.

    It’s an interesting choice, and one that only the individual writer can make. I don’t have a problem with authors who prefer to write within one given style or genre, but I also deeply respect those who attempt new things. I think it’s good to test ourselves, even if we fail (however you define ‘fail’); but then I’m also an advocate of the view that failure in itself can be immensely important and beneficial in the long term.

  13. Paul Sutton Reeves December 12, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    You’re right, of course, Mari. Nobody should be condemned for working away at the mastery of a particular form or subject matter. It could easily become a life’s work. I suppose that was the case for Samuel Beckett, who ended up writing less and less, refining his existentialist themes (something that I referenced in my yet-to-be-published novella, The Great English Novel). That was being true to his art. For all that, perhaps, there are diminishing returns, eventually.

    And I think that you’re right also – to move forwards you must risk failing. I certainly have. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent seven years on a project that ultimately failed, but there was much to be taken from the experience. Oh, and thanks for voting! – not many of my visitors did.

    Out of interest, what have you tried in order to branch out in your writing, or is that too difficult a thing to quantify?

    • Mari Biella December 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

      It is indeed a difficult thing to quantify, and often comes down to no more than an intuition that different stories need to be told in different ways. In my own case, it helps that I’m interested in writing in several different genres and exploring different themes. I also push myself to try different writing techniques. For example, I find that writing first-person comes most naturally to me, but it would be too easy to keep doing that forever, and I’m keen to get to grips with the third-person voice. Also, I’d be the first to admit that my prose can be a tad wordy on occasion, and in the future I’d really like to pare everything right down and make it as ‘tight’ as possible.

      There was a time when I used to follow received wisdom (the kind of advice you find in books like “How to Write a Blockbuster”!) quite rigidly. Now I take a more flexible approach. I’m certainly open to advice and suggestions, but to some extent I’ve turned against the ‘write by numbers’ approach.

  14. Paul Sutton Reeves December 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    That’s interesting, Mari. I know what you mean about intuition and different pieces. And I’ve learned that some writers do have a preference for first or third person narratives. It’s good that you’re challenging yourself to use different approaches. I find that both person and tense come naturally when first embarking on a project and though I may tinker with them later, by and large they stay the same. The 150 000 word piece that I have just finished has a mixture of the first and third persons and also sections in different tenses for deliberate effect. You have to make language work hard for you, I think.

    I was discussing the whole ‘rules of writing’ issue with someone on Twitter yesterday (as far as it’s possible actually to have a discussion within that limited medium). I have to say that I read a couple of books along those lines many, many years ago and I now totally reject the approach. That’s not to say that such wise tomes may not be of use to some inexperienced writers (says he, attempting to be even-handed). I believe that you learn to write by reading and writing in industrial quantities. Eventually, you find what works for and what doesn’t. What may work for the authors of said tomes may not work in the context of your style and themes at all. When alumni of creative writing courses start to tell me what I can and cannot do in my writing, I tend to find that smoke comes out of my ears. Advice from fellow writers, on the other hand, is another matter. I very much value the input and feedback that I get from my writing buddies.

  15. Paul Sutton Reeves December 19, 2012 at 11:59 pm #

    Time for a summary on our exciting poll! And currently, it’s no preference for ‘same again or different every time?’ taking 51.7% of your votes.

  16. Paul Sutton Reeves December 27, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    And in latest news, ‘no preference’ is still way out in the lead…

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