Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Creativity versus Language

I read a very interesting article in the New Scientist recently about creativity. It's a fascinating subject, and one of the things I'm asked most about at author events. 'Where do you get the ideas from?' There's no easy answer. The article I read didn't really answer that question but it did raise some other rather pertinent ones, especially for a novelist.

In essence, the findings of a study found that the nerve centres in the brain responsible for creativity appeared to compete with those for language processing. Brain damaged patients whose language centres were affected by their accidents or illnesses were shown to have become more creative and original. To quote the researcher:

"Shamay-Tsoory says that while creativity is likely generated in the right side of the brain it may be suppressed by language processing on the left."

In other words, there's an inverse relation between how well your brain processes language and how original you are likely to be. The implications of that for a novelist is a little bit frightening. As a writer, you want to both be able to process language well and to be original and creative. 

I began to think about whether this was borne out in the books market as we see it today. Thinking about commercial versus literary fiction, does this research fit with what we see? The more I thought about, the more I decided there was some kind of inverse relationship. Take Dan Brown. Whilst he did borrow some ideas and facts from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in writing The DaVinci Code it was, in fact, a very original novel. As are most of his others, if you analyse them closely, even though he often gets many of his facts wrong or stretches them to the point of incredulity. Still, someone stealing antimatter from CERN is something I find truly original, even if it's entirely infeasible. Opinions about books and the standard of writing of many authors varies hugely, with people having quite diverse opinions on many. Not so Dan Brown. It is a truth universally accepted by readers everywhere that his writing sucks on many levels. 

Take a successful literary author, though. John Banville is possibly a good example, previous Man Booker winner for his book The Sea. The kind of book that people buy and never read. Why? Is the writing good? Crafted to within an inch of its life. The story? 

"Led back to Ballyless by a dream, Max Morden is both escaping from a recent loss and confronting a distant trauma in the coastal town where he spent a holiday in his youth. The Grace family appeared that long-ago summer as if from another world. Drawn to the Grace twins, Chloe and Myles, Max soon found himself entangled in their lives which were as seductive as they were unsettling. What ensued haunts him for the rest of his years and shapes everything that is to follow."

So a bit of past secrets, memories of youth, escaping recent loss, confronting trauma. Original? Well, it's all sounding a bit Ian McEwan meets Kazuo Ishiguro to me right now. Interesting? I can't say I'm desperate to read about these unsettling twins. And, speaking of unsettling twins, are these a common theme in fiction at all? Hmmm... let me see. Her Fearful Symmetry, The God of Small Things, The Shining, The Thirteenth Tale, Atonement, The Secret History, Alice in Wonderland, Cutting for Stone,... I could keep going for a day and a half if I had more energy.

In short, I think there's something in it. I've found myself recently getting very bored of literary fiction and, at the same time becoming more and more interested in the stories I read in more commercial books. The books I've loved the most over the years have been the ones that have bridged the middle ground. Joanne Harris's Chocolat is a good example, where I find the language lovely and enchanting and the story equally satisfying.

What does it mean for me as a novelist? Well, I always try to find the story first and worry about the language after, so perhaps that's not a bad way to work after all. If nothing else, I think this is a good argument in favour of the commercial novel being of equal merit to the literary one. The snobbery that divides the two and looks down on one of these forms seems a shame to me; it always has. Surely we want originality in our lives as much as we want beautiful language? I know I do.


Brian Clegg said...

Interesting point, Niki. I've never understood why, for instance, science fiction was traditionally panned as rubbish, even though it is very often fiction of immensely exciting ideas (and most SF writers get the science right more often than Dan Brown).

Of course many of the early SF writers were criticized for poor characterisation, but plenty managed a balance on this (and even some of the poorly characterized stuff like most Asimov can still be brilliant books).

I will read almost anything, but I do find much literary fiction concentrates so hard on the craft (I can't call it an art) that it ignores making the content interesting and engaging.

I spoke at a 'Booker debate' last year where six of us each took one of the shortlist and gave a critique of it to an audience. In four out of six cases the reader basically said 'It's well written but dull/nothing much happens/I never want read anything this person wrote again.'


Niki M said...

Funnily enough, I was in a similar debate in Nottingham. A discussion did ensue about commercial versus literary fiction then as well. I'm like you - I'll read anything. But I am beginning to feel that literary fiction is all a bit much of a muchness. Similar themes like secrets, trauma, memory. It feels like it's only one step away from the author's own experience a lot of the time and why would I want to read that?

Moving companies said...

But Deborah had brought some of the Mouthy Poets to perform for us at our end of year show so I knew just how good they were. The night went by in a flash and I enjoyed every minute of the performances.