Thursday, 24 March 2011

The benefits of reading bad books

Like most keen readers, I don’t read many bad books. There are plenty of tried and tested authors I know I can trust, and when selecting a new book to read, I usually base my choice on a combination of recommendations and reviews from trusted sources, word of mouth and other factors.

But I have a bad book in front of me now. It was a gift, which makes me feel a little guilty for dissecting it - but what the hell. The thing is, I reckon you can often learn more about writing from a bad book than a good one.

The book in question is Our London Office by Thomas Armstrong. Published in 1966, it is long since out of print, and though I’m told Armstrong was a popular author in his day, these days he doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia entry - the ultimate indignity.

Our London Office is the fourth in a series known as The Crowthers Of Bankdam; a grand saga following the fortunes of a family of West Yorkshire textile merchants. In this volume, set in 1957, the youngest son, having fallen out with his father, has come to London to start a cosmetics company with a friend, but after many twists and turns, he ends up mounting a coup and returning to Yorkshire as head of the family firm.

So why is it so bad? To start with, although it’s less than 400 pages long, the book seems to go for ever. Armstrong doesn’t seem to have grasped that, having invented characters, he doesn’t have to document their entire lives. So every day in his hero’s existence has to be accounted for, and even if the last interesting incident occurs at lunchtime, we still have to be told what he does in the afternoon, what he has for supper, how he spends the evening and what time he goes to bed.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if the author wrote sparkling prose. Armstrong doesn’t. To give you a flavour, here’s the opening of Chapter Three:

“In the early days of August there was every sign that the national economy was to have one of those belly-flops which regularly occur whatever colour the board of management at Westminster. But however the international bankers may have been looking with narrowed eyes towards London, Ray and I had our own problem to solve: whether to stabilise C-W’s turnover at its current level, or to crack on.”

This passage illustrates another fundamental problem. The book is about business – two businesses, in fact, the fledgling cosmetics firm and t’mill back in Yorkshire, and Armstrong is keen to follow the progress of both. So we hear an awful lot about turnover, and production, and cashflow, and balance sheets, and a whole lot more besides. Any writer would struggle to make this stuff sound interesting; in Armstrong’s hands it mostly resembles extracts from a particularly dull annual report.

But the book isn’t just about these two businesses. Oh no. Armstrong keeps around a dozen plots on the go throughout the book, making it hard work for the reader, who has to keep up with the exploits of the hero’s girlfriend, family, colleagues and other contacts. A good writer uses sub-plots to amplify or counterpoint the central plot; Armstrong simply seems unable to leave anything out, and thus condemns himself (and the reader) to follow each character’s progress remorsely.

Finally, there’s the central character himself, Charles Crowther. Even without reading the previous volumes in the series, it’s clear that Charles is meant to be seen as the clear-sighted, modernising influence the family firm needs to free it from the shackles of the past and make it competitive again.

Unfortunately, he comes across mainly as an arrogant, intolerant prig who knows best in every situation, and is thus extremely hard to like. Never more so than when his free-spirited girlfriend starts dabbling with drugs, a development he sternly (but vainly) tries to nip in the bud. When she eventually dies of a heart attack caused by too much heroin (or some such), Charles is clearly upset, but you can sense him (and Armstrong) thinking that it’s for the best, really. A chap can’t be burdened with a junkie for a wife, not when he’s got a business to run.

I realise that this last issue can be put down to changing attitudes, but I think the rest provide useful pointers for any writer. Indeed, whenever I’m struggling with a passage in the novel I’m working on, I tend to wonder what Thomas Armstrong would do - and then do the exact opposite.

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