Yesterday I was reading Ali Smith’s book Artful, a form-challenging mash-up of an essay collection and a novel, and as a part of a section about form, Smith quotes Katherine Mansfield, a modernist whose stories I deeply admire. Inside a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, Mansfield writes: “There are certain things in this book I do not like. But they are not important, or really part of it. They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a leaf … and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as from a kind of silliness. But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.”
This quotation resonates with me. So often I feel this way about books I love. Yes, they may be by today’s standards overwritten, overly “encrusted,” but ultimately the beauty of them, the energy of the story, of the characters, “feeds me.” To often—and this is true of a lot of writers who are also reviewers—we judge a book by its editing, not its narrative life-force. We use descriptors like “clean” and “diamond-hard” or “muscular” to describe fiction, which in my mind is describing editing and perhaps style, not necessarily the full, breathing machinery of fiction.
For this reason, I’ve always preferred Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night over The Great Gatsby. As a novel it’s messier, more experimental, darker. For that reason, although at times a little overwritten, it speaks to me on a deeper level, perhaps even because of its messiness, if that’s really a fair word for it. One mistake book reviewers, often reviewers who are also writers, make is to review a book’s editing, or at least to preference the editing, over the substance or the energy of story. I’m curious how many of you, out there, have a book which you thought overwritten or messy, but spoke to you despite (or even because of ) the quality of the prose. I’d love any suggestions … or thoughts.