OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn The Language of Fiction, which treats almost exclusively of novels, David Lodge touches on the concept of single words ‘standing behind’ the whole story. I’ve written previously about the exercise of reducing a short story progressively down through the typical ‘word-max’ limits of contemporary competitions, until we arrive at a single sentence, a phrase,or even a single word.

The idea that one word might encapsulate an entire story is not that odd. I’m sure the most common question asked about stories by readers, before they have read, but when they have become aware of any individual story is ‘what’s it about?’, and in striving to answer that question it is often a single word that we are trying to supply. We might reply with a sentence, a phrase, or a group of words. ‘It’s about this and that and the other’, but whenever we put a group of words into a pot we instinctively reach for a label for the pot itself, and we’re back to a single word.

Which thought edges me into the area I wanted to go: is there a similar possibility when describing the work in general of an author? D.H.Lawrence is the first name that springs to mind, for I have heard it said that he wrote the same novel over and again, as if trying to articulate some specific concern that was central to him as an individual. Other writers too echo earlier works in their later ones. Some are commercial genres, repeated because they are ‘successful’. But others are repetitions that refine or explore a single theme: the one that drives the author to be an author, instead of getting on with a sensible and socially useful life.

All this might be an interesting exploration when applied to the writers we encounter out in the world, but is it a riskier venture when we start asking the same question of ourselves? What do we write about? And do we repeatedly write about it? And the string of questions unravels from there. Why, and what good does it do us, and what harm, and can we move on from it without answering the questions ‘successfully’, and what happens to us after we have, or haven’t?

Then the question raises its head about whether or not it is in fact a good idea to know about ourselves what we idly seek to find out about the writers that we read. Maybe we’re better just, mole like, burrowing into whatever theme it is that stands behind our writing, risking the mole-catcher’s trap, throwing up our molehills of stories (on the pristine lawns of Great Literature – ‘especially great literature’, you might recall, bored John Berryman).

Or maybe we don’t have a single word standing behind all we have written. Maybe we’re casting our net wide – to change metaphors – trawling the seas of possible experience for something interesting. Maybe our writing is a search for meaning, not for the expression of a meaning that we already have. But even if that were the case, it might be that some outsider, reader, coming along, would put a finger on the tender spot of what unifies our writings, and if they did, would we want to know?

The question lurking behind this little musing must be the one I’m asking about why I do it – the writing?APennySpitfire-frontcover

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