That old chestnut?

The one about a picture being worth ten thousand words?

Well, I’ve been thinking about it a great deal over the last several days, and I’m bound to say, I think it’s rubbish.

Take la Joconde for example.  Or the Mona Lisa if you prefer.

We’ve got the picture, all right.  The image.  But how many words have been expended on the subject of that smile of hers?  Or is it a smile?  Is it not perhaps just a ‘pleasantly bored but not wanting to give offence by yawning’ expression?  How many words?

Ten thousand?  Ten million?  Who knows?

Maybe it’s just the way her mouth is shaped?

And then there are all the thousands of words that have been expended telling us what her smile may mean.  But here’s the thing:  We don’t know.  Because we’ve only got the picture.

We haven’t got the words, not her words, not her husband’s words, not the artist’s words.

We don’t know what she’s thinking about to produce that dreamy expression, and will never will.  Because we’ve only got the picture–which in this case is not worth ten thousand words.  It’s only worth three:  “I don’t know.”

Which brings me to a recent trend in film-making–the filmic extension of this picture being worth ten thousand words–the paring down of scripts to their barest minimum with a palimpsest of plot remaining whilst giving the cinematographers free rein to show us scene after scene of gorgeousness, but…well without the words there, they don’t connect to mean much of anything really.

I recently saw the newest remake of Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbender.  It was beautiful–visually lush.  Lots of scenes of the formal garden, its box hedges whited with hoare frost and all that.  Beautiful.  Breath-taking.  But what did it add to our understanding of the developing relationship between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester?

I thi-ink it may have been intended to indicate a passage of time.

In which case, it failed, because they seem to have got the seasons out of sync, with frost followed by non-frosty scene, followed by more frost.  And if the development of their relationship over the winter is meant to parallel an inner thawing of Rochester’s perception of life and a springtide of hope, then that was altogether lost by the disenfranchised scenes of frost and thaw and frost again.

Or maybe it was just there to tell me that it’s really cold in winter up in Yorkshire.  (Here’s a clue, lads: I already knew that…)

bronteAnd thus, although we’d had a delicious montage of beautifully set-up shots–every one deserving a place on a wall in an exhibition of fine photography–and there was lots of ‘big music’ telling us that there were significant emotions swirling about and this was an important scene, a turning point, at the end, we were left with only questions.  The biggest of which was, “Where’s the last line?” or “Is that it?”  [Spoken with voice raised in incredulity.]

Obviously, we were also left stumped by the cluelessness by means of which this greatest of literary love stories with characters who become so united in spirit that she can “hear” him in his hour of desperate need got turned into a travelog for the Yorkshire Tourist Board.

Anyway, as we launch into a new season or even era of costume dramas–some of which are based on novels of significant stature–perhaps it would be well for film and television series makers to remember one vital thing–without a script, you’ve got nothing…so, learn to linger on the words, to love those, the taste those in your mouth and find them good…and you’ll find your audience.

As for me, I think I may reread Jane Eyre, just to remind myself…and after that, A Tale of Two Cities…and maybe after that…some John Donne, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, as in this first verse of his poem, Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring —
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Because words?  They are paintbrush and a rainbow palette of colours, hue and shade, with which to wash the page altogether…

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Writing and talk…

spinningI’m meant to meet someone and talk about writing today.  Let’s just take it as read that’s an opportunity for me to demonstrate just how ineloquent, how buffle-headed, how truly inane I can be.  I may not be able to write myself into a corner–or at least I may be able to write myself in, but as a general rule, I can write myself back out…

Whereas talking, ha!  Show me the corner and I’ll be in faster than you can say hobbledehoy.

And then we get down to what makes me tick as a writer…it’s not making money–if ever there was a joke, that’s it.  And it’s not that I believe I’m cleverer than anyone else.  Or that I have more of a ego.  (Perhaps I do–though my loathing for the limelight would suggest otherwise…) 

In so many ways it boils down to love of the English language.  I love it.  I love the writers who write in English:  Shakespeare, Donne, Hopkins, H.D., Chrisopher Fry, Byron, Tom Stoppard…we have so many words that beg to be used, to be pronounced, to be held in the mouth like fine wine and tasted. 

I’m not saying there aren’t writers in other languages about whom I’m not equally passionate:  I have quite a thing for Pierre de Ronsard.  And for Friedrich Ruckert too. 

But where else than English could you have, “I caught this morning, morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, in his riding…”  And when I read that I just want to read it again, aloud, cherishing the sounds, the assonance, the alliteration, the way Hopkins has captured the smoothness of that falcon’s flight with his language.  It’s like Waugh said about Venice, “drowning in honey, stingless…”

Now a little recitation of that may go down well enough with the beloved, late of a winter’s night, with a fire roaring in the hearth…but I’m not convinced it will cut it in the current commercial market. 

But because that poetry, that love, is at the heart of my work, it puts me at a disadvantage when people start talking about cuts or changes or commercial deals…because when it comes down to it, I don’t care about all that.  When the talk turns to the commercial market, in fact, you’ve lost me.  I might be sitting there nodding (doing my best to look interested and perhaps even vaguely intelligent) but in fact, I’ve wandered off. 

I probably shouldn’t admit all this.  But in the face of the increasing determination to see books and writing as a commodity, one that is no different from a Barbie doll and her latest interchangeable wardrobe, I feel someone has to stand up for good writing.  Someone has to say, it’s not the same thing. 

Stacking ’em high, and selling ’em cheap is not enriching anyone’s life.  It’s not uplifting, it’s not encouraging or inspiring, it’s not contributing to a better future.  And good poetry, good writing does that.  It makes us think, it makes us dwell in a better place mentally, it does, just as the American poet Wallace Stevens says of art–that its purpose is to create a cushion against the pressures of reality.  And to that I say, yes and yes and yes.

And so as I go forward today to talk about some of this stuff, to talk about things like book trailers–which for all I think they might be unavoidable–makes me want to say, fine, but what about the written word?  What about the beauty of the language for the language’s sake?  Why should any of us labour to create that perfect sentence, that perfect fusion of sound and visceral reaction, and meaning, when it’s really only going to be a screenplay anyway? 

And if that’s how we’re now selling books, how will anyone be able to tell the difference between a great or even good writer and the chap who knows a bit about making a sharp video?   Which I daresay leads back to the question:  Are we interested more in writing our books or selling them?

And when the discussion gets to that point today, you may be sure I shall be thinking those words written some 400 years ago, echoing them with my wonted mystification at the modern world:  “Why is my verse so barren of new pride?  So far from variation or quick change?  Why with the time do I not cast aside to new-found methods and to compositions strange?  Why write I still all one, ever the same…O, know, sweet love, I always write of you…”