Towards language

I used to approach my reading in terms of content. I’d be looking for particular genres, or at the very least I would choose books based on whether the subject matter appealed to me. But something has changed (or maybe something has been brought out) in the years since I’ve been blogging. I now approach books much more in terms of language.

What do I mean by this? Well, I don’t mean that I’m drawn to ‘fine writing’. Indeed, I think that literary style, in and of itself, is a red herring. What counts for me is not the style of writing per se, but what the writing opens up. In the work I value most, the language embodies what it seeks to portray; the way a piece of fiction is written becomes part of what it means.




A good example is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England and written in a ‘shadow tongue’, a modified version of Old English. The effect of this shadow tongue is to estrange the reader just enough from what might otherwise seem an overly familiar historical period. The crucial thing is that the same story couldn’t be told in a more contemporary style (or even a more conventional ‘historical’ one), because the style of The Wake adds its own layer – a particular relationship between reader, text and world – to the work, one that can’t be replicated otherwise.



So perhaps it’s not surprising that I tend to gravitate towards fiction that departs from stylistic norms (though not fiction that does so just for its own sake – the interplay of style, form and subject is important). But there are less obvious examples, too, such as The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This novel is written a slightly heightened way that often gets labelled ‘quirky’; when I read it, I recognised the general tone from a whole raft of contemporary American fiction. But then it became apparent that all the artifice in July’s book is there to represent a shield between the characters and the harshness of the ‘real world’. Again, the language of the novel adds a further dimension to the whole.



Recently I came across Gabirel Josipovici’s idea that art can be like a toy (see, for example, his essay ‘I Dream of Toys’, collected in The Singer on the Shore. He describes how children turn the most ordinary objects into toys by applying imagination: a cardboard box becomes a house; a stick becomes a hobby-horse – but, at the same time, they’re still a box and a stick. Josipovici goes on to suggest that some works of art function like this: their component parts are plain to see; we can take them and make our own experience.

This idea really strikes a chord with me, because I can’t help but thing that the kings of books I’ve been talking about here – the kind I most want to read – act in a similar way. To go with the same examples: the distortions of language are clear enough in Kingsnorth’s and July’s novels; when I open my imagination to them, the books gain a deeper richness.

Book details (Foyles affiliate and publisher links)

The Wake (2014) by Paul Kingsnorth, Unbound paperback

The First Bad Man (2015) by Miranda July, Canongate paperback

The Singer on the Shore: Essays 1991-2004 (2006) by Gabriel Josipovici, Carcanet paperback


  1. Haven’t read Josipovici and will now very much look forward to it. This blog entry struck hard and made me feel avid to strike something, hard, in return – to keep that thought going, going somewhere.. I’m often astonished, when reading reviews or participating in book groups, by the vexation of the common reader confronted by playful language. When I hear the lament “But where’s the STOOO-RY?” I find myself divested of all playfulness – I mean, when I come to a book group, I come to PLAY (with the plot, the language, the voice, the whole game of it) – but find myself serious, saddened and pedantic, as I must explain how a book “plays.”

    Last week I read McCarthy’s SATIN ISLAND and found myself enchanted (without magic) and amused (without laughing) by the manner in which the author’s dry, deliberate, unsentimental use of language produced a striking elegiac effect. (DeLillo does a similar thing.)

    Anyway, love your blog. Thank for your thoughts.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words, Hilary – and I love the way you put this: “when I come to a book group, I come to PLAY (with the plot, the language, the voice, the whole game of it)”. Reframing it in terms of ‘play’ just brings a whole new outlook.

      I’d agree with your example of Satin Island (which I wrote about here) as well – that whole schematic approach to language and the world. I’ve only read Josipovici’s non-fiction so far, but I really want to see how his ideas play out in fiction.

  2. This shows how you are maturing as a reader…..I liked you point about wanting to avoid books where the author is really just trying to show off. It’s why I can’t get into Will Self’s work – it feels too indulgent to me

    • Thanks, Karen. Can’t speak to Self’s work as I’ve never read him, but I find that this sort of thing can be a fine line. Certainly I’ve seen (professional) reviews that dismiss books I love, when actually the reviewer just needed to let go of their preconceptions and look at the book differently. But equally, you do get fiction that has little substance behind the linguistic fireworks. I just try to read as openly and attentively as I can.

  3. Josipovici is one of the great under-rated writers, so it’s nice to see his work referenced here. I loved his collection Hearts Wings and other stories, such a beautiful eclectic collection. I, too, find myself entranced when the language and the story combine to something quite elevated. I find this in DeLillo’s work, but also books like 70% Acrylic 30% Wool where the tone creates dissonance with the story. Both are powerful tools.

    • I haven’t read Josipovici’s fiction yet, but the ideas in his non-fiction have resonated with me so much that I really want to.

      Absolutely agree with you on 70% Acrylic 30% Wool… Have you read her second book in translation, Hollow Heart? It has that same sense of linguistic fearlessness.

      That’s the second mention of DeLillo in these comments! He’s not a writer I have thought to read before, but perhaps I should…

      • I hadn’t realised Viola Di Grado had another book in English, I’ll have to look that one up thanks. DeLillo is definitely worth reading. I just finished The Names for a second time and it’s sublime.

  4. I think as you develop as a reader even a brilliantly plotted novel, if not written in an interesting way, will leave you cold. You’re right to emphasise this doesn’t mean ‘fine writing’ – currently reading James Kelman’s Dirt Road, I’m struck by how difficult (i.e. artful) it must have been to write something that seems entirely artless.

    • I tend to find that the experience of reading a good plot (which is rarer than I’d like it to be) tends to be broadly similar each time; but each experience of reading a book with (for want of a neat way to put it) transformative language is unique.

      Which is not to say, of course, that you can’t have both…

  5. Josipovici is definitely underappreciated. I loved his What Ever Happened to Modernism?, even where I didn’t agree with it, but also his novel Everything Passes (there’s a review at mine) which I see I read back in 2011 so I do need clearly to put him back into rotation.

    The line of course between language with substance and language which does little but draw attention to itself is not a hard and fast one and different readers will draw it in different places (perhaps even the same reader book to book). For example I really didn’t like Satin Island and gave it a fairly negative review at mine. Not to be fair that I’d criticise it for needlessly showy language, I just thought it had less to say than it thought it did and said it less well than others already had.

    I don’t particularly agree with Booker that it’s an issue of maturity of reading though. Not least because many readers enjoy novels where language is integral and novels where language is merely a neutral (or as neutral as possible) vehicle for plot and character equally according to mood and the needs of the moment.

    What all your examples avoid I note is a certain sterility which can sometimes creep into ostensibly style-driven novels. I’m thinking here of that form of literary fiction where every sentence is perfectly hewn, but when combined remain essentially mere entertainment and leave little by way of aftertaste. The majority of literary fiction I see as being effectively another form of genre fiction, something I wouldn’t say of Kingsnorth or Herreira or Josipovici.

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