Thursday, 29 May 2014

Old Fashioned or Badly-Written?

Often, when I’m struggling to motivate myself to write, I take the obvious step. I read.

This week it was PD James and Death Comes to Pemberley. As it’s a long time since I read any PD James and even longer since I read Pride and Prejudice, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

I should say at the outset that this isn’t a book review, but a rambling reflection on writing. PD James is a terrific crime writer but it did seem to me, as I read on, that she seemed to be breaking every rule in the book.

Never use passive voice. Unless you’re PD James, it appears, in which case Darcy and Elizabeth can settle down once logs have been thrown on the fire. Those who know better than I do repeat the mantra (I do it myself) of show not tell - but DCTP is full of telling not showing. And reported speech instead of direct speech… the book is awash with that.

Actually, I’m not sure that it’s any poorer for any one of those things, once in a while.  I’m not hung up on the rules that people constantly turn out for writers, because not only can you always find places where authors break the rules and it works (or adhere to them so painfully that it quite clearly doesn’t) but because the rules change.

Take adverbs, for example. These days the adverb is a sinner, the devil we should excise from the detail of our work. But I like adverbs, in moderation. Of course they can be unnecessary (she whispered quietly) and of course sometimes we use them because we’re too lazy to think of an alternative. But occasionally it occurs to me that it’s more elegant to use a single word to express oneself. ‘Angrily’, I would argue, is probably at least as good as ‘in an angry voice’ and so on.

Back to PD James and the writer’s rules. Death Comes to Pemberley struck me as an old book, rather dated, perhaps lacking a little in drama with all that reported speech. And of course there’s a problem in writing a sequel to a classic like Pride and Prejudice because the reader will expect the same characters even though (like Charlotte Lucas) they are irrelevant to the story. Nevertheless the author has to include them, and their background, and so they become part of a back story that can’t be left unsaid, even though the book might be improved if it were.

It did strike me that the way we write changes rapidly, almost too rapidly. Readers expect things and we have to deliver. I enjoyed Death Comes to Pemberley, for all its old-fashioned feel (in its style, not in its substance); but I can’t help wondering whether, had it been written by an unknown, it would have found a publisher.  Though I have to say, I’m glad it did.


  1. I have very mixed feelings about this book, Jennifer. PDJ does the crime element very well, as we can expect, but I really didn't like how she wrote the P&P elements. Too much repetition of the original story, no spark between Darcy and Elizabeth - and as for some of the writing. How did she get away with starting several paragraphs with 'such and such said' - all in one page (or two)? Methinks it was very self-indulgent, although I'm still glad I read it to the end.

  2. I say, it 's a long time since I've read any of her crime novels so I don't really know whether that is her normal style. But she certainly breaks al the rules we're taught these days!
    I'm glad it wasn't just me, though!

  3. In terms of the rules we're taught today, I think the pendulum has swung too far. In general (not necessarily in this book) I do admire PDJ's command of English. On the other hand, 'show don't tell', avoidance of adverbs etc. can enliven a manuscript in ways more suitable for today's readers. That said, the passive is a useful verbal construction at times and we have lovely adverbs in English. 'Showing' can become too contrived. So is the answer 'moderation in all things'?

    1. Joan, I think that's absolutely right. If you think an adverb is better than no adverb - or a clumsier alternative - then use it. Similarly the passive tense, or even words like 'rather' or 'suddenly'.