Thursday, 3 November 2011

"Well-Written" and the Algorithms of Choice

So how do you choose what book to read next? Amazon and lots of other websites use the "if you liked this you might enjoy that" model, a truly revolutionary step that has led many an unsuspecting punter down the Long Tail from Coldplay to Royal Trux. I prefer the more complex algorithms of my life so, for example, the book I am reading now came to me via the following process.

1: Roy Hodgson, then Fulham manager, mentioned JP Donleavy in an interview. It was 2008 and we had just beaten Portsmouth on the last day of the season to stay in the Premier League. At the end of the game Roy strolled over to the adoring fans and mouthed "have a good summer holiday" at us. Summer holiday? Roy, we just pulled off the greatest escape EVER. We are not jumping around like a bunch of loons because we're looking forward to our holidays... A few weeks later my FFC and book buddy Richard Allen lent me a copy of The Ginger Man that I read and loved.

2: I was in a second hand bookshop in Faversham accompanied by my sleeping daughter in her buggy. My wife and son were watching the new Tintin film. The shop was well stocked but very small and soon I found myself physically trapped in a corner next to the "D" part of the fiction section. Whilst attempting to extricate myself I saw a copy of The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman and decided to buy it.

So there you go, the Bookselector is the same as Amazon but different, when it comes to choosing books.

It is now that we come to the first part of the title of this post. (If you think that was confusing then you should give up now, despite the fact that the best parts are yet to come!) What do people mean when they say a book is "well-written". I have worked in some of the poshest bookshops in the country. I am familiar with the types who stride about, not always in pink shirts, and hold books aloft bellowing about how bloody well-written they are. I know what they mean too. They mean - "I like this and I am super fucking intelligent or just super rich and I like it so it must be written well" - but I fear that takes us no closer to the Truth. Then I was reading an article in which Geoff Dyer praised Denis Johnson (see previous post) whilst also saying that Johnson clearly had no idea what a sentence was and probably couldn't even write.

And this, dear reader (I am assuming you exist though the fact you never bloody comment makes you a lurker even if you are there), is where the two parts of the title collide, explode and become:

"The first minor casualties were the Slasher sisters. Two raving redheads, who both fell off in a deep flowing brook. Smiling, they remounted, water spilling from their boots and wet hair flying. And lips loosing rather not nice words. They charged up the hill. Fighting Murphy the Farmer was next. His horse going down at the gallop in a rabbit hole. And poor rider, he was flung like an arrow head first into the ground. Where he lay, believed to be soundly dead. Till someone hoping to borrow a nip from his small brandy bottle awakened him."

...and so on, all the way through the book. I mean, is that "well-written"? Whatever, it's JP Donleavy.

I think it's beautifully written. And I think Denis Johnson writes great sentences. So. There...

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