Monday, October 25, 2004

Turn the page if you're good-looking. How do you know when you're reading a badly written novel? For me, it's when the expression is so mangled, or the dialogue so stilted, or the mise-en-scene so embarrassing, that you're wrenched from the world the novelist is trying to create. But then the opposite is also true. My favourite thing about novels is when the writer can encapsulate, in one elegantly constructed sentence, something so absurdly hilarious, or so poignant, that you have to laugh uproariously or say out loud, "It's so true!" And you can't imagine someone putting that same idea better. I also have a weakness for particularly poetic phrases or apt metaphors, because I like to play with language; but I know other people get distracted by these and consider them affectations.

I don't bring this up from nowhere. Last night I was considering the way I always want a novelist to tell me if a character is good-looking or not. One school of thought will have it that a really good novelist will never just tell you: he or she will demonstrate, through the way the character acts and is reacted to, whether or not the character is good-looking.

And that's certainly true: think of how many bad novels will refer to the heroine's "mane of hair" or " rosebud lips", or the hero's "ruggedly handsome face". When I was about sixteen, I found a book in the Box Hill library that was called The Romance Writer's Phrase Book. It had a bunch of those sort of things, and I decided to write a short story stringing only those phrases together. I believe one sentence went: "Hers was a wild, proud beauty, with alabaster skin and firm, high-perched breasts."

Speaking of romance, a while ago I read Possession: a Romance by A.S. Byatt, in line with my obsession with 'books that have been turned into movies'. I was frustrated by the way she repeatedly described people as having "regular features". I couldn't work out if this meant they were good-looking, and it was important for the way I interacted with the narrative that I know whether the hero, Roland, was supposed to be good-looking or not. But I enjoyed the way that the heroine, Maud, struggles with her beauty: as a feminist literary critic she tries to de-sexualise herself, to wrest her body from men's gaze; yet she perversely longs to be erotically 'possessed'. She and the pussy-whipped Roland are perfectly matched because he shows his desire for her in an unassuming, oblique way. For me, the most erotic scene in the book is one in which the two of them are on a field trip and it's raining so they can't go outside their hotel, and they lie companionably on a bed for the entire day, not saying anything, their hands occasionally touching.

Also, when I was a child I got the impression from my precocious reading that women were always to be described as "beautiful" or "pretty", while "handsome" was reserved for men. Indeed, our unofficial Secret Squirrel list at work is called Handsome Women. But recently I've found myself speaking about "pretty" men. Prettiness in men I understand to be a youthful symmetry of the features; something that I have always found attractive and been mocked for by my friends. I hesitate at branding this a "feminine" quality; but I suppose it is.

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