Tales From A Lost Blog Post: The Third Element – Same Difference

It’s usually best to resist arguments based on polarisations: cycle helmets will save your life vs. they don’t make any difference. Kirk vs. Picard. Literary vs. Genre. And where the latter’s concerned, I believe the perceived differences actually revolve around a common factor, which for now I’ll call the Third Element.

The first two elements are the Writer and the Story. But for any kind of story to really work, there has to be an extra element of wonder. Of course, in traditional story-telling, fantasy often provided this Third Element – ghosts, witches, fairies – all serving to amplify the moral dilemmas life puts in our way.

But, as there was a move away from folklore and fantasy with the industrial revolution, perhaps there was also a similar movement towards ‘realism’ in written fiction. The growing polarisation of Religion vs. Science no doubt added to this split in story-telling approaches.

So, it could be said that literary fiction on the one hand was liberated from the old superstitions and beliefs but on the other perhaps threw out the fairy with the maistir (stale urine). What’s perhaps ironic is that the antipathy felt by some literary writers to genre seems to focus especially on science fiction, as if the term is really an oxymoron of betrayal. But does this anger amount to a kind of subconscious totem envy?

The more polarised literary fiction author, then, perhaps has to first rediscover the need for magic – of a ‘something else’ – in his story, other than just reflecting the day-to-day – and then work hard to produce it out of the mundane. As for the genre writer, his Third Element is already made for him, of course. But he has to resist just throwing a few words at it and letting the totem of say space opera or steampunk or the magical quest do all the work, instead to use the Third Element lightly – either by sliding his focus closer to the literary form or by blowing full-scale with it, yet anchoring it firmly in believable and sympathetic characters.     

And here’s the thing: I suspect if you look closely enough at the best literary fiction, you’ll conclude that the writer has quietly slid up that totem at least far enough to touch the need for wonder and myth and connection that all but the most intellectual reader longs for. In which case it’s a shame when some such literary writers are prone to protest that they don’t write science fiction: their stories just happen to be set in the future. As if they’re heading in a completely different direction to the genre writer.

In fact, I think all good writers stand close to the line between literary and genre, left foot one side, right foot the other, or vice versa. In short, any writer in love with a story starts out with excitement in his heart because he’s on the trail of something special, even though he may not know what it is. Unfortunately, very soon, all sorts of genre- or anti-genre-based voices will try to stop him reaching the full expression of it.

As said, I think one of the keys to not getting genre-bound is to avoid polarisations: modern society makes us stupid vs. modern society makes us smart; we’re affected by a collective consciousness of folk culture vs. we’re not, and so on.

In other words, I think that truly creative people, working in any genre, are participators in a Third Element which makes use of the dual ‘options’ of real vs. the fantastical but is not determined by them. We’re different but the same.

Tales from My Street: Sanding Down that First Novel, Instead of Putting a Cheap Gloss on it

“I took a look at someone’s novel the other day,” I say. “Someone who lives in this street.”

            “Oh-oh,” says Nige, grinning behind his raised lager glass. “Doing a neighbourly favour, were you?”

            “It’s a steampunk novel that – “


            “Well . . . “

            “Everyone thinks they can write a novel. Just like everyone thinks they can sand their own floors.”

            “At least you get some work out of it when they try and fail. I tell them what doesn’t work with their book and what they can do to fix it and rarely even got a thank-you. They just go looking for someone else who’ll tell them it’s great.”

            It’s Monday night in the Quaggy Arms. Nige and I are leaning against the counter. His hair is powdered with wood dust. I know he’s been re-sanding Brian’s floor today. Unfortunately, for us writing coaches, I can’t re-sand Jane’s novel.

            “Can’t you just convince them they need to write it again?” he says.

            “It’s not just re-writing she needs to do. She has to learn how to write. But very few people ever do. They just keep fiddling with the same flawed novel, send it out, get it rejected and blame the business for not understanding how brilliant they are.”

            The new, pretty, young barmaid takes Nige’s order for a pint for me and two more for him. Her eyebrow doesn’t rise at his request, not because she knows he likes to have three lined up near to closing time but because she just doesn’t seem interested.

            “The writers who succeed,” I say, “are those who frequently re-learn, re-begin, keep trying to improve.”

            “Sounds like the difference between the German and England footy teams,” he says.

            “You mean, like they always win and we always lose?”

            “Before answering that I gotta quote you something Gurdjieff once said.”

            “You’ve been reading Gurdjieff?”

            “Lucy lent me a book of his quotes; here’s a good one: ‘no conscious work is ever wasted’.”

            “Come again.”

            “What’s the main problem with English footy?”


            “Exactly. Several hundred years of the robber barons converting their Mafia-like activities into false respectable fronts such as heraldry, sir bleedin’ this and dame bleedin’ that, ensuring the masses’ blind belief that royalty plus empire-building equals ingrained superiority, reinforced by one lucky win in ’66, and ever since we expect the England footy team to win every competition they go in for, but in fact all they do is fail and nothing ever changes.”

            “Whereas the Germans?”

            “Well, they already had a good team, built on solid footy principles. But they did bad in the 2000 Euros, finished bottom of their group, even below Blighty. So what did they do? Went back to basics, that’s what. Put in place a long-term plan. Every Bundesliga club had to set up a youth academy; no one person could own a football club; building for the future. Now, they’ve got two teams in the Champions League Final, stuffed with young German talent.”

            He’s pleased with this. Downs the rest of his pint in one, looking as if he wants to say,  Ta-da!

            “So, what you’re saying is my writers don’t want to re-create themselves with a long-term plan. Instead, they keep believing they’re already good enough really; it’s just bad luck they haven’t been spotted yet. So they tinker around with their book but don’t actually change anything fundamental.”

            “Exactly. I reckon that’s what Gurdjieff meant by no conscious work is wasted. But non-conscious work is absolutely useless.”

            While he works on his second pint, I think about this.

            It takes a long time to write a novel. Yet people write them without much conscious input. What should happen is that when it’s reflected to them that the book doesn’t work, they ditch it and start again, only this time first learning the skills they really need.

            “They don’t want to give up all the work they’ve invested,” I say, “even if it’s non-conscious.”

            He frowns. “If a builder took the same approach,” he says, “it’d be like he keeps on sanding the floorboards in house after house but every time cocking it up; or plastering walls what just collapse seconds later. He wouldn’t get paid. He’d get sued. He’d see that he’s useless and either give up or learn how to do it proper.”

            “Okay – so what do I do next time a new writer doesn’t take my advice?”

            He shrugs. “Don’t apply your conscious work to it in the first place.”

            “Which means?”

            “When I’m asked to estimate a job, I try to figure what the punter really wants. Mostly, it’s cheaper than what they like to admit. The problem is, they ain’t going to admit it to themselves, neither. So I have to look at all the clues – how they’re dressed, what kind of carpet’s on the floor and so on – then give ’em a price that suits their actual needs.”

            He’s probably right. Maybe it’s just my pride that has me giving a casual book written by a casual writer (even if they don’t think so) my full, professional attention.

            “I always like to believe any writer wants to be the best writer they can be,” I say.

            He finishes his third pint, meaning it’s nearly time to go.

            “Maybe they do,” he says, “but the thing is, Tel, Old Crapper’s Gloss White looks just as good as Dulux’s – when it first goes up, at least.”