In need of escape I recently read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. It’s a long time since I’ve read a thriller and it took me a little while to get used to the style – the reportage and long passages of exposition. Once I did, I was hooked. The story is utterly gripping, twists like an eel, and is cleverly rooted in a social issue that few people could take exception to – the abuse of women.
But there was one thing that grated throughout, and that was the naming of brands; not Fleming-like exotica – cocktails, wrist-watches, sports cars – but the terminally mundane such as second-hand cars and computer software.
Irrelevant detail with a weird, faintly macho whiff about it, this did nothing for plot, characterisation or colour. It was a world away from the significant detail that illuminates good writing by lending plausibility, emotional weight, shades of definition.
I once interviewed an old fiddle-maker who showed me a caliper he’d made from the metal heel of his boot, a piece of an old steel ruler, a welding rod and the top of a tube of eye ointment. Writers dream of that kind of information because it’s impossible to make up.
But businesses have trouble distinguishing between the two. So often business literature is full of information the reader really doesn’t need. Project names, department names, job titles – these are the equivalents of Larsson’s Volvos; while the significant detail that would really bring the writing to life is nowhere to be seen.
Once again it’s down to being able to make the imaginative leap of being both writer and reader simultaneously, something that even the most successful thriller-writers, let alone business writers, often fail to manage.
I am enjoying these Friday treats Jamie. Thank you for launching and keeping at it.Your last remark puts me in mind of Harold Bridger's description of what he called 'the double task'. This is the capacity to be able to do something and reflect on how you are doing it at the same time. Bridger was a psychoanalyst, founder of the Tavistock Institue, and he saw this as the beginning of wisdom. I am told that to this day psychotherapists are taught to imagine themselves up in the top corner of the room, by the ceiling, looking down on themselves as they conduct a session – in order to practise this reflective stance. And you are right that it is details you see when you become sensitised in this way – that were always there, but not noticed before.Thank you for reframing 'reading' for me as another opportunity to practise and refine 'the double task'.
Jamie, just back from Ty Newydd, latest Dark Angels course. We did the favourite book exercise as usual and one woman from the Arts Council brought along "The girl with the dragon tattoo". I'd read it a couple of weeks earlier in Andalucia on holiday – perfect holiday reading. You're right about the details but you get swept along by the story. Salander is a great character too. And, despite the PC nature of the theme, it is very much a male fantasy as a piece of writing. Still loved it and now have Part 2 to read