Writers Can Learn from Middlebrow Masters

By Mark Nichol

After several years of intending to read through Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of seafaring novels, I’ve finally embarked on that voyage, and I’m delighted to note that O’Brian proves that writers can draw lessons in technique from fiction that doesn’t necessarily make it onto too many Great Literature reading lists.

O’Brian wrote twenty novels featuring fictional early nineteenth-century Royal Navy officer Jack Aubrey and his friend, naval surgeon Stephen Maturin, over the course of several decades, leaving another one unfinished when he died in 1999. (It was later published in its incomplete form.) After completing the first installment, Master and Commander, I suspect that they’re all ripping good yarns but not (despite some comparisons to the works of Jane Austen and other literary giants) classics for the ages. Yet they’re instructive in how to write — and, in one respect, how not to write.

First, the bad news: O’Brian, facing the significant challenge of explaining the naval terminology, traditions, and hierarchy of the Napoleonic era to the many readers unfamiliar with such matters, solved it by having various characters explain nautical concepts to Maturin, a landlubber. Unfortunately, though this technique is reasonable in moderation, here it’s employed to extremes. At times, it’s no more subtle than the satirically excessive exposition in the Austin Powers movie series, with the character Basil Exposition laboriously providing background information to the protagonist (and the audience).

But the author’s successful avoidance of narrative exposition (that is, other than in dialogue) is related to his great strength: O’Brian rarely employs attribution; the reader usually knows who is talking. But even more remarkable, he rarely has to describe his masterfully well-developed characters. Aubrey and Maturin are an odd couple; the officer is a big and brash yet charismatic leader, while his friend is a quiet, studious surgeon/naturalist/philosopher. The author subtly signals the doctor’s initial unease with shipboard life (he gets in sailors’ way or hits his head on the low beams belowdecks) and his preoccupation with surgical procedures and natural phenomena by indirect reference. Among the best small moments are those in which Maturin tries to engage the practical and intelligent but unschooled Aubrey in intellectual discussion.

I did not take advantage of opportunities to work my way through the literary-classics canon during my own schooling, and I am at sea when it comes to lit crit. (If I were asked to analyze the subtext of a cornerstone of the literary tradition, I would probably blithely blink without comprehension much like Aubrey does when confronted with a Latin expression.) But I found myself very much impressed (without being very much distracted) by the mastery with which O’Brian conveys character without describing his characters.

I am certain that such lessons in narrative technique can be drawn from many novelists great and small (and in between), and you likely can relate your favorite epiphany of this type. This point only proves that wisdom and inspiration are to be found in unexpected places. Enjoy your pulp fiction, airport novels, beach books, light reading — in whatever form your leisure reading takes (including enjoying Great Literature) — but be receptive to such insights.

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7 Responses to “Writers Can Learn from Middlebrow Masters”

  • Stephen

    That’s very interesting. I struggle with the necessity of attribution in my own writing, often trying to limit conversations to just two people so that it’s clearer. How does O’Brian manage it?

  • B E Morse

    I hope you continue past the first few books. O’Brian does not repeat the definitions, so the remaining books become ripping good yarns without the ballast. Not only will you fall in love with Aubrey and Maturin, you might even love the Surprise!

  • Curtis

    Attribution is tricky; to me, there seems to be a fine line between just enough and too much. I strive for clarity, though, and I’ve been bothered a lot of times when reading an exchange of dialog that sometimes loses me. I’ve developed a method for it in scenes where more than two people are talking.

    Say you’ve got three characters, D, B, and C. It might go something like,

    D said, “This needs done.”
    B said, “Explain why.”
    “Because of the deadline.”
    “We’ve got plenty of time . . .”
    C said, “We can’t assume that; something could go wrong.”
    D gestured again at the object on the desk. “Which is why we shouldn’t wait . . . ”

    Even in a dialog with only two characters, I think it’s good to have one of them shown doing some action every five or six exchanges. This keeps the scene visual and gives an excuse to refresh the attribution so that the reader doesn’t get lost in a long exchange of comments.

  • Lilith Darville

    Hi – I love your post. I searched Goodreads for Patrick O’Brian’s books, but cannot find any English titles. Could you tell me the title of the first in the series so I can look it up please?

    Many thanks!

  • marc

    i agree!

    i have become interested in “lowbrow”, mass-market genre fictions. i have discovered that these fictions are not infrequently composed by individuals with advanced tertiary degrees, say in law or literature, who are aware of the historical location of their work, and are fully aware that it will never be validated by the scholarly establishment. their writing can be very interesting in the way it deals with this awareness, and how it justifies itself as being worthy of production. these are surprisingly literary concerns!

  • Gaines

    I tend to disagree with what seems to be your primary assertion here. O’Brian, and I admit some bias due to a soft spot for naval historical fiction, is brilliant–in all aspects. If a person truly enjoys the reading experience and explores all genres and times, O’Brian stands up to some of the best writers of all time. His attention to detail and characterization are particularly inspired. Of course this is a personal opinion, much like your own.

  • Mark Nichol

    Lilith:

    The first book is Master and Commander. This Wikipedia article has a chronological list of the series titles.

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