Writers Can Learn from Middlebrow Masters
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.