Wednesday, April 13, 2011

WHAT MAKES GOOD CLIMBING LITERATURE?

The following is a summary of a talk I gave a while back on this topic:

I have always had a strong interest in books and in words. My grandfather had quite a collection which I inherited a chunk of, and I’ve managed to add to the collection also. Amazon.com loves me.
As a reader I like to think critically about what it is that I’m reading, what techniques are being used by the author and why? That is unless I’m tent bound and stormed in on an expedition somewhere. Then I’ll read just about anything, even something by Tom Clancy or (sigh!) a Mills and Boon to pass the time. My brain doesn’t operate too quickly at altitude.
As a kid, I read lots of the typical climbing adventure expeditions, and lapped up every word. But now, while interesting in a historical sense, the quality of both the observations and writing don’t stack up, for me at least. And as a climber, the difficulty here is trying not to get lost between what makes good climbing writing and what makes good climbing. Both don’t necessarily overlap.
My background isn’t academic, rather the newspaper reporting school of hard knocks, then more specialised journalism, and lately lucky enough to get three books published.
These days, I spend most of my time thinking first about ideas and then the right words to convey those ideas, and then sooner or later I might write something down. And I guess the biggest thing I’m finding is that the more I write the more I’m learning about writing, and probably the less satisfied I am with my own work.
In terms of reading, rarely do I just read for pleasure anymore, usually there is another reason attached to it. Likely it’s not just the story itself, but maybe how the author manipulates the interaction with the reader. It’s not just what words have been chosen, but also the gaps that we as readers fill between them. I used to have a rule that I would stick with a book for 100 pages, but these days often I get nowhere near that. But likely the book will remain on the shelf and I’ll try it again later when I’m in a different mood.

A while back I was asked to be a judge for the latest New Zealand Alpine Club’s short story competition, along with Colin Monteath who’s been in the publishing game for many years and Nic Learmonth who is an avid rock climber and boulderer, has a PHD in English literature and works as an editor. As the entries trickled in, we discussed the best way to judge. Nic opted for a criteria-based approach, so we would clearly know what aspects of the writing we were judging on. Colin seemed pretty keen just to get the job done so he could get back to his workload, and I was all for just reading the submissions and seeing which ones stood out without being too particular about why.
After some discussion, we decided on each submitting a list of our top five and then we could deliberate from there. From memory there were around 20 entries, and Colin, Nic and myself set about reading each before deciding on our top five. Eventually, we forwarded our individual lists to each other… and quickly realised that we had three entirely different lists. Between the three of us, and despite all of us supposedly having some knowledge of what makes good writing, we’d managed to pick 15 different stories. I was gobsmacked. I figured there’d be some differences but not completely different lists.
Of course we thrashed out the pros and cons, went away and re-read everything again, this time aware of what the other judge’s feelings were, and finally came up with our greatest hits.
So I guess the first point to take from this is the subjectivity of it. Indeed, I’ve given the same piece of my own writing to various colleagues to comment on, and gotten the full spectrum of responses. Experiences like that can make it difficult to know who to trust and how to progress as a writer.
Sure, there are certain elements that good writing tends to exhibit but, at the end of the day, the relationship is solely between an author and a particular reader at that particular time. My opinion on what makes good climbing literature are just that - opinion.

So maybe if we back up a bit in the process we can identify why it is that we read and why it is that we read climbing literature. Is it to pass the time; be entertained; informed; appalled; to perch voyeuristically on our armchair while soaking up another knife-edge experience; or to try and tease something out that is actually inside us? Add to that our personal views and experience, what we’ve read before, and even how our day is going. There’s a whole lot going on that influences how we feel about what we read. Good writers are aware of this. While they can never be everything to everyone, they try to connect with the reader, not just choosing to highlight moments or experiences but choosing how to highlight them.

I found David Craig’s book Native Stones by accident. I’d never heard of it or him and tripped over a hand-me-down copy in a Wanaka second-hand bookshop. The blurb about Craig said he was an English professor who discovered climbing in his later years. This is how his book begins:
'The crags act on us as the moon does on the seas, inert mineral masses exerting their force, leading us to their poles. People, birds, goats, sheep - we are drawn along the ledges, up the gullies, out onto the buttresses and pinnacles....'
For me, this is lyrical writing. When we are bombarded with climbing heroics and stoic fortitude, the gentle fumblings of a moderate climber on moderately-inclined rock routes in the Midlands showed me that not all climbing writing needs to follow the tried and true. All that matters is the end result, the quality of the writing. And I’m drawn to writing just like Craig is drawn to the crags, because there is something hidden there, some meaning that’s not explained explicitly, but if we stick at it we may at least discover something about ourselves that’s worth knowing.

So what are the necessary elements required in good writing? I put this question to an academically-qualified friend to find out.
The obvious things are setting and plot. And the trick, my friend noted, is to try and mesh these in to the writing without being too obvious about it. English author and critical essayist Al Alvarez is a master at this, and his profile on climbing friend Mo Anthoine - Feeding The Rat - a great example. The writing is simple and understated, but with just the right amount of imagery and description to let us know what’s coming. The key is a light touch – something that my academic friend noted was one of the most important elements that separated good writing from the not so good. Choose the moments for superlatives. Play the interaction with the reader like a hand of poker, introducing ideas in a covert manner and manipulating the reader into thinking and feeling certain things.

So often climbing writing fails to do this. It comes across as a trip report, passively focussing on events rather than conveying mood, personality and reflection. And it relies on the situation itself to carry the story – otherwise known as the epic.
Joe Simpson is both the master of understatement and the epic. I certainly wouldn’t want to climb with the guy. He seems to attract wrong turns and unfortunate surprises like no other. And of his series of climbing books, my favourite is This Game Of Ghosts, because of its characterisation and humanising of climbers.
According to my educated friend, the two most important elements of climbing writing, and probably all writing, are have a strong distinctive voice and having a light touch ie. not over describing something but rather choosing key words or phrases that let the reader create for themselves. The rest of it is pretty open.

Climbing literature is all about movement, be it personal thoughts and reflections, group dynamics, the action of the climb, or the changing terrain and weather. These can be conveyed in many different ways. What a writer has in their skill set is probably not that different to what a climber has on their trad rack. The mark of a good writer is having an awareness of the reader and the relationship between the words chosen and how that reader may respond to them.
So, my top five climbing books, in no particular order are:

'Native Stones' by David Craig
'Feeding The Rat' by Al Alvarez
'Mountains Of The Mind' by Robert Macfarlane
'In The Shadow Of Denali' by Jonathan Waterman
'This Game Of Ghosts' by Joe Simpson

Please note that this list is likely to change at any stage...

4 comments:

  1. Its crazy to figure out what good climbing literature is because as you pointed out, everyone has a different idea of what it is. For me good climbing literature should make me feel like i'm on the ledge or in the storm that the author is trying to portray. My all time favorite rock climbing author is John Long because I feel like I need to have my chalk bag next to me as I'm reading to dry my palms. For mountaineering and alpine I have always like Greg Child. All good writers with much different styles.

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  2. I totally agree. And for the record, I'd have Krakauer's 'Into The Wild' in there instead of Waterman's book, but don't know if I can justify calling it climbing literature.

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  3. Nice piece, Paul. Your friend's comment about strong voice and light touch is the kind of thing that I read and think 'oh yes, that sounds right', then proceed to think of any number of writers who exhibit neither but who have made an impact on me with their climbing writing.

    So I think your friend is wrong - or maybe just immaterial? - at least for my personal tastes. I agree most climbing writing is not very good, and I'm reluctant to add to that body myself ;-) and letting the epic or the situation tell the story is just not enough. As you say, mostly just trip reports.

    I suppose what I'm looking for, in climbing writing that is not a guidebook or reference book, is a powerful piece of art that happens to be about climbing, or a climber. Something that hits the nail right on the head in understanding and expression, but with some elegance of form. Something that reveals meaning and perspective in ways that will change me.

    Keep going ..

    D

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  4. Very thoughtful piece Paul. I'm not so much a climber as a bushwalker (tramper), and a nature writer. But my thinking about nature writing pretty well lines up with yours about climbing writing. You want to spend time in the writer's company, and you want to find them interesting, quirky, observant, etc (add your own descriptors here).

    Robert Macfarlane, who you've already mentioned, is a fine example. The late Roger Deakin, who wrote "Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain" is another brilliant example. My blogged thoughts about some of this are at: http://auntyscuttle.blogspot.com/2011/04/nature-writer-interview-with-fortyspot.html

    The closest I get to climbing writing can be found by searching for "Federation Peak" on my blog.

    Thanks for your blog (just found), and the pieces I've already read and enjoyed in Wilderness NZ,

    cheers

    Peter

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