Deborah Lawrenson – Songs of Blue and Gold

Over at Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove has posted an interesting and informative interview with author Deborah Lawrenson. I enjoyed reading the interview yesterday, not just because Lawrenson reveals herself to be a thoughtful and dedicated writer but because in her responses she actually addresses some of the questions I had in reaction to my recent reading of her novel Songs of Blue and Gold.

 

For those of you who haven’t read the novel, Songs of Blue and Gold is a quiet but serious book. It tells two stories, the first following Melissa Quiller as she searches for answers related to her mother’s past while experiencing a difficult passage in her own marriage, while the second tells the story of Melissa’s mother, Elizabeth, and her relationship with a renowned writer, Julian Adie. Melissa moves between Greece and England and France hunting for clues to a past she didn’t know her mother had and hoping to understand, through that process, what decisions she might have to take in her own life. The two stories communicate on several levels – how is trust built between two individuals, how do men and women need and use one another, how do we define ourselves in relation to our parents, what does it mean to be generous in love, how do we manage the shifting details of our parents lives as we grow to understand and appreciate them as people in their own right, separate from our relationship with them as our parents.

 

On the one hand, the book follows closely the mystery of Elizabeth’s past and Melissa’s quest for information and understanding. She investigates, talks to people, searches for clues. In this sense, it has the aesthetic of a more conventional, plotted novel with an equally conventional emotional structure and writing. On the other hand, there is a consistent and compelling element of unique, specific description and careful interior exploration.

 

These two elements of the novel meant that my reaction to Songs of Blue and Gold became a little complicated. Readers read for different things. My particular reading bias means that most often I could honestly care less about plot because I’m looking for sentences and words put together in a new way, for scenes and dialogue that reveal exactly how complicated human beings really are. I certainly won’t accept incoherence or the complete absence of plot but I’m more interested in an emotional or philosophical movement within a story, than a specific or logical series of events.

 

So my experience with Songs of Blue and Gold was that I would get happily lost in a section of brilliant writing, in looking at Melissa or Elizabeth’s particular interior processing and then suddenly be brought up a little short by a reminder that there was a larger story at work that needed to be brought to conclusion. But I struggled with that reaction because it reminded me why I dislike literary criticism that attempts to label fiction as either good or bad. Ignoring extreme examples, fiction must exist outside simple qualifiers like good or bad. If we are to let fiction work its magic, we have to recognize that fiction is experienced one person at a time. A novel creates a one-of-a-kind relationship with an individual reader. And then goes on to create another, different relationship with another reader.

 

This doesn’t mean criticism, even the kind that revels in its definitive judgments, isn’t useful or interesting or worthwhile. Criticism provides a particular critic’s exploded view of the inner mechanics or hidden meaning of a work of fiction, and often to the benefit of the reader. But what it does mean is that my immediate knee-jerk reaction of wanting to dismiss or ignore the more commercial elements in Songs of Blue and Gold is flawed. It’s based on my accepting a bit too easily the rigid categories defined by someone else for me.

 

In Lawrenson’s interview with Litlove, she mentions that it was difficult to place her fourth book, The Art of Falling, with a publisher because it didn’t fit into either of the generally accepted categories of commercial or literary fiction. I haven’t read The Art of Falling but I would say that Songs of Blue and Gold also walks that line – although I felt it leaned decidedly further over the literary side of the fence. But this isn’t what should define the book, even if I was slow to come around to that understanding. A novel shouldn’t have to be one or the other. Readers are much more intelligent and nuanced than this.

 

Lawrenson has written a thoughtful, lovely, well-researched and interesting book that draws on elements of journalism, mystery writing, real-life inspiration and literary fiction. That unique blend meant I engaged with it on a variety of levels. I fell in love with certain passages, I got caught up in the vivid descriptions of the novel’s geography, I experienced a few minor frustrations, I was confronted with a number of questions and I was engaged, as a writer, to study Lawrenson’s technical choices.

 

I look forward to reading The Art of Falling and I will certainly be on the lookout for Lawrenson’s next book.

 

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

7 thoughts on “Deborah Lawrenson – Songs of Blue and Gold”

  1. Interesting post and it sounds like an interesting book. Your reaction to the two different elements of the book is intriguing — we do work with various categories in our minds when we read, sometimes (maybe often?) to the detriment of the book we are reading. It’s understandable, but really too bad, that things have to be this way — I mean, it’s impossible not to categorize and make judgments based on our categories, as that’s how our minds work, but it’s too bad the whole book industry is set up to take advantage of those categories and that it can harm our experience of books.

  2. I found this a very probing and insightful review. Funnily enough I responded to it most as a writer rather than a reader. As an academic I always wanted to find ways to evade the dustiness of academic discourse and say something more lively, more unconstrained. Now trying my hand at a commercial voice I find myself wanting to make readers think a little more than they usually do, concentrate a bit longer, inhabit ideas they may not be comfortable with. So in other words, I keep trying to drag the reader out of the zone of their expectations. I don’t know that anyone truly appreciates this! But it seems to be what I want to do. And then I wonder whether there isn’t an underlying trend today for hybridism, for converging different genres and voices. Perhaps also the mass market becomes more homogenous in response? Okay, just rambling now, I’ll stop.

  3. I must join in! But first of all, thank you so much Verbivore for such a generous and insightful review of Songs of Blue and Gold. You and Litlove have opened a line of investigation that is truly fascinating for me as a writer.

    What Litlove writes (above) about instinctively wanting to blur the boundaries between what is considered literary and commercial in her own work is something I too have always felt. For me, it is bound up in a head vs. heart dilemma. As a journalist, I was well used to writing concisely and to order for a wide audience – the ultimate in commercial writing. And I soon gave up trying to sneak literary jokes into the Daily Mail, though I did try! As a novelist, I find that what my heart would like to write (a more literary style and content) has to be balanced by what head dictates (a book that is acceptable to editors who have commissioned it for a mass market commercial imprint).

    However, the point everyone is making is a fine one. The dilemma comes from a false presumption that literary and commercial must be somehow opposed to each other. Whereas we know that the distinction exists mainly for marketing purposes, not in the minds of readers or writers.

    You might be interested to know that the first draft of Songs of Blue and Gold was written entirely in the first person as Melissa’s memoir. It was felt that this made the book too reflective and introspective, and that greater narrative drive was needed. I have to say that I think my editors were right in this. Whether I should have been more restrained in my use of conventional “commercial” devices when rewriting is another matter. I always feel that a book could be improved with time and experience, regardless of whether it’s already printed and out there, and this one’s no exception.

    This discussion has been immensely useful, positive and inspiring for me. It has given me much to ponder as I try – as I do each time – to write a better book next time. Thank you all very much indeed.

  4. Dorothy – Such a good point. The book industry is set up to maximize profitson those categories, which yes, is a shame. Reading is about so much more than narrowly defined categories. I think most really passionate readers see this and read broadly enough to enjoy a book without worrying about category labels. But I think it becomes a real problem for writers – who end up forced to write for one particular category.

    Stefanie – I’d love to read your thoughts on it if you do get a chance to read it. A truly lovely book which poses some interesting questions.

    Litlove – I get the sense that aside from writing that is meant to be enjoyed in a strictly academic environment there has been a general shift toward more mainstream styles for a large percentage of non-fiction. I’m thinking of books like The Black Swan, The Wisdom of Crowds, much of Michael Pollan’s work…these are books which deal with sometimes very complex and difficult ideas but are written specifically so that a large audience can access them. I need to think more seriously how I feel about this – access is good, unquestionably, but in some of these books the ideas become diluted or oversimplified and at that point I have concerns.
    I love that your goal is to get your readers to step outside their comfort zone and inhabit ideas they might not necessarily think about. That kind of provocative writing is worth the effort on the reader’s part.

  5. Deborah – Thank you so much for leaving a comment. Your input into these questions is both helpful and fascinating. What interests me, both as a writer and a reader, is the particular tension as well as its opposite, the collaboration that goes into publishing a work of fiction. The tension is good because this is where, I think, fiction gets redefined. Where the boundaries of these categories become smudged and new ideas and styles get tested. The collaborative aspects of publishing are equally important because I believe most writers do their best work when they remain in touch with editors and open to feedback. This back and forth is fraught with frustration as well as can be a source of incredible enrichment – so it’s a delicate and dangerous sphere for the writer to inhabit. Please keep us posted about your upcoming work and thank you again!

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