Thursday, 7 January 2010

Versatility


When I reviewed recently, for that splendid site Tangled Web UK, Michael Gilbert’s The Murder of Diana Devon, I reflected – not for the first time – on Gilbert’s remarkable versatility. That volume alone includes short stories, magazine competition puzzles, radio plays and a poem. Gilbert’s novels were many and various, and he also wrote for television, as well as creating four stage plays. He even found time to build a successful legal practice, his clients including Raymond Chandler.

There are some other writers of roughly comparable versatility. Francis Durbridge is a name that springs to mind. He achieved great success with his Paul Temple stories on the radio, and his television serials were hugely popular in their day (I’ve posted previously about my admiration for Bat out of Hell in particular.) He wrote numerous plays which had outings in the West End, and he was a prolific novelist – although oddly, I’d suggest, his novels tended to be less effective than his other work, because dialogue was his forte and characterisation and setting mattered much less to him.

Then there was Nigel Balchin, a fine novelist, who also wrote for stage and television, and had considerable success in the film world. He adapted Philip Macdonald’s The Nursemaid Who Disappeared for the silver screen, and arguably improved upon it. He even wrote, as I discovered recently, what Clive James describes as ‘the ur-text’ for Cleopatra.

But how many writers of today (especially in Britain) demonstrate comparable versatility? I’d love to write for radio, tv, film and stage, but unfortunately, I can’t see it happening in the near future. Producing novels and short stories is challenge enough (though I have bought a book on screenwriting, so who knows?). Has writing become more specialised – or am I simply overlooking the achievements of some great all-rounders of the present day?

13 comments:

Ann Elle Altman said...

Another great post. I look forward to your blog every morning. I think, sadly, the publishing world is so difficult to enter into that many must focus on one genre.

I think only after writing a few books can they venture out beyond that niche.

ann

Jerry House said...

Two that immediately come to mind are the still-modern writers Peter Lovesey and Robert Barnard.

Deb said...

At the risk of sounding dismissive toward Golden Age writers, books then were significantly slimmer than they are today, with only a few sub-plots. Today, readers expect big, meaty mysteries with lots of characters, byzantine plots, and clever resolutions--and all that planning and writing takes time. I'm not saying things are better or worse today, but they are different. I don't remember the last time I read a recently-published mystery that was less than 200 pages long. It's hard to find a Golden Age mystery that's any longer than 200 pages. (Just compare the size of, say, P.D. James's Cover Her Face, from the mid-1960s, with the size of The Murder Room or The Private Patient to get an idea of how much mysteries have "bulked up.")

Margot Kinberg said...

Oh, I do like Gilbert, so thanks for mentioning him. You're right that he's versitile. I especially like his short stories, but as you've so neatly pointed out, his talents were far braoder than that.

As I thought about your question, it occurred to me that it is harder to "break into" more than one genre or subgenre of writing. The same, I think, is true of music. My (admittedly unstudied) guess is that it has to do, at least in part, with the amount of competition for the attention of publishers, and the ease of getting a manuscript prepared. Today's publishers are inundated with far more queries today than ever, so they're necessarily much more selective, I think.

And may I echo Anne's words of praise. I, too, pay a visit to your blog every day; every day, I'm glad I did.

Dorte H said...

Well, we always hear more about the successful writers who are able to live by writing.

And perhaps I am being unfair, but Gilbert may not have had to worry much about cooking, cleaning and child care. Today, several male and female writers share the problem that when you have provided for your family and spent some time with them, there is not much time and energy left for versatility.

Martin Edwards said...

Ann, as you say, the publishing business has changed, and this may well help answer the question I've raised.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello Jerry. Peter and Bob are both very versatile with their novels and short stories. Neither has written a stage play, as far as I know, though Peter has done a bit of television work. I'm not sure if either of them have written for the big screen - Peter may have done.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Deb - very good point. Again a sign of how much the publishing world has changed.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margot. I agree with the comparison with music. Glad you are a fellow Michael Gilbert fan!

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, I guess you are right!

Dorte H said...

NB: Martin, YOU don´t have to grew more versatile for my sake - you are writing my favourite genre ;D

Minnie said...

Deb's comment is spot-on! Have just finished PDJ's 'The Private Patient', & felt it was at least 60pp too long!
Another admirer of M Gilbert here (am repeating myself, tho' - sorry).
Nigel Balchin: wonderful writer, now apparently forgotten. So thank you, Martin, for the re-introduction. The first English writer to enter the mysterious world of the boffin (you'll know the title, I bet!) and, as you say, versatile and highly accomplished.
Fear that with the increase in size of commissioning corporations the dead hand of the accountant and/or personnel person is the first to be applied. Primary criterion = 'has the writer done x, y or z before?' If the answer's 'no', then so is the opportunity ... That's the trouble with lack of imagination: unable to envision the transfer of skills or talents to another sphere, even if that sphere is obviously related.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Minnie, it is a puzzle that Balchin is so rarely mentioned these days. He was once very popular.