World of Writing Series: Metaphor and Simile

7 Jun

Vogon_jelzt_reading_poetry Certain narratives, such as scientific texts, official reports or legal documents demand accuracy and, clearly, the ability to provide accurate description is essential, but the reader of fiction needs to be lured into a world that does not stop at reporting things as they are. Fiction needs to entertain and inspire. And so language strays into the figurative, the poetic, the lateral, the emotive. The author seeks to take advantage of the readers’ experiences, and, to achieve this, literal description can be quite inadequate. So comparison is used. Do you remember in school … as cold as ice … as black as night … as deaf as a doorpost (!).

Simile. It’s useful in description. It’s a way of relating one thing to something else, using the features of a known thing to describe the new thing. But simile also includes the ‘like’ comparisons and can involve actions as well as objects:

‘A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water. (Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin)

‘… though he was a big man, he moved as softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet, as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow.’ (Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories)

Hum, not just straightforward simile. And beyond simple simile, there’s metaphor. Whereas simile likens one object or action to another, metaphor presents one object or action as being another, setting it in a different context for descriptive purposes:

‘… and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon …’ (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

‘He sailed through his exams’

Metaphor pervades our language: the slippery slope … the rat race … the information superhighway … kicked the bucket (idiom)kick the bucket1 … black sheep of the family … affairs of the heart (not the organ actually associated with emotion) … life’s journey … books are the mirrors of the soul (Virginia Woolf) … I was over the moon, Brian (metaphor plus sport hyperbole). As with simile, metaphor relies upon comparison, offers analogy, presenting one thing as standing in for another, highlighting a connotation or establishing a connection, causing things that are different to become the same. It adds another layer of meaning to a description and makes a reader work harder to create a clearer picture of the thing or action being described. It appeals directly to a reader’s experiences via implied or implicit similarities but it also makes greater demands on the imagination, using non-literal comparisons, often to achieve a rhetorical effect.

shakespeareIn literature, extended or sustained metaphor is often used to prolong the association between two unrelated objects or ideas for literary effect. The metaphor continues through several sentences, several paragraphs, even an entire work. In As You Like It, Shakespeare introduces and sustains a world-life-stage metaphor:

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts. His acts being seven ages … And so he plays his part …’

It was later reworked by Truman Capote:

‘Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.’

Shakespeare frequently employed extended metaphor. In Sonnet 18 he goes so far as to declare his intended comparison:

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate … Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed … But thy eternal summer shall not fade …’

Incidentally, this piece contains what might be referred to as nested metaphor: ‘the eye of heaven’ refers to the sun to which the poet likens his lover.

More recently, Ian McEwan and Angela Carter’s works are also rife with metaphor. For instance, in The Child in Time McEwan dwells upon the theme of time, embedding an overarching temporal metaphor within the narrative, whereby the abduction and loss of the child becomes a metaphor for his main protagonist’s lost youth. In The Company of Wolves, Carter’s modern version of Little Red Riding Hood the metaphor of female empowerment is sustained throughout the entire narrative, culminating in Little Red’s taming of the conniving Wolf-Man.

little-red-rackham-1909 Carter’s use of figurative language is always magnificent and I take every opportunity to quote this metaphor-rich paragraph from The Bloody Chamber:

‘I hid behind my furs as if they were a system of soft shields … And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.’

The inclusion of metaphor in a text has long been acknowledged as an indication of the literariness and both McEwan and Carter are revered as literary authors due to their sophisticated use of this literary trope. The success of their figurative language depends upon the fact that it is anything but obscure. We recognise their literary devices and appreciate them. But some ‘dead’ metaphors are so deeply embedded in our language that we fail to notice them, for instance the conceptual or overarching metaphor which sees debate or argument as war … he won the argument … he fought to bring her round to his way of thinking … I tried to argue against it but he beat me down with his impeccable logic. (see Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1981). Metaphors We Live By)

In a nutshell, simile and metaphor are literary devices used to enhance description. But not all metaphors improve a narrative. Metaphors can be bad, inappropriate, fatuous. Sometimes they appear forced, added at the last minute to satisfy some perceived literary requirement. Sometimes they can be just plain hilarious. I’ve come across many and I racked my brain for one. Then I remembered Douglas Adams, describing the Vogon ships in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy):

‘The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.’

an image! vogon


Literary Fiction: What is it and Should it be Considered ‘Above’ Genre Fiction?

6 May

Literariness. What on Earth does that mean?

6 May

Over the last few years, whenever I’ve asked a fellow linguist/tutor/mentor what does literariness mean, I have never been given a straight answer. It’s as if nobody knows. So I have done a little research of my own. And it’s true. Nobody knows. And yet literariness looms before us as something to achieve, something that wins prizes, something that publishers seek, something that lurks within the fog of willing creativity just waiting to be … recognized.

In fact, I do not remember one person, in any of the numerous courses, degrees, conferences and seminars I‘ve experienced, offering any kind of clear formula that can elevate a piece of writing from the ordinary to the literary. Is it not something that can be taught? Would an attempt to analyse and recreate literariness be a hopeless exercise, doomed by its very nature to instant failure?


But, anyway, here are a few thoughts to add to the long confusion.

You see, the idea of literariness emerged in the early 1920s within the school of literary criticism referred to as Russian Formalism. And it was conceived by one theorist in particular: Roman Jakobson. Formalists such as Jakobson paved the path that led to structuralist and post-structuralist theories and they did so by demonstrating that literary/poetic works could be analysed according to the literary devices that they employ. Jakobson developed this idea further, suggesting that literariness can be achieved via defamiliarisation. That sounds like academic gobbledygook, but in simple terms it means that you use the linguistic properties and form of language to present something that is familiar in a strange or unfamiliar way, so that the reader perceives it differently. JL_soundbite1OK, that still sounds like academic gobbledygook, and indeed it is, but ultimately defamiliarization relies upon deviations away from ordinary language to create literariness. More recently Jonathan Culler has explained defamilairization and literariness as being achieved by deviating away from conventional expectations. In this way, a once familiar thing takes on a new or extended meaning. Therefore, literariness is all about devices that jolt the reader’s perception.

So, what are these devices? At a simple level, they include syntax, rhythm, word repetition, new words (neologisms), figures of speech (tropes):

‘And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.’

(The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter)

At a narrative level these literary devices include plot. Indeed, long before Russian Formalists began to analyse the not-ordinary texts of literature, Aristotle declared the prime importance of plot to the telling of a story. A story is a sequence of events linked temporally (in the right order) and causally (one thing happening because of another). The plot is the way you tell it. And literariness leans towards not telling things in the right order (for instance the chronologically reversed chapters in Night Watch by Sarah Waters) or choosing a moment to reveal causal relationships (such as the family dysfunction in Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). But, although it is important in itself, a plot often depends upon characters to drive and perform its detail. And here conventional expectation can be exploited to provide literariness: the strangely adult schoolchildren in Golding’s Lord of the Flies or the damaged cybergeek sexually-rampant girl genius in Larsson’s trilogy. There are many other devices:

  • a story nested within a story, for instance Brönte’s Wuthering Heights or Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth; or a story about a story (metanarrative) as in Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
  • the alternative narratives in Martel’s Life of Pi.
  • the infiltration of narrative with unbelievably well-researched details, for instance regarding 18th Century perfumerie in Süskind’s cross-genre Perfume:The Story of a Murderer.
  • the mind-bending use of the second person in Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
  • the total narrative craziness of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, operating a rhythmic narrative macrostructure.
  • the overwhelming use of every literary device available to mankind in Joyce’s Ulysses.
  • the use of dialect, for instance in Hardy’s novels, in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all defining the nature of the texts.
  • And, finally … the sophisticated corruptions of temporality such as the cyclical time in McEwan’s The Child in Time, the slowing and overnarration of time in Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy or the sudden casting into the past of the main characters in Faulks’ Birdsong.


So many ways to distract the reader from long-held assumptions. So many ways to make the reader question the meaning of the text, to struggle with narrative semantics. That was really the message in Jakobson’s ideas about literariness. But it seems that although literariness started this way, it was doomed to be reinterpreted, reconceptualised and contrived way beyond its formalist beginnings. Because, now, it seems that there are degrees of literariness. An author’s work can be seen as ‘quite literary’ or ‘almost literary’. Is there a tick chart somewhere that might be made available to the aspirant writer? And so many of the above-mentioned literary devices are currently eschewed: for instance, achronological narrative has fallen out of favour: too much retrospection has become a bad thing. And there are flights of fancy regarding the desirability of the first person/third person perspective. There are declarations being made about more than one main protagonist and pretend rules about too many characters (such rules clearly did not bother Shakespeare and they certainly did not filter through to the makers of Fortitude).

Then there’s that weird Commandment, written in stone, suggesting that some genre writing resides in a different bin to literariness, so that however many literary devices a science fiction novel might boast, it will never be desired by a modern day agent. Indeed, many of the gatekeepers proscribe such narratives yet, significantly, Hollywood sucks them up and makes blockbusters of them. But at least fantasy is enjoying popularity, thanks to the well-written Twilight and Hunger Games series.  Indeed, long forgotten are the days when nobody wanted stories about a school for child wizards. And while we’re on the subject of fantasy, let’s consider the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Devoid of any literary devices, those narratives sold millions. And that leads us to yet another great divide: that between the literary and the commercial … it’s as if they are mutually exclusive. Now, as far as I can gather, Jakobson never excluded  genre writing or commercially successful writing from the realm of literariness, yet somehow commerciality, particularly selling-like-hot-cakes genre writing, seems to carry with it an elitist taint of unliterariness. Of course, there are undeniable exceptions: commercial though they may be, nobody would dare relegate Lyra and her demon Pantalaimon to the depths of unliterariness …


Or would they?

It depends upon who’s writing the rules. And those rules seem to imply that there are books for us and books for them, and whilst we sit amidst the olives and oleanders sipping our lime juice and gin … struggling with a story about a child who has personified every object in the only room he has ever known, or trying to link the five disparate stories in Sebastian Faulks beautifully texted A Possible Lifethey are leafing through B&Q catalogues and Mills and Boon in the pub garden. Ah romance and chick lit … what an unliterary disgrace! But, come to think of it, nobody would accuse Miss Austen’s aspirational tale, of a young woman romancing an unapproachable and devastatingly handsome millionaire, of being unliterary chick lit. Because Austen’s works declare literariness. Indeed, in the pages of that particular piece of chick lit lurk the beginnings of psychonarration and interior monologue, recognized as literary devices by one and all.

JL_soundbite4So what is literariness one hundred years on? There is much disagreement. But it is probably centred more around the reader’s reactions to the text and to the reader’s assumptions regarding author intention. And that is all sailing dangerously close to discourse processing and cognitive pragmatics – which will inevitably lead to literary suffocation. And, significantly, these reader reactions are not something frozen in time. Half a century ago Henry Miller’s Sexus and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were denied literariness because they were outrageous but now they are quite lame in comparison with … well, in comparison with everything.

So, all things considered, I am forced to conclude that a theory of literariness is an impossible dream. Books will continue to be written that are destined to provide land fill or to last forever, and their nebulous literariness rating will have very little to do with their longevity. There is no formula only inspiration and luck. In fact, aiming to write an enduring literary text is like aiming to win the lottery.

And, I suppose, that is the sheer joy of it.


Extra Ordinary Fictions

10 Apr


Additional site now live:


Word Count

9 Apr

How long is a story? Obviously it is as long as it needs to be . . . to be told.  However there are expectations. Firstly, there is a semi-rigid classification into:

Flash Fiction – up to 300 words (Bridport Prize up to 250)
Short Story – 250/300 up to 7,500 words (Bridport 5,000; Bristol 4,000)
Novelette (a term conjured from the blue) – 7,500 to 17,500 words
Novella – 17,500 to 40,000
Novel – 40,000 +

But it’s not as simple as that: the expected wordcount varies with genre . . .

Crime/detective novels average around 70-80,000
Sci-Fi/Fantasy around 90-120,000

And with the age of the reader . . .

Young adult fiction 55-70,000
Children no more than 40,000

So, how do already published novels reflect these wordcount recommendations:

Pride and Prejudice – 120,697 words
Lord of the Rings (3 volumes) – 455,125 words
Atonement – 123,378 words
HP and the Philosopher’s Stone – 77,325 words
HP and the Deathly Hallows – 198,227 words

But these were Halcyon days, writers . . . because now it has become a matter of economics . . . ink and paper cost money. So first time authors are being warned to keep their stories below 100,000 words AND that means that I am currently reducing  the novel I have just completed from 123,000 words . . . but oh, what a waste of carefully crafted sentences, of nuances of plot and character detail . . .

Fantastic not Fantasy

28 Mar

Things are Becoming the Wrong Size (2011) is a multi-genre short story written during recovery from jet-lag. It is more overtly comedic than usual but this might be due to compromised physiology, possibly hysteria.

Too long to be a short story; too short to be a novella

28 Mar

A new short story has been added:

The Fenchurch Reckonings (2009) has been rewritten from an experimental, cross-genre story.  It is exactly 5,000 words long, in five parts . . . so it offends most criteria of the short story.  But it is way too short to be a novella. And, what is more, it roams between realism, surrealism and fantasy so that it defies any commitment to genre. In fact it is a literary abomination. And it won first prize in 2014 British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition.

It is not yet available online

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