Raymond Chandler on storytelling and style

I’ve begun reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, an anthology of 23 Marlowe stories written by different crime/mystery authors plus one by Chandler himself (‘The Pencil’). It was edited by Byron Preiss with the consent of the Chandler estate, to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth.

Taking on Marlowe is a tall order, but I expect even the weaker stories will offer much to please and interest. The introduction, by Chandler biographer Frank MacShane, quotes from a letter Chandler wrote in his late fifties in which he muses on writing and style. I found more of the letter elsewhere, and it’s too good not to excerpt at length:

One of my peculiarities and difficulties as a writer is that I won’t discard anything. I can’t overlook the fact that I had a reason, a feeling, for starting to write it, and I’ll be damned if I won’t lick it.

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe - anthology edited by Byron Preiss - book coverAnother of my oddities (and this one I believe in absolutely) is that you never quite know where your story is until you have written the first draft of it. So I always regard the first draft as raw material. What seems to be alive in it is what belongs in the story. A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. In the long run, however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off. He can’t do it by trying, because the kind of style I am thinking about is a projection of personality and you have to have a personality before you can project it. But granted that you have one, you can only project it on paper by thinking of something else.

This is ironical in a way: it is the reason, I suppose, why in a generation of ‘made’ writers I still say you can’t make a writer. Preoccupation with style will not produce it. No amount of editing and polishing will have any appreciable effect on the flavour of how a man writes. It is the product of the quality of his emotion and perception; it is the ability to transfer these to paper which makes him a writer, in contrast to the great number of people who have just as good emotions and just as keen perceptions, but cannot come within a googol of miles of putting them on paper.

Preoccupation with style will not produce it – words for any writer to live by. Whatever alchemical magic keeps readers enthralled when they’re reading and impatient when they’re not, it can’t be forced. Readers detect the strain instead of disappearing into the story. You have to get out of your own way.

Katherine Anne Porter said something similar to Chandler in a Paris Review interview about style corresponding to personality (“everybody has said it since [Aristotle], because it is one of those unarguable truths”), but I’ll reserve that for another day.

As an aside, it’s not often I see googol used in nontechnical writing. Nowadays the word is commonly associated with Google, whose company name began as a misspelling of the mathematical term.


12 Responses to Raymond Chandler on storytelling and style

  1. helenmidgley says:

    Enjoy, sounds an interesting read. From another Raymond Chandler fan :)

  2. Natalie SW says:

    Thought you might enjoy the quote from Chandler’s letter vis-a-vis the subject of writing masters’ programs.

  3. marc leavitt says:

    Chandler is considered by many to be one of the great writers of modern fiction. I will not dispute that, but I will add by way of parenthesis, that his work is unsettling. Whenever I’ve read one ofr his stories, I’ve come away from it with a nagging feeling that the world is out of joint, and with more than a slight compulsion to wash my hands. If Chandler tried to create a sense ofr unease in his readers through the exercise ofr his craft, he succeeded; remarkably well.

  4. The remarks about the first draft remind me of what Terry Pratchett has called “Draft Zero” — a google for [pratchett “draft zero”] will turn up a bunch of links.

    I think I was eight years old when I first learned about the googol from the “Mathemagic” volume of the Childcraft series, and I can well imagine the scene when Kasner asked his nine-year-old nephew what it should be called.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Enjoy them Stan. Chandler was one of a kind. And his take on writing is well worth re-reading.


  6. Stan says:

    Helen: Welcome, and thank you. :-)

    Natalie: It could be helpful to someone writing in almost any capacity.

    Marc: That’s true, and I think the nagging feeling is because the world is out of joint, in some ways very disturbingly so, and Chandler wasn’t interested in glossing over that or prettying it up. The results could be unsettling but also rewarding.

    Adrian: Thanks for the tip on Pratchett, a writer of whom I’ve read very little. I googled as you suggested and read a few of the results – this, for example, from the Guardian:

    The first draft plunges on, and about a quarter of the way through it I realise I’m doing things wrong, so I start rewriting it. What you call the first draft becomes rather like a caterpillar; it is progressing fairly slowly, but there is movement up and down its whole length, the whole story is being changed. I call this draft zero, telling myself how the story is supposed to go.

    WWW: Thank you; I’m sure I will. And you’re right, his advice bears multiple reads.

  7. On both the topics of Mr. Chandler and the world being out of joint, Letters of Note very recently published a letter he wrote to a friend shortly after the death of his wife. It’s a rather poignant note, and perhaps one can detect the harder side of the man’s perspective in it a bit too. It seems his own end, and a particularly “out of joint” one at that, followed some few years after he was made a widower. Worth a read, if you’ll permit the link.


    • Stan says:

      Virgil: It’s a sad letter, but an honest and heartfelt one too. Thanks for the link, and your thoughts on it. I’d like to read more of Chandler’s letters (and MacShane’s biography), but I’ll finish this anthology first.

  8. Picky says:

    Given Chandler’s liking for spatchcocking a couple of short stories together to make a novel, one wonders which first draft actually is a first draft. Incidentally I think that particular construction method is one of the reasons for the “world out of joint” feeling: it’s not just the ever-presence of evil, the untrustworthiness of everyone except the untarnished unafraid Marlowe, it’s the shifting disjointed plotting, with two or three short-story lines not totally reconciled, that makes the reader feel constantly on shifting ground.

    • Stan says:

      That’s a good point, Picky. We’re so accustomed to formulaic, or fairly formulaic, structure in storytelling, that an approach such as you describe confounds our expectations and keep readers in a constant state of uncertainty. I have an urge to reread his novels now.

  9. John Cowan says:

    Le style c’est l’homme même.Buffon

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