An Off Stage Question

I was wondering about the point in the last post where David Nicholls mentions the impact of having important event happen ‘off stage’ and their impact being made greater when viewed from the perspective of their subsequent impact on characters’ lives — the example he used was a wedding in One Day.

It raises an interesting point about the distinction between author and narrator and the limits of narrative voice. A narrator can act as voice that’s independent of the author — being a first person fictitious character or unreliable or a different gender or even a wine bottle (in the case of Joanne Harris’s Blackberry Wine).

But it’s the author who makes the crucial decisions about which parts of the characters’ stories are related in the text — such as where to start and end, the timescale of the novel, which plot events and interactions with other characters are represented and so on. These decisions are crucial for all novels, but the plots of genres such as mysteries and detective fiction hinge on precise choices about what the author shows. For every saga that stretches over decades, there are novels that concentrate action into one day, like Ulysses.

There’s a huge amount of debate in creative writing classes and on writing blogs about narrative voice but sometimes it seems these underlying structural elements are less discussed, perhaps because they’re much more abstract and can’t be illuminated by textual analysis. The plot itself gets a fair amount of attention. Although it’s more difficult to teach by analysis of passages in novels, the principles of plotting and the enigmatic narrative arc can be found discussed in plenty of books and blogs.

But having an established plot is not quite the same as deciding how to show the plot action to the reader. David Nicholls, once he came up with his concept for One Day made it fairly simple for himself — he showed events that happened on that one day, even though life-changing plot points occurred on other dates. For most novelists, the decisions about what to reveal to the reader are much more potentially difficult to choose.

This might be my biggest problem at the moment — that I can write at such length about so many incidents that are connected to my novel’s plot that I end up combining the detail of the novel-in-a-day approach with the scope of the saga (well, I don’t see my plot lasting longer than a year or so but that’s still a lot longer than a day).

I’m not convinced about the ‘less is more’ approach to this sort of dilemma, which seems to be the standard sort of advice that’s given but I’m sure a lot harder to apply successfully as it depends on the recipient of the advice having the skill to retain all the ‘more’ while discarding all the ‘less’ . If I cut out everything that’s not directly plot-related then I’d lose a lot of what I enjoy about the writing, such as humour, and it would be a different sort of book entirely. It looks as if I’m going to have to resign myself to producing a long-ish book.

While I’ve been musing about how the novel seems to be lengthening overall, there is a particular issue that I’m wondering about that relates to both point-of-view and revelation of plot. I alternate point-of-view between two characters, male and female, although not equally, probably about 60-40. This has its issues in terms of ensuring that important plot events can be witnessed or experienced feasibly by the character whose point-of-view is being used. It can also, however, be used to withhold information.

I’m wondering if it’s acceptable to use this withholding of the reporting of direct experience for one character to allow its discovery later in the plot by the other character’s point-of-view.  It’s not crucial to the overall narrative arc but I’d like to introduce a temporary relationship for one of the characters which the reader will know has happened but only through the perspective of the character who isn’t involved in that relationship (if this makes sense). Then later this character discovers more about what happened — and this has a bearing on the overall plot.

My question is simply whether the reader would be satisfied by this selective revelation of information through use of point-of-view. Would they say ‘If we were told her point-of-view about event X then why didn’t we find out about event Y at the time — and not later?’

My instinct is that this is probably OK and selective revelation like this occurs all the time in books I read but, obviously, don’t analyse in this sort of depth. But if anyone has any ideas about this, especially if it looks like ‘cheating’ then I’d be fascinated to read any comments.

Strictly No Sex Please in the British Literary Novel?

After the Facebook campaign that led Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’ to be involuntarily moved within bookshops to the war or crime sections, there’s much excitement that a passage from the book has been urged for short-listing in the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Awards’.  (Technically it isn’t eligible as it’s not fiction, but the organisers may alter the rules to include it.)

This was mentioned in an article by Susanna Rustin in The Guardian’s book section yesterday in which she advanced the argument (and also voiced some opposing views) that the modern British novel now shies away from anything like explicit descriptions of sex. This probably applies to a certain more literary strata of novels as the article cited the Man Booker Shortlist — there’s plenty of racy action still to be found in other genres of novel, as I found when skimming through a Freya North sort-of-chick-lit book recently.

Andrew Motion was quoted, apparently semi-facetiously, as saying that perhaps authors were scared of being nominated for the Bad Sex Award and the Literary Review’s entry on Wikipedia lists many previous winners as stars of the literary firmament: Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer — and John Updike got a lifetime achievement award.

I wonder if all the people who would wish Tony Blair to join this company realise that the Bad Sex Award was invented by Auberon Waugh — whose conservative views were so detested by Polly Toynbee that she wrote a hostile article about Waugh three days after his death. (I would guess Waugh would also have detested the Blair government but for different reasons than most critics of ‘A Journey’.)

The article also had a very interesting Martin Amis quotation which, perhaps, sums up why many people (like me) find his technical ability to be sometimes quite spellbinding but are unmoved, or even repelled in some way, by the tone and attitude of his novels. He’s reported as saying at a literary festival ‘it’s “impossible” for a novelist to write about real, as opposed to pornographic, sex anyway. “Sex is irreducibly personal, therefore not universal,”‘ [he added later]'”It’s not that surprising. Of all human activities this is the one that peoples the world. With that tonnage of emotion on it, if there is going to be one thing you can’t write about then that would be it.’

I can see his argument — that he can write about sex in an ironically, pseudo-pornographic way because the formulaic narrative of most porn is something that is widely, perhaps not universally, recognised. But that seems to suggest a specific intent for a novel — that it exists to provide an ironic, maybe subversive, commentary on society’s mores or literature and other art forms themselves.

I think that’s a valid purpose for a novel, at least in part, but it appears to ignore one of the key differentiators about fiction as opposed to many other art forms. A novel is an entirely personal dialogue between an author and reader. It’s unlike more social forms of storytelling, like plays, films and television — which also provide visual and auditory representations. The personal nature of this dialogue also makes me query whether a public reading of a part of a novel can ever properly represent private, individual readings of a novel — apart from being influenced by irrelevancies like the reader’s public speaking skills, the audience reaction will influence one’s perception of the words and, unlike the private reading experience, one can’t pause to reflect, re-read a sentence and so on.

It seems the form’s ability to connect directly at a one-to-one level gives a novel’s author a unique opportunity to explore the personal rather than the universal. A novel can give its characters experiences that are beyond the knowledge of most, if not all, readers but by building connections between the personal and universal can create understanding and empathy for the most extraordinary characters and scenarios.

Therefore, because emotional experience is often the most personal and, often, least rational of human nature, I would think this is where the novel can explore in a way that is more intense and more insightful than other narrative forms. And there’s nothing that illuminates characters’  most inner emotions than their sexual motivations, attractions and behaviour.

The Guardian article suggests that it might not be the sniggering-behind-the-bike-sheds tone of the Bad Sex Award that’s preventing the literary authors from writing about sexual relationships but because it’s actually very hard to do. ‘But plenty of authors share the view that writing about sex is difficult, and presents particular challenges – and that sex that might be described as ordinary, or even enjoyable, is hardest of all.’  Hilary Mantel says ‘In good sex the individual personality kind of gets lost, people transcend themselves in a way. In bad sex people become hyper-aware of their bodies, the isolation of their bodies, of shame and humiliation.’

Of course, everything depends on the context but, if there’s a traditional ‘romantic’ narrative where two characters are attracted to each other and have a good and satisfying sexual experience I’d argue it’s as necessary to show this (principally as character development) as it would be to describe some sterile or comical failure — although the latter has more potential for dramatic conflict.

On how graphic a writer wants to make their depiction of sex, I think that all depends on the situation, the characters, the tone of the book (is it inclined towards metaphor and imagery), narrative viewpoint  (how would he/she/they/it view the scene?). I’m reminded of Graeme A. Thomson’s interpretation of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (see previous post) for how a male and female point-of-view might retell the same sexual experience.

In many cases novels probably work well enough to take the Hilary Mantel and Andrew Motion view that readers can do a bit of work and use their imagination — using hints and implications and ‘closing the bedroom door’. However, if interpreted as writing advice, it seems something of a cop-out. There’s a whole range of behaviour that can only be witnessed, by definition, behind the privacy of the bedroom door — characters may act in a completely different, surprising and uninhibited way. This might not always be relevant to the later narrative but it could be — many an otherwise odd coupling might be held together by what goes on in the bedroom and, conversely, it might doom ostensibly compatible pairings.

The biggest argument against writing explictly about sex is perhaps the range of language available. Colm Toibin is quoted in the article as saying: ‘If you give in to any simile, any metaphor, any set of feelings, any flowery language, the modern reader’s irony will come to the fore.’  So if similes and metaphors are out and you also exclude the sort of vocabulary that would remind you of a doctor’s surgery, you’re left with not many words left — and if you avoid the Anglo-Saxon then there’s even less.

Toibin praises Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ as the ‘perfect example. “There isn’t one single piece of language that describes anything other than what occurred.”‘ However, I know from discussing this book personally that it’s exactly that clinical tone to the prose that has made some readers detest that final section of the book — as it’s a story of sexual failure and miscommunication perhaps the language is appropriate but it’s not, in Hilary Mantel’s words, about people ‘transcending themselves’.

Oddly enough, while literary authors are (if you accept this article’s argument) backing away from the representation of sex and some concluding it’s perhaps impossible to do properly, BBC1 is now presenting an hour and a half of some of the most sexualised entertainment for Saturday tea-time viewing.

While the likes of Anne Widdecombe and Paul Daniels are about as asexual as one can imagine, some of the more accomplished dance partnerships move in a way that might cause some of the literary novelists to shy away — ‘he put his hand on her what?’ and so on. I’m no expert of the various dances but clearly many have highly eroticised Latin roots. Many of these dances, with their close physical contact and outfits that are more bare skin than material, are actually transcendent representations of people having the sort of good, enjoyable sex (with hints occasionally of some less wholesome variations) that Mantel and Motion believe is difficult for the novelist to represent.

I know a number of writers who enjoy dancing — either something like Tango or other types as well as getting into ‘Strictly’ — so I think there’s something quite deep-seated in this between dancing and uninhibited self-expression.  It’s also interesting that so few professionals on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ are British (less than a third, I think, with the rest being Italian, Australian, Russian, American and Eastern European’) — perhaps the Guardian article’s concerns are very specific to the British novelist — it does seem that one might learn more about genuine sexual attraction by watching Bruce Forsyth’s programme than reading the Man Booker shortlist.

Dein and Ihr Confusion

I had an e-mail from my ex-manager in Germany today. I sent him the first few chapters of ‘The Angel’ to read and he’s told me that he took them on holiday and he really enjoyed them. He’s a pretty fluent English speaker and, as is quite common now in Europe, the artefacts that he largely works with (meetings, presentations, documents) are all in English but there’s still a lot of German spoken between colleagues. The language often marks the boundary between work and social interaction, formality and informality.

So that’s really encouraging — a native German speaking endorsement of the start of the novel — so Kim must be plausible.

He’s also helped me with a bit of German translation. The bit of German at the end of the ‘Linguaphone’ posting wasn’t exactly wrong but it was confusing as it changed the familiarity of the ‘you’ mid-sentence — so it should be ‘Ihr Englisch ist sehr flüssig, aber Sie sprechen’ or ‘Dein Englisch ist sehr flüssig, aber du sprecht’. And I’ve been given a choice of two phrases for another line: ‘”Kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” or may be better just “Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie deutsch?”‘

Visit from Penny Rudge

I posted briefly, about a month ago on our final visit from  figure from the publishing industry — one of our course’s published alumni, Penny Rudge. She came to see us on 9th June and I’ll try to summarise the many interesting points below that she made in her hour or so with us.

(I’ve been very slow in writing up this and a few things from the course as I’ve been so busy with the reading and also the writing of the commentary and submission of chapters two to four (or three to five in my case — about 11,500 words)).

With our reading only three weeks away, many of the class were interested to know if Penny’s book deal for ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ had been precipitated by her year’s equivalent event (as had been the case with Kirstan Hawkins). A few of us were relieved when Penny said that, while one agent showed interest at the time and a couple asked to see the final book, that this wasn’t out of the ordinary for her cohort and that the novel, while started on the Certificate course, had largely been written when she moved on to do an MA (I think this was at Royal Holloway — and she later went on to do a PhD ).

(The further study yielded an endorsement from Andrew Motion for the novel which can’t have harmed its marketing.)

Penny’s agent (Caroline Wood at Felicity Byron) picked up ‘Foolish Tales in Life and Love’ from the anthology that was produced at the end of the MA course.  So no short cut from the Certificate course reading but Penny said that it was all valuable experience, a nice night — and a well-organised event.

It was also Penny’s view that the City course was more appropriate for the focused development of the novel — the MA being better for experimentation. Practically the whole novel had been workshopped chapter-by-chapter with ex-students from City University because they continued to meet after the course had ended. Penny puts down the fact that the manuscript required fairly little editing once accepted for publication to the feedback received in this way.

As well as the academic courses, Penny had biological deadlines to meet when completing the novel: finishing it just before the birth of her second child. The overall chronology was graduating from the City course in 2007, completing the novel in 2008 and then receiving the final proofs of the novel in the summer of 2009 — for publication in trade paperback in April 2010. A mass market paperback format is due for publication in June 2011.

A combination of managing to get a grant for full-time study and the need to take time off to start a family led Penny to give up her previous job in IT and become a full-time writer — or at least as much as child-care commitments would allow. In this sense the City University course was part of a life-changing experience. Aspiring writers might be well advised to look into Arts Council grants and similar (but don’t expect a champagne lifestyle from one).

Once the novel had been sold, there were a few changes made in response to the publisher’s feedback:

  • A character’s nationality was changed as it was too reminiscent of a recent best-seller
  • The publisher came up with the title of the book — Penny had a different one while she was writing it but was happy to take on the publisher’s suggestion of  ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ as she thought it summed the book up well
  • Historical anachronisms, particularly indoor smoking, had to be removed (how the world changed during the gestation of the book!)
  • Quotations from pop songs and films were removed — not at the insistence of the publisher but because it was pointed out that getting the permissions costs a not insignificant amount of money
  • The ending of the book was made a bit more hopeful than it was originally — apparently readers like that (I shall have to remember this advice myself if and when I get to the end of mine)

Nevertheless, the novel remained remarkably unchanged from the original synopsis.

One point that intrigued some of us was that Taras, the main character in the novel, was male — and a number of our class were narrating from the point of view (at least partially) of someone from the opposite gender.  In Penny’s case that was quite helpful for the first novel as it dispensed with any obvious autobiographical parallels and allowed her imagination to be more free. Her second novel is likely to have more autobiographical components. In the end, it was her view that imagination is at the core of fiction — an author must be able to enter a character’s thoughts (or at least give a convincing illusion of doing so).

I’ve touched in previous posts about how Penny has demonstrated a knack for marketing her work — such as providing material for publicists to try and place in a newspaper (as happened with an article in ‘The Independent’).  Publicists tend to have bigger clients than debut novelists so they are not likely to spend a huge amount of time generating this kind of story but, if the author takes the initiative, publicists can be quite effective in finding the best outlet to take it.

Self-promotion is probably something that doesn’t come easily to most writers but it’s something that authors increasingly need to do. As well as thinking of good stories to prime publicists, events like signings in bookshops are ways of increasing profile and flogging the copies of books that need to be sold to increase the chances of getting subsequent publishing deals. The author has to take the initiative in arranging book signings, doing readings at festivals, walking into bookshops and trying to sell them your book (this seemed to have worked for Penny in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly as the novel had been spotted on the shelves near the door by one of the class) — and so on. Lots of support from literary friends also pays dividends.

All the marketing, while hard work, tends to have a snowball effect. For example, a when a book crosses a threshold of something like twenty reviews then Amazon then it becomes more prominent on Amazon.

Cyberspace promotion is also now expected — Penny is intending to start up a web page or blog when she has time (in between all the readings, signings — with a bit of writing squeezed in as well). In the meantime, there’s a Facebook page that publicises the book and allows readers interaction with the author.

Penny has now sat in enough bookshops to be able to observe buyer behaviour — which includes the surprising revelation that hardly anyone browses the fiction shelves. They probably never get past the infamous 3 for 2 table!

Strengths and Weaknesses

For our commentary we need to list the strengths and weaknesses in our writing. I won’t list what I plan to write are my strengths but I came up with a rather long list of weaknesses, although some are the inverse of possible strengths. For example, one person’s superfluous dialogue might be another’s illustration of character or inconsistency of character might also be viewed as adding complexity.

  • Over-explaining — insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling out what can be inferred
  • Occasionally over-writing — though this depends a lot on the reader’s taste and the genre
  • Lapse into cliché/corniness — in the more emotional scenes I can put in soapy dialogue but when it’s real emotion I don’t think it pays to think of clever ways of having your characters avoiding saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I want you’.
  • Balance of interior/exterior — I often avoid the interior (could be linked with the POV issue)
  • POV not clearly enough signalled (or just inconsistent) — my POVs tend to confuse at times because I’ll allow the character whose POV I am writing from to infer observations (the other character must have entered the room because the POV character assumed she heard the door open — perhaps easier to say ‘she must have heard the door open’)
  • Not ‘listening’ to characters — being an authorial bully — thinking ‘wouldn’t it be a great scene for him to parade this other woman before his wife and provoke an argument between them all’ for the sake of creating a dramatic scene when really the characters don’t want to do that.
  • Lack of conciseness (inc. superfluous dialogue) — the universal reluctance to kill your own babies
  • Consistency of characterisation — readers thinking ‘x or y wouldn’t do that’ — but do I do this badly enough to make the reader give up or would be cumulative effect be to increase complexity if done properly?

Fascinating Lessons in Writing and POV

We had a visit from another published course alumnus last night — Penny Rudge, author of ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’, as mentioned in a previous post.

I’ll blog later at more length about what she said about the publishing process in general. I was quite relieved that her book deal didn’t follow as a consequence of the end-of-course reading.

I’m quite inspired by the book and our session yesterday. I was encouraged that she had a similar background to me and, curiously, the style of her novel is probably closer to how I’ve been writing than mine is to anyone else currently on the course — contemporary setting, humorous, lots of dialogue, other gender POV, European leading character (s), etc.

I’m quite gratified that ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ has probably a higher literary breast count (and other intimate body parts) than my work in progress could be projected to have — there are scenes in a strip club and seedy strippers’ pub.  These descriptions are very well done — very witty and frank but never over-graphic, anatomical or crude. I think I’ll  keep the book handy for my own inspiration — seeing as I’m frequently reminded how sex-obsessed my male character is (wait until Monday’s reading).  Penny’s use of the male point of view in these scenes is also very accurate, at least from my own observation, so maybe there’s hope for me to use POV the other way.

Perhaps it’s because Penny also has a background as a computer programmer. I think I may have blogged on this before but I was a programmer for about 12 years, have worked in IT since and am now doing a dissertation for an MSc. in Software Development. I asked her a question about how she organised the files on the computer, as a writer, and she enthusiastically answered.

Perhaps IT workers are one of those professions, journalism being the most obvious one, that equips people with certain skills — being able to use a keyboard quickly is one but also in novelistic terms, putting together a novel with its themes and planning probably draws a lot on the analytical skills required to put together big systems. And the revision process is similar in that one small change can have very big knock-on consequences throughout the system or novel (name, setting, chronology changes, etc.).

My Penultimate Workshop Reading

I read out my Chapter Three at our first evening workshop last night. I’d actually forgotten many of my misgivings about the piece and now I wish I’d ploughed ahead more over Easter and been able to submit the next chapter — which will move fast from place-to-place and start to build a bit of intimacy between James and Kim.

The first two chapters were comparatively much faster paced and had a lot more action as well. However, it seemed to be necessary to use the third chapter to slow the pace to seed a lot of plot elements and themes: Kim was given more reasons to get away (health, debts), it established James liking of cooking and explained why Kim would be a good person to try and get to run a pub. I also tried to dampen the reader’s expectations of a possible romantic involvement between the two in the next chapters.

I was concerned that I might have been accused of homophobic stereotyping as I added at a late stage an idea that James might think Kim was a lesbian, based on the ‘a little knowledge’ principle. I actually did quite a bit of research on body piercing (which James had supposedly read about in Time Out) and one person wrote on the script — ‘like a Prince Albert’. Obviously Kim wouldn’t have one of these (click if you want your eyes to water like James’ did) but she may have slightly less spectacular piercings. (I did once know someone who had a Prince Albert.) There was a discussion about whether James would be quite so ignorant of gay culture as perhaps he came over but no-one objected to sowing this seed of doubt in his mind as a plot device, which was a relief. I’m still not sure whether I’ll continue with it but my objective is to have them both bond together without cranking up the sexual aspect.

I took the attitude that if I sent out a piece of 2,600 words that was basically just two characters in a confined space then I’d be doing well just to sustain people’s interest to the end.

I deliberated about sending out one of the first two chapters, which had both come back from Alison with positive feedback, but I thought that might have the effect of both wasting her time by going over familiar work and it would also perhaps be fishing for compliments on work I knew she generally liked.

Maybe I should have done this as, in the event, I felt I got quite a negative reaction to this new piece from Alison. I think her comments were generally fair in that the piece was probably too long to sustain pace and that Kim’s voice didn’t come over as distinctly German — I was a bit annoyed with myself that at a late stage I’d cut and pasted a bit of Kim speaking German (translating musical chairs) out of the extract it  to use in the next chapter. However, at least one person had picked up on parts of the dialogue where she is struggling to find the correct vocabulary and the speech patterns of young Germans who are fluent in English are not actually that different to many native speakers — they’re quite close to American English.

So I think the way that I’d read out the extract probably did no justice to any subtleties in the dialogue.  And I’m not much good at reading aloud anyway so me rushing it must have been really bad — and I was hampered a bit by wearing contact lenses that are not good for reading close up — at times I was struggling to read my 12 point Times New Roman, even though I’d written it myself!

Paradoxically the pace would probably have come over better if I’d have added in some dramatic pauses and the like. On the other hand, I was quite struck by the number of comments, both written and spoken, that said they’d read through it quickly and easily and thought it had a good pace but then seemed to have second thoughts on hearing it read out.

I’m not sure it’s going to help people write novels, though, if we get encouraged to write prose that sounds better read out loud than on the page — you could understand that with poetry or drama. I’m a bit perplexed by that aspect of the course — it’s not much good for someone writing prose fiction if someone says ‘now I’ve heard you read it out then it seems better’ as the ordinary reader will never hear it read, they just have to go with what’s on the page. Perhaps it’s to prepare us for the reading event at the end of the course?

An average reader isn’t going to read the prose three times over in order to fully appreciate it or have the experience of the dialogue being brought to life by a lively authorial reading. That’s why I find the written comments enormously useful as they generally tend to be more individual observations. I find we don’t really get long enough to hear others’ comments and my tactic is to hear people out and listen as much as possible, although I was dying to say ‘yes, but wait for the next bit’ or ‘that was explained in the chapter before’ a few times.

I respect everyone’s opinions, though I don’t necessarily agree with everything. I think I was quite loose with the use of adverbs in some parts of the extract but I’m not sure that a zero tolerance policy towards them is entirely necessary — sometimes they can be used very effectively in the free indirect style to establish a character’s POV.  I think perhaps I have a prose style which makes the odd bit of ornamentation stand out.

One point I was very pleased about was that the rest of the students were very divided about James. One or two people loathed him with a passion while others thought he was potentially quite nice. Some thought him a blundering clown and others a straight banker. This shows that he’s got contradictions and people seem to be reacting to him like a real person. Also, a lot of that chapter was very close to his point-of-view and some objected to him looking at Kim supposedly as a sexual object and how dare he make judgements over her appearance — but this is all going on in his mind. Unless he’s being very unsubtle in his observations, she isn’t going to know any of this unless he cares to tell her. The controversy is such that I even got an e-mail of support from someone the day afterwards in support of him.

BBC News Has Point of View Problems

The BBC’s reporting on the British Airways industrial dispute with Unite has been fascinating in terms of the nuances of meaning that can easily be interpreted to favour one side over another and also how the juxtaposition of human interest stories (‘how do you feel about your honeymoon being cancelled?’) with reporting of arcane negotiation details can influence the message of the report — there’s a lot of subtlety, whether deliberate or through lazy reporting — and the subject is interesting in a wider writing context.

One particular example was heard on Five Live’s bulletins on Saturday night. The newsreader stated that BA had said more Unite cabin staff had turned up to work ‘than expected’ and consequently the airline had ‘re-instated’ previously cancelled flights.

The number of staff ‘expected’ in this report was  entirely BA’s own subjective figure, which as it had previously not been published could not be verified. This tactic was obviously BA PR spin designed to give an impression that the strike was weakening and the BBC reported this clear inference despite this assertion having no independently verified basis.

More rigorous journalism would have attributed to whom the verb ‘expected’ was related — e.g. ‘A BA spokesperson said more staff had turned up than BA’s management had expected’. By missing out the vital attribution of who expected the turnout, any listener is invited to infer that it is the reporter or the supposedly impartial BBC who has made the judgement about whether the strike is being well observed or not.

Unattributable quantitative judgements like ‘higher than expected’ play with the reader or listener’s expectations and relate very much to the point-of-view discussions that we’ve had in the classes at City. Whose expectations are these that are being reported? It’s vitally important. Obvious authorial interventions, as in the BBC report, imply an omniscient narrative voice that, in BBC News Bulletins, should be impartial. Fictionally such leading assertions belong more rightfully placing red herrings in a detective novel (where even then they’d be rather too obvious).