Claire King


The eyeball effect

Posted on: January 12th, 2011 by Claire - 7 Comments

What do you think about the eyeball effect?

What do you think about the eyeball effect?

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was young Albert,
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
With a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle,
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much of the Ocean:
The waves, they were fiddlin’ and small,
There was no wrecks and nobody drownded,
Fact, nothing to laugh at at all.


I hope I’m not the only one old enough and Northern enough to recognise this passage from Marriott Edgar’s Albert and the Lion.

I was reminded about it after having read several articles in the news this week about the escalation of ‘wrecks and drowndings’ in ‘Eastenders’ and other places. That there is a market for this kind of entertainment makes me feel sad. Personally, I prefer fiction, theatre and film that ultimately shows people to be good at heart and courageous. I find that reassuring, positive, uplifting. So one of my real bête noirs is gratuitous use of:

Death (murder, suicide or accidental); Rape; Child Abuse; Domestic Violence or indeed any other kind of violence; Tragic illnesses including cancer, brain tumours and the like…and there’s no need to go on with this list really.

In literary terms, I like Martha Williams’ description of this: the eyeball effect – ie if you start a story with ‘The eyeball rolled slowly down the hill…’ you’ve grabbed attention. I’m pretty sure there is a market for this, but it’s not necessarily what I like to read. I don’t mean there shouldn’t be conflict, challenges, even disaster, or even any of the above (of course). Just that it needs to be justified by the plot and the characters. Illustrating with a few examples:

Reading Caroline Smaile’s debut novel ‘In Search of Adam‘  – I was in perpetual fear of turning the page to see what terrible things would happen next. It is a wonderful book, but everything is authentic, everything is justified.

By contrast, in Emma Donaghue’s ‘Room’ (which is brilliant) – I was very disappointed when a character which had been very sympathetic and heroic suddenly behaved out of character (see the above list, trying not to spoil) towards the end. I accept that the behaviour could be authentic, of course, but having felt in safe hands all the way through the delicate treatment of traumatic issues in the book, I felt let down towards the end.

On the other hand, three cheers for Christopher Brookmyre and his ‘Sacred Art of Stealing’ – a wonderful satire full of non-violent bank robbers.

Then there is ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’: The tragedy is inevitable, but the build up is handled with such finesse and the details, when they come, are spare.

Finally I must mention Jodi Picoult – a writer for whom I have enormous admiration. Not only does she sell millions of books, but I have enyoyed plenty of them, usually while blarting. Sometimes, though, it seems like she’s just gathered all the eyeballs within striking distance and put them into one book, one after another.

So, how do you feel about eyeballs, wrecks and ‘drowndings’? Do you like to watch them? Do you like to write them? Do you like to read them?

7 Responses

  1. Pete says:

    I’m the same and I often turn off programmes and put down books that seem to just ‘throw stuff in’ for the sake of it.

    I always think that the classics stand the test of times by avoiding the temptation to throw in the kitchen sink and just run with one or two themes. I always loved Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ which is just basically about three different forms of love between a man and a woman. More recently, I loved ‘One Day’ – just about a relationship set on a particular day of the year. Things happen, good and bad, but the events seem natural and you go with the story.

    Often I think there’s an underlying lack of confidence in the story and the writing which persuades people to throw in more twists, deaths and car crashes in an effort to keep people’s attention. I’m always a fan of less is more.

    • claire says:

      I hope you’re right about the confidence – I have that feeling too although I’m also worried that there is a big chunk of the market that demands this sort of thing…

  2. I completely agree,Claire. I like a story with conflict and challenge but, like you, I do look for a good-hearted resolution. I like to think love and good faith win in the end. The Eastenders effect – don’t get me started…

    • claire says:

      If you have any good novels to recommend in that genre I’d be happy to hear!

    • The challenge remains however that often in real time this happy resolution after disaster and misfortune has struck doesn’t occur for people in real time – sometimes people are left just hanging on to life and hope for change when all seems seriously mill on the floss miserable – that needs reflecting in novels and philosophy aswell

      • claire says:

        Oh yes I agree, and I have nothing against misery, despair, depression and all things very unPollyannaish. I just don’t want them served with a slice of voyeurism.

  3. Jules Archer says:

    Very cool article, Claire. Love your thoughts and the “eyeball effect”. I definitely love a good slice of angst with honest endings. I tend not to veer toward happy-go-lucky stories but they are a nice change when the angst gets to be too much.

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