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In one of his last interviews Christopher Hitchens was asked for his view on the distinction between journalism and creative writing. It was a question predicated on the difference between his work, and that of his friends, the novelists: Ian McEwen and Martin Amis.

He said it was the music, which he qualified as being present in a novelist’s work but which is absent, or at such a low volume as to appear absent, in journalism and non-fiction.

That judgment may be too sweeping; and his comments were in an interview, so they were without the benefit of deeper consideration. In any case music: the raw musicality of language is something that runs in and through any language; it gives it cadence and emphasis; it is one of the most difficult aspects to master in a foreign language and it is something that powerful writing possesses. Music can never be entirely absent because every utterance has a musical signature.

Even so, Hitchens was a very good writer and he knew his trade. The apparent foregrounding of musical qualities in language is something that poetry, and some prose, have in abundance. It cannot be as present in more workaday genres, not in English anyway. If it is it then classed as pretentious, which covers just about anything undesirable. French has the capacity to run to belles-lettres, even in journalism, and it’s a quality in that written language which is verbose and pompous.

When comparing fiction with non-fiction, it is the creative work that offers its tune more overtly to the reader. Well, it ought to, but not in all cases which makes it rather impossible to claim it as a universal fact. There are any number of well-known books which suggest the author saw words on the page, but never heard them. And there some enduring works that are tone deaf.

Whether its a measured fact or not, a musical essence is instrinsic to strong writing.

Guy Cranswick
30 March 2012