May 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
I finally found an anecdote I remember reading about James Joyce, where he tells a story about a story of a dirt-covered locket. It took so much googling that I started to doubt it had ever existed in the first place, but at last, via a Google book search, I found it in the “New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes” (which is a shockingly reasonable place to find it).
It’s about specificity in writing, and it goes like this:
A German lady called to see me today. She is a writer and wanted me to give an opinion on her work, but she told me she had already shown it to the porter of the hotel where she stays.
So I said to her: ‘What did your hotel porter think of your work?’
She said: ‘He objected to a scene in my novel where my hero goes out into the forest, finds a locket of the girl he loves, picks it up and kisses it passionately.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘that seems to me to be a very pleasing and touching incident. What did your hotel porter find wrong with it?’
And then she tells me he said: ‘It’s all right for the hero to find the locket and to pick it up and kiss it, but before he kissed it you should have made him wipe the dirt off it with his coat sleeve.’
I told her, (and I meant it too) to go back to that hotel porter and always to take his advice. ‘That man,’ I said, ‘is a critical genius. There is nothing I can tell you that he can’t tell you.’
The reason I remember this anecdote, and the reason I wanted to try to rescue it from obscurity with this blog post, is that it’s such a neat lesson about the prime virtue of good writing: specificity, i.e. filling in the details that bring a story to life.
The interesting angle in this anecdote is that it argues how much creative mileage you can get out of the mundane question “What would really happen?” You can expand your understanding of a work, and you can expand your own work, by several dimensions simply by considering its implications for itself.
In Bleak House, a man spontaneously combusts. Okay. So what would really happen? Well, there’d be soot scattered everywhere, in spots here and there and then closer and closer together, drawing a passerby by degrees to the scene of the incident. And that’s what happens, in a terrifically narrated scene.
Or there’s a scene in The Simpsons where the camera turns from a marching protest group to Homer banging his fists on a counter at a food truck chanting “Where’s my burrito?” He keeps banging his fists until the awning comes loose, collapses, and whacks him in the head. The scene is so unforgettable simply because the writers or animators asked “What would really happen?”
Or to put it my own way, the difference between an ordinary scene and a creative one is stopping to ask “What if?”
January 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
Here’s Glenn Gould making a subtle but profound distinction between the “state of ecstasy” in Bach’s music and the sense of struggle and progression and striving in later music such as Classical:
I’m not a musical expert, but I believe you can hear Gould’s characterization of Classical music in, for example, those Beethoven sonata-form movements that are predicated on starting on the tonic and moving away into the dominant or the relative major or some other harmonic center before finding a way home. Explicit modulation and transition are essential in marking out the sections of a movement.
Compare this to Bach, whose harmonies are in such constant motion that they can’t really be described in sections or progressions. The sense of progression or movement, if you’re looking for it, is so constant that a whole piece of his is rather a state of being — a “state of ecstasy”, as Gould describes it around the 6:15 mark in the video.
That notion of “static” music, that distinction between music that struggles to go somewhere and music that merely is, is what I find so profound. And of course, I think it applies to writing.
I think the literary analogue to this idea can be summed up in that famous line from Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica”:
A poem should not mean / But be
A real story — a living, full-blooded one — isn’t caught up in the obligations of taking readers from one exciting event to another or describing some amazing situation. An ordinary story is concerned with introducing us to a more or less normal “home” state, and then subjecting it and us to some conflict, keeping us in tension for long enough that we feel sufficiently relieved and gratified at the restorative ending. The pattern of progressing inevitably from home to a strange place and, comfortably, back home again reminds me of the exertions of a classical piece with its tonic-dominant-tonic harmonic transitions.
There is a total and consistent richness in a great literary world that doesn’t proceed in sections — indeed, doesn’t really proceed at all. The profound serenity of a Chekhov play or story consists precisely in his writing’s lack of machinations. We’re not whisked along a plot. Rather, the characters are allowed to live and breathe, and the constant (not chunky and artificial) modulations of their lives form the substance of the story.
For another example of writing that merely is, see the associative, memory-driven structure of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which there is no start and end goal for the story, but rather one episode, long or short, wells naturally out of another. Or see the first four acts of Hamlet, which Hamlet spends, in a way, clowning around and making an ambiguous mockery of his own reputation for brooding. That ambiguity is the story, before the fifth act comes and kills everyone off for closure’s sake.
All these stories are round, not linear, worlds, in the spirit of how Gould described Bach’s music as capturing the “immutable totality of existence” in that video.
If you want to appreciate writing that is, you have to let go of all the most common fundamental values: a beginning, middle, and end; excitement and intrigue; moralizing and lesson-teaching; good guys rising up from their darkest hour. These feature are machinations — struggling, rather than being. They serve to distract you from the author’s choice to pass the time rather than create something.
December 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
Counterintuitively, James Joyce was too button-down as a young writer and needed many years to loosen up and indulge himself before he produced his best work. (Or maybe it’s intuitive if you give weight to his Catholic upbringing.)
“The Dead” captures an interesting point in his development. It’s long been touted as one of the great short stories, but I have my cynical suspicions that it’s so respected because it finds Joyce working in a traditional mode whose techniques and values (restraint, precision, neatness, politics) square with contemporary ones. But is it an interesting story?
Joyce is a very analytical writer in “The Dead”. He shows the impressive technical mastery he’d already gained at just 25 years old. He lays out his themes clearly, and balances them (living vs. dead, Irishness vs. cosmopolitanism, inner life vs. outer life, etc. etc.) with great precision.
It’s suspiciously precise, actually. Even allowing for the protagonist Gabriel’s fastidiousness, and how the narration hews to his mindset, the storytelling is just so clean. Examples:
Diction: “My wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself,” says Gabriel. “Mortal” of course is an allusion to death, and how it undergirds the characters’ inner lives.
Irishness: Describing the outgoing, genuine Miss Ivors: “the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto”. There is implicit and explicit tension between Gabriel and other characters regarding his cosmopolitan attitudes and interests. The holiday party is a hearth-and-home affair reminding him in different ways of his Irish roots.
Music, and Intellectualism: “Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages.” Mary, a member of the avant-garde younger generation, alienates herself just so from the party’s guests by playing a sophisticated piece.
Physical description: On oft-drunk Freddy Malins: “He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips.” Notice how many blunt words this sentence uses — “coarse”, “blunt”, “convex”, “tumid”, “protruded” — to sell you on the frankness of Freddy’s character. I especially take issue with this sentence. It’s such a utilitarian all-at-once description of such a conventional kind, and it’s light on specifics. It’s more rhetoric than literature.
Foreshadowing, foreshadowing, foreshadowing!: “But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.” I mean, come on. The ending centers on Michael Furey’s doing just this (in the rain, anyway). So the gestures of the ending epiphany are explicitly broadcast.
This writing is all just so tidy that I accuse it of contrivance and fastidiousness. Joyce had all the techniques at his command so early in his career, but he applies them like implements, or wields them like arrows in a quiver, one after the other in discrete succession. I get the sense in his later writing that he didn’t care about tidiness. While Ulysses, for example, is every bit as calibrated and analytical as “The Dead”, the various techniques go into a wild kaleidoscope. And his descriptive gifts are most often put to describing, for the sake of richly populating a vibrant world. The real creative act isn’t the assimilation or organization of techniques — it’s pressing forward with the creation of an organic something, rather than an assemblage. Something that lives and breathes, something organic, something with a soul.
P.S. Let me give an example of where the analytical voice of the storytelling in “The Dead” is an animating force. Here is the crowd watching Mary Jane play: “Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes.”
Simple as that. Counting out the men, and their group behavior, lends an insidious undercurrent to their being there, I think. Their arrival and their departure are fleeting. Perhaps callous, perhaps shallowly intrigued by Mary Jane or her playing. None of the men is characterized; they simply lurk. This is the fluid motion of a party.
September 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
A while ago I found this video on YouTube of Joshua Bell, professional violinist, as a kid taking a class from a famous and much, much older teacher, Ivan Galamian. The video is pretty awkward — it’s not easy to watch this shy young kid being continually chided by an older master with a quaintly patrician bearing. But there’s a point where Galamian gives an aberrantly simple piece of advice: “Everything that looks pretty is good. Everything that looks ugly is bad.”.
When I practice my viola I find it’s roughly true — that by following my own simple impulses for what looks or sounds better, I arrive at “the truth”, i.e. a technical adjustment that is more fluid and more easy, that improves my sound at its core. To abuse the term, it’s more “natural”. It could be finding the right pitch instead of a slightly sharp one, or learning not to clamp down with my fingers, or keeping my bow far enough away from me, or one of a billion little things yet to be learned.
When I hit on an adjustment like this, there’s a sense of relief that’s rooted in pleasure. It sounds better and it feels better, so practice is a process of continually perturbing my playing and trying to find what makes me happier.
In my experience of classes, lessons, or advice-getting of any kind (thinking back, I give so little advice outside this blog but I’ve heard so much), there’s always a dire tenor in the teaching. That a very serious truth is being communicated by the teacher and I need to take exact notes.
Unfortunately, that’s not how learning really works (in my experience). The real learning has always been in the time I have to myself, to explore this or that, to nudge this finger in that direction and see what happens.
Becoming a better reader and writer is like that too, of course. I pick up a book because of its potential to excite me, as best I can tell. I want a challenge. I want to see what happens when I read this. Likewise with my writing, what happens when I try this?
Understanding the art form is predicated on happiness for me. I’m not trying to pick up a book’s social messages, I’m trying to understand what’s amazing in it, to deepen my happiness. Now and then I stop myself when I’ve passed unaffected through an ordinary-looking passage, and I go back, and I ask myself, what might be amazing in this passage?
Almost all the writing advice I’ve ever heard takes the certain form, the approach that’s oblivious to exploration. It says “this is the way to write, write like this”. For example when someone tells you to introduce your character with a perfect capsule representation of who they are — something fundamentally revealing about their personality, e.g. a cheapskate’s counting his dimes before he sets his wallet down. Why don’t you just sit down and wrestle with different ways of introducing your character, and see what sparks? You’ll arrive at “the right answer” whether or not you, incidentally, follow someone’s advice or rebuke it.
Take a look through a writing advice book or a writing advice webpage. How many of the ideas are prescriptive, and certain? Now, how many profess that there’s no way to know for sure but to try out your imagination? I’d love to be pleasantly surprised by an easy portion of truth some day, but when I sit down for the real task of learning something deep, I’ve finally got nothing to go on but my own sense of pleasure.
January 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
Let’s pit the art forms against each other in a grisly melee. Life being what it is, I could’ve ended up with an interest in anything else: music, sports, motorcycles, whatever. But straws were drawn and I got books as my passion. How does that stack up against other possibilities?
In the interest of counting my blessings, I’ve thought about the advantages and disadvantages of being a reader, and of the literary art form. There’s so much to explore in life that even if you pursue all your interests with the deepest energy and effort you have, you’re only getting one or two flavors of creative enjoyment from your years. To love deeply is to love a sliver of things.
First, the bad stuff. Language is always changing, so compared to other art forms, like music, literature is thoroughly doomed to obscurity. Even if we optimistically assume the permanent dominance of the English language, your writing is not going to survive as it is. Shakespeare is only four centuries old, and even his work, the crown jewel of the canon, is heavily annotated today.
So all writing is inherently doomed in the long run. What else? Literature is obsolete, compared to movies or video games. The art form is pretty well established and even corporatized. It has no hold over the public imagination and — don’t underestimate this one — doesn’t gain the direct and exciting benefits of advancing technology the way music or movies do. It’s inherently more static than other art forms because of the simplicity of its means, words on a page.
But there are serious upsides. They just require a lot of work on the part of a writer or reader to manifest:
Anyone Can Write
You don’t need an early introduction to writing, the way violinists start at age three. You don’t need to gain entry into a conservatory or art school, you don’t need to be born into an upper-class life that sanctions frivolous pursuits, and you don’t need a formal education. Because writing is a skill acquired in some form by practically everyone, everyone has the foundation to explore the art form if they’re so inclined. And (this is a big one for me personally since my childhood was so scattershot) you can pick it up in your teens or twenties or thirties and it’s not too late to become a great reader or writer. So there’s less luck involved.
A Blanker Slate and a Freer Range
Music works within an abstract system of scales and harmony and what not. Painting is bound to color and line and space. Motorcycling follows the laws of physics. But an individual piece of writing sets its own rules for harmony or color or physics. It also sets its own logic, its own sense of time, and its own definitions of possible and impossible. In The Metamorphosis, a man may turn into a beetle. In In Search Of Lost Time, time is an imaginative process rather than an administrative or entropic one. In Coleridge’s poetry, Xanadu is vividly felt and real life is a hazy interruption. Who knows what the stuff of a real book may look or feel like, or how it may behave, or how it may delight? Who knows? That’s the fun of it. (That’s also what makes writing really hard, by the way. Why do you think the publishing industry and creative writing classes are so obsessed with restraint and convention? Because the threat of freedom is so large.)
Varieties Of Subtlety
The fine, nearly inexpressible subtleties and details that transform mere narration into an amazing imaginative act can take any shape. This is harder to explain than the previous two points. In Gogol’s writing, artistry is the digression that gives the backstory for the “freshly laid egg” in a simple analogy like “Her pretty face was as oval as a freshly laid egg.” In Dickens, artistry is the aggregation of soot-marks — on the windowsill, on the floor, in dirty London — before discovering a character has spontaneously combusted. Neither of these is a prescribed pattern — like, say, recitative in opera or a slice serve in tennis — but an artistic form newly and wholly created for the sake of a single book or passage or image. There is a dizzying and exhilarating exploratory quality to all great writing, since we are seeing what strangeness an individual mind can produce and still get away with under the humble guise of a “novel”.
There’s probably more, but I hope I’ve made enough points. If my points have anything unifying in them, it’s probably that, since language is and can be twisted to so many ends of so many minds, books occupy a special closeness to the dizzying variety and strangeness of thought and imagination.
November 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
All art is charged with mystery — an indivisible strain of magic or irrationality or the unanswerable, what Keats described as “negative capability” — but that doesn’t excuse readers or writers from exercising rigor in their work. The universe is mysterious too, but not because it’s portentous or hollow or opaque. Rather, the universe is mysterious precisely because we can look more and more closely at it, with greater and greater rigor, to understand better and better its mechanics. This is what leads us to its wonder.
So it is with human-made universes, too. You can’t understand the fundamental contradictions and ambiguities of a work without prying deeply into it. But in the practical world of books and authors and critics and readers, everyone wants to lay claim to possessing or discerning the artistic brand of mystery. My sense from the criticism I’ve read (professional or scholarly or amateur, the distinctions are insignificant) is that it’s easy to talk about the ineffable or the sublime because practically everybody gets a pass on that stuff. Who would dare take you to task for a poor treatment of the unknowable?
But there’s real mystery, and there’s pseudo or hollow or false mystery. And I think the modern sense of the world’s complexity and insanity — and the prevalence of fuzzy conformist talk about books — breeds, like a damp cupboard, a lot of fusty talk about mystery in writing.
Let me give examples — one of false mystery, one of the real thing.
Here’s a passage from the very beginning of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (I like picking on McCarthy’s writing because he enjoys a very rare literary kind of renown. There’s only so much of that kind of renown to go around, so I think it’s important to mind its allocation.)
At fourteen he runs away. He will not see again the freezing kitchenhouse in the predawn dark. The firewood, the washpots. He wanders west as far as Memphis, a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape. Blacks in the fields, lank and stooped, their fingers spiderlike among the bolls of cotton. A shadowed agony in the garden. Against the sun’s declining figures moving in the slower dusk across a paper skyline. A lone dark husbandman pursuing mule and harrow down the rainblown bottomland toward night.
A lot of words are thrown together for portentous effect, and because of these short phrases a grand hazy stateliness is attributed to McCarthy’s writing. (Example: “The phrases and clauses in that sentence, written without punctuation, add up to a kind of rushing prose, seemingly spontaneous, but highly crafted. Such rhythms can be almost biblical in their power.”)
What happens when you look closely? I submit the thing falls apart and we see a core that’s not sublime, but ridiculous. When McCarthy writes that the protagonist is “a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape”, he’s giving a cue that we should take the mythic power of “that” landscape for granted. How can it be both “flat” and “pastoral”? Pastoral indicates lushness — it’s a sentimental term, and it doesn’t go with barrenness. And a phrasing like “lone dark husbandman” is cliche. This mystery isn’t rigorous! It’s taken off the shelf. So calling it mysterious is too generous. It’s pompous.
On the other hand, I’ve been reading Gogol’s Dead Souls, and I’ve found the whole thing is a grand jest of a book where the narrator is spinning a tale he doesn’t totally know and indulging in digressions that aren’t totally relevant in a story world that’s capricious toward reader, protagonist, and narrator alike. In the marrow of the writing there’s a very essential frivolity. For example, here’s a man going home to his wife after visiting a fair and running from an argument with his brother-in-law:
The brother-in-law went on repeating his excuses for some time, without noticing that he had long ago got into his barouche, driven through the gates, and was surrounded by nothing but empty fields. One cannot help thinking that his wife did not hear about the fair in much detail.
The writing itself is plain and matter-of-fact but a Gogolian strangeness prevails in its substance. I like the transition from the facts of the conversation to a sudden surprising emptiness, via simply getting into his carriage. And see how the narrator doesn’t even know what happens next — he replaces that gap in knowledge with a musing speculation. You see that kind off off-kilter narration throughout the whole book. That is fundamentally how Dead Souls is written, and it works in the plain facts of the storytelling.
This is not a flashy example of mystery — if it were flashy, it wouldn’t really be mysterious — but I mean to demonstrate the organic strangeness and the organic gaps in Gogol’s writing, and how they’re used to substantial effect. When you read an entire book written to its core in this shifting, musing, non-omniscient way, it’s an experience like none other.
In these posts, I pick examples out of thin air and I assess them very briefly and selectively, so you should look into these examples for yourself if you care. My point, as always, is not to accept the apparent or conventional virtues of a piece of writing, but to try to respond to its native strangeness from the inside out.