Joyce’s Ordinary Mode of Writing

October 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the interest of getting past literature’s hype and getting to its substance, I want to write about the unheralded parts of Ulysses — the parts that aren’t flashy or obscure or contrived, but are simply Joyce being Joyce.

Many of Ulysses‘s chapters are parodies or rational experiments of some kind: a chapter of newspaper ledes, a chapter of catechistic question-and-answer, a chapter of a swooning girls’ magazine… But most of the book is just Joyce narrating things, and giving voice to his characters’ thoughts in his way, like any other writer. These sections are as unmistakably Joycean as Dickens’s writing is Dickensian.

So — how does Joyce describe things? Take almost any passage from the first half of the book, which is more representative of his style and less explicitly experimental. Here’s a bit from the second chapter, where the character Stephen is teaching a class:

Stephen, his throat itching, answered:

–The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.

He stood up and gave a shout of nervous laughter to which their cries echoed dismay.

A stick struck the door and a voice in the corridor called:


They broke asunder, sidling out of their benches, leaping them. Quickly they were gone and from the lumberroom came the rattle of sticks and clamour of their boots and tongues.

Let me mark a few features:

  • There is nothing obscure. The action and narration are totally straightforward. Things happen, and Joyce describes them in his particular way of writing.

  • There are no out-of-place or contrived details. To Joyce’s writing anyway, the itching of Stephen’s throat and the “stick struck” at the door are features of the story’s world as essential as the Tin Man’s creaking is to the action of The Wizard of Oz.

  • There is a great and very Joycean economy of phrasing in the narration. Phrases like “sidling out of their benches, leaping them” and “clamour of their boots and tongues” are a delicate balance of brisk cadence and richness of detail.

    In fact much of the musicality of Joyce’s prose depends on this calibrated terseness. Ulysses is a big book, but its density of moment-by-moment beauty is only possible because of the economy of its detailed constructions.

This is the Joycean voice. Higher highs and swoonier climes like Molly’s soliloquy (“yes I said yes I will Yes”) or Stephen’s arcane intellectualizing (“Ineluctable modality of the visible”) aren’t half as revealing and rich in their marrow as Joyce’s real, true blue, nuts and bolts storytelling. Don’t accept the hype. Look for the real writer.

The Cultural “We”

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’re familiar with the royal We, where a monarch says things like “We hereby decree” or “We with wisest sorrow think on him”? These days there’s a new reactionary version, the condescending We, or if you like, the cultural We, where a writer defers to a broad mutual feeling in passing.

Here’s an example from a recent NYT article on leadership:

In 2004, we praised George W. Bush because we wanted to drink a beer with him. Now we criticize President Obama because he won’t drink one with us.

Here’s critic Harold Bloom on Chekhov in How to Read and Why:

We don’t much like Gurov, and we want Anna to stop crying, but we cannot cast their story off, because it is our story.

(In my experience the cultural We is always talking about feelings, because it knows it would look silly claiming facts.)

I wince when I see writing like this, because the writer is telling me how I feel. What business is it of theirs how I think, or how I react to another person, or what I relate to or identify with? Why do writers, who can be such a touchy-feely bunch, presume to know the most unknowable things about me — my thoughts and feelings? To me it’s so insultingly smug when a writer concludes there is a general consensus in the workings of human minds, or simply that I think the same way they do. Ugh.

The lesson for fiction writers is equally clear: You don’t know your audience, because you can’t. If you think you can, you must hold the breadth and depth of humanity in a certain amount of contempt. You’re letting sentimentality get the better of you.

Even if you can, by some superficial clues, claim to know something of another human being, ask yourself, and be honest: how does your depth of knowledge of them compare to your depth of knowledge of yourself?

So write according to the only understanding that’s truly available to you — your own. Be honest in what you don’t know, ask yourself what you assume, and bring it to bear in understanding the scope and depth and limitations of what you write. Have some respect for your audience — admit you don’t know them. This frees you to be yourself in your writing, and it’s the only way to write richly.

The Test of Time Discussed in The Atlantic and the NYT

August 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve written before about the Test of Time and what a toxic, stultifying idea it is. Recently I saw two different articles that, directly and indirectly, take up this eternal debate on how to discuss whether a creative work is any good, so I thought it’d be worth recapping their arguments here:

First off, The Atlantic had an article called “The ‘Greatest Films Ever’ List Includes Nothing From the Past 40 Years? Good”, written in response to the latest “Greatest Films Ever” list from Sight and Sound magazine, in which Vertigo displaces Citizen Kane at the top for the first time ever. The argument from The Atlantic is typical middlebrow timidity:

Yes, there are present-day works that could stand next to past cinematic greats…but they need to not just pay their dues first — they need to prove they are as good, if not better.

As always whenever anyone argues for the Test of Time, this author defers to an imaginary objective sifting force in the universe, as if films don’t rise to “greatness” because of human beings’ opinions. The term “pay their dues” is also a disgusting apology for meekness or wrongness in critics of the current generation — the notion of a work paying its dues means readers or filmgoers or critics today shouldn’t feel compelled to be insightful or right. They can, apparently, just keep their mouth shut for a few decades when it comes to challenging or strange work.

Second, the New York Times (whose articles on writing I generally can’t stand) has a much better take on criticism, entitled “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical”. The article praises perceptive and rigorous panners and bemoans the general bland cheerleading or sheepishness of contemporary criticism. The author quotes (to disagree with) Dave Eggers, who in a 2000 interview stands up for not having opinions:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you…Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a [expletive] of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, this is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

Eggers’s argument, I suspect, is motivated by a similar condescension as that in the Test of Time: honesty and rigor are hard, and you might not like the places they take you. So don’t bother with them — it’s easier and safer to keep your mouth shut.

The NYT piece goes on to defend good hard criticism, positive or negative, that’s founded on serious insight and consideration. Nothing really matters in criticism except the pursuit of the truth.

I’m glad to see that there are still people out there defending honest criticism, but articles like the one in The Atlantic will pop up every now and then to the end of time, extolling reserve and restraint and quietly trying to instill in us that we aren’t fit to look closely at the world. And they’ll go unquestioned because they seem so nice. The price of a free mind is continually being made to feel bad about it.

Storytelling: Using Pieces in Combination

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer, about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, where a street hustler watches Josh playing briefly and exults to Josh’s mother (as she’s dragging him away) that “Your boy used pieces in combination to attack”.

It’s a nice little nugget on sophistication and craft in any creative form. Anyone can throw themselves at a winning attempt in sports or art or whatever, but on a different plane there’s building something (in this case, a coordinated offense) to fulfill a creative end.

In writing, for example, there’s a huge difference between simply writing about your subject with one single-minded thread (attacking directly) and using many of the different elements available to you to realize your subject (using pieces in combination).

Example: a direct attack, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

There’s one line of thought and description in this passage: the Earth is a barren place. Everything here is simply a restatement of that barrenness — pilgrims falling over and dying, the “shrouded” earth, tracklessness, namelessness, “the ancient dark beyond”. “Variations on a theme” would be too generous. McCarthy’s just re-emphasizing the same notion with homogenous bits of portent. If you’ve read it, you know that the whole of The Road uses one line of description. It’s a crude attack.

Here’s a multi-pronged attack, from John Updike’s short story “A&P” (which I’ve quoted on this blog before):

The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

I see two threads here: 1) the crudeness of the narrator’s ogling (“chunky kid”, “good tan”, “soft-looking can”) and 2) the little bit of delicacy that shows his eyes aren’t going to the typical places, when his eye notes the paleness at the top of her thighs, “where the sun never seems to hit”. When Updike invokes the shadow of the sun, it’s a great playful accent.

These two threads interplay — the narrator’s ogling is of a piece with his observing, and this combination, this balance, perfectly establishes the particular kind of richness in the narrative voice and the point of view, or state of mind, of the piece.

Counting the threads in a bit of a description is, in my experience, a nice little rule of thumb for knowing whether a story’s got any tricks up its sleeve and is worth reading past the beginning. It almost literally makes the difference between one-dimensional and multi-dimensional writing.

Tell, Don’t Show

July 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Here are three passages of shameless telling (not showing) in great stories:

From Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

But perhaps the enthusiastic sensibility of young women of her age also played a role. This feeling sought release at every opportunity, and with it Grete now felt tempted to want to make Gregor’s situation even more terrifying, so that then she would be able to do even more for him than she had up to now. For surely no one except Grete would ever trust themselves to enter a room in which Gregor ruled the empty walls all by himself.

This is telling, since it’s a direct explanation of Grete’s reasoning and feelings. Or maybe it’s showing, because it conveys (without spelling out) how self-concern moves the world and characters around Gregor.

From Chekhov’s The Lady With the Little Dog:

Not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love. And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love — for the first time in his life.

This is telling because it spells out not just the protagonist’s feelings, but the central emotional development of the whole story — that he is truly in love for the first time. Or maybe it’s showing, because it demonstrates how significant developments can happen internally, as mere matter-of-fact thoughts. And plain unadorned shifts of mood and matter are the implicit substance of Chekhov’s storytelling.

From Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

This is telling, since it’s a direct emotional explanation. Even worse, it’s Flaubert chiming in with his own sentiment instead of letting his characters speak for themselves. Or perhaps it’s showing, because this line of thought buttresses the central theme of the book: the disparity between feeling and real-life expression of it.

So “Show Don’t Tell” doesn’t pan out in real life. Rather, it doesn’t pan out in real writing.

Actually, “Show Don’t Tell” itself isn’t my point. My point is that every creative rule falls to tatters in the face of a real, truly great piece of writing. “Show Don’t Tell” and the like may be useful for amateurs looking to winnow down the form’s open-endedness. But they’re irrelevant to real reading or writing, whose rules are no more or less than the dictates and implications of the writer’s particular style and sensibility.

The Written Word vs. Writing

July 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Because the written word is such a versatile and convenient medium, lots of different activities manifest as writing. Politics is writing. Journalism is writing. Poetry is writing. Hate speech is writing. Erotica is writing, etc.

Among other things, the written word also manifests, from time to time, as an art form, and that’s the kind of writing this blog is about. But I think in discussions about writing — fiction writing, even, books — the vast and omnipresent variety of forms that writing takes bleed into one another, and I’ve seen rhetoric or style bleeding into political assessment (I’m looking at you, Obama swooners in the media), or political considerations bleeding into conversations about novels, or general rules about writing (“Keep it simple and use short sentences”) that are supposed to apply to all forms.

By contrast, look at something like music. Because music isn’t used to convey a political message, or a headline, or anything utilitarian, no one makes the mistake of holding it to a standard of easy consumption or class consciousness. Music is music, thankfully, and you can like what music you like, and people recognize there are different forms of music and profoundly different sensibilities in its creation. If music ever became useful for anything, it would probably signal the death of the art form.

Or what if all physicality were treated the same, and different forms of physicality were held to a concordance with others? Can you imagine someone telling a soccer player, “Your footwork is frivolous — it lacks the lumbering squat of a construction worker.”

And yet that’s exactly the nature of the advice given to writers of made-up stories with made-up people in made-up worlds with made-up laws of physics. Writing’s prominence in the social sphere, largely as a tool for pandering, means that now even the most frivolous and imaginative writers are expected to “know their audience” and “start with a bang” and “make it relatable”. That may be good advice for a stump speech or a front-page article or a potboiler, but think very carefully before you recommend to someone with the courage of their own imagination that they make their storytelling adhere more to utilitarian forms.

Here are a few example absurdities of when people forget about the great divide — the great chasm, the great difference, the great separate planes — between utilitarian and imaginative writing:

  • Poems are read at US presidential inaugurations. (This makes kitsch out of both poetry and the US presidency.)
  • The King’s Speech and Crash win Oscars for Best Picture.
  • In general, the discourse on books and fiction writing becomes mush-headed, vague, all-inclusive, and really insufferably smug, because it starts to presume a made-up story can be all things to all people. Here’s a sample from a recent NYT book review (boy, I harp on them a lot):

    That universal drive toward storytelling is one of the only ways we can attempt to contain our existence, to make narrative sense of our actions and beliefs. It also helps to have someone you’re telling your story to, whether it’s God or a dead parent or the girl you love.

Please don’t tell me how I make sense of my life, or who or what I go to with my most uncertain emotions, in a book review of all things. Let books be books. You don’t really understand literature unless you understand what’s not literature, now do you?

The Tragedy of Inspiration: Nabokov’s “Christmas Story”

May 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nabokov has a very clever short story, The Christmas Story, about an early-Soviet-era Russian writer whose legacy is in doubt, who is filled with insecurity about his talents and his career and the young upstart writers encroaching on him. The idea is that he, the critic, and the other, younger writer in the story are between them all wrapped up in the preordained concerns of careerist Soviet writers, whose work is bound, in its limitedness, to the state.

But this writer, Novodvortsev, doesn’t know his concerns are circumscribed. At the end of the story, he sits down to write a trite classism exercise about a “hungry worker” looking in on an opulent Christmas display through a window — classic Noel-sploitation. And the warmth of inspiration Novodvortsev derives from doing this, and the pleasure of his craft in the writing, are unblemished. His imagination and memory haunt him like any other writer, but they lead him to inferior scribblings:

He skipped back to the Christmas-tree image, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, remembered the parlor of a merchant family’s house, a large volume of articles and poems with gilt-edged pages (a benefit edition for the poor) somehow connected with that house, the Christmas tree in the parlor, the woman he loved in those days, and all of the tree’s lights reflected as a crystal quiver in her wide-open eyes when she plucked a tangerine from a high branch. It had been twenty years ago or more—how certain details stuck in one’s memory….

With triumphal agitation, sensing that he had found the necessary, one-and-only key, that he would write something exquisite, depict as no one had before the collision of two classes, of two worlds, he commenced writing. He wrote about the opulent tree in the shamelessly illuminated window and about the hungry worker, victim of a lockout, peering at that tree with a severe and somber gaze.

My selection for this blog can’t capture the whole of the story, but I wish to extract only a single point: this hack writer’s creative process is just like a great writer’s. He proceeds from an image, a recollection, an impression or sensation that is bright and limpid, to a concrete story, a plot and a character, that give structure to his inspiration.

But Novodvortsev is not a good writer, and his final product, the titular Christmas story, is a cold plume of ash compared to the initial flicker of inspiration.

I don’t like extrapolating from the contrivances of a piece of writing to the complexities of real life. But I think this small sliver of observation, which I’ve tried to excise without interpretation, is true. We have almost nothing to go on when we write but what we dream of, what inspires us, and what pleasures we feel in teasing out our inspirations as concrete words. The product may be great, or terrible, but the pleasure is the same.

This is the fraught downside to the famous romantic upside of genius: the image of a near-mad scribbler whose imagination takes flight, the product of whose frenzy is inevitably good. In another, lesser writer, the feeling of soaring, the frenzy, the glow of heat and pride, are all just as strong, but the product isn’t.

This is why so many people who have studied learning and the development of skill and talent (think Malcolm Gladwell and Outliers and work of that ilk) find the notion of genius so dangerous, as do I. The work a genius does to get better is the same as the work a mediocrity does to get better: inspiration, deliberation, practice, pride. And that’s why these same scholars generally recommend we recognize the importance of hard work. The only accuracy and objectivity and fairness of perception available to a writer in the thick of their craft is the short-term comparison: is this better than the last thing I wrote? Novodvortsev’s tragic flaw here, I think, is a lack of self-awareness — he doesn’t realize the familiarity of what he does. On the other hand, if he trained his sense of pleasure to prickle when he knew he was bettering himself, challenging himself, diverging from himself, he wouldn’t have been happy settling on his trusted “hungry worker”.

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