Are You “Serious”?

The Romans put it this way: de gustibus non disputandum est. In English, “There’s no arguing over matters of taste.” Of course, we often engage in such arguments, even though doing so is pointless.

My thoughts about this were triggered by a discussion of music, but they seem to relate somewhat to writing too, so I’m going to put my rambling, incoherent commentary into this, my mostly-about-writing blog. The connections, such as they are, will appear further down the page.

A small minority of music lovers, found primarily but not exclusively in university music departments, is passionately dedicated to the composition and enjoyment (if that’s the right word) of music that is ugly and difficult. Those who love the stuff don’t consider it ugly, of course. If pressed, they may admit that it’s difficult, or at least that it’s an acquired taste. The phrase “acquired taste” unpacks to mean, “If you had listened to as much of this music as I have, and knew as much about it as I do, you’d love it too.” This way of looking at it puts the cart before the horse, though. I suspect that listeners need already to have an affinity for ugly, difficult music in order to get very far with listening to or learning about it. Or at least, those who are introduced to it for the first time need to be motivated by a desire of some sort — perhaps the desire for a good grade, or the desire to be surrounded by sounds that express their chaotic, dystopian view of the world.

Meanwhile, most lovers of classical music are happy to subsist on a steady diet of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, with occasional side dishes of Vivaldi, Faure, and Debussy. I had the temerity to suggest to a couple of my Facebook friends that there are reasons for this, and that the reasons are rooted not in listeners’ familiarity with the standard canon of classical music, nor in a conservative approach to culture, but rather in the nature of the human nervous system. Our capacity to understand music, it seems to me, relies heavily on our ability to perceive musical patterns, and to store them in short-term memory so that their relations to other patterns can be examined retrospectively.

Where music has no perceptible patterns, it cannot be understood. It cannot properly be said to be saying anything. It can express incoherence, rage, bafflement, or ennui, but not much else.

This way of looking at music, which seems quite obvious to me, gave offense to the people I was conversing with. One of them responded, I have to say, rather abusively. He felt it necessary to insult me for having denigrated his beloved art form.

Needless to say, this is not how an intellectual discourse should be conducted. If I’m wrong about how music is perceived (or about how ugly, difficult music is perceived), then fine — please show me where I have erred. Insulting me does not allow me to amend my thinking.

Part of the problem is that when a group of people shares a passionate interest in something, be it a religion, a genre of music, a favorite author, or the success of a sports team, those people tend to look down on those who don’t share their passion. They may react to those who feel differently in any of several ways — by dismissing the outsiders as ignorant, by getting angry at them, or simply by huddling together in their feeling of superiority. If they understand, in some dim subconscious way, that the outsiders have a valid point of view, they’re more likely to get defensive and angry in order to preserve the supposed integrity of their view. This is why fans of opposing soccer teams start riots. On some level, the rioting fans understand that their beloved team is exactly like the other team in every respect.

I think that was what was happening today — not the soccer fans part, that was an aside; I mean the defensive in-group part. I think the fellow who felt it necessary to insult me knows, though he would never admit it, that the music he likes is ugly, difficult, and basically meaningless. That it’s rubbish. If he were comfortable with his love of that music, I don’t think he would have reacted that way. If someone says to me that Bach or Haydn is boring and meaningless, I don’t find it necessary to belittle their intelligence or dismiss them as misguided. I don’t hurl bricks, either real or metaphorical, at them. I just smile and move on.

I don’t find it necessary to display an emotional attachment to this music, because its value is simply obvious. Yes, your enjoyment will be vastly improved if you know more about it and listen to more of it, but its value and meaning are right there, in the dots on the page. No defense of Bach, Haydn, or Mozart is needed.

Instrumental music is a peculiar art form in that, with a few isolated exceptions such as Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, it’s entirely abstract. (We’ll leave opera out of this discussion, for purposes of clarity.) For this reason, a piece of music does rely on the listener to understand the idioms that make up its style. Writing in general, and storytelling in particular, is not abstract in that way. One could tell the same story (say, the story of Romeo and Juliet) in a dozen wildly different idioms, and it would still be exactly the same story. A story is not about its idioms or style in the way that a piece of music is.

You could, of course, arrange a piece of classical music — let’s say Beethoven’s Third Symphony — for synthesizers, or a saxophone septet, or a ukulele band, or even a sufficiently virtuosic doo-wop vocal ensemble. It would still be recognizably the same piece. You couldn’t do the same thing with a piece of difficult modern music that relies on sonorities (masses of crash cymbals played with mallets, say) for its effect, because sonorities don’t translate in the same way.

Difficult “modern” writing is so much less regarded and less common than difficult “modern” music. If you aren’t telling a meaningful story in a comprehensible way, readers will toss your book aside. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is perhaps the best known example of modern writing. It’s impenetrable — and it has inspired no imitators at all. Outside of university courses on modern literature, has anybody ever read Finnegans Wake? I doubt it. Why would anybody bother?

But because music is abstract to begin with, composers who feel a need to venture deeper into abstraction have no obvious anchor to hold them back. Anything goes.

If we’re going to blame someone for this deplorable trend, I suppose we have to blame Beethoven. I love his music — but his influence over 19th century classical composition could hardly be overestimated. Beethoven popularized the notion that the greatest music was music that overthrew the earlier conventions of music — that went further. That broke new ground. That revolutionized the art form.

He himself did all that. It was the age of revolution. The American and French Revolutions were fresh news, and the Romantic movement in literature, with its idolization of the Hero, was building up steam. Beethoven’s stance was heroic. He revolted against the polite conventions of the music of the preceding generation, and did a spectacular job of it.

For more than a hundred years after Beethoven’s death, classical composers were gripped with the belief that to be significant as artists, they had to produce work that was new and different and revolutionary. That they had to break fresh ground. Within the confines of the classical style, that became more and more difficult, and eventually their efforts became absurd. Schoenberg jettisoned harmony theory in favor of the 12-tone row, a sterile effort that today is taken seriously only by a few diehards. John Cage went even further, discarding the formal restrictions of serialism, harmony, and form in favor of complete randomness. Cage’s music cannot be comprehended, because it doesn’t say anything. It was meticulously designed so as to destroy any attempt to understand it.

Well, that was certainly revolutionary, wasn’t it? Arguably it was deeply insulting to listeners … but it was revolutionary, no doubt about that. As H. G. Wells said, “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.” Cage’s early music is interesting; his later work is not.

While Schoenberg was busily bemoaning the death of tonality, of course, jazz musicians on the other side of the ocean hadn’t received the memo. They were joyously creating entirely new kinds of music that were entirely tonal — that used traditional chord progressions in ways that had never before been imagined. Schoenberg had crawled out on a limb and then sawed it off.

This is one of the problems with the culture of modern “serious” classical music. It insists on taking itself seriously, and as a result it has to ignore everything that has happened in pop music for the past 75 years. Not all classical composers have fallen into this trap, of course. In the 1920s, Stravinsky and other composers in Paris were well aware of American jazz, as was Aaron Copland. Coming from the other direction, Frank Zappa fearlessly shuffled the abstract sonorities of Edgard Varese into doo-wop and progressive rock. Crossovers tend to work well! But insisting that your music be entirely new and groundbreaking is a recipe for failure and obscurity. New is not necessarily better than old. The golden ideal of progress has, in recent years, been revealed as a sham and a grave danger.

I’m reminded of a pithy observation made some years ago by a blues guitarist named Big Bill Broonzy. (I once asked Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records who had said it. He told me it was Broonzy.) Broonzy was once interviewed by a white musicologist. This was in the 1950s, and we may imagine, if we like, that the musicologist was from Harvard and was wearing glasses with black rims. The fellow, whoever he was, said, “Tell me, Mr. Broonzy — do you consider your blues a form of folk music?”

Broonzy thought for a moment and replied, “It’s all folk music. I never heard a horse sing none of it.” Leaving aside the deft way the guitarist deflected a racist question, we’re left with an important truth: It’s all folk music! Beethoven is folk music, and so are Varese and Xenakis. That being the case, there’s no pedestal on which to place “serious” classical music of the difficult variety. It’s all folk music. And if you can’t walk out of the dance hall whistling the tune, let’s face it: It’s a pretty pathetic excuse for folk music.

No, you don’t have to compose music that sounds like Haydn or hip-hop, nor to write novels that read like Ian Fleming or Jacqueline Susann, nor to paint the way Rembrandt did, in order to produce work that is interesting. But it is necessary to pursue meaning, and to produce work whose meanings can be comprehended by reasonably attentive listeners, readers, or viewers. By folks.

Unfortunately, the world of “serious” classical music seems to be infested by poseurs who find that challenge too difficult, or at any rate uncongenial. It’s not exactly true that Milton Babbitt wrote an essay called “Who Cares If You Listen?” That title was added to the essay by the editors of High Fidelity magazine. His title was “The Composer As Specialist.” But in applying that headline they weren’t entirely ignoring what Babbitt was saying. As the entry in wikipedia puts it, “Babbitt’s suggestion in the article for the composer of ‘advanced music’ is ‘total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance.'”

As a footnote, Babbitt’s notorious article was published in 1958, the same year Bill Broonzy died.

The world of jazz and pop music doesn’t suffer from this isolationist attitude. Nor is it of much concern among writers of fiction. Writers of fiction understand that if you write gibberish, nobody is going to read your work. Some writers manage to find deep meanings, others are satisfied with shallow platitudes, but word salad is not highly regarded. A mash-up of Romeo & Juliet with Oliver Twist and The Sun Also Rises, sentences and single words chosen at random — or not at random but according to some arcane formula — and tossed into a blender on their way to the printed page, is not going to gain you any followers. Or at least, you’ll have to forgive me if I hope it doesn’t.

I have better things to do than listen to music that adamantly refuses to speak to me. And it’s really quite pointless for anybody to try to convince me that a piece by a “serious” composer of difficult noise music is as meaningful as a string quartet by Haydn. It just isn’t. If you think it is, you’ve redefined the word “meaningful” in a way that makes it meaningless.

That way madness lies.

Bad Memes

There is an infectious agent (I forget whether it’s a virus or a bacterium) that causes ants to crawl out to the tips of grass leaves. This change in the ant’s behavior is of no value to the ant — the value is to the infectious agent. A cow eats the grass and ingests the ant. The virus (we’ll say it’s a virus) needs to be in the digestive tract of a cow in order to reproduce.

There’s another virus that causes rodents to become fearless around cats. Same deal. The infection results in the death of the rodent, who is now behaving in an irrational manner, charging around in front of the cat instead of running. The behavior is, however, advantageous to the virus, which needs to be in the digestive tract of the cat in order to reproduce.

These examples explain a great deal about the current political environment in the United States.

I’ve been reading about memes. The idea is, a meme is not a physical thing like a virus, but it can act in an analogous way. A meme is a pattern of mental behavior, and the pattern can either reproduce successfully by spreading through a human culture, or it can die out. Patterns of behavior that are well suited to the human brain tend to spread. Those patterns are called memes.

The behavior, in many cases, is verbal behavior. An idea that lodges successfully in your brain and urges you to speak (or write) that idea so that your fellow humans can ingest it is going to survive. That’s how the meme reproduces. It’s evolution in action.

A meme that causes your brain to bypass the fact-checking process has an advantage. It’s more likely to survive, because it’s streamlined. Fact-checking is not only expensive biologically (in terms of brain effort), fact-checking can also kill bad memes. So if the meme can bypass fact-checking by appealing to your emotions, it’s more likely to survive.

This is how the idea of “God” has become so pervasive. It appeals to our emotions. The “God” idea has to bypass fact-checking in order to survive, because fact-checking would kill it.

Many conservative ideas survive in exactly the same way: Fact-checking would kill them. Racial bigotry, for example (a very popular meme among conservatives), appeals to our fear of the stranger. Someone who is Not Like Me And My Friends is a source of fear. The meme — the idea that other races are inferior to mine — hijacks that fear and uses it to reproduce itself, spreading through a population.

This morning I got into one of those pointless Facebook wrangles with a fellow who insisted on thinking that there’s a debate about global warming. There isn’t, not really. The details are still somewhat unsettled, but the facts are clear. The polar ice caps are melting (fact). Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (fact). Human activity produces an enormous excess of carbon dioxide (fact). Therefore, humans are causing global warming. Them’s the facts.

What seems to happen is the the meme “global warming is a hoax” has hijacked the emotional mechanism that says, “I’m just as smart as anybody else.” And also, “My friend says this, and I trust my friend.” Those are simple, emotionally appealing ideas. The meme uses those emotions to spread itself. In the absence of those emotions, fact-checking would be a lot more likely to kick in. Fact-checking would destroy the meme.

I feel sorry for people whose brains have been hijacked by bad memes. Also, those people scare me, because they’re dangerous. They’re in the grip of these mentally transmitted infectious ideas, and they’re quite likely to destroy all that’s good in our shared future.

They’re rodents dancing fearlessly in front of the cats. And they don’t know why they’re doing it. Memes are mind control agents. Check yourself.

Dragon Chow

At some fairly early point in the development of my series of fantasy novels (no, they’re still not ready for publication — rewrites are ongoing) I made what in retrospect appears to have been a stunningly bad decision. It made sense at the time, because it has a certain mythic resonance, but I didn’t think it through.

I decided to send my intrepid heroine off on a detour to a land ruled by dragons. The dragons eat people; they consider humans a tasty treat. There are whole villages of peasants whose fate is to be eaten. And of course it’s a staple of heroic fantasy that the hero has to rescue people who are in danger and distress. Leaving those people behind as dragon chow would not make for a Happy Ending.

And now I’m forced to consider what an awful plot problem I’ve created for myself.

To see the problem clearly, we need to do the numbers. Let’s suppose the entire population of human-munching dragons consists of 2,000 of the beasts. Let’s further assume that on average, a dragon eats a human only 50 times per year, subsisting otherwise on cattle or sheep.

That’s 100,000 humans per year. In order to replenish the population loss due to dragon predation, 100,000 new babies will have to be born (and not die due to infant mortality) each year. If a woman has a surviving baby, on average, every two years, the population of peasants will have to include 200,000 women of childbearing age. We don’t need that many men; men are expendable. So maybe the adult population is 250,000, plus more than a million children between the ages of newborn and 14.

Even assuming my heroine can arrange to hold the dragons at bay while a population that size is evacuated, where are they going to end up? We know from news stories in our own world that resettling refugees in already populated areas is not easy to manage. And if the refugees are taken off to an area that isn’t already settled, there’s no infrastructure. There are no stored supplies of grain or anything else in a land where nobody is living. And the refugees won’t be able to subsist by hunting and gathering, because (a) having worked in the potato fields all their lives, they’re not trained hunters and (b) they don’t know what local wild plants are edible.

Fortunately, my heroine has access to well-trained wizards. But I’m not sure how even a crackerjack team of wizards could feed more than a million people on an ongoing basis while they get organized to plant a crop in their new location and then wait months for it to ripen. Even cutting the numbers by 90% still leaves an intractable plot problem: Feeding 125,000 refugees is not materially easier, in a novel at least, than feeding 1,250,000 of them. Either way, you have to have a very large and viable source of food.

This is why I hate writing fiction. I have a fiendish talent for wanting the story to make sense. Pardon me while I go chew on nails for a while to calm down.

The Gods

Here’s a tip. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: If you’re writing fantasy, or really any type of plotted fiction, do not — repeat, do not — include a god or gods in your story. Gods and plot do not mix.

Why, you may ask. Isn’t a god a fantasy creature par excellence? Well, yes. The problem is, gods are too darn powerful. The mainspring of plot is that the lead character (who we’ll assume is human, or something vaguely humanish) has a serious problem. The actions that the lead character takes to solve the problem form the plot. But a god can solve your hero’s problem with the wave of his, her, or its little finger. No more problem! No more plot! And thus, no more novel. Your novel lies on the floor, twitching faintly. It’s pushin’ up daisies. It’s joined the Choir Invisible. It is no more.

Real theologians and real worshipers have this same difficulty, of course. Why does “God” allow suffering, when he/she/it could prevent it? One popular answer is that suffering is instructive. Another popular answer is that because we have free will (supposedly), we’re creating our own suffering. I could go into detail about the weaknesses in those really bizarre and pathetic theories, but this is not the time or place for it. If you want to put both a god and a theological justification of that sort into your book, you’re welcome to do so — but at that point you’ll be writing a religious tract, not a plotted novel, and it’s likely to be boring. It will bore me, for sure.

Anyway, the supposedly real “God” in our real world never does anything at all. Actions: zero. If you put a god into your novel as a source of some action or other, the god is just another character, however vast or dimly visible. A character who is powerful enough to solve your Big Plot Problem, but who lets your lead character suffer instead, is basically a Bad Guy. That’s an evil character. For a human to triumph over an evil god — that’s a viable plot, I’m sure, but given a god’s enormous powers, it’s not a plot whose details I would be keen to try to work out.

You could also write about the conflict between good gods and evil gods; that would certainly be a viable plot, but it wouldn’t be about human beings. The humans in the story would just be pawns. Most human readers want the human characters to be the movers and shakers, so that may not work too well as a plot. You’re welcome to try it, of course.

Fantasy literature is generally about a world that inherently has some sort of moral order. (Our real world doesn’t.) The elements of fantasy, be they unicorns or vampires, tend to be either good or evil, unless you’re Terry Pratchett, of course, in which case they’re just good fun. But it’s best, I think, to let the moral order be inanimate, implied, or exhibited by ordinary, limited beings. A god will only get you in deep shit.


Make Up Your Mind, Please

Just a quick kvetch today, a follow-up to yesterday’s post about how you have to trust your own vision for a story and not just follow an editor’s suggestions blindly. As already noted, the editor who is working on my novel series is giving me a lot of very useful feedback. But once in a while I find myself twitching, running in circles, or tearing out the few hairs that remain on my old gray head.

On page 139 she says, “Be careful of giving away the plot in dialogue.” In this scene a character is advancing an idea about something that’s going to happen a few chapters later, and yes, the editor is absolutely right. I slashed those sentences, so as to have the eventual unfolding of events be more surprising.

Then on page 144, still in the same chapter, my heroine is sending a telegram (yes, this is a fantasy epic with telegrams) in order to learn something important. She declines to explain to her companion what the telegram is about. And here the editor says, “This scene is laying groundwork for future plot events, but it’s not feeling immediately relevant or like it’s advancing the story.”

Would you like to have your cake and eat it too? Gee, that would be swell. If my heroine explains to her companion what the telegram is about, I’ll be giving away the plot in dialogue. Aarrggh!

Of Mice and Editors

Orson Scott Card suggests that a novel will have one of four things as its primary focus — milieu, ideas, characters, or events (M.I.C.E.). Naturally, all novels will mix all four in some way, but one or another will predominate. In a hard-boiled mystery, for instance, what’s important are the events. The ideas are likely to be pedestrian and the characters developed only as far as needed to carry the plot forward. In a literary novel, what’s important is likely to be the characters. Lord of the Rings, Card suggests, is mainly about its milieu — Middle Earth. Yes, there are characters, and yes, there are events, but there’s a reason (Card points out) why Frodo has only one elf and one dwarf in his crew: They aren’t real characters, they’re just types.

But enough about Tolkien. As I work my way through the dozens upon dozens of comments my editor has made in my manuscript, I find that, again and again, she wants to know more about the interior feelings of the main characters. That is, she would prefer to be reading a novel of character. What I’ve written is, I think, more a novel of events. Here and there I’m finding it useful or appropriate to go in and clarify my character’s feelings — but there are also passages that aren’t about feelings; they’re about events. Having a character say, “Oh, no!” may be all that’s needed.

So I have to work out how (if at all) to take into consideration notes like these (all of them from one page in the manuscript file):


I did, in the end, clarify or amplify the feelings in that scene a little bit, though probably not to the extent that my editor envisioned. Brian Eno once said something to the effect that if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve in a work of art (in his case, music), comments and criticisms from others will only confuse you. So maybe I shouldn’t be confused by this kind of input. But then, I’m not Brian Eno.

Some of my editor’s comments have proven immensely useful. Whole scenes have been reorganized, or created from scratch. Other times, not so much. Right now I’m looking at Chapter 5 in Book 3. In my draft, the chapter opens with my lead character, Kyura, looking at a house and preparing to knock on the door. She and her friends have, after many travels, finally arrived at her destination. After a couple of brief paragraphs and before she actually knocks on the door, the chapter rolls back to tell, in 825 words, about the final stage of the travel that led them across the valley to this house.

The editor’s comment here was, “Don’t jump back and forth with the narration. There’s no point in opening here if we’re going to jump back and go through all the things we were going to go through anyway. Tell the story linearly and open the story with the funeral [one of the events in those 825 words] to emphasize Kura’s guilt and her profound anxiety….”

While superficially sensible, this comment is just plain wrong. Starting a chapter with an important moment and then backing up to show, quickly, a few days of events (yes, events) that preceded the important moment is a technique I picked up from Rex Stout. His narrator in the Nero Wolfe mysteries quite often does this. What it does is present the beginning of something the reader will care about in order to whet the reader’s appetite and then create suspense by forcing the reader to wait (not too long) to find out what happens next. The events in my 825-word flashback, while they can’t be skipped, are not as important as the moment when Kyura arrives at that house.

Strange as it may seem, I do actually have some idea what I’m doing.

Sing Us a Song, You’re the Grammar Man

Tonight I’m stalking the wily sentence. As a writer of nonfiction I’m quite proficient, but I’d like to learn more about the luminous prose styles the great novelists use. How do they do that? Not that I’ll ever be a great novelist, but I can surely become a better one.

Now and then I get mailers from the Great Courses. I’ve always resisted buying the series of DVDs called Building Great Sentences — this was before I decided I need to know more about prose style — but as it happens, the series has been turned by its author, Brooks Landon, into a nice paperback book. Which I have now bought.

Landon plunges in boldly, but he soon gets in over his head. He approves of long sentences, and I approve of his approval. But early on — on page 4, in fact — he founders while trying to dissect this sentence of Gertrude Stein’s: “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?”

Landon offers eight different paraphrases of this, such as, “Why should a sequence of words not be a pleasure?”, “A sequence of words should always be a pleasure,” and “We should always find pleasure in a sequence of words.” But he misses the kernel of Stein’s meaning. If you’ve read any of Stein’s writing, you’ll know that quite often her sequences of words are, as to their meaning, impenetrable. Opening her book How to Write at random, I come upon this sequence of words: “Custom a custom do accustom they come accompanied they will venture to arrive with a variety of circumstances that they can have come to be to them as if which they can prepare to be alike.”

Given this — and it’s a fine example of Stein’s “difficult” style — it seems clear to me that we have to read the sentence Landon quotes, first, by lopping off the last three words. Stein is saying, to begin with, “Why should a sequence of words be anything?” As we finish reading the sentence, adding the rest of her thought, we can see that a better paraphrase would be, “A sequence of words need only give pleasure. That is its primary function.” Its meaning, Stein implies, is of secondary importance, if indeed it conveys any meaning at all.

To have teased out this meaning would rather have undercut Landon’s agenda. But I don’t want to get distracted by talking about Gertrude Stein. We have bigger fish to fry.

Landon notes that there are three ways to construct long sentences. (Actually, there are four; he misses one.) We can add coordinate elements using “and” or other connective words; we can add subordinate clauses; or we can add modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and so on). The one he misses, in case you’re wondering, is that we can make a long sentence by breaking it off in the middle and interject a new element without stopping.

He gives as an example of a long sentence, an example of which he seems proud — proud enough at least to put it in the book — this horrifying mess: “Cumulative sentences that start with a brief base clause and then start picking up new information, much as a snowball gets larger as it rolls downhill, fascinate me with their ability to add information that actually makes the sentence easier to read and more satisfying because it starts answering questions as quickly as an inquisitive reader might think of them, using each modifying phrase to clarify what has gone before, and to reduce the need for subsequent explanatory sentences, flying in the face of the received idea that cutting words rather than adding them is the most effective way to improve writing, reminding us that while in some cases, less is indeed more, in many cases, more is more, and more is what our writing needs.”

He then says, “I would argue that neither [this sentence nor the one before it] is hard to follow….” But of course he’s quite wrong. Why is this sentence hard to follow? If you look closely, you’ll see that it contains three infinitives: “to add,” “to read,” and “to reduce.” The difficulty is that the first and third are parallel in structure within the sentence: “…with their ability to add information … and to reduce the need….” However, “to read” is in a subordinate position (modifying “easier”). Because “to read” interrupts the parallel structure, the sentence is not just wildly self-indulgent but a true grammatical train wreck. When we reach “and to reduce,” we have lost the thread of the structure. We have to backtrack to see what Landon is attempting to say.

At the end of each chapter, he gives the reader a little exercise assignment with which to try out the techniques discussed. Having bludgeoned us with this monstrous knockwurst of a sentence, he invites us at the end of Chapter Four to compose a single sentence (using one or more of the strategies I mentioned above) that incorporates all six of the following underlying propositions:

  1. The boy sat down at the table.
  2. The boy was young.
  3. The boy was out of breath from running.
  4. The boy flopped down into his chair.
  5. The table was made of heavy oak.
  6. The table was covered with steaming dishes of food.

These six elements could, of course, be combined in any of a number of ways — we might write, for instance, “Out of breath from running, the young boy flopped down in his chair at the heavy oak table, which was covered with steaming dishes of food.” — but it’s clear that any sentence we could construct using these elements would be wildly deficient if used in a work of fiction. There is too much information here, and yet not enough. We don’t know where the boy has run from, or why he has arrived at the table immediately after running. We don’t know who has laid out the steaming dishes of food. We don’t know in what sense the chair is “his” chair. We don’t know how young he is; six? nine? fourteen?

We notice at once that “covered by” is imprecise; surely the top of the table was not entirely covered by the dishes. We may also wonder why it’s the dishes that are steaming rather than the food itself, but that’s a trivial detail. “Food” is deplorably vague, and that would be less trivial in a work of fiction. The fact that the table is constructed of heavy oak, on the other hand, would be entirely trivial, and not worth mentioning at all unless this fact were connected in some way to the rest of the furniture in the room, or to the boy’s bone structure (he might be either sturdy or, by way of contrast, as frail as a stick), or perhaps to the overbearing character of the cook, who will insist that the boy eat all of the dishes — or rather, all of the food in the dishes — even though he isn’t hungry, just out of breath.

In sum, to include these six elements and no others in a complex sentence can only give us a dreadful sentence. Should we prize a book that gives us exercises that will have us constructing dreadful sentences? Contrariwise, if we try to construct a valid and interesting fictional scene out of these elements by adding missing details and clarifying what has been left vague, we’re surely going to need more than one sentence.

Oh, well. The book only cost $16, and it reminded me to read some Gertrude Stein.

Long View vs. Wide View

You can buy any number of books on the basic techniques of fiction — and you should. Instruction on how to handle point of view, flashbacks, and dialog tags, on how to develop characters and plot, is readily available, and every aspiring writer needs to master the basics.

What’s in strikingly short supply is instruction on how to write well.

The result is all around us. Thousands of self-published authors are pumping out novels one after another, novels in which these basic mechanical aspects of craft may be handled rather well (or not), but in most cases it’s clear that the author has never aspired to anything higher than being competitive in the hurly-burly of today’s book market. The same could be said of numerous authors whose books stream from the corporate headquarters of the big New York publishers.

Writers and publishers are taking the wide view: How many books can we sell? What genre does this novel fit into, and how shall we make sure it meets the desires of readers who love that genre? The long view gets short shrift. The long view might be characterized as, “Where does my book float on the great river of literature? From what sources does it spring?”

Rather to my surprise, I’ve found a how-to-write book that invites the aspiring author to take the long view. And not just “invites.” This book digs into the nuts and bolts of what makes memorable novels memorable. It’s called Write Like the Masters, and it was written by William Cane.

In 21 chapters, Cane tells us something about the effects achieved by Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky, Maugham, Faulkner, Hemingway, and others. Surprising inclusions in the list: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming. From this you can fairly conclude that Cane isn’t addressing the rarefied needs of blue-blooded purveyors of capital-L Literature. (There’s no chapter about James Joyce, and thank God for that.) No, this is a book about telling stories, and telling them in masterful ways.

The series of novels I’ve been working on started out with the Young Adult market in mind. YA fantasy is a hot market. But at some point I realized I had outgrown the restrictions of the YA genre. When your story includes 20 different viewpoint characters and a sprawling plot, some YA readers are likely to get restless. So I decided the story would sit more happily in the adult fantasy genre (while perhaps still appealing to more sophisticated or adventurous teens).

After reading Cane’s chapter on how Melville used symbolism, I’m starting to question whether I’m even writing genre fantasy. I’ve now noticed two hugely important symbols in my story. They’ve been there all along; I just never noticed they were symbols. (My unconscious has evidently been hard at work.) I’m now thinking I may need to add bits of dialog or imagery, or even a whole new scene here or there, to tease out the ramifications of these symbols.

Cane has also prodded me to think more deeply about my characters. They are who they are — at this stage of the editing/revision process, that’s not likely to change. But for example (spoiler alert!), when Robner betrays Kyura, I had him doing it because he’s naive and idealistic. It now occurs to me that he may be harboring a resentment and doing it deliberately while kidding himself about his own motivation. I’ll need to edit a certain scene to make his resentment apparent. It will deepen his character. And what about Meery? How does she feel when she discovers just how easily she can kill people? Have I cheated the reader by failing to put her complicated feelings on the page?

The story is drifting away from genre fantasy. I’m in danger of committing literature.

This is not actually an anti-marketing path to take. Writing well may even help my books float up to the surface of the self-publishing swamp. More important, though — I’m basically writing to please myself, not to please some hypothetical reader whose tastes have been botoxed by Hollywood. I enjoy learning new things. Right now I think I’ll probably enjoy learning how to write in a more literary manner.

Literature doesn’t have to be stuffy; Dickens had a sense of humor. Literature doesn’t have to follow the “rules” those other books drill into us, because literature is organic. It’s not cranked out on an assembly line.

I’m less than halfway through Cane’s book. Further revelations will doubtless follow, so don’t touch that dial!

Literary Cow Pies

My quest for ideas about how to write well is ongoing. By “write well” I mean, at the moment, how to write sentences and paragraphs that are strong — that communicate. That are, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful, or at least striking to read and insightful with respect to their subject matter. Sentences that, when you read them, you find yourself thinking, “I wish I had written that.”

In the course of my quest, I made the mistake of buying the Kindle edition of Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. The middle name should, I think, have served as a warning, but I failed to heed it.

I did, to be fair, learn a couple of good things from Bell’s opening section. He dissects the problems with fiction-writing workshops, and points out that until the mid-20th century there was no such thing as a writing workshop. Writers studied the work of their predecessors, and then they wrote. This is a valuable tip.

The bulk of Narrative Design, sadly, is a collection of short stories, each of them annotated in great detail by Bell. This is a lovely pedagogical approach. Unfortunately, the stories stink. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to ask for my money back.

Okay, I only read the first three stories. After the first two I was reeling, but tonight I forced myself to try again. At this point, I’m done.

I don’t mean they stink in any simple way. They stink in the refined way that only self-conscious “modern literature” can stink. It’s sort of a sewage omelette effect.

Bell is enthusiastic about these stories. He admires them. He feels they’re close to perfect. I’m not sure even the Ivory Tower effect will do to explain his dreadful lack of judgment. I’d like to think the book is satire, but it’s much too serious and weighty. No, he means every word.

In “Depth Charge,” by Craig Bernardini, a young man named Alex celebrates his 21st birthday by getting very drunk in a bar on a Monday night — a bar that he has been frequenting for the past three years. At closing time, Alex climbs into his car and drives it through a barrier into Baltimore harbor in a sort of nihilistic act of bravado. It’s not unlike Russian roulette (which Bernardini thoughtfully mentions as the young man is talking with the bartender) except that Alex has planned how he will escape from the car as it sinks beneath the waves. Being very drunk, he almost doesn’t make it, but then he does.

The escape from drowning is presented by Bell as Alex’s way of coming alive. Bell uses the phrase “freed himself to live life fully” and the word “revivifying.” But really, what we have here is a story about a 21-year-old alcoholic whose life is so pathetically meaningless that he’s trying to kill himself. Next time, he’ll probably succeed. Suicide is one of the ways alcoholics die.

The only other character in the story, Gavin the bartender, lets Alex drive away from the bar while very drunk. I don’t know what the law is in Baltimore, but my guess is, Gavin has committed a crime in letting Alex get behind the wheel. So there you have it — a suicidal alcoholic and a criminally negligent bartender. And we don’t find out what Alex is intending to do until the very end of the story. Most of the story is just Alex and Gavin shooting the breeze in a deserted bar on a Monday night. Inspiring, yes?

I was guessing that Bernardini was an undergraduate participant in a writing workshop — but no, he has a Ph.D. and teaches creative writing. I do hope nobody signs up for any of his classes.

Next up, Bell gives us “A Wife of Nashville” by Peter Taylor. This story is less painful to read than Bernardini’s depressing mess. Its chief difficulty is that it goes on at great length without ever showing a glimmer of a plot. The story takes place between the 1920s and the 1940s. The wife in the title, Helen Ruth Lovell, has a husband, three sons, and a succession of colored cook/housekeepers. As the story goes on, Helen Ruth gradually becomes more mature in her outlook, or possibly more resigned to her dull life, but that’s about it. Most of the story is about her relations with the housekeepers, but there’s no depth to them (because, you know, there wasn’t much depth in interracial relations in those days). Her husband and sons get less coverage than the housekeepers.

Frankly, the story is just boring, but at the end Taylor does a bad thing. He has Helen Ruth reflect on what he evidently intends us to see as the theme of the story: “She felt that she would be willing to say anything at all, no matter how cruel or absurd it was, if it would make them [her husband and sons] understand that everything that happened in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt.” I don’t always agree with the show-don’t-tell criticism, but in this case I’ll go for it.

Taylor was not a novice, either. He wrote several novels and several story collections. He died in 1994.

Tonight I tackled “Daisy’s Valentine,” by Mary Gaitskill. Again, not a novice; her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, if wikipedia is to be believed. The main character, Joey, is a young speed freak living in New York. He develops what we might charitably call a crush on Daisy, who works in the same office. The office is frankly impossible; there are six or seven people working in what Gaitskill describes as the clerical department of “a filthy second-hand bookstore.” We never actually see the filth; we never see the retail part of the store at all. But I’m pretty sure most retail establishments, even in New York City, are not filthy, because filth tends to drive away customers. Nor is it credible that any second-hand bookstore in the world would be large enough to employ six or seven people in a clerical department. So we’re off to a bad start.

Nothing much happens in the story. After a year or so of dreaming about Daisy, dreams that don’t even seem to be sexual, Joey gives her a valentine. He gives it to her a week late. (This sounds like one of those ideas that New Yorker writers think are stunningly clever.) They start going out, more or less, but Joey is living with another woman and Daisy is living with another man, so they don’t seem to do much other than go out. At the end of the story we don’t even know if they’ve slept together. Joey’s live-in girlfriend has thrown him out, not that their love for one another has ever amounted to anything. But being thrown out seems not to trouble him greatly, and he still has his pointless and unlikely job, so nothing of any great significance has changed in his life, even though the story’s opening sentence suggests that he “might ruin” it. What we have, then, is two pathetic dead-end people, one of them definitely a drug addict, who bumble into a relationship that, while it involves kisses and hugs, doesn’t even qualify as a romance.

Bell’s summary of the plot is, “Simple and sordid — a casebook account of pointlessly self-destructive behavior. Judged by such a bare-bones plot summary, the story is almost too depressing to read.” I think he put his finger on the pulse there. The story is too depressing to bother with, and certainly too depressing to belong in an anthology that purports to serve a tutorial purpose.

In his analysis, he also says, “Not that the cast members of this story are wonderfully likeable people really, but they are portrayed with such convincing detail that the reader cannot help but be interested in them.” Nope. Bad guess. I wasn’t interested. And I can’t quite imagine that any reader would be.

So we have two stories about pathetic losers (Joey and Alex), both addicts, and one about a housewife whose life is very, very boring. Wow, Madison. Do you think you could manage to inspire young writers any more ineptly? Could you possibly manage to put together a book that would nauseate or discourage aspiring writers more powerfully than this? Is this supposed to show us how to write fucking literature?

I want my money back.

Sensitive Issues

In editing Book 2 of my series, I have now reached the scene where Something Bad Happens. My editor is, perhaps understandably, disturbed by this brief episode. But while I take her ideas seriously — considering how much I’m paying her, I’d be a fool not to — I’m not persuaded that her suggested alternative will work.

I have several concerns here. First, I don’t want to upset readers who are sensitive to this issue. Nor do I want to sensationalize it in any way, or use it to titillate. But nor do I want to censor myself. Second, I try to write realistically. The scene is technically G-rated — no body parts more intimate than fingers and legs are mentioned — but there’s no doubt at all what’s going on. The motivation of the evil character is also realistic, I think. Third, I really do need the plot to move in a certain direction, and for that to happen I need an emergency. Something more muted won’t quite do the job.

Okay, I’ll stop being mysterious now. The evil wizard is trying to get himself out of a legal morass by offering his 9-year-old daughter to a pedophile judge. In the scene I wrote, the girl is sitting on the judge’s lap as he negotiates the arrangement with her father. They’re all fully dressed, but the judge is doing things with his fingers.

Nothing bad is actually going to happen to the girl, other than being groped. Within a couple of hours, she and her older sister will run away. They will suffer no further indignities (and indeed, at the end of the book their father will be, quite fittingly, killed). But they have to run away in order for the plot to work. To my way of thinking, if the threat is less graphic the two girls will try to convince themselves that they misunderstood the judge’s intentions. They will prefer to hope for the best. They won’t run.

It’s clear, however, that my editor is more freaked out by this scene than I expected. Other people may react the same way. I don’t want the scene to destroy anyone’s affection for the story. But I do need a genuine plot emergency; everything that happens in the scene is in character; and I don’t approve of censorship.

I think perhaps my own jaded attitude toward sex is affecting my thinking. I know that people (especially the male of the species) are aroused by quite a variety of different things, not all of them involving a healthy respect for personal autonomy. That’s the real world. Also, my own background has enough low-grade sexual trauma in it, trauma from which there was never any prospect of my being protected, that I’m probably a little irritated that my editor thinks I should rush to protect a girl who doesn’t even exist. I’m afraid my attitude boils down to, “Shit happens. Deal with it.”

I will probably compromise by adding a few sentences to show how traumatized the girl is, if I can do that without sending the story off on a horrible tangent. She’s a very minor character, and this sort of trauma is not what the story is about.

It frankly didn’t occur to me that she would be traumatized, and that’s probably my failing as a writer. But I can’t afford to pull the plot apart and leave it in a smelly heap on the floor in order to prove to the world how sensitive I am.

I’m probably not that sensitive, actually. I’m not even sure I want to be that sensitive. As Frank Zappa once said, “Broken hearts are for assholes.” But then, the Seventies were a different era in terms of sexual mores. Zappa also has a song with the line, “She’s only thirteen but she knows how to nasty!” You couldn’t say that in a song today. Are we more enlightened today, more aware and sensitive, or are we just more straitlaced? I will leave you with that conundrum.