Dancing to Dirges

Depressing and happy things Tim says, sometimes while drunk

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Writing and Reading and Making Sense

I have an unusual relationship with literary fiction. Mostly I hate it. I hate the pretension. I hate the built up artificial complexity of its stories, if you can even call them stories. I don't know how I survived the umpty-ump literature classes in college. Oh, wait, yes I do. I didn't. I flipped out. I got myself expelled from college, in a most inopportune manner. For a while, college absolutely killed my love of reading, and by extension my love of writing. I still thought of myself as a writer, but I wasn't writing.

But now I'm back. I'm writing. I'm reading. Things move forward. But I still hate the hardcore literary mystique. I think it boils down best like this: It's boring. It isn't interesting. It's not that I don't have the patience, I do, I still reread Dante, I love Conrad and Faulkner and whatever. But there seems to be this belief that in order for the reader to get something of value out of a story, that reader must suffer. They must persevere. And maybe, if they're very good and read two hundred pages of nothing happening, maybe the writer will let them experience some moment of narrative rapture and deep character ascension at the end. Joy!

On the other hand, stories with plots and action and tension tend to shy away from, you know, characters. And meaning. And beautiful prose. And I don't think that's right. So when I describe myself as writing literary adventures, I'm not talking about smart mouthed librarians and moody college professors saving the world for the Dewey Decimal System. No, I mean exciting, interesting stories with deep character progression and maybe a little meaning on the side. But let's not get carried away, right?


At 4:09 PM , Blogger colin said...

"exciting, interesting stories with deep character progression and maybe a little meaning on the side"

Gee, I dunno, Tim. That sounds pretty hard to me. Almost like you might have to work at it.

More seriously, I think it's all about a balance between those things: excitement, character, meaning, beautiful prose. And the one thing to should avoid at all costs is being boring. I'm still working on that one, myself.

As you say, too much "serious" literature tries to hard, draws itself out with pointless filler and long, comma-studded sentences, making the reader wonder, eventually, whether this sentence will ever end, or they shall be trapped for all eternity in the maze of clauses and sub-clauses, parenthetical remarks, and excercises in thesaurus use, or if, perhaps, they should end it now, rather than struggle forward to the still distant end of the paragraph, knowing full well that with the paragraph ending comes no conclusion, no closure, no peace, but simply the beginning of another dreadful, interminable paragraph, like the one that came before, on and on until the book finally, finally runs out of pages.

At 5:54 PM , Blogger Nathan said...

Well, I need convincing. Or at least more detail. You say you're fed up with literary stories, but you praise Faulkner and Conrad (if you can get through Absalom, Absalom! and Nostromo, you have more patience than you let on). Can you give some examples of the types of stories you're referring to? I agree with your sentiments, but I'm curious to see specifics.

Certainly there are examples of boring, overly experimental self-described literary works on both sides of the genre fence. For example, I find much of Samuel R. Delany unreadable. That may speak more to my own failures as a reader than to Delany's prose, but it doesn't change anything.

Oh, and I have two good examples of writers who write books with good plots and great characters with excellent prose: R. Scott Bakker, in his Prince of Nothing series; and Patrick O'Brian, in his Aubrey and Maturin series. Great stuff, and tons of fun.

At 7:21 AM , Blogger Tim Akers said...

My wife reminds me that we saw Bakker at WFC this year. What panel was that...it was chock full of philosophers and various people saying "Egress ender" and "Bullshit." It was a good panel.

First of all, to reach into your comment and take one thing out of context, readers never fail. That, I think, is the fundamental difference between popular literature and literary literature. The burden of effort is too often on the reader. If a story doesn't interest me, if the plot is confusing and I'm not sure of the character's motivations then it's simply not my fault. It's the writer's.

But to start at the top. I usually borrow the annual Best American Stories from the library, and read as much of it as I can stomach. I haven't gotten the 05 yet, edited by Chabon, and I'll probably enjoy it more than usual. I can't give you specific names in the short story category, simply because the individual stories don't make enough of an impression on me to remember the author's names.

Off the top of my head, though, at the novel level: Pynchon. I'm supposed to like him, but I don't. He's unreadable. Iain Sinclair. Unreadable and dull. And yes, Delaney. In the intro to Dhalgren that I have at home, William Gibson (whom I admire) goes on at great length about what a wonderful, meaningful book this is. Then he says that he's never understood it. That's a gap I simply can't cross. I don't mind not completely understanding a story, but I'd like some idea of what's happening at the end.

A current example. Jeffrey Ford. I really, really like a lot of the stuff Ford does. But in the premiere episode of Fantasy Magazine, he has a story called Four Seasons. The writing is good. The setting is interesting. Interesting things happen in the course of the story. I have no idea how it ends, or what it's supposed to mean, or really even what order the events of the story follow. It's an admirable story, but it would have been a better story if he'd self-edited a little, bent the force of his prose to a comprehensible narrative structure, and given the reader some closure. Or something.

Anyway. I'm rambling. Please note that I'm critical of this stuff largely because I'm very prone to doing it myself. My early short stories were just incomprehensible. They were solid prose, beautiful words, and little else.

At 12:51 PM , Blogger colin said...

If I might add, I think what Tim says here is not that stories should never be difficult, but that they should never be difficult if they don't need to be. When I read Eco's The Island of the Day Before, I found it difficult but also rewarding in proportion to the difficulties, and I don't think it could have been done differently. What I don't like are works that are difficult for no reason except to fulfill some vague idea that literature should be hard to read, and force the readers to slog on until they get to whatever payoff the author has chosen to dangle at the end of the book, assuming they didn't just forget the payoff entirely.

Of course, some people get more payoff from certain authors than others. So it's not necessarily a matter of failure on the author's part, so much as a mismatch between author and reader. I still feel that a lot of serious literature is difficult for the sake of difficulty, and that's wrong.

At 1:14 PM , Blogger Tim Akers said...

Oh, absolutely. I get much more frustrated at stories that are needlessly or incompetently simplistic. But I'll go further and say that there's this, dare I say, cursed pretension from the expensive seats that seems to imply that a story *has* to be complicated and painful to be of any value. Anyway.

In the intro to one of the McSweeney's that he edited, Elder Chabon said something that pretty much hit me where it counts. "Hey. Stories can be fun to write."

At 2:59 PM , Blogger colin said...

And now that I realize who else is reading your blog I suddenly feel a strong urge to be more careful when proofreading my posts...

At 3:04 PM , Blogger Tim Akers said...

It gets more complicated still. Today Andy Cox, editor in chief of Interzone, emailed me to correct something I'd said on the Gibson Board. Ahem. Now that's nerve-wracking.

At 9:31 PM , Blogger Nathan said...

How do you tell whether or not a story needs to be difficult? I think, Colin, you are right when you say that the problem might be more of a mismatch than a failure on the writer's part. Although I find Delany's prose sometimes needlessly opaque, others obviously love him precisely because of that opacity.

In the first issue of Argosy, there is an interview with Delany. The interviewer, Adam Roberts, brings up this sentence from Dhalgren: "In the cups, one after another, glistening disks rose, black without translucense." Roberts says he loves the sentence, but then goes on to ask why it is better to write that sentence than simply, he poured two cups of black coffee. Delany says, "You yourself have just given the reason. Because you love it. A possible reason to love it is because it makes two things pop into your mind's eye more vividly than does the sentence 'He poured two cups of black coffee.' One is what specifically happened at that particular time when those two particular cups were poured . . . in some venues, when you pour black coffee, the coffee is translucent. In others, such as this one, it's not. The second thing that pops up is your awareness of the hand pouring and the table on which the pouring is done -- because they're not mentioned, but are so strongly implied. The combination of careful description and strong implication is one that, to a statistically large sampling of readers, affords a more vivd reading experience than the simple 'statement of information.'"

Now you may quibble with that argument, but it certainly indicates a strong motive behind the difficulty. I would assume that most writers of what we might consider pretentious prose would construct a similar defense (again, though, it may not be a credible one).

I'm not saying I disagree with you, necessarily. I just want you to sharpen your argument. Do you have any copies of the America's Best lying around? If so, can you give me a title of an offending story? I have a few issues, so I'll look too. I remember my own complaints were less that they were needlessly difficult, and more that they were usually just godawful boring.

At 10:21 PM , Blogger colin said...

Boring is probably the main problem in general, but of course different people find different things boring.

And, of course, we shouldn't forget the thrill of being able to parse that sentence, of finally being able to decipher what the hell the author was talking about. I feel it myself. I don't deny it. It can be a powerful attraction, part of the payoff, if slightly elitist in its overtones.

I guess I can only come back to balance. Sometimes complexity works, but it can get in the way, I think, of all those other good things Tim mentioned: the characters and the excitement and the meaning. For me this is less about other people's work, than a warning.

By the way, Nathan, "You Go Where It Takes You" is just about the finest short story I've read in years. I hope you (and Tim!) don't mind me saying.

At 10:33 PM , Blogger Nathan said...

Hell no I don't mind you saying so! (Can't speak for Tim, obviously.) It does me a world of good to hear that kind of thing, right now especially. I'm in the midst of writing a story called "North American Lake Monsters" which is actually connected to the background events in "You Go Where It Takes You."

At 1:27 PM , Blogger Tim Akers said...

Okay, there's been a little bit of subject creep from my original intent. Let me regroup for a moment.

I don't have the Best American series here, or at home, so I can't cite specific examples. But when I say that modern literary works are unnecessarily difficult, I include "boring" in that definition. Whether I stop reading a story because it fails to interest me or because I've just read the same page three times and I still have no idea what's going on is really just the same thing. I've stopped reading.

The Delaney quote interests me. Nathan, you haven't read much of my stuff. None of it, probably, since it's all "forthcoming" but one, and that one's no longer in circulation. I tend to do that. I tend to write, if I may be bold, beautiful sentences. It's what attracted me to writing in the first place.

But it can be overdone. If every cup of coffee is like that, if every raindrop and conversation and gunshot is a symphony of literary craftsmanship, well, that can be pretty oppressive. It's something I have to curb in my own work.

Anyway. I'm not sure I'm making sense anymore. I need to stop trying to hold intelligent literary conversations in the middle of my work day. It's not, how you say, conducive.

At 8:19 PM , Blogger Nathan said...

You're right, I haven't read any of your stuff. I'd like to, though. You want to shoot me something in an email? My last name at gmail dot com.

At 10:48 PM , Blogger Splitcoil said...

So to come into the discussion late, and on a Friday night, when no one will come back to talk, let me say the following:

Why the concern over contemporary, or 'modern' literature, as you term it? People don't read much in contemporary times, and I tend to think of looking for literary genius in the contemporary period as equivalent to looking for a great sculptor in the Middle Ages.

As for myself, I find no inspiration in contemporary writers, with the exception of Patrick O'Brian, and he was hardly typical of the rest of the pack. I go back to Hemingway, Orwell, Dostoevsky, and Hammett when I'm looking for near perfection. When everyone else in college was doing drugs, I was doing Hemingway. That's a better parallel than you might think, as I had to stop mainlining Hemingway years ago. He has a bad effect on my personality when I read him.

But I still remember him. I remember little conversations in stories I can't recall the titles of. For instance, he has a short story in which a young boy takes a train trip, and virtually nothing of any interest happens. But there is one perfect moment when the little boy sits down with a black conductor, and the conductor (or valet?) says something to the effect of "Every man wants his wife to be a whore while she's in bed with him, and a saint when he's away." Now that's hardly a sentiment unique to Hemingway, but the way he set it up and drew the conductor was masterful. So much so that ten years after I read the story once, the image is still prominent in my mind. And whenever discussions of the madonna/whore business come up, that's the first image that comes to mind. He drove home the truth with an iron spike from Yahweh's own forge.

When asked about writing, Hemingway often said to start by writing "just one true thing." Start with one little true thing, and build from there. That's my guiding light, if I have one. Does it seem true? Like it could be true? No? Then delete it. Do you think that stars in the sky would really look like a million little pin pricks in a blanket held up against the heavens? No? Then shut up about the blanket bit.

The trick is that you have to be observant enough and analytical enough to have a store of these little true things to expend in stories. I think it helps to have worked as a journalist, or, let's say 'other professions in which you observe or interview and report on it later.' And I think having some experience with the things you're writing about is invaluable.

Circumstances will also dictate whether the wordy, artsy description is appropriate. Delany's discs of coffee are a perfect example. I can imagine moments in a story when Delany's words would be appropriate (sorry, never read any Delany). Slow, intense moments. But if the characters are all watching a fight across the room, wondering whether they're about to get shot up in the crossfire, then no, I don't think they'd be 'glistening disks, black without translucense.' They'd be a couple cups of coffee that got splashed out of a carafe.

You know I love you like a long-lost skinny Southern brother, but if you'll excuse me for saying so, Tim, I often wish you would curb that tendency of yours to chase the beautiful sentence. That's why I liked Memory Analog so very much. It was stripped down closer to the soul, rather than dolled up with $20 phrases.

Authors who chase the pretty sentence often come across forced and stiff, and you know you're better than that.

Have you read much Dostoevsky? Not a pretty sentence in any of it. Often there is no discernable direction at all. And then suddenly, around 600 pages in, you find yourself shouting "Oh by God! I know what he's up to!"

I think the beauty is in the way you suck people into understanding a truth. Any significant truth. If the opportunity for a pretty sentence comes along, then take it. But only if it feels natural.

But what the hell do I know?

At 12:46 AM , Blogger colin said...

Wow, SC.

Two things. First, I have to admit, not having read Delany either, that I'm not in love with that particular sentence mentioned above. I understand the argument, that he thought long and hard about how to produce the effect he wanted and it involved this particular combination of words, but I do dispute that the sentence does what he says it does. Maybe I'm dense, but it doesn't strongly imply the table or the hand. It doesn't even strongly imply coffee. The first image that came to mind was of bizarre miniature black UFOs flying in cups.

But other people enjoy that sort of thing, so I won't go on about it.

The other thing I wanted to mention was prompted by Splitcoil's comment. I like words used beautifully, but I agree with SC that many authors try so hard they come across as stiff and pretentious. This is, in fact, my main problem with most of the short stories I have read lately. They try too hard to use beautiful words, when sometimes ugly words, or at least plain words, are better.

This is one of the things that frankly irritates me about my own writing, because it's far easier for me to run off looking for pretty words to arrange in a row than to do something spare and true.

Still, I have to return to the question of tastes, because Hemingway, though God-like, is not my personal ideal read, and I do like Tim's writing in part for the way he uses words. So I think my own tastes are in a slightly different place than Splitcoil's, even though I like Splitcoil's writing a great deal, and I think I understand what he's saying above. And I do think that there's not enough Hemingway in most writing these days. Of course, when was there ever enough Hemingway?

At 10:56 PM , Blogger Splitcoil said...

After re-reading what I said, i wanted to clarify my meaning. It's possible to interpret my idiot remarks as meaning that Tim's writing comes off as stiff or forced. That's not the case at all. We're talking micro-tendencies and personal preferences here. As Tim said, he enjoys trying to write the beautiful sentence. And my personal preferences pull me away from that kind of writing much of the time. But I still really enjoy Tim's stuff. Like I said, and like you can see from that short list of favored writers, I like the surface-simple stuff (as long as there's something more beneath the surface).

You could easily say that I wallow in ugly sentences. And actually, I don't think I'd be offended by that.

Colin is quite right about Hemingway, he's certainly not right for everyone. I think his advice is a little more widely applicable than his own execution of it, though.

At 8:10 AM , Blogger Tim Akers said...

Ah, my head is spinning. So much discussion. Jeez.

First of all, you know I'm not going to be offended by anyone saying that my work is potentially over-wordy. I say that.

As far as a lack of solid contemporary writers, you know I have to disagree with that. I like my palahniuk, coupland and chabon. Which is funny because, I mean, has anything ever actually *happened* in coupland's work. Ha! I contradict myself again! Monday!

At 9:24 AM , Blogger colin said...

Once more, with proofreading.

Too much "serious" literature tries too hard, draws itself out with pointless filler and long, comma-studded sentences, making the reader wonder, eventually, whether this sentence will ever end, or whether they shall be trapped for all eternity in the maze of clauses and sub-clauses, parenthetical remarks, and excercises in thesaurus use, or if, perhaps, they should end it now, rather than struggle forward to the still distant end of the paragraph, knowing full well that with the paragraph ending comes no conclusion, no closure, no peace, but simply the beginning of another dreadful, interminable paragraph, like the one that came before, on and on until the book finally, finally runs out of pages.

There was no point to that. It was just driving me bananas.

At 12:01 PM , Blogger Bravus said...

Coupland is actually a nice example, I think, of balance: he can certainly write the striking sentence, but a lot of his stuff is pretty simple and declarative... which makes the gems sparkle more.

But then, I enjoy Womack very much, and his stuff is not at all easy to read...

This balance between the reader's taste and the writer's intention - or more literarily, perhaps the story's intention - is an intriguing one: for what readers are those America's Best stories written? Is it *really* a matter of literary nouveaux riche valuing the difficulty as evidence of their own erudition?


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