5.22.2004

The Efficacy of Efficiency, Puzzles and Porges (in F&SF and elsewhere)

It struck me belatedly as I entered into this small project (well, it was small before it ballooned larger than I meant it to) that some might ask: “What’s this guy’s deal with old guys who never won awards? Nobody else looks at them. Why doesn’t he analyze the young turks like everybody else?”

I suppose it is because everyone else is analyzing the young turks, for one thing. For another, it’s easier to analyze a writer’s career from the retrospective standpoint--20/20 and all that. Also, I tend to ask myself and others, “Where are you going and where have you been?” This is a famous Joyce Carol Oates story, of course, but it is also the question the angel asked the fleeing surrogate mother. And a potent one, for how can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been (or why we’ve been where we’ve been)?

Finally, each of these pioneers has carved a path that’s worth observing. I fear present literature is gazing too steadily at its feet, circling the same old oak tree. And Porges (I keep wanting to call him Borges with a ‘p’) does have something to say to the present.

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MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK

Neal Stephenson is an impressive novelist. I’m on my third reading of Snow Crash which, while it has its weaknesses, is still admirable ten years post-publication (fifteen or so “post-”cyberpunk). Stephenson takes a humorous jab at the brevity-is-a-virtue crowd here; however, having read his short story, “Spew,” I realize that Stephenson at this point (or maybe only in this instance) cannot write a short story. His training as novelist has limited his ability to seek out what is relevant to a short telling. His novels eventually make relevant most of the telling. If you’re a fan, you’ll definitely want to read “Spew,” but it won’t be for its amber-cased literary value.

Porges probably won’t be found to have literary value in the artistic sense, but he is full to bursting with an efficient story craft, which is sadly lacking in much of the new fiction. If you’re writing novels, such inefficiency is somewhat more tolerable because it 1) helps create the illusion of reality, and 2) hopefully has a purpose in the book’s final scheme of things. It's unfortunate that too many writers’ words have now become immortal. Sounding nice or looking pretty ain’t enough because inefficient irrelevancy ain’t art.

Ernest Hemingway [in Selected Letters] was quite adamant about the efficiency of a short story’s structure:

“No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.... Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is to get a phony style and you can write any amount of words.”

He goes in Death in the Afternoon to describe incompetence masquerading to hide its emptiness:

“If [a writer] mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax or grammar to make an effect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense.”

Perhaps the most famous quote in this regard is ironically more succinctly put by William Falkner, a man known for regional extravagance in language (but extravagance does not mean inefficiency, either):

"Kill your darlings."

This is not to say that everyone should write like Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver (although one could do worse than study their work). Even they had admiration for writers who wrote nothing like them. Joyce Carol Oates and Lucius Shepard, who have long, mellifluous sentences, write efficiently. Writing efficiently is simply having something interesting and relevant to say to the story.

I’m out of the loop in Daniel Green’s rebuffing the critics’ qualms of so-called “purple prose.” I’ve read early and late Philip Roth (i.e. Goodbye Columbus and The Human Stain), both of which I found more worth reading than your average novel but happened to find the former more compelling less through greater efficiency or lack of purple than through having more to say in less space, which is more of a structural efficiency than a purple prose problem--the difference being that each sentence furthered sense in both, but more distance is traveled per page in the former.

I realize some will still have issues with this claim, so let's ask ourselves a few questions that may deepen our thought on the issue by examining potential effects: If parts aren’t relevant, structurally or sentence-wise, do they belong? If we keep it in, why? to what end? If we keep in what doesn’t belong or is irrelevant, why not put other parts in? How do we decide what goes in and what does not?

Imagine walking down an arbitrary street, packed with people gesturing for you to come hither. You’ve got time to kill. A vagrant with alcohol on his breath accosts you and gasps in your face, “I’ve got to tell you my story! The mafia tried to drown me in a vat of alcohol after I tried to rat about their dirty money-laundering to the cops who have direct links to the mafia. You just don’t know who to trust in this world.” Will you listen?

How about a rich dude in fancy duds and diamond-studded cufflinks and cane, doused in fragrant cologne and an enchanting, melodious voice that says, “I say, will you listen to my meandering for a spell? It’s the epic tale of my rememberings told in exquisite and picturesque detail, leaving nothing out, because it’s all about me, and every detail matters, adding up to a glorious something or other.” Will you listen?

Honestly, I don’t know what “purple prose” is, anymore. Some think any amount of description is purple, but if we can’t live in and experience your world of no purple prose, we can’t believe in it and certainly won’t remember it--let alone, listen to begin with.

Some see purple prose as a virtue in and of itself. Why is the prose purple? What sense does the purple add to the prose as a whole? That doesn’t matter to these guys. It’s all the “p”s and “r”s that make it such lovely a phrase.

So what is “purple” and what is not? What is the dividing line? I can’t give hard and fast rules. I just take these things, case by case. I plan on extending this article for Gabe, detailing a few famous examples, on an epic scale because efficiency isn't just an issue for the short story. I'll pick up where this section leaves off (revising if I change my mind on particulars).

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PUZZLING OUT PORGES’ PLACE

On a micro scale, Arthur Porges at his best excels in efficiency for both structural and sentence matters. His first collection, The Mirror and Other Strange Reflections, published after forty-some-odd years of writing was reviewed at CNN. His entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is disappointing although not unexpected since there is a definite tendency to emphasize novelists over short story writers in this work, which culminates in one sentence relevant to his work: “He is... a strong and inventive writer, especially of fantasy.” This is an interesting statement in light of Porges’ nonappearance in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Perhaps this is just a minor oversight in this early edition.

By “inventive,” I believe the author refers to Porges’ “intuitionist”-leap style of puzzle story (others that were listed in this camp include Poe, Melville, and Borges): the ending is generally a surprise that is only anticipated if you have some expertise in this area. This is my definition which, upon reflection, also suits Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Porges’ surprises aren’t usually a surprise, but the path to getting to the surprise is still an enjoyable ride--much as you can look at a roller coaster and educatedly guess what you’re in for, but you plunk your money down, anyway, and it’s often worth the time and price of admission.

Referencing mystery terminology and authors, you might wonder whether Porges is really a mystery writer. His style and method are especially suited for that medium, to be sure. After a decade of writing SF, he did indeed turn to mysteries, but this may be due in part to the collapse of the SF magazine market at the time, and he may have only belatedly realized that another genre fit his interests.

Moreover, science fiction of the “harder” variety has always been a matter devoted puzzles. Consider especially Hal Clement’s work. I asked Clement if he might think of his work as mysteries and he rather liked that angle on his work (he spent more of his free-reading time with mysteries, he said on a convention panel). This should not come as a surprise to any scientists who see their work as a puzzle to be unlocked after multiple failures of approach. They come to such SF, feeling quite at home.

Caveat: I’m going to praise and be critical. Praise, like other opposites, has little value in a wash of positivism (likewise, criticism without praise has little meaningful value). If you like to swim in good feelings or in negativity, read elsewhere. Writers need only write one successful classic to be highly esteemed in my book, and Porges has done that in “$1.98” and a few other pieces that might actually be better as stories but lack its huge philosophical query silently posed at the end of the story.

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PORGES, THE RECENT WORK IN F&SF

After a lengthy hiatus from any speculative genre, Arthur Porges has increasingly been appearing in F&SF. Almost twenty years between his appearances in the field, he reemerged in Edward Ferman’s June 1987 issue with “Oddmedod,” a dark and rather spooky turn on a rather old urban legend--a substitute nanny skips out on her job but leaves yet another substitute in her stead. Not only does Porges deliver in the horror department, but also in the spot-on dialect (albeit based on my limited experience):

“‘Not ‘er,’ Jane said darkly [referring to the young girl Jane was supposed to take care of]. ‘She’s nervy; sees things; cries a lot. Unless--’ her face brightened. ‘I once seen me aunt do a nice bit o’ work with a cranky gel o’ five or so. Real old witch, me aunt. I’ve arf a mind to risk it tonight.”

Twelve years later, in “Movie Show (A Story for Lincoln’s Birthday),” he gave us an old film purporting to be a film of Abraham Lincoln. Being in F&SF, of course, we know the mundane answer is not the real one, and the focus on a particular bird is almost a dead give-away for any student of ecology, but again, feeling surprise, even in a story of surprise, is not the important aspect of a story. We are convinced that the characters aren’t aware of the outcome. Only hindsight is 20/20. (In real life, I just witnessed a woman who looked like my old professor staring straight ahead, walking with composure and leaning on her husband’s arm as though she’d gone blind. In real life, we do dismiss such conclusions as improbable and we can buy characters that do the same so long as they do it convincingly and have reason to believe it is so. Convincing portrayals, however, are the tricky part.)

“A Quartet of Mini-Fantasies” is the first recent disappointment. It appears the Hartwells have anthologized it for their Year’s Best, but other reviewers noted their disappointment as well. Some of these--i.e. “Two” about the Shadowsmith--feel like the start of a wonderful story that had been waiting for Porges in a drawer to complete one day--a story I’d love to read. “One” and “Four” could possibly have been part of another, but as surprises they neither are convincing or moving portrayals nor are worth being surprised about. “Three,” was already written in “The Arrogant Vampire” (Fantastic, May 1961), which is another surprise/puzzle story that Porges does well. In this case, “Three” was more or less one of the scenarios in the try-&-discard phase of the puzzle of killing the vampire who is feeding off this guy’s daughter (the age and arrogance of the vampire, however, left him unprepared for advances in science).

“Luz (from the Private Journal of Sue Fone, M.D.)” [F&SF, May 2003] was strangely, in my mind, not well received. It has a very Borges-ian quality and mystique. A medical doctor and amateur cryptologist has discovered the bone called the “Luz” hidden within the hip and inscribed with ancient symbols. Despite the anti-climactic ending that feels a little tacked on to resolve what would otherwise be a problematic ending, I loved it.

The June 2004 issue of F&SF has “By the Light of Day,” wherein a torturer invents a tool to torture political prisoners, who escape and take over the government and keep the torturer employed. Poignant but still a vignette. Moreover, it’s even harder to reread this in light of current events.

It’s amazing and inspiring to me how these guys keep writing and often writing well.

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PORGES, THE WORK OF EARLIER SPECULATIONS

Arthur Porges’ first work “The Rats” appeared in Man’s World [Feb 1951] (presumably a “slick,” the era’s term for the better commercially successful magazines outside the genre venue) and later reprinted in F&SF and in that year’s Best Science Fiction Stories, turning Porges into an F&SF staple and revealing Porges’ architectural preference for the puzzle-surprises that unfolded throughout much of his career. It’s a post-nuclear holocaust in which the dominant lifeform is the rat. Jeffrey Clark tries different and increasingly complex ways to get rid of the rats, but each time the rats eventually figure out what’s going on until... well, even if you can figure out the ending, it’s still a fun ride.

“The Fly” [F&SF, September 1952], which Clute sites as Porges’ best known work (although it sounds as if “The Ruum” has assumed that position at thirty reprintings--a story that sadly I was unable to locate) but warns readers that this is not basis for the movie by the same name, is one of his better works. A scientist on a jaunt into the wilds to measure the outside radioactivity levels takes a break to observe and finds a fly caught in a web except, when the spider comes to investigate, the fly doesn’t get eaten, which makes the scientist curious and want to capture this strange creature. This one of the few less intuition-based stories creates a small sense of awe or wonder.

I couldn’t agree with Gordon van Gelder more, than to call “$1.98” [F&SF, May 1954] a classic. A man, bummed about the loss of his love, saves the life of a god--a very small god that can only compensate the savior with gifts up to but not exceeding $1.98. Calling this a classic assumes you can read past the ending into its humbling implications.

In what started off sounding like a joke--a witch, a vampire, a ghoul, and the last man in the world were sitting in a bar (I mean, around a campfire)--the ending of “Mop-up” [F&SF, July 1953] was a surprise for me, but this may be Porges “intuitionist” leanings, i.e. you can’t know what the author’s up to until he brings those pieces into play. I found myself asking in what way would these guys mop-up the last of humanity--which character would it be (the old hag in love? the thirsty vampire? or the hungry ghoul)? Or would humanity finally mop-up its mythical reprobates?

In “The Devil and Simon Flagg” [Aug 1954] (his only story available online although the Porges fan site has a previously unpublished short story and a few other prose works), the least interesting matter is the deal-with-the-devil. What’s worth plummeting is the issue brought up after the climax in the denouement. There are a number of ways to make the denouement more integral to the climax or make it the climax itself, but they might make the plot itself less dramatic.

For whatever reason--changes in editors or the desire to break into new magazines--Porges explored other genre magazines like Amazing and Analog. His “Revenge” story in the February 1961 issue was picked up by one of Amazing’s most famous editors, Cele Goldsmith--famous for her discovery of Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roger Zelazny. Here she made another excellent selection. This is one of Porges’ more interesting works, keenly exploring drug politics through the voice of a disgruntled scientist who put an end to the world's opium problem. Mind you, this is 1961:

“You’ve been yammering about narcotics for years--how drug addiction was spreading, reaching down even to your unmannerly, spoiled brats who despise their parents and our venal society to the same degree. The stuff comes in by the ton across the Mexican border; they grow it for our benefit in Red China; and a few ‘friendly’ Asian countries don’t mind exporting some now and then, either. In spite of heroic work by our small group of poorly financed narcotics agents, the flow of drugs cannot be halted....

“But as to a sensible solution, such as legalizing the sale of heroin to break the world-wide criminal control on the distribution of drugs--that your vapid Puritan morality wouldn’t permit. Millions of dollars for enforcement, and to punish the sick, but not one cent for prevention, and almost nothing to find out why people become addicts in the first place, and how to cure them.”


Even John W. Campbell printed a few of Porges’ stories, including “Problem Child” [Analog, April 1964], which was later reprinted in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best S-F--the story of a child who had more thought than was initially perceived--thought developed by what he was allowed to perceive. Merril introduces the story with an interesting quote from Kurt Vonnegut. I’ll close with that in the summation, but first a word or two about Porges’ other genre.

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PORGES, THE MAN OF MYSTERY

There’s a lot of cross-over between Porges’ speculations and mysteries. Readers of both camps might find themselves enjoying stories originally published in one genre or the other.

The one, must-hunt-down story is definitely “The Fanatical Ford” [Alfred Hitchcock, April 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Fall Sampler 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s A Mystery by the Tale]. A man abuses his Model-T, personified as a she, and is forever attacked by automobiles wherever he roams throughout the world, so he lives on top of this mountain where the reporter bemusedly interviews him. Great stuff--perhaps his best. It’s too bad genre readers haven’t stepped out to meet this story since it’s definitely speculative--albeit with a mystery sensibility.

“Blood Will Tell” [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s A Brief Darkness] is one of the more clever mysteries in which a cop approaches the detective mastermind about how to get blood from a suspect to test against blood from the crime scene without violating his rights. In a similar manner, to prove a criminal’s guilt, the “Lost Gun” [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shrouds and Pockets] is the one the criminal used but was not found in his possession at the time of the murder.

Porges has a series detective who is a scientist named Cyriak Skinner Grey, and who in “The Scientist and the Stolen Rembrandt” [Alfred Hitchcock’s No Harm Undone] solved what happened to the missing painting aboard a ship (the ending was somewhat clever but too intutitionist and certainly not in need of a scientist to solve), and who in “The Scientist and the Time Bomb” [Alfred Hitchcock’s Words of Prey] solved how a man dead for fifteen years planned on blowing up his house because, knowing the city planned to make use of the historical building other than they had agreed to use it for. The latter does require a scientist and should appeal to the scientist/mystery reader. The solution can be guessed, especially in light of current science news.

Porges also writes suspense stories--that nether region between horror and mystery--like “Puddle” [Alfred Hitchcock’s Borrowers of the Night]. A bully gets his comeuppance for threatening to drop into a puddle a child who is terrified of water. It’s fantastic in the genre sense of the term but typical of nineteen seventies’ horror stories. “Bank Night” [Alfred Hitchcock’s Anthology], on the other hand, leans to the mystery end of the spectrum, describing how two former war veterans from opposite sides of the social strata reunite to pull off the perfect, idiot-proof bank job--a job that was perfected perhaps too well.

PORGES, THE SUMMATION

Does Porges embody the perfection of efficiency? Of course not. No one does. We’re not playing who’s better, who’s best here. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There is no order for good writers.” The only game in town is to write your game--and no one else’s--as well as possible, and this includes attention paid to efficiency, which is just one small part of art (more to come...).

The following quote, that Judith Merril left uncommented upon, fell between J.G. Ballard’s famous story “The Terminal Beach” and Porges’ “Problem Child” in her aforementioned anthology. I can’t imagine whether she meant it to apply especially to either story or writer in particular, but Ballard is more closely associated with the sparrowfarts than Porges.

I don’t wholly agree with Kurt Vonnegut’s Eliot character from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, but he raises a lot of good points:

Eliot stayed contritely sober for two days after that, then disappeared for a week. Among other things, he crashed a convention of science-fiction writers in a motel in Milford, Pennsylvania....

“I love you sons of bitches,” Eliot said in Milford. “You’re all I read any more. You're the only ones who’ll talk all about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that’ll last for billions of years. You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstanding, mistakes, accidents, catastrophes do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to be Heaven or Hell.

Eliot admitted later on that science fiction writers couldn’t write for sour apples, but he declared that it didn’t matter. He said they were poets just the same, since they were more sensitive to important changes than anybody who was writing well. “The hell with the talented sparrowfarts who write delicately of one small piece of one small lifetime, when the issues are galaxies, eons, and trillions of souls yet to be born.”


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FOR MORE INFO ON PORGES: THE BEST FAN SITE

Forgive the innumerably annoying pop-ups. This site is the model of how it should be done.

I’d meant to consult it while preparing this, but the server was down, last I checked.


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