2.18.2005

Hey, congratulations to the Kelly Link, Tim Pratt, and the mystery person who got into Best American Short Stories!

Jeff Vandermeer responded to my last post. I ought to have posted with examples and will do so shortly.

2.17.2005

Style Is Style

I’m several months late coming to Daniel Green’s argument that style is character. He actually convinced me for the length of the article--clever bastard: Could centuries of analysis be mistaken? It isn’t the first time I’ve heard the argument though I have not heard from where the argument originated, which might aid my coming to grips with the theorist’s underpinnings. But of the theory that I’ve seen, it needs work.

First, people create new terms to describe phenomena. If style were character, we could--thank Occam and his razor--eliminate the use of either one. But we cannot because they are distinct. Then what is style? What is character? Since we use words to communicate, Green suggests that words are style and, presumably, everything you need to know about story (he limits his discussion to character, but his argument would suggest that style is also plot and theme and point of view and, well, another word for "story"). Character is the portrayal of the dramatis personae and all that defines and shapes them while style is how a story is told, not what. Words are used with both how and what, confusing Green's point. As the how of a story, style merely lays a patina over how the story will be interpreted--which is not unlike POV in its effect although POV is the storyteller’s [potential] bias while style evokes the mood. Style can influence how the reader sees character (and plot, setting, POV, theme, etc.), but it cannot substitute for it.

Second, if style were character, a story could not have one style, or it would only have one character (unless the style is evoked entirely in the voice of one character or POV--but this phenomenon has another term already called “voice,” the mix of style and point-of-view).

Third, if one writer had a superior style to another, then the character(s) of the superior style should also be superior.

Case History #1: Compare Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to his To Have and Have Not. The former has a superior style and a bland protagonist. The latter Hemingway admitted he spent less time on (it shows in overall story/theme as well as in style) and the primary protagonist is far more intriguing. [More on To Have and Have Not later, which I read to compare to Geoff Ryman's Air, or Have Not Have--no relation as it turns out, but interesting to talk about, nonetheless.]

Case History #2: The characters in Zadie Smith’s Autograph Man are banal (quirky, yes, but ultimately uninteresting--presumably purposefully to illustrate the story's theme brought out in the finale) up until the entrance of the elusive Kitty Alexander. How could that be if Smith’s style had not changed and were somehow inferior up until the entrance of Alexander?

Case History #3: The horror stories in question which I reviewed had interesting styles but blank-slate characters. In fact, one might make a legitimate claim that horror is more about style than any other genre including literary works and it is this very claim that H.P. Lovecraft uses to dismiss Henry James' The Turn of a Screw. So if Green's claim held water, Lovecraft or at least Lovecraft's exemplars of supernatural literature would have better characterization.

Fourth, riffing off point number two, if style were character, bringing in four authors should bring in four powerfully distinct characters, right?

Case History #4: Looking at “Green Fire” by Eileen Gunn, Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick [no longer online that I can see], we find that Gunn begins an attempt to examine the characters, but Andy Duncan--clearly the best stylist in this story--does absolutely nothing with them. So, in this example only, the weak stylist is the best character-writer while the strongest stylist is the flabbiest writer of character.

No single element makes a story. Some advocate idea or theme over all other elements, some character, some images and setting, some style, some imagination. [In the last case history, Swanwick by design had the most imagination but not the better style or character though, again, this is not meant to be a comparison of writing careers summed up in one story that they tossed off for the thrill of writing a pulp adventure, albeit more in the style of the generation preceding their protagonists.]

Some advocate politics over all elements, which I surmise to be one of Green’s legitimate complaints of certain literary theories [I'm running out of time--google Green's blog for politics or theory], and I couldn’t agree more. Terry Eagleton in Introduction to Theory shot down T.S. Eliot because Eliot didn’t share Eagleton’s politics. What a crock. I had to put the book down. How can I trust Eagleton’s judgment as a critic of art if he cannot value art’s aesthetics, flattening all works of art to a single aspect which he accepts or dismisses based on his divine knowledge of the perfect governmental approach (as Leguin said: one man’s utopia is another’s dystopia)? If a critic wants to shoot down a legitimate art, invariably he recreates an inferior simulacra to knock down. Such straw men are the perennial favorite gimmicks of politicians and demonstrate how incapable politicians are at handling or understanding politics.)

There may be a legitimate, scientific reason why critics (or politicians--I’m not including Green amongst this nefarious lot unless he considers style the end-all-be-all of fiction) flatten art to a single component like politics: Humans can’t handle more than four variables at a time. But there’s hope. There’s a way around our limitations: Do as John Gardner told us: Break the elements down and build them back up again. But in order to break them down, we have to know what they are.

2.10.2005

Modus Operandi

"You will find most books worth reading are worth reading twice."
-- John Morely

BBC recently attributed to Oscar Wilde the quote, "If a book isn't worth reading twice it isn't worth reading once," though this site claims Scooter(?) said it. Famous, infamous, or unfamous--whoever said it said wisely.

"[A]ll aspects of a film are based on formal, structural principles, and meaning as well as emotion is always communicated by structure.... Meaning or emotion does not exist without a form to communicate it. We never simply 'know' something."
--Robert Kolker, Film, Form and Culture

"Break up the larger story into its components, make sure you understand the exact function of each component (a story is like a machine with numerous gears: it should contain no gear that doesn't turn something) and after each component has been carefully set in place, step back and have a look at the whole."
--John Gardner

On our local public radio came a musician who spoke of teaching the next generation of musicians. Her rationale was that (I wish I had the direct quote) if you teach them, they will understand the form and be able to pass it on. The interest now infused in Language poetry may be due in large part to Ron Silliman's blog (his work can be found here).

All of this quoting is simply pointing the direction of this blog. I used to feel it important to be coyly speechless about art as Robert Frost or Robert Altman, but wouldn't it be better to explain art so that more could participate? The more who can participate, the higher the odds are that the arts will be funded for the future. Mystical, elitist attitudes about art and understanding it bore me, so I plan to dig deeper into texts (probably no deeper than I dug into "Wakefield," etc.). This means I'll be spoiling plots and sleight-of-hand, but would the story be worth reading if talking about it ruined it? (Maybe particularly well-crafted plot-driven stories, in which case I'll be as indirect and coyly phrased as possible.)

Jeff Vandermeer recently blogged one of his best commentaries on Haruki Murakamis. He asks, "Are there books we under-appreciate through no fault of the author's, but because our own imaginations as readers are not up to the task?" Maybe essays of more depth will help us get to a place where can appreciate them as opposed to reading good art because it's somehow mystically good for us. Spinach is too, but would you eat everything you were told was good for you if you didn't know how? If we aren't able to explain what we say we appreciate, do we truly appreciate it?

Where no Trekkie has gone before

Jed Hartman pointed out new Star Trek episodes online.

2.08.2005

Links

Gwenda Bond points out Stephen King's 12 tips for being a writer.

Rue D notes the wild stories homeless children of Miami tell.

Alan DeNiro had two interesting blogs: one on scrapping what doesn't seem to be working, another criticizing criticism. In the latter, I'm less interested in the speculating of motives but the approach: "The problem is that he really doesn't have any clue what Language poetry is, and never defines it; it's something rather specific." This kind of reacting positively or negatively without defining what you love or find wrong is symptomatic throughout the literary spectrum of discourse. DeNiro's implied advice is a page from a book I hope to follow in the future of this blog.

I'll read it more thoroughly later, but the Richard Tayson article does define language poetry as "a lack of narrative, a rejection of closure, an emphasis on textuality, and extreme attention to the material physicality of the shape and sound of words (or even letters) at the expense of...," etc.

My take on Language Poetry will be months down the road, but while I admire the new approach to language, I'm not convinced of its purported political purposes (hence, months down the road). DeNiro makes fun of Tayson's view of Whitman through hacker-speak: "Whitman is so 1337." I had to look up "1337" which is supposed to be short for "elite" although DeNiro may have had another definition in mind. (Explore the Urban Dictionary--very cool). Whitman, however, was the opposite of elite. He tried to embrace all of the culture at once--the broad sweep of his lines and the wide scope of his lens: from the technology of locomotives to nature's blade of grass to bear-hugging all of the nation's inhabitants in simple language. He sought to bring poetic language further towards the common man. In this sense, Language poetry does not follow the Whitman tradition as it estranges the language from the common man (which does not necessarily connote it is not poetry). The only way to test the Whitman supposition for certain is to take Whitman and language poetry on the streets and do a blind, randomized taste-test.

Zadie Smith on Writing

"I think the writer’s responsibility is to tell the truth. The aim is to try and tell the truth — any kind of truth. It can be a very tiny truth. Truth means not that you read the book and think, "Ah, yes, I make a cup of tea exactly that way." It’s not that. It has to be truth without generalization, without cliche, and without simplification."

The interview is somewhat antagonistic, but there are a few other interesting ideas after the ice is broken.

I also thought these two separate interviews came up with an interesting contrast. From Random House:

Q. When you write the beginning of a novel, do you already have the ending in your head or does it only become clear after journeying with the characters?

A. Yes, I need to know what the end of the story is before I begin a novel. By the time I start to write the novel I don't want to still be inventing the story; I want to be thinking only about the language or the next sentence, and the sentence after that. The process of imagining a whole story takes a year or eighteen months. I always begin with who the characters are and how and when their paths cross and recross.


From Masterpiece Theatre:

White Teeth is such a vivacious, anarchic story. Did you know how it was going to end when you started it?

No, I don't think so. I just finished a short story and I don't always know the ending when I start. I know it up to the middle, and the rest of it is a bit like pedaling downhill. If you don't get panicked it's fine.


The ideas are not completely contradictory, but one wonders if it has to do with the interviewing technique--if the interviewer/ee feel at ease.

2.06.2005

25% off book at Borders coupon (through Thursday 2/10/5)

2.02.2005

Eating their Dust

Two of my Clarion classmates have made a huge splash this year already:

Stephen Woodworth's second novel, With Red Hands, debuted at #25 on the NY Times bestseller list. His first, Through Violet Eyes, made it into three book clubs: Doubleday, Literary Guild, and SFBC (as a Featured Alternate).

Margo Lanagan won an Aurealis award for her collection, Black Juice, four stories of which were recommended by Locus.

Our instructor, Gwyneth Jones, is a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award.

(And here I get excited when I finish writing a whole scene.)

Woo-Hoo! I'm rich!

Finally, after all the Paypal phishing scams [if you don't know what phishing is, read this now] via Australians and Europeans (according to the links of their redirect websites, that is), I'm finally getting the promise of money in return for the theft of my identity. It's not quite as kooky as the story about the deposed African ruler with a pot of gold in his backyard that he needs my money to dig up, but it must do the trick. (At least this scam gives the thread of a story. It has an official term: 4-1-9.)

Subject: Attn: Bequest Beneficiary
From: "Law Office"



ATTENTION:

Sir

NOTIFICATION OF BEQUEST .

This is sequel to your non response of our earlier letter to you on behalf of the Trustees and Executors to the Will of late of Hon Engr.Billy Scotts(KSM),I wish to notify you that you were listed as a beneficiary to the bequest of the sum of Five Million One Hundred Thousand US Dollars in the codicil and last testament of the deceased. The late Engr. Billy Scotts until his death was a former Managing Director and pioneer staff of a big construction company Julius Berger BV in the Netherlands. He was a very dedicated Sufis and a great philanthropist during his life time.


Late Hon. Billy Scotts died on 9th February 2004 at the age of 68,He was buried on the 23rd of February. Late Hon. Billy Scotts even though he was an American living and working in Holland as a foreigner he requested before his death that he be buried here in his words, "I regard here as My home and the people as my people". He said that this token is to support your ministry and help to the less- privileged. I hereby request that you forward any proof of identities of yours, your current telephone and fax numbers and your forwarding address to enable us file necessary documents at the High Court of Justice probate division for the release of this bequest of money.

Congratulations.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. Van De Groot

PS
For the purpose of confidentiality, please send your
response to : lawoffice63@netscape.net

2.01.2005

New Aimee Bender tale

Lit Haven just published a new Aimee Bender tale called "Night."