‘Sociology’

At some point I shall have more to say about the ‘New Criticism’ of the 1940s and its successors since then – the various ill-starred attempts to remove the subjective from literary criticism and thereby gank some of the prestige (read: grant money) hitherto reserved for the hard sciences. This program, as I have mentioned before, led to the ludicrous practice of analysing literature without any reference either to the intentions of the writer or the reactions of the reader; as if the mere text were an eternal and uncreated thing, existing solely to be studied in the abstract, and not a dirty, low-down, wilful attempt at communication.

Linguistics, which (almost alone among the social sciences) ought to be a science, and can at least be approached as one, is in a worse state than all the others. So I found out a decade ago, when I made the mistake of paying tuition to study it. The ‘Quantitative Methods’ in that field, as in most of the social sciences, consist chiefly of misapplied statistics and a smattering of logic. But if language is anything, it is an attempt to transmit a signal successfully; and you cannot really understand how signals work without studying information theory. Naturally, there was no mention of information theory in the linguistics syllabus; probably because the linguists don’t know any information theory themselves, and don’t even know that it’s there not to know. (These are the same people, in some cases, who laughed at Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’; more fools they.) You see, information theory is taught by the Maths Department, and requires other mathematics courses as prerequisites; at the university I attended, it was a third-year course, and by that time a linguist is supposed to have completed all his Quantitative Methods courses and relapsed into comfortable innumeracy.

The inimitable Tom Lehrer, in one of his lesser known songs, took a shot at the same tendency in the social sciences. In his younger days, the social sciences were (as he puts it) desperately trying to justify the word ‘science’ in their title. Social scientists, whose ostensible subject was the study of the nature and interactions of human beings, were instead abandoning that subject to go in for the aforementioned Quantitative Methods. It was this absurdity that spilled over into literature; and pretty nearly everything that needs to be said about it was said briefly and pithily by Mr. Lehrer in the song that follows.

[Read more…]

Sequel

As a sequel to my last post, I have received a charming and delightful email from a person who informs me that I am a ‘miserable fool’, that I am suffering from spiritual pride and need to turn to the Lord, and that the only way to do that is to do exactly as he, the writer of the email, commands. But it is I, you see, not he, who suffers from pride.

As a further balm to the wounded spirit, he offers this gem:

As for fiction, you haven’t enough broad and intense experience to ever convey the kind of depth and originality to the fantasy field (or any other) that makes for greatness or popularity.

I shall not reply to him in person; I have dealt with this character before; his eyes, ears, and mind are closed to everything and everyone, as far as I can tell, and the only thing he pays attention to is the din inside his own head. But I reply to him at large and in public, in the words of C. S. Lewis from The Pilgrim’s Regress:

But how can you help me after removing the only thing that I want to be helped to? What is the use of telling a hungry man that you will grant him his desires, provided there is no question of eating?

I put it to the 3.6 Loyal Readers – just in case I should be missing a jewel in a dunghill; I do not want to dismiss advice without a hearing. Is this man right, and I should give up writing fiction?

Narrative fatigue

A personal plaint.

According to that fearsomely encyclopaedic source, TV Tropes, a story, any story, is dead from the moment the audience utters the Eight Deadly Words: ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ This is a specific instance of a larger class of story-killers, which I propose to call narrative fatigue. Some other forms that it may take:

  • ‘I know what is going to happen to these people, and I’m not enjoying the ride enough to stay till the end.’ My reaction to any fiction by David Eddings. Other writers tried to waste my time with predictable stories. Eddings bragged about it in the text itself.
  • ‘I care what happens to these people, but I’ve lost all faith that I will ever find out.’ One of many possible reasons to give up on A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • ‘I care about these people, but nothing that is happening to them makes any sense.’ The #1 pitfall of magic realism.
  • ‘The things that are happening make sense, but the people themselves don’t.’ The #1 pitfall of those ‘slice of a Manhattan neurotic’s life’ stories so beloved of The New Yorker.
  • ‘I’d like to find out what happens, but I don’t want to work this hard for it. Cliff’s Notes, please?’ The #1 pitfall of self-consciously ‘literary’ exercises in stylistic weirdness.
  • Perhaps the worst killer of all: ‘It’s blatantly obvious that nothing is ever going to happen to these people.’

[Read more…]

Ray Bradbury

I recently took part in a discussion on Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog about Ray Bradbury. Wishing to scrapbook my remarks for my own future consideration, I reproduce them here. Those not interested in my unformed maunderings are invited to skip this post, with my apologies.


Goldwin Smith, a British-Canadian journalist of the Victorian period, at once praised and damned the then prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, in these words: ‘Mr. Mackenzie was a stonemason; he is a stonemason still.’ The qualities that made a good stonemason, he implied, were just those that made a man doctrinaire, clumsy, and incapable in public office. (But then, Goldwin Smith was no treat. An astute historian has remarked that his idea of independence was to be unfair to each side alternately.)

With thanks and apologies to Mr. Smith, I can say that Ray Bradbury is a horror writer, and when writing science fiction or anything else, he is a horror writer still. He reaches for an emotional effect, and does it very well; but he reaches no further. He writes (for instance) stories about little boys who long to become rocket men, and he is very good at making you feel their longing; but he is content with that, and does not take you any deeper into their world. Horror is all about the emotional effect; its job, by definition, is to horrify the reader. Science fiction, when well done, is about the discovery. A story must appeal to the intellect and the sense of curiosity, not to the emotions only, if it is to be successful by the terms of that art. Bradbury seldom makes any appeal to the intellect, and his appeal to curiosity is essentially negative; for a horror story is generally a cautionary tale against curiosity, in which evil things will happen if you go into the haunted house, or inquire too closely into the neighbour with the unearthly manners. [Read more…]

C. S. L. on entertainment

If entertainment means light and playful pleasure, then I think it is exactly what we ought to get from some literary work – say, from a trifle by Prior or Martial. If it means those things which ‘grip’ the reader of popular romance – suspense, excitement and so forth – then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

I am at the moment laid up with a bad case of viral bronchitis, so close to pneumonia that it took an X-ray for the attending physician to tell the difference. My essai in progress (and almost finished), on the inclusion of Mervyn Peake’s grotesque satires, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, in the fantasy genre, is therefore up on blocks in the yard, covered with a tarpaulin. It will have to wait until I am more lucid to finish it. Many other projects are also behind hand; I am too keenly aware of them for my own comfort. Meanwhile, I am trying to make some constructive use of my illness by re-reading some thought-provoking books, including the one quoted above – which my Beloved Other kindly found for me today, after I had long believed my copy lost.

I beg your kind indulgence for the delay.

G. K. C. opens the cruellest month

Today would have been my father’s ninetieth birthday. He expected to live to see it; many of his close relations had lived that long, or close to it; he was in robust physical health till his mind gave way. But a house untenanted falls sooner into dilapidation, and I had to say my goodbye to him more than two years ago.

Because the first of April was, for our family, the date of a celebration not fitly met with mockery, I have never gone in for April Foolery myself; though I can appreciate a good jape when performed by a genuine artist.

This, for instance:

‘G. K. Chesterton on AI Risk’

The followers of Mr. Samuel Butler speak of thinking-machines that grow grander and grander until – quite against the wishes of their engineers – they become as tyrannical angels, firmly supplanting the poor human race. This theory is neither exciting nor original; there have been tyrannical angels since the days of Noah, and our tools have been rebelling against us since the first peasant stepped on a rake. Nor have I any doubt that what Butler says will come to pass. If every generation needs its tyrant-angels, then ours has been so inoculated against the original that if Lucifer and all his hosts were to descend upon Smithfield Market to demand that the English people bend the knee, we should politely ignore them, being far too modern to have time for such things. Butler’s thinking-machines are the only tyrant-angels we will accept; fate, ever accommodating, will surely give them to us.

(Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for mentioning this jewel in the comment box.)

Cataplasm

Sonny, the senior domestic vermin, has at length recovered from his recent surgery. He developed an ulcerated eye with a promptness and celerity that does our Division of Infectious Plagues credit. In the span of a few days he went from a mild case of pink eye to having his cornea rupture, whereupon aqueous humour leaked out all over, and there was nothing for it but to remove the eye – at great expense to my Vile Human, who could ill afford it, but was too much of a sap to simply dispose of the beast.

The vermin is now fully recovered, except for being minus an eye, and has completed his sentence – a fortnight in the Cone of Shame: [Read more…]

Long-burnt incense and very old peppermints

As I write this, I am sitting at the counter in Denny’s, industriously shirking the work I came here to do. To help me in my efforts to avoid effort, a few minutes ago, the PA system played ‘Incense and Peppermints’, the 1967 hit by the psychedelic one-hit wonders, Strawberry Alarm Clock:

I paused to reflect, and it occurred to me that we are just coming up on the 50th anniversary of this song’s release. This made me feel old.

To distract myself from this feeling, I went looking on Wikipedia (that unimpeachable smorgasbord of occasionally accurate pop culture trivia), and discovered that Strawberry Alarm Clock still exists to this day, and continues to perform live, at least sporadically. Of course the entire membership of the band has turned over more than once, and those original members who are with the Clock today have rejoined (two or three times apiece) after quitting in the late Sixties. Like the knife that has had two new blades and three new handles, they are just the same band as they ever were.

(It may be worth noting that the lead singer on ‘Incense and Peppermints’ was not a band member at all. The regular singers for Strawberry Alarm Clock all hated the lyrics and refused to sing them, so they brought in a 16-year-old kid, a friend of the band’s, as a pinch singer. Lo and behold, the song with the terrible lyrics turned out to be their only #1 single. Shows you what they know – a lesson to all writers, I suppose.)

This information distracted me from feeling old, and instead made me feel a kind of general dislocated weirdness. It would seem that general dislocated weirdness is what you are supposed to feel when listening to Strawberry Alarm Clock, so all’s right with the world after all.

Testing, testing (Comments please?)

Since the last so-called upgrade to WordPress, I can no longer view my site statistics. I have no way of knowing whether anybody is actually looking at this blog anymore or not. GoDaddy gave instructions on how to fix the problem; they didn’t work.

If anyone reads this, would you be so kind as to leave a comment? I need to know if my 3.6 Loyal Readers are still there, and I have no other way of telling.

Thank you.

 

UPDATE, 23 February: Now I’m in touch with the support people for the Jetpack plugin, which is causing all the trouble. I finally managed to upgrade and reinstall it… and it started putting code barf all over the pages containing individual posts. So I disabled it again, and I’m back to square one (but on the New and Improved™ upgraded board). No stats again.

My sincerest thanks to all who posted comments. It’s good to know that you’re all still out there and haven’t forgotten me. All alone in the silence, I was feeling pretty low.

Cataclysm!

You will note, immediately below, the pathetic plaint of my Vile Human at the illness of his domestic vermin. What he does not mention is that after acquiring this pestiferous pile of protoplasm, he and his mate brought home another. They were supposed to arrive together, but the second beast was having his reproductive proclivities surgically curtailed and was not ready to travel until the following week. Then Vile Human, the silly sap, repeated the four-hour drive (round trip) to Hanna and dutifully collected the fresh vermin.

The new infestation was named Kaos (so spelt) by the folk at the shelter. Here are both vermin together:

At first Kaos spent most of his time hiding in back closets or under furniture, for he had a blind fear of his new environment which I found most gratifying. Alas, this was soon corrected, and once he was coaxed out of hiding, he and the first vermin, Sonny, quickly attained the sickening condition that the humans call friendship. They are now inseparable boon companions, and it is revolting to see.

If it were not for the first vermin’s sickness and its owner’s distress, I would find the cloying domestic harmony of the place insufferable. As it is, once the beast recovers from surgery, I may have to decamp and take temporary lodgings in a war zone. True, in a war zone I may see courage and heroism, but I shall also see death, dismemberment, and the suffering of innocents: a refreshment that I much desire. This place is beginning to get positively un-Hellish.

(Signed)
H. Smiggy McStudge

 

P.S. The Vile Human’s mate has bestowed affectionate nicknames on the two vermin. She calls the first one Heffalump and the second one Woozle. It is enough to make one spew.