Style is the rocket

‘Don’t mock the afflicted.’ This is a good rule, but it needs a rider: ‘Unless they choose to afflict themselves, and treat their affliction as cause for pride.’ Colour-blindness is not funny; but a colour-blind man who should proclaim the virtues of his superior eyesight, and sneer at all those who suffer under the illusion that red is different from green, would be the stuff of immortal comedy. He would be laughed at heartily, and have no one to blame for it but himself.

There is a kind of literary colour-blindness which occurs, for the most part, only among highly cultivated people; for such folly in nature is self-correcting. It takes two opposite forms. One is the belief that prose style is all; that a work of literature is only as good as its individual sentences, and that a bland or pedestrian prose style is in itself sufficient to condemn a story as subliterary dreck. The second form I shall discuss later.

This belief is lamentably common among those who profess to teach English or American literature. In part it is bound up with the habit of ‘close reading’, and with the tenets of New Criticism which hold it improper to judge a story even partly by its dramatic or emotional effect. On these terms, one could not possibly account for the fact that a book can be translated into a film, or even a French book into English; that there is something quite separate from the specific details of the writer’s language, which makes the translation recognizably the same story as the original, though there may not be a single word in common between them. But that is a discussion for another time.

For now I want to talk about this: There are whole shoals of critics who judge literature only by its most obvious and meretricious characteristics — the mere details of word choice and sentence-level prose. B. R. Myers, in his excellent Reader’s Manifesto, derided this habit as ‘the sentence cult’, and largely blamed it for the decline in the quality of American literary fiction. Unfortunately, he spent most of his manifesto baiting the bear in his own den — making the sentence cultists look like fools by showing how puerile and badly written were the very passages they exalted in the reviews as the acme of ‘fine writing’. Laura Miller, in a piece for Salon called ‘Sentenced to death’, points out this weakness in Myers’ case:

Much of “A Reader’s Manifesto” is wasted on meticulous analysis of prose style — a choice that does seem at odds with Myers’ withering disdain for the sentence cult — when the truth is that you don’t need an excellent style to write a great novel. Any critic who begins an essay with the example of Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” ought to know that. Dreiser wrote clunky, awkward, tone-deaf prose. His novels are notoriously hard to “get into,” but I still remember where I was and how I felt as I came to the conclusion of “An American Tragedy,” transfixed by the claustrophobic horror of Clyde Griffith’s impending execution. On the level of sentences (or paragraphs, for that matter), DeLillo can write circles around Dreiser, but when it comes to writing novels, Dreiser wipes the floor with the author of “Underworld.”

In fact, Myers and Miller don’t appear to disagree about much; they are simply talking past one another. The very fact that Myers praises Sister Carrie (with a semi-ironic nod to Carrie as well) reveals him as a man who knows that a story is not merely the sum of its sentences. The fact that Miller finds some of Myers’ bad examples as ghastly as he does shows that she, too, considers the ‘sentence cultists’ largely to have failed even on their own terms. In the book-length version of A Reader’s Manifesto, Myers fires back at Miller with dudgeon. The effect of all this cross-talk is rather comical: as if a mixed Belgian couple should get into a heated argument about a day trip, because he wanted to go to Louvain and she wanted to go to Leuven.

What Myers and Miller would agree on, and Steve Wasserman would never understand, is that prose style is only technique, and technique alone does not make a novel. Alas, people like Wasserman have been with us for at least a century; they seemed to breed like maggots in the art pour l’art atmosphere of the 1920s. Thus George Orwell in ‘Inside the Whale’:

In ‘cultured’ circles art-for-art’s-saking extended practically to a worship of the meaningless. Literature was supposed to consist solely in the manipulation of words. To judge a book by its subject matter was the unforgivable sin, and even to be aware of its subject matter was looked on as a lapse of taste. About 1928, in one of the three genuinely funny jokes that Punch has produced since the Great War, an intolerable youth is pictured informing his aunt that he intends to ‘write’. ‘And what are you going to write about, dear?’ asks the aunt. ‘My dear aunt,’ says the youth crushingly, ‘one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.’

The trouble is that if one ‘just writes’, one will very soon find that nobody ‘just reads’. Readers are horribly utilitarian animals; they like value for money, and insist upon value for time, and they like to read about something. They flee from people like the intolerable youth in Punch; they prefer the fuddy-duddy attitude of the sixteenth century, when it was a truism that writers ‘ought to please and instruct’. At the very least writers ought to please or instruct, and not merely amuse themselves at the expense of the reading public. No doubt this is a philistine attitude; then again, the whole Western literary tradition was more or less invented by the Greeks, and the Philistines, it now appears, were probably Greeks themselves. I am afraid the intolerable youths just can’t win.

It is the very aboutness of stories, the fact that the sentences exist only to point to something other and outer and not entirely expressible in words, that enraptures the reader and confounds the critic. Aboutness is a very Aristotelian notion: it is what the Philosopher called a ‘final cause’. Stories don’t exist because a pen made certain marks upon a paper, or because somebody’s fingers struck the computer keys in a certain order. They exist because somebody had the intention of telling them; and that intention usually involves the desire to help other people see some aspect of the world from one’s own perspective. This can be as weighty as Solzhenitsyn’s wish to excite pity and revulsion for the horrors of the Gulag; or as light as Chesterton’s wish to show people how wonderful it was that the South of England, among many other things, was also a piece of chalk.

But aboutness, indeed the whole idea of final causes, is banished from the intellectual toolkit of modern science, which concerns itself solely with what Aristotle called efficient causes. From that perspective it is quite true to say that a story exists because the author’s fingers struck the keys with so many newtons of force in such and such an order. True, but trivial; factual, but meaningless. It is a very precise answer to the wrong question, because by excluding final causes from its field of inquiry, modern science has put itself in the position of the tech support people in the old joke:

A helicopter was flying around above Seattle when an electrical malfunction disabled all of the aircraft’s electronic navigation and communications equipment. Due to the clouds and haze, the pilot could not determine the helicopter’s position and course to fly to the airport. The pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, drew a handwritten sign, and held it up in the window. The sign said ‘WHERE AM I?’ in large letters. People in the tall building drew a sign of their own and held it in one of their own windows. Their sign read: ‘YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER.’

The pilot smiled, waved, set a course for SEATAC airport, and landed safely. After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how he determined their position. The pilot responded: ‘I knew that had to be the Microsoft tech support building in Redmond. The response they gave me was technically correct, but completely useless.’

It is technically correct that a story is expressed as a series of sentences; but that is completely useless as an explanation of what a story is. However, it excludes final causes from consideration, and focuses exclusively on things that can in principle be objectively measured; and to that extent it makes literary criticism look like a scientific activity, deserving of some measure or echo of the prestige that attends the sciences. It is no accident that the New Criticism caught on in the early years of the Cold War, when a massive increase in government grants to the sciences made that section of academia not only more prestigious, but richer and more powerful, than it had ever been before. All through the arts and humanities, one could find professors reacting understandably, if inappropriately, by trying to redefine their disciplines as branches of science. ‘Close reading’ was a manifestation of this trend. It is what you get when you ignore everything about literature except what can be seen under a microscope.

The microscope reveals just that aspect of literature that I called ‘obvious and meretricious’ before: prose technique at the sentence level. It is no accident, I think, that the pseudo-scientists of the modern humanities are especially apt to perceive only the obvious and meretricious qualities of other things as well.

A generation ago, there was a lot of cant about the supposed Freudian properties of nuclear missiles. According to this line, male politicians and generals were obsessed with building more and yet more missiles, not because of their military utility or destructive power, but merely because they were shaped like giant phalluses. The entire course of the Cold War was thus explained away as an exercise in competitive penis-envy. I actually knew people who believed this, or at least pretended to. In the deep paranoiac funk of the anti-Reaganite Left of the 1980s, this nonsense practically amounted to received wisdom.

In actual fact, of course, missiles are not designed to look like phalluses; they are designed to look like arrows, and for the same reason — to make them fly efficiently in a straight line. Human beings have been making practical experiments in the art of aerodynamic design for hundreds of thousands of years, since the invention of the throwing spear; they have concerned themselves with propulsion systems for airborne projectiles for at least 15,000 years, since the invention of the bow and arrow. If there were a more effective shape for arrows and spears, you may be sure the human race would have invented it. Shields and helmets, cannonballs and land mines, look nothing like penises, but that did not retard their adoption in the slightest.

The real concern of the Cold Warriors was not with the rockets themselves, but with the payload. The rocket was simply the most convenient device for carrying a payload a long way at high speed. It might be built to deliver an H-bomb to Moscow, or Neil Armstrong to the Moon; it was never built just for the sake of having a giant aluminium phallus. Yet it was fashionable in some circles to pretend that it was the rocket, and the shape of the rocket, that mattered, and not the cargo that it carried. The parallel with the fallacy of New Criticism and ‘close reading’ is curiously exact; and the two errors were made, to a considerable extent, by the same people. Professors of English Literature, and other academics of that sort, were exceptionally likely to be Leftist in their political views, and Leftist in a particularly superficial and impractical way. Academic Leftism tends to be far more about expressing the correct opinions and denouncing the correct enemies than about any kind of real political activity.

We can see the same tendency increasingly at work among academics, and to a lesser extent artists, ever since about the middle of the nineteenth century. It was not always so. John Constable was the leading landscape painter of the late Georgian period, but he was also a mill owner’s son, and had worked in some of the very mills that he liked to portray in his paintings; indeed, one appreciative critic said that when he looked at a mill in a Constable landscape, ‘I can see that it will go round.’ Indeed the most striking feature of English culture at that time is the easy fusion and fluent communication of mechanics with aesthetes, inventors with artists. Nearly all the leading scientific and technical men of the era were expert draughtsmen, and nearly all the great painters of the English school took an abiding interest in natural science and technology, in how things actually worked. That attitude began to disappear in the Victorian period, as art and technology each increased in complexity until an artist or an engineer had to give all his attention to his own field in order to remain au courant. Dickens, for all his skill at portraying character, was hopeless at portraying work. Here is George Orwell again, in ‘Inside the Whale’:

Wonderfully as he can describe an appearance, Dickens does not often describe a process. The vivid pictures that he succeeds in leaving in one’s memory are nearly always the pictures of things seen in leisure moments, in the coffee-rooms of country inns or through the windows of a stage-coach; the kind of things he notices are inn-signs, brass door-knockers, painted jugs, the interiors of shops and private houses, clothes, faces and, above all, food. Everything is seen from the consumer-angle. When he writes about Cokestown he manages to evoke, in just a few paragraphs, the atmosphere of a Lancashire town as a slightly disgusted southern visitor would see it. ‘It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with evil-smelling dye, and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.’ . . .

Nothing is queerer than the vagueness with which he speaks of Doyce’s ‘invention’ in Little Dorrit. It is represented as something extremely ingenious and revolutionary, ‘of great importance to his country and his fellow-creatures’, and it is also an important minor link in the book; yet we are never told what the ‘invention’ is! On the other hand, Doyce’s physical appearance is hit off with the typical Dickens touch; he has a peculiar way of moving his thumb, a way characteristic of engineers. After that, Doyce is firmly anchored in one’s memory; but, as usual, Dickens has done it by fastening on something external.

Fastening on something external: I think it can be said, without much exaggeration, that this is the characteristic vice of the modern academic, often of the modern writer and artist, and above all, of the modern critic. The mere shape of a rocket, divorced from its function, is an external; the bomb or astronaut on board is the unseen essential. The pistons moving like the heads of elephants were external; what those steam engines were doing is essential. In a work of fiction, the details of prose style, viewed sentence by sentence, are external; what is essential is the experience of being immersed in the story.

For the plain truth is that reading for pleasure involves putting oneself in a mild trance state, in which the attention is not focused on the words of the story, but on the scenes and images that the story awakens in the reader’s imagination. It will do here to remember Samuel Alexander’s distinction between contemplation and enjoyment; or, as I prefer to express it, between the external act of paying attention to a process, and the internal act of performing it. When you look at the Moon through a telescope, you are attending to the Moon and performing astronomy. If you go away from the telescope and read Newton’s Principia or Sagan’s Cosmos, you are now attending to astronomy and performing the act of reading. And when you read a story, you are at most attending to the text on the page, and that in a superficial way; what you are performing is the complex business of recreating the events imaginatively, and then the fullest part of your attention is on the scene playing in your head.

Here again we are involved in the dangerous and unscientific business of final causes. Wherever this distinction between attention and performance occurs, we find that the attention is on the efficient cause of the experience, and the performance is the final cause. Viewing and comprehending the words on the page is how we read, the efficient cause; experiencing the events in our head is why we read, the final cause. Any account that eliminates the final cause from consideration, as the New Criticism does, is leaving out half of the process, and without it the other half is unintelligible.

In just the same way, the rocket is how the astronaut gets to the Moon or the bomb gets to Russia; but the action of the bomb or astronaut is why one takes the trouble to build and launch the rocket. The general with his ICBM is attending to rocketry, but performing nuclear warfare; the people at NASA are also attending to rocketry, but performing the exploration of space. Why is more important than how.

As we see when the French novel is translated into English, or the English novel into a film, the why can survive intact even when the how is changed beyond recognition. And as we see with the rocket, the why may be drastically different even when the how remains exactly the same. Chimpanzees and humans both have hands, but only one of the two species uses its hands to write stories or to play the piano. It is not the opposable thumb that makes the real difference. One can easily type without using the thumbs at all; and the different orientation of the thumb compared to the other fingers is an active nuisance in playing the piano — a considerable amount of technique is devoted to overcoming it. Early piano players did not even use all ten fingers; they played with the middle three fingers of each hand, deeming the thumb and little finger useless. It was only in the time of Berlioz or thereabouts that composers began deliberately writing pieces for the piano that required every digit.

Now, if you are concerned solely with the obvious and meretricious, with attention to the exclusion of performance, with the how and not with the why, you will never understand the innumerable variations that appear in the how. If you believe that rockets exist solely for the sake of Freudian demonstration, you will never understand why a Saturn V is bigger than a Minuteman. Your theory will compel you to suppose that the builder of the Saturn V had a worse case of penis envy, or that Strategic Forces generals have less testosterone than NASA administrators. To explain the difference, you have to know the why. The Saturn V is bigger because it has a harder job to do: it has to carry a capsule and three astronauts into Earth orbit, which requires much more energy than to deliver a bomb on a ballistic trajectory within the atmosphere. If Cold War generals had really been concerned with showing off the size of their penis-substitutes, they would have mounted their nuclear warheads on Saturn Vs. In reality they did no such thing.

We return now to the ‘sentence cult’, and to persons like Mr. Wasserman, with his sneering contempt for genre fiction. Mr. Wasserman used to be the book-review editor for the Los Angeles Times. As it happens, I know something about the kind of books that used to be favoured by that newspaper. Its editorial policy was to disdain genre fiction, loosely definable as anything with a strong focus on plot, and extol literary fiction, in which the emphasis was all on technique. As B. R. Myers said, ‘literary’ reviewers could sometimes forgive a strong and compelling plot as long as the prose style called sufficient attention to itself.

But there was a school of critics that disparaged plot altogether, that decried ‘formed stories’ of any kind, and plumped for sheer stylistic experimentation as the sole acceptable raison d’être of fiction. If they had existed as a little claque of their own, they would have been entirely unimportant; but they were determined to impose their views on the world, or at least on the literati. This they did by acting rather like ‘blocking troops’ in the Red Army during the Second World War. They kept the front-line troops steadily advancing by shooting at them from behind. Anyone who did not participate in the assault with sufficient vigour to please them was, according to their lights, a deserter and a traitor to the cause.

It was the influence of this extreme school that secured James Joyce’s extravagantly exalted place in the modern literary pantheon. Orwell makes a character in one of his novels opine that ‘Lawrence was all right, and Joyce even better before he went off his coconut’. The stylistic extremists would have said that Joyce was better because he went off his coconut. They were the ones who mildly disparaged Dubliners for its alleged conventionality, and praised the sheer Dada of Finnegans Wake. The lack of incident in Ulysses, the deliberate dulness of the characters, the sheer impossibility of figuring out what makes this a story (unless you recognize the obscure allusions to The Odyssey and can tell exactly how and from what Joyce is taking the piss) — these are important flaws, to anyone but a stylistic extremist. But the extremists did their best to shout down anybody who dared to object to these things; instead they piqued themselves on valuing Joyce because he was obscure and plotless. (‘Even to be aware of its subject matter was looked on as a lapse of taste.’) The important thing was to be as ‘experimental’ as possible; only a philistine would ask whether the experiment succeeded or failed. ‘My dear aunt, one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.’

In fact, the most successful experimental writer of the 1920s and thereabouts is not even recognized as experimental anymore, because his experiments succeeded too well. That was Ernest Hemingway. The essence of his genius was to apply ‘telegraphese’, the compressed and allusive language of the transatlantic cable reporters, to the short story and the novel. Look at any of Hemingway’s novels side by side with his contemporaries, such as Fitzgerald, Woolf, or Joyce himself, and then with a randomly chosen bestseller from any later period up to the 1980s or thereabouts. You will probably find that Hemingway’s language is much more like the latter-day bestseller than any of his contemporaries. They were still writing the self-consciously ‘bookish’ language of the Victorian novel, allowing of course for the changes of dialect over time. Hemingway wrote a compact and elliptical language that showed more than it told, and hinted at more than it showed, and derived its patterns of grammar and diction from spoken rather than written English. Few later authors could equal the pith and force of Hemingway’s style, but they imitated it as well as they could, until it became the default ‘transparent’ style for even garden-variety commercial fiction. Heinlein’s enormous reputation as a science fiction writer rests partly on his being the first writer to successfully apply the Hemingway technique to SF.

Paradoxically, the successful experiments of Hemingway are less esteemed by the extremists than the failed experiments of Joyce. Ulysses is still exotic after almost a century, because its style is so peculiar, and its structure so opaque, that few writers have tried to imitate it. But nearly everyone imitates Hemingway, usually at several removes, and often without even knowing it. His style is too familiar to feel experimental any longer; but a pastiche of Joyce or Gertrude Stein is weird enough to seem fresh, and has the added advantage that most readers will dislike it on sight. Half the business of an extremist is to make sure that the mainstream never catches up with him, and the easiest way to do that is to occupy an extreme that is nowhere near the current. The backwaters of 1920s-style Dada are a perfect breeding-place for this kind of snobbery.

This mania for stylistic weirdness, enforced by the blocking troops of Modernist criticism, led in the end to a situation where even quite ordinary newspaper reviewers would shout praise for the ‘experimental’ brilliance of bad prose rather than admit to the nudity of the reigning monarch. One of the reigning monarchs of the nineties was Annie Proulx, who was extravagantly lauded for the following sentence in Accordion Crimes. A woman has just had her arms chopped off by sheet metal, and this is how Proulx describes it:

She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.

Every story is a conversation between writer and reader, even though the writer is effectively deaf and seldom hears what the reader is saying. Here is a rough transcript of the conversation as it transpires in the passage above:—


Proulx. My character is stunned. Absolutely gobsmacked. Don’t I do a wonderful job of telling you how gobsmacked she is? She’s not just amazed, she’s rooted.

Reader. I don’t think that’s how people react to having their arms chopped off.

P. Now if I were one of these hack commercial writers, I’d talk about her. But see how cleverly I do everything by indirection! See how poetic I am! The barn is built of clapboards, you see—

R. I don’t care about the clapboards. This woman is bleeding to death!

P. And you can see the wood grain because the paint has all been worn off, but I wouldn’t put it that way, oh no, I’m a Writer, I am. So I said to myself, what’s a better action verb to use in this place? Why, chewed, of course! But that’s not poetic enough for me, because I’m a Special Snowflake, I am. So I changed it to jawed instead. Isn’t that original? Aren’t I clever? Look at meeee!

R. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. It doesn’t mean chew; it means to natter on endlessly, just like you’re doing now. Now will you stifle it and get on with the story?

P. Now I describe the swallows, and they’re so ironic, because they’re unconcerned, don’t you see? And they’re just carrying on about their business, darting out of sight and coming back—

R. All this while that poor woman’s arms are flying through the air? They must be miles away by now.

P. That’s not my point. My point is that they’re catching insects, don’t you see, and the insects are like moustaches! Isn’t that clever? Only a Writer could have come up with that simile! Look at meee!!

R. I think you’re mistaking me for someone who cares.

P. And then I describe the rest of the scene, and I’m just as clever about that, and the windows don’t just make reflections, they make swirled blue reflections, because I’m a Writer, I am, and look at me being all impressionist!

R. I think I’m going to skip on a bit.

P. Spoilsport! All right, I’ll get in a bit about my character, since you seem so anxious for me to be all boring and nasty and commercial and stick to the silly old point. What do you think I am, the six o’clock news? So her blood is spurting, no, that’s too ordinary, leaping from her stumped arms—

R. You mean from the stumps of her arms. ‘Stumped’ means something completely different. It has to do with not having a clue, hint, hint.

P. I’m a Writer, I am, and you can tell because I don’t let myself be limited by your silly old bourgeois rules. Her stumped arms, I said, and I’m sticking to it. And then she hears the wet thuds of her forearms—

R. Ewwww.

P. —against the barn, and then the sheet metal hits, and it’s not just the sound of it hitting, it’s the bright sound, because only a Writer would use something as nifty as synaesthesia to put her point across. See? I know about synaesthesia! I’m smart! Look at me! LOOK AT MEEEEEE!!!!

R. If you don’t get on with the story, I’m going to say the Eight Deadly Words.

P. (momentarily taken aback) Which are?

R. ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ I mean, if you’re going to stand there jawing (see, I used the word correctly) about swallows and moustaches and swirly blue windows, while the woman you have just mutilated is bleeding her life away — well, if you care as little as that about your own characters, I don’t see why I should give a damn. You haven’t even noticed that she’s in pain!

P. (angrily) This isn’t about her. This is about me! Me, meee, wonderful ME!! Damn you, why aren’t you looking at ME!!!


Of course this conversation is ruthlessly suppressed in the New York Times review by Walter Kendrick, who singled out that very sentence, in all its scarlet and purple excess, as ‘brilliant prose’. B. R. Myers was kinder to Proulx, if only in the interest of brevity:

The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand rooted long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.

The sad truth, I am afraid, is that self-consciously ‘literary’ writers do not write to be read; they write to impress the critics, and if their ambitions are particularly lofty, to have their books made required reading for hapless English majors. Then the English majors, or a depressingly large percentage of them, buy into the pernicious notion that this self-regarding drivel really is ‘brilliant prose’ — and, still more, that brilliancy of prose is the primary and sufficient purpose of literature — and the whole sorry swindle is perpetuated for another generation.

Proulx’s star has more or less fallen since Myers launched his attack, but the sentence cult goes on. Wasserman appears to be a card-carrying member. When he says that genre readers ‘care not a whit about good writing’, what he really means is that they are not apt to be bamboozled by Proulxian pyrotechnics and stylistic bull. And God bless them for it — say the rest of us.


There is, of course, another side to the story. If style is the rocket that propels the payload of fiction, it must be adequate to the task. It would be unspeakably stupid to build a Saturn V merely as a phallic totem; but there is an opposite fault, which is to attach the payload to a rocket too small to lift it off the ground at all. Then the astronaut goes nowhere, or the H-bomb— Well, ’tis the sport to have the enginer hoist with his own petard; but not if the petard hoists the audience and the whole neighbourhood along with him.

The patron saint of inadequate prose is still probably Isaac Asimov, who once frankly admitted, ‘All I expect of my prose is to be clear.’ Clarity is greatly to be admired, and in many kinds of nonfiction it is enough. It is a pity that Asimov was not interested in computers; then we might have had some decent software manuals instead of the slush-by-committee that we usually get. But in fiction it isnot enough to ‘tell it like it is’. As Ursula Le Guin pointed out in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, in story the language has to carry the whole load: ‘there is no is without it’.

Asimov was fond of the analogy of plate glass and stained glass. A stained-glass window may be a great work of art, he said, but it does not allow you to see what is going on in the street. For that you want plate glass, absolutely clear and unadorned — just as Asimov’s prose is clear and unadorned. But this is specious. In fiction, there is no street. What we want instead is a window that produces the illusion of the street. The glass needs to be tinted and patterned so finely, so cunningly, that we are half convinced that we are looking through it when we are only looking at it.

Stephen R. Donaldson expressed the metaphor perfectly when he made it the central conceit of Mordant’s Need. Magic in that novel is done by Imagers, who make mirrors with just that magical quality; and if the illusion is done well enough, it becomes real, and the Imager can reach through the glass and pull objects out of the place that the mirror reveals. (A klutz of an apprentice Imager accidentally uses such a mirror to pull the story’s heroine out of her apartment in midtown Manhattan. Of all the ways that earthly mortals have been translated into fantasy worlds, this is surely among the most interesting.)

If I may be permitted the metaphor, Hemingway was an Imager; he almost invented the art. His apparently plain and journalistic style was wonderfully deceptive: it communicated more by tone and implication than the average Victorian novelist could communicate by blatant rhetoric. Not only that, he mastered the difficult art of making the picture look as if it extended beyond the window frame in all directions, so that the reader would guess at the outlines of the larger scene and be moved by them. He first demonstrated this technique in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, from which he deliberately amputated the beginning and ending, and carefully inserted just such cues in the middle as would let the reader infer what had been removed.

Asimov’s stories tend to have the opposite effect. By striving for a naturalistic ‘plate glass’ prose style, he makes his stories look like stage-pieces, and not very well-staged ones at that. The effect is worst in the novels he wrote in the 1980s, when he took up writing science fiction on a large scale after twenty-five years away from the field. His Robot novels and his Foundation series, each taken separately, have this much of the Hemingway quality, that they do convincingly seem to extend in all directions beyond the limits of the text. But when he decided to combine the two series, he spoilt the effect. Instead of weaving them together into a larger whole, he made them smaller. The whole was less than the sum of its parts; the whole was less than some of the individual parts. The crucial error was to make R. Daneel Olivaw the unseen prime mover of the Foundation stories. The original tales were about millions of worlds and quadrillions of people working out their destiny against an infinite background of space and time. The post-Daneel books were about a handful of carefully crafted puppets pretending to be human while the all-powerful robot pulled everyone’s strings. Every mystery had the same answer: Daneel dunnit!

If Asimov had been a better prose stylist — if his rocket had been able to propel that unwieldy payload — then the excitement of the journey might have obscured the triviality of the destination. E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith was not a master of prose, but he was good enough for his own purpose: his rocket would fly. He had a genuine gift for expressing sublimity. Smith can make you feel the immensity of space, the smallness of Man, and the colossal powers that living things must summon up to make an imprint on the vastness of the universe. There are many things he does not make you feel, but those are not the things his stories are about. We do not expect a rocket to double as a submarine. Asimov’s trouble is his relentless claustrophilia: he flinches as if by reflex from the sublime, and even from the merely big. His most characteristic scenes are set in offices and laboratories, classrooms and auditoriums, or in the staterooms and command decks of featureless spaceships. One of his stories, ‘Thiotimoline to the Stars’, is entirely about a lecture delivered in an auditorium — which, we find out only at the end, has travelled from Earth to Saturn and back again while the lecturer was talking.

It is almost as if Asimov’s brain had no budget for special effects. His powers of description were so limited that his rocket could not lift any substantial payload off the ground. The idea behind the combined Robot-and-Foundation universe (until R. Daneel became a deus ex machina) could have produced stories of cathartic intensity and mind-boggling scope: the sort of stories that Asimov himself described as ‘novas’. But that would have required a better writer than Asimov allowed himself to be. The payload was a team of explorers fit to explore a galaxy, but the rocket never budged beyond the confines of the small indoor set where the story was obviously staged.

In the film A Hard Day’s Night, Wilfrid Brambell (playing Paul’s grandfather) complains: ‘Lookit, I thought I was supposed to be getting a change of scenery. And so far I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room.’ He could have been complaining about the view of the universe from an Asimov story.

It ought to be mere common sense that the rocket should be made big enough to carry the payload. But among writers and still more among critics, such common sense seems hard to come by. On one hand we have the aesthetes, the people who think the style is the novel, the medium is the message, and that the rocket (divested of its payload) exists only to serve as a gigantic surrogate penis. On the other hand we have the ‘plate glass’ people, who think that the payload is everything, that the plot is the novel, or the idea is the story, and that if you come up with a strong enough concept, it will fly of its own accord. But books do not write themselves, and astronauts do not reach the Moon by waving their arms or even by wishing their hardest. How to construct a rocket to lift a given payload is a matter of complex engineering; and how to construct a text to carry a given story is a matter of difficult skill. I shall not pretend to explain such matters here. But unless we can get away from our fixations on style-as-all or idea-as-all, the flights of fantasy that we call stories will be unrewarding, and our voyages will be unmercifully short.


  1. Excellent essay!

    I confess to being a huge fan of Asimov’s robot stories and novels. Asimov was no whiz at prose, and he wasn’t great at dialogue, and he really only had a couple of great characters but, by God, the man could PLOT.

    His robot stories are quite possibly the most finely, carefully plotted pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.

    And the climax of “Caves of Steel” is wonderfully tense, and it has a brilliant ending.

    • This is true.

      The Caves of Steel, in particular, works brilliantly because Asimov stayed firmly within his own limits. Instead of trying to do something he couldn’t, he used the tools he had thoroughly mastered to create something wonderful.

      It was later in his career that he tried to do things beyond his abilities and fell flat, in my opinion.

      • I agree. I confess to not being a huge fan of “Foundation” either, and I found “The Naked Sun” weaker than “Caves of Steel”. The worldbuilding of “Caves was much more Way Cool than “The Naked Sun”. And the ending wasn’t as clever. “Robos of Dawn” was clearly the weakest.

        Of course, Asimov had continuity problems even then. They make such a huge deal of Daneel being the first humanoid robot, when humanoid robots appear in at least two other Asimov stories, “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (the Tony bot convinces gossiping women that he’s cheating with the main character) and the story about the robot who eventually becomes President.

        That second one was especially egregious, since the robot acted more typically “human” than Daneel did!

  2. Excellent piece! This is something I’ve tried to articulate myself, but you’ve done it much better than me. Too much literary fiction is about technique now, the exact opposite of the Modernist movement. The avant-garde of that time was trying to use new techniques to deliver a new vital energy to the arts, not to just play around with art for art sake, although that was a current present in Modernism. Unfortunately we’ve lost the new vital energy and have the avant-garde just for the sake of being transgressive.

  3. I keep coming back to reread this. The payload and the rocket of the essay itself all of a piece. It turns out that the Narrator of The Horse and His Boy was mistaken about no-one wanting to read essays.


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