Michel de Montaigne, back in the 16th century, was the first writer to call his short, informal pieces by the name ‘essai’. The French word means ‘trial’ or ‘attempt’; Montaigne’s essays represented no set body of knowledge, but his own attempts to work out his thoughts in writing. The pieces collected here are in the same rambling and experimental tradition. I sometimes use the French spelling ‘essai’, not because I am terribly pretentious, but to remind me of the original meaning of the word. Nothing posted here should be taken too seriously. —T. S.

On political correctness

Morals consist of political morals, commercial morals, ecclesiastical morals, and morals.

—Mark Twain

 

Here I am not trying to deal with the familiar claim that freedom is an illusion, or with the claim that there is more freedom in totalitarian countries than in democratic ones, but with the much more tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of anti-social selfishness. Although other aspects of the question are usually in the foreground, the controversy over freedom of speech and of the press is at bottom a controversy of the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.…

The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, of either wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privilege.

—George Orwell, ‘The Prevention of Literature

The term ‘political correctness’, which began (and justly so) as a term of abuse, has been embraced by a legion of liars as a justification for their lies; and it has been made so fashionable that nowadays, in most polite circles, it is considered an insult to accuse someone of not being politically correct.

The usual excuse made for this is that political correctness is about not offending people’s feelings unnecessarily; that anyone who opposes it must therefore want to be offensive, and that, you know, is a Very Bad Thing. This characterization of the issue is one of the Big Lies of our time, as a variation of it was in Orwell’s time. The real issue, now as then, is about the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies.

If Joe Bloggs wishes to say that two and two are four, or that Paris is the capital of France, or to make any other straightforward and uncontroversial statement of fact, he is working on a level where political correctness does not even come into question. What he says is correct, without any modifiers, or else it is in error. The moment you add a modifier to that adjective, you are moving away from the primary issue of truth vs. falsehood, and into secondary matters which may be in plain conflict with it. [Read more…]

The Memory Problem

As I mentioned the other day, during the holidays I passed some time leafing through a stash of ancient computer magazines found in my back room whilst mucking out. I still have nearly every issue of ROM Magazine (1977–78); not to be confused with ROM Magazine (1968–present), the official publication of the Royal Ontario Museum, or R.O.M. Magazine (1983–85), a Canadian zine for Atari hobbyists, nor possibly others. No, this ROM was subtitled ‘Computer Applications for Living’, and an ambitious little periodical it was. To distinguish it from the others, I am tempted to go into Monty Python mode, and call it ‘ROM which is called ROM’, but I shall cramp myself down and stick to the bare three letters.

Microcomputers began to be heard of in about 1973, and the first commercially successful machine, the MITS Altair 8800, came to market about the end of 1974. By 1977, the earliest manufacturers (who mostly sold their machines in kit form) were being pushed aside by relatively large consumer electronics firms like Radio Shack and Commodore, and by an upstart called Apple, which you may have heard of. These early machines were flaky, quirky, and required rather a lot of technical knowledge to operate; and there was little in the way of commercial software, so you generally had to learn to program them yourself.

In consequence, there was a voracious after-market for technical information and how-to stuff, much of it supplied, in those pre-Internet days, by magazines. There was BYTE, which covered the nuts and bolts of the new hardware for an audience mostly of engineers; and Dr. Dobb’s Journal, which covered the bits and bytes of software for an audience mostly of programmers; and Creative Computing, which covered whatever seemed most interesting at the moment (not a bad approach, that); and a raft of mostly short-lived zines dedicated to this platform or that.

And then there was ROM, which was a platform for what have since been called technology evangelists. Its mission was to introduce these weird new toys to society at large, and explain how and why they were going to change the world in drastic and unforeseen ways. It failed on both counts; but not for want of trying, nor for lack of quality.

For if you look at the bylines in the nine issues that were published, you will find yourself staring at a convention of first-rate geniuses. A sampling:  [Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3.

Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression:

As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader.

Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos.

[Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘school story’ was one of the most popular genres of British pulp fiction. The giant of the field was Charles Hamilton, better known as ‘Frank Richards’ and ‘Martin Clifford’. Under these two names, he was the lead writer for The Gem and The Magnet, the two leading boys’ weekly magazines in Britain between the World Wars. (He also wrote for other markets under other names, including his own.) For more than thirty years, Hamilton published a 20,000-word story in each magazine every week without fail – more than two million words of fiction per year – until they were killed by the paper shortage of the Second World War. After the war he continued to write, with paperback books taking the place of the vanished pulps. By the time he died in 1961, he had written and published about 100 million words.

Many other writers had a go at school stories. Thomas Hughes founded the genre with Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, and attracted scores of imitators. Kipling was one of the first; P. G. Wodehouse made a name for himself in the genre before switching to light comedy; and there were, of course, many lesser lights. But the genre died with Hamilton, as it seemed, beyond resurrection. [Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘New Hollywood’ had been establishing itself. Heroes and villains, Westerns and war movies, were out of fashion. The critics’ new darlings were men like Coppola and De Palma, who pointed their cameras at the mundane and the sordid. The good characters in the new films were ineffectual; the effectual characters, as a general thing, were unselfconsciously evil. This refusal to engage ethical reality was called ‘moral ambiguity’, and praised; the tight focus on a narrow and unrepresentative segment of modern city life was called ‘realism’, and praised more strongly still.

So far as the film business was concerned, fantasy, like animation, was banished to the realm of children’s movies. Such things were considered beneath a grown-up audience, and Hollywood as a whole was trying to be very grown-up indeed. One or two cracked auteurs tried to make animated fantasies for adults, and succeeded in making cult films for stoners and adolescents. [Read more…]

The exotic and the familiar (Part 1)

I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency.

The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’.

For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story

Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success.

All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

[Read more…]

‘Simplicity or style’

Over at The Passive Voice, Passive Guy has reposted a precious little peacock strut by a minor critic, entitled, ‘Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?’ The author offers one sentence each from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, 1984, Neuromancer, and other works – as if it were the presence of that single sentence in each novel that assured its place in the literary canon.

I found myself strongly moved to reply:


Ah, the Sentence Cult rears its ugly head. A novel is not made of sentences; it is made of scenes and récit, characters and plot elements – building blocks on the narrative level. The individual sentences are always replaceable – else it would be impossible to translate a novel into another language, or make it into a movie. Too often, the writer’s ‘masterpiece’ sentence marks a place where he ought to have followed the advice, ‘Murder your darlings.’

I can think of one notable exception. That is where the great sentence has special meaning and force inside the story. Perhaps it serves as a Leitmotiv; perhaps it is a bit of dialogue that the characters will recall later, and understand more of its import in light of later events. In any case, it must be possible for the reader to take it in stride. If you have to drop out of the story to pause and admire, the writer has manufactured an opportunity to lose you.

All this, of course, is lost on the pinchbeck critic raised on ‘close reading’, which requires one not to experience the interior drama of the story, but instead to remain carefully on the surface. Such a reader is like the nearsighted tourist who spends his whole day looking at pebbles on the beach, and never even notices the ocean.

‘You’re No Good’

In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes.

But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it.

But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable.

When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself:

But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy.
[Read more…]

Quality vs quality (A teaser)

A new essai written especially for my new collection, Style is the Rocket.


In a certain town that you have never heard of, though you may have lived there all your life, two restaurants face each other across a busy street. Both pride themselves upon the quality of their cookery; but if you read the menus posted beside their respective doors, and the little blurb at the head of each, you may come away with the idea that they are not using the word quality in precisely the same way.

The restaurant on the north side of the street has a bare white exterior and a bare white signboard, very chic in a thoroughly minimalist way; and on the signboard you will find this notice:

HOUSE OF MINUS
A Quality Restaurant

Minus Sugar
Minus Fat
Minus Sodium
Minus Cholesterol
Minus Gluten
Minus MSG
Minus Additives
Minus Preservatives
Minus Pesticides
Minus Impurities of Any Kind

The same bare white aesthetic is continued inside, with bare white tables and hard white chairs; and it is rather emphasized by the fact that most of the tables are empty. There are a couple of health-food cranks in one corner, and a lonely old man with digestive trouble sits near the kitchen door. In the middle of the room, a party of avant-garde restaurant critics are talking loudly, praising the wonderful geometric arrangement of the food on their plates, but not actually eating any of it. They can perhaps be excused for this omission.

For in truth, the food at the House of Minus is rather unappealing. The only thing on the menu is a special kind of digestive biscuit, manufactured on the premises, and carefully designed to contain nothing that could injure anybody’s health or offend anybody’s palate. The recipe was dictated by the owner, a self-made man who piled up millions in another line of work, and has convinced himself that sickness and death would depart from the world if only everybody could be made to live on an exclusive diet of these biscuits. Needless to say, he himself never eats there.

On the south side of the street is a bizarre building, as rococo as a wedding-cake, painted in all the colours of a fluorescent nightmare. If you shade your eyes carefully, you will be able to read the sign:

POSITIVE DELIGHTS
A Quality Dining Experience

Fusion Cuisine From Anywhere and Everywhere!
Thrill Your Taste Buds!
Astonish Your Friends!
Every Meal an Original Creation!

This, at any rate, sounds more promising than the Spartan fare across the street; but something seems not quite right, though Positive Delights is considerably busier than the House of Minus. Some of the customers are university students, visiting the place on drunken dares; some are tourists, steered this way by leg-pulling locals. A lot of people eat here once; but the place gets hardly any repeat business, for the delights, sad to say, are booby-trapped.

The cooking is skilful enough, for those of adventurous tastes. The chef has a way of combining the most unlikely ingredients and somehow making it work: it is the only place in the town, or perhaps any other town, where you can get barbecued sardines with a side of chocolate-coated garlic. And there are no words sufficient to describe the ice cream vindaloo.

But there is some question about the ingredients that he uses. Customers have a disturbing tendency to develop food poisoning, or go into anaphylactic shock. The meat dishes are rather suspicious. Small domestic animals go missing in the neighbourhood, and several customers have found dog-licences or bits of collar cooked into their dinners. It is a red-letter day when someone gets a salad that hasn’t got insects in it. Nobody quite knows how the restaurant avoids the wrath of the local health inspector, but somehow it has stayed in business for several years.

Now, the really odd thing about these two establishments is that they actually exist. I have altered the truth in just one detail. The ‘House of Minus’ and ‘Positive Delights’ are not actually restaurants: they are writers.


Read the rest in Style is the Rocket. Now available!

‘April Fools’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #14 in the series.


M*A*S*H, as I have mentioned before, reached a grand climacteric in 1979. Before that, while the series gradually changed in tone, becoming more dramatic and less consistently funny, it remained substantially the same show that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds had created. Actors left the cast, but new characters were invented to replace them; writers left the show’s stable, but new talent was recruited. The newer writers were not in the same league as Gelbart, Laurence Marks, or Greenbaum and Fritzell; but they were quite good enough to ensure the smooth running of the machine that those more gifted hands had built.

After 1979, the show stopped developing altogether. [Read more…]