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…]

On literary fiction

What you have to remember about ‘literary’ is that it could be defined as ‘things that college professors will read on a train’. I.e. ‘literary’ is an aspirational mark, a mark of prestige. The book might or might not have a plot (or a prayer of making sense) but it is generally viewed as ‘difficult’, ‘prestigious’, and ‘saying the right things’, and by right I mean political and social views as a positional good, which in the twentieth century has mostly hinged on being properly LEFT. And the twentieth century persists in critical and literary analysis, two notoriously conservative (in the proper sense of the word) fields.

Sarah A. Hoyt

Life, Carbon, and the Tao

My essai for the first anniversary of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Superversive blog is now up in full:

Part One: What’s so special about carbon?

Part Two: What’s so special about the Tao?

Reposted on SuperversiveSF in one piece.

Go, read, and I hope you enjoy.

In other news, I shall not be writing this week, as I have finally enlisted some help to do a top-to-bottom cleaning of my flat, which is many months overdue. The accumulation of books and papers was making it impossible for me to hoover up the dust, and the dust was making it difficult to do anything else. I have been living largely on a diet of antihistamines and facial tissue. Enough of that!

Advice on writing Great Literature

In a discussion at The Passive Voice, one Lorraine Devon Wilke was mocked for ordering writers, ‘Do NOT write four books a year.’ She offered, as an exemplar of Good Writing, Donna Tartt, who took eleven years to write The Goldfinch. Among many other responses, Ed Ryan offered this:

I’m a math idiot so bear with me. Let’s assume (so I don’t have to look it up) the ‘masterpiece’ in question is 100k words long.

11 years means 10,000 words per year (ok that’s 110,000, see how lazy I am?)

10,000 words per year/ 365 days per year us a blistering 27.3 words per day.

We can pretend this hardworking visionary took days off from that grueling schedule and slaved over the novel for a mere 200 days each of those 11 years – an electric 50 word per day pace.

If the author rewrote the book 10 times the average jumps to a staggering 500 words per day. Being generous that’s 60 minutes of work per day.

I only hope the other 23hrs were relaxing.

Our Evil Alter Blogger responds:

Don’t be silly.

If you want to become a Major Literary Figure, you have to spend the other 23 hours in a constant flurry of activity. Hanging out in seedy Left Bank cafes, drinking absinthe with deranged expatriates. Being addicted to hard drugs. Cultivating interesting but debilitating mental illnesses. Pursuing weird sexual kinks in wildly unorthodox ménages. Kissing the bums of some of your fellow verminous literary lions, and fighting lifelong feuds with others. Going into rehab. Getting out of rehab. Writing angsty pseudo-philosophical anecdota about what you learned in rehab. Forgetting what you learned in rehab so you can repeat the process. I tell you, it’s a busy and thankless life.

The ideal literary author will write ONE book, and spend the rest of his life (it is preferably a he; if a she, she should go into pop music instead and aspire to be Amy Winehouse) desperately striving to live fast, die young, and leave a corpse that may not actually be good-looking, but will at least furnish material for hundreds of Ph.D. theses by twitterpated would-be academics.

You see, that is the ultimate goal of Literature. It’s all about the doctoral theses. Authors and books are just a necessary nuisance along the way.

H. Smiggy McStudge


Marxist critics make the same claim more boldly for Marxist books. For instance, Mr Edward Upward (‘A Marxist Interpretation of Literature,’ in The Mind in Chains):

‘Literary criticism which aims at being Marxist must… proclaim that no book written at the present time can be “good” unless it is written from a Marxist or near-Marxist viewpoint.’

Various other writers have made similar or comparable statements. Mr Upward italicizes ‘at the present time’ because, he realizes that you cannot, for instance, dismiss Hamlet on the ground that Shakespeare was not a Marxist. Nevertheless his interesting essay only glances very shortly at this difficulty. Much of the literature that comes to us out of the past is permeated by and in fact founded on beliefs (the belief in the immortality of the soul, for example) which now seem to us false and in some cases contemptibly silly. Yet it is ‘good’ literature, if survival is any test. Mr Upward would no doubt answer that a belief which was appropriate several centuries ago might be inappropriate and therefore stultifying now. But this does not get one much farther, because it assumes that in any age there will be one body of belief which is the current approximation to truth, and that the best literature of the time will be more or less in harmony with it. Actually no such uniformity has ever existed. In seventeenth-century England, for instance, there was a religious and political cleavage which distinctly resembled the left-right antagonism of to-day. Looking back, most modern people would feel that the bourgeois-Puritan viewpoint was a better approximation to truth than the Catholic-feudal one. But it is certainly not the case that all or even a majority of the best writers of the time were puritans.

—George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’

Reading the Great Books

A new group has been formed on Goodreads, with the intention of reading and discussing as many as possible of the Great Books, as identified in the curriculum of St. John’s College, Annapolis, Md. Our reading for March is the first half of the Iliad, and if anybody wants to join us, I believe it is not too late to do so. You can find out as much as you need to know by visiting the group’s home page:

The exceptional in fiction

Just as all except bores relate in conversation not what is normal but what is exceptional – you mention having seen a giraffe in Petty Cury, but don’t mention having seen an undergraduate – so authors told of the exceptional. Earlier audiences would not have seen the point of a story about anything else. Faced with such matters as we get in Middlemarch or Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’ Tale, they would have said ‘But this is all perfectly ordinary. This is what happens every day. If these people and their fortunes were so unremarkable, why are you telling us about them at all?’

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence.

There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story.

Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

What’s that you say? Something sold?

To my astonishment, to say nothing of crogglement, confustication, and gobsmackosity, I have sold an essay to Sci Phi Journal: and for actual money, too. With a speed hitherto unknown to magazine-kind, it has been scheduled for publication in the upcoming issue.

Look for Sci Phi Journal #2, containing ‘The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings’, coming soon to an ebook store near you.

In other news, I am still filled with doubt and concern about Where Angels Die. The first chapter seemed to be a rousing success, but the second has met with dead silence so far, and frankly, I don’t know what to make of that. Are my 3.6 Loyal Readers still waiting for more? Or have I done something dreadful, on a par with the infamous Klingon practice of farting in airlocks? Please advise.

Who’s afraid? Virginia Woolf!

Over at The Passive Voice, while Passive Guy is away, the guest bloggers have put up the sole surviving recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf. Talking of the poor state of the literature of England in her time, she makes this revealing remark:

Where are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words. Words are to blame.

There is a very old English saying, invented by people who had a far better instinct for the use of language than Virginia Woolf ever had: ‘It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.’ At the very time when Woolf (and a lot of other tired English littérateurs) complained about the exhaustion of the English language, a generation of mostly American and Irish writers were making those poor old words do wonderful new tricks, and breathed a whole new vigour into literature. (Then there were Welshmen like Dylan Thomas, and a few Scots. There may even have been a Canadian in there somewhere.)

Of course it was the Americans’ turn to slip into decadence half a century later, when it became fashionable for the darlings of American Lit to blame the failure of their books on the inadequacy of words to express their wonderful sublime ideas. B. R. Myers had a short way with such people, pointing out sarcastically that English words were good enough for ‘a piker like Shakespeare’.

What did the Americans, Irish, and Welsh have in Woolf’s time that Woolf and her English friends lacked? Part of the answer may perhaps be found when we hear Woolf’s accent. It is a very pure and correct ‘educated’ accent, an early form of ‘Received Pronunciation’, the chief purpose of which was to prove that the speaker did not belong to the despised working classes. It was a deracinated English, deliberately divorced from any regional dialect or demotic form of speech; it did not even have the vitality to generate a vivid slang of its own. George Orwell, who was brought up to to speak it, observed:

The ‘educated’ accent, of which the accent of BBC announcers is a sort of parody, has no asset except its intelligibility to English-speaking foreigners. In England, the minority to whom it is natural don’t particularly like it, while in the other three-quarters of the population it arouses an immediate class antagonism.

This is precisely Woolf’s accent; you can hear it in recordings by Noel Coward also, and any number of English politicians of the time. (Not Churchill; as Orwell points out, ‘Too old to have acquired the modern “educated” accent he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds ilke cockney.’ This gave Churchill a great advantage as a public speaker: people could hear him without hating him.) In documents of the period, it is often called a mincing accent; it would not be too much to say that it was seldom spoken without fear – fear of seeming ‘common’; fear of being mistaken for a member of the Lower Orders; fear of breaking the innumerable social taboos that ‘educated’ speakers were supposed to obey, and thus revealing (truly or falsely) that the accent was merely an act.

Great literature is not written by people who are afraid to speak freely. So the task devolved upon people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas, and Eliot, who spoke and wrote in their own regional dialects and never felt any need to apologize for it. It is not the inadequacy of words that kills literature, but the fear of being seen to use them differently from other people.