Fake evocation

A sombrero fell out of the sky and landed on the main street of town in front of the mayor, his cousin, and a person out of work. The day was scrubbed clean by the desert air. The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen. There was no reason for a sombrero to fall out of the sky. No airplane or helicopter was passing overhead and it was not a religious holiday.

—Richard Brautigan, Sombrero Fallout

This is a good way of hooking a reader: we want to know where that sombrero came from. But it does contain a wasted sentence, thrown in, apparently, in a failed attempt to provide ‘atmosphere’:

It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen.

That line is simply a cheat. One technique that bad writers use fairly often, and even good writers may fall back on despite themselves, is fake evocation – communicating mood by phony description. Instead of describing a thing and allowing it to suggest a mood to the reader, they flatly state what the mood is supposed to be and pretend that the thing described evokes it. It’s lazy, it’s a swindle against the reader, and it deserves no praise.

In the instant case, it appears to me that Mr. Brautigan (or, rather, the character who is writing the story-within-a-story that begins with this passage) wanted to shoehorn an expectant mood into the passage, so he looked for a place where he could plausibly insert the phrase ‘waiting for something to happen’. He did this by attaching it to a bit of physical description that, by itself, would do absolutely nothing to evoke such a mood, and then relying upon artistic licence to make readers (and critics) let him get away with it.

Incidentally, to say that eyes are sky-blue is descriptive, because sky-blue is a fairly definite colour. To say that the sky was eye-blue is just silly, because blue eyes are not all alike.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written about this at somewhat greater length in ‘Teaching Pegasus to crawl’.

(Reposted, with edits, from a comment thread on The Passive Voice.)

The limits of technique

I have just re-read (after a lapse of some years) Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, which first appeared in 1974. He addresses his polemic chiefly to computer scientists and computer-science teachers, but he is consciously aware that he is speaking more generally and philosophically. Some of what he says, it seems to me, applies to writers quite as well:

It happens that programming is a relatively easy craft to learn. Almost anyone with a reasonably orderly mind can become a fairly good programmer with just a little instruction and practice. And because programming is almost immediately rewarding, that is, because a computer very quickly begins to behave somewhat in the way the programmer intends it to, programming is very seductive, especially for beginners. Moreover, it appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success. Immature students are therefore easily misled into believing that they have truly mastered a craft of immense power and of great importance when, in fact, they have learned only its rudiments and nothing substantive at all.

A student’s quick climb from a state of complete ignorance about computers to what appears to be a mastery of programming, but is in reality only a very minor plateau, may leave him with a euphoric sense of achievement and a conviction that he has discovered his true calling.… He may so thoroughly commit himself to what he naively perceives to be computer science, that is, to the mere polishing of his programming skills, that he may effectively preclude studying anything substantive.

Unfortunately, many universities have ‘computer science’ programs at the undergraduate level that permit and even encourage students to take this course. When such students have completed their studies, they are rather like people who have somehow become eloquent in some foreign language, but who, when they attempt to write something in that language, find that they have literally nothing of their own to say.

The lesson in this is that, although the learning of a craft is important, it cannot be everything.

Replace ‘computer’ with ‘story’, ‘programming’ with ‘writing’, and so forth, and it stands as a pretty shrewd assessment of a rather common problem in recent fiction. On one level, you get the creative-writing graduate who has a superb grasp of technique, but does not know how to come up with an interesting story, and has been painstakingly taught not to care. On another, you get a certain kind of self-published writer – the one who thinks that volume is the sole and sufficient secret of success, and cranks out books as fast as he can shove them through the keyboard, without ever once asking, ‘Is this story interesting enough to be worth telling?’

Between these two, the world sees a lot of stories that might just as well not have been written at all. And yet the people who write them think they are accomplishing something, and in many cases, even feel that they have some kind of moral duty to persist and write their daily quota of pages. The idea of writing when one has something to say, it seems, scarcely occurs to them.

In the terms I used in ‘Style is the rocket’, these stories are all propulsion system and no payload. The rocket takes off with a satisfactory rush of smoke and flames, but at the end of its flight, nobody and nothing has been transported anywhere. This is a fine hobby for the rocketeer, but its entertainment value to anybody else, sad to say, is considerably lacking.

Pascal on composition

The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.

—Blaise Pascal

(Hat tip to Mary Catelli.)

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.’

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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…]

Sowell on editors

If there is any rhyme or reason to the way editing varies from one editor to another, it seems to be this: The less the editor has written under his own name, the more he wants to write under someone else’s name.

—Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

Thomas Sowell on writing methods

My own writing practices are the direct opposite of that followed by these prolific and renowned writers. I write only when I have something to say.

—Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

Work has resumed!

I recovered from most of the concussion symptoms a few days ago, but all the bed rest required aggravated my spinal injury and gave me neck spasms. Now I am on a witch’s brew of Robaxacet and assorted pain medications, which are allowing me to function well enough to write a little, but not well enough to sleep all the way through the night. Last night I got up about midnight and wrote a chapter for the second episode of Where Angels Die. I post it here, as it might amuse some of my 3.6 Loyal Readers.

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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.

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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…]