C. S. L. on novelty and myth

C. S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost is not much read nowadays, as indeed Paradise Lost itself is not much read; and both we and our art are the poorer for it. Milton’s great epic contains much beauty and grandeur and not a little good sense. Lewis’s lectures on Milton (from which the Preface was constructed) are wanting in the beauty and the grandeur, which were not to his purpose anyway, but compensate for this by overflowing with a fount of good sense that is directed with deadly precision at the characteristic follies and errors of ‘literary’ people in our own age. Lewis was a survivor from the previous age (he once likened himself to a living dinosaur), and saw with painful clarity what necessary human qualities were being cast off with the old learning that he had acquired and his successors had not. We are still living recognizably in the age of those successors.

One of the follies of this age, which has only grown worse with time, is the tendency to ‘ironize’ or undercut anything archetypal or mythical, to make the gods and heroes ‘just folks’, to deflate, to take the heroism out of heroes and the importance out of villains, and make all the characters talk and act like bored and unreflective teenagers. The ideal of modern drama is the situation comedy, reduced to a troupe of stock characters making stock wisecracks at each other’s expense. The ideal of modern literature is either an impenetrable and meaningless jungle of very pretty words (for the Snobs), or a perfectly stylized and predictable melodrama that makes no demand whatever upon the imagination (for the Proles).

The idea that there are other kinds of people besides Snobs and Proles does not occur to the Snobs; they have not even thought of asking the Proles what they like or want. And as the Snobs have captured the citadel, the rest of us are supposed to be content with whatever books and drama they see fit to shove down our throats. The dire sales figures of recent fiction from the major publishers, and the collapse of one major film-franchise after another, shows what happens when the Snobs are put in charge of popular entertainment. They are neither entertaining nor popular.

One form that this takes (you see it in most of the Dreamworks animated films, and the formula is imitated to dire effect in cartoon franchises like Hotel Transylvania) is to turn all the creatures of fantasy, from elves and dragons to vampires and talking beasts, into sitcom parodies with exactly the same motivations and neuroses as stereotypical suburbanites in Los Angeles. (Sometimes, as in the Madagascar series, they have the neuroses of stereotypical Manhattanites instead. This is no great improvement.)

By this everything essential is lost, and only a twee appearance remains. A dragon without greed is no dragon at all, but only a giant cartoon lizard; there is not even any particular reason why it should be a lizard. A vampire that does not steal souls is only a morbid sex-symbol to tickle the fancy of the ‘goth’ crowd. In Zootopia we have seen the nadir of this approach: a city full of talking animals that all behave exactly like modern city-dwelling Americans, to the point where any realistic animal behaviour is considered a freak and an abomination. Half the plot of the film turns on the horror (oh, the horror!) of carnivorous animals actually reverting to type and eating meat. The idea that one species of animal is any different from another is represented as the most benighted racial bigotry.

Lewis, if anybody had troubled to heed him, warned us very early on against this kind of thematic degeneration. The whole point of using creatures different from men in a story is that they are indeed different; they are not Just Folks; they are brought in because they are not Just Folks, but at worst hypostasized qualities, or at best, thinking and feeling creatures that are nevertheless not human. Everyone in a modern story is alienated. The humans are alienated from their own human nature, and the aliens are alienated from being alien. One of the functions of fantasy, before it became morbid, was to recover the sense of the alien and of the human; to remind us what we were alienated from, as well as what was alien to us. We might not have lost that function so quickly or so thoroughly if we had troubled to listen to this passage:

There is, furthermore, a special reason why mythical poetry ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients. What it does with the ingredients may be as novel as you please. But giants, dragons, paradises, gods, and the like are themselves the expression of certain basic elements in man’s spiritual experience. In that sense they are more like words – the words of a language which speaks the else unspeakable – than they are like the people and places of a novel. To give them radically new characters is not so much original as ungrammatical. 

That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unoriginality in the drawing of the queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one had dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention.

But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true märchen style. The good originality lay in letting us at first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, ch. 8

Miles to go before I sleep

Write quickly, and you will never write well; write well and you will soon write quickly.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (1st century A.D.)

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria contains a lot of tiresomely good advice for writers, and some that seems (to a gloomy fellow like myself) too pleasant to count as advice at all. He tells a little story about the perils of excessive rewriting, told to him by his friend Secundus:

I remember in this connexion a story that Julius Secundus… told me of the words once used to him by his uncle, Julius Florus, the leading orator of Gaul… a man eloquent as but few have ever been, and worthy of his nephew. He once noticed that Secundus, who was still a student, was looking depressed, and asked him the meaning of his frowns. The youth made no concealment of the reason: he had been working for three days, and had been unable, in spite of all his efforts, to devise an exordium for the theme which he had been given to write, with the result that he was not only vexed over his immediate difficulty, but had lost all hope of future success. Florus smiled and said, ‘Do you really want to speak better than you can?’

The purpose of editing and rewriting is to help us write as well as we can; nothing can make us write better than we can. Verbum sap.

Lately I have been trying to make myself mindful of this. I do not agree with the ‘Pulp Speed’ school, when they say that the sole and sufficient qualification for success is to put out a sufficiently large quantity of written product. It has to be well written, and it has to have something to say; every author whose work has endured has spent a great part of his working time coming up with good and original ideas for stories, and not so much on merely racking up wordage. Developing fluency with ideas is part of learning to write well; and nobody does it quickly except after long practice. ‘Pulp speed’ aims at nothing higher than recreating pulp fiction, which was sometimes good and occasionally brilliant (as with Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the best works of Robert E. Howard), but usually trite, derivative, formulaic, and dull. The best writers nearly always got out of the pulps the moment they found better-paying markets, and worried less about speed and more about quality thereafter. [Read more…]

Find a need and… waitaminute

If there is any safe generalization in literary history it is this: that the desire for a certain kind of product does not necessarily beget the power to produce it, while it does tend to beget the illusion that it has been produced.

—C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love

Fflewddur’s harp

The bard did not answer. For a long moment he held the harp lovingly in his hands and gently touched the strings, then with a quick motion raised the beautiful instrument and smashed it across his knee.

Taran cried out in anguish as the wood shattered into splinters and the harp strings tore loose with a discordant burst of sound. Fflewddur let the broken fragments drop from his hands.

“Burn it,” he said. “It is wood well-seasoned.”

[Read more…]

Writing a book in one day! (Sort of)

So on Wednesday, whilst brooding over my lack of productivity through the entire house-move kerfuffle, I came up with a perfectly silly idea for a novelty book, or as they are called in the trad publishing trade, ‘non-book’. I told my Gentle Editor, Wendy S. Delmater, the idea. She thought it was amusing enough to put in some effort and try it on a dog. We agreed to confer online Friday afternoon.

So today, beginning at about 12:30 p.m. Frozen North Standard Time, I started furiously typing any old gag that would fit the idea. The beginning and ending were easy. Filling out the middle took a little longer. About 4:00 I began formatting the text in InDesign, and at 7:03 precisely I sent the PDF to my beta reader, the talented and cover-designer-ly Sarah Dimento. She is not a dog, but she does have two cats, and no disapproval being met with from that quarter, I have decided to throw the thing out there and see what happens.

I call it Writer’s Block: An Insider’s Guide.

It begins with ‘This page intentionally left blank’, and goes on from there. If there is a way of not writing books that I have failed to mention in its voluminous pages, I will eat the hat that I haven’t got.

Warning: This book will not tell you how to cure writer’s block. At best, it will give you some of the kind of company that misery loves, and maybe a few laughs. But perhaps that’s enough.

Impendices?

Just tossing out an idea—

I have reached the stage of life where I have more books in mind than time to write them before I die, even if I drastically improve my productivity (which needs to happen in any case). In particular, there are masses of backstory material behind my principal series (The Eye of the Maker and Where Angels Die, in particular) that could with advantage be worked up into prequels and stand-alones, but probably never will be.

When old J.R.R.T. came up with backstory like that, and it wouldn’t fit comfortably in the front story without bloating and dyspepsia, he had a handy way of dealing with it:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir – and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices – where already some fascinating material on the hobbit Tobacco industry and the Languages of the West have gone.

Letters, no. 66

In the nature of things, I have no appendices to banish such stuff to; but the rules of the game do not require me to let that stop me. Stanislaw Lem once wrote (and published!) a whole volume of introductions to books that had never been written: not perhaps his best work, but an amusing game for some of his readers to take part in. My brain, that cornucopia of questionable ideas, has suggested to me that I could write appendices to books that have never been written, and stick them up here: partly in case my 3.6 Loyal Readers might be entertained, but chiefly for my own reference, so they would be gathered in some reliably searchable spot. It further suggested that since these pieces would come before the books and not be added after them, they should properly be called not Appendices but Impendices.

I have, as it happens, written and posted a couple of things of this kind already: ‘The Worm of the Ages’ and ‘Droll’s Audition’ (both collected in The Worm of the Ages). There is also a lot of stuff on the History of This and the Languages of That, though nothing so far on the Tobacco Industry of the Other, which could go under the ‘Impendix’ heading, if it seemed advisable to air such things on this blog.

What do you all think?

Wodehouse submits to an Editor

In my recent illness, I have been reading large quantities or gobs of the early P. G. Wodehouse. A few years ago, Golgotha Press, a firm of whose existence I until recently remained culpably unaware, released a vast compendium of thirty-odd Wodehouse books which had fallen into the public domain, for the derisory price of a dollar. (You can find them on iTunes if you search for Wodehouse, but the collection does not appear to be available on Amazon.) Under U.S. copyright law, I am told, anything published before 1923 is fair game, and I have been dining these many days on aged roast Wodehouse.

If anybody wants to know what it was like for Wodehouse, as a short-story writer in the early years of the twentieth century, to submit his work to a magazine, the process was essentially the same as it is today. Observe the following account: [Read more…]

C.S.L. on dialogue

In correcting dialogue it is useful to imagine it being acted on the stage or at least read aloud. Is there anything which, before a large audience, you wd. feel embarrassed at – anything which an actor wd. find it difficult to say? It must always sound like real conversation but must be in reality clearer and more economical than that. Literature is an art of illusion.

—C. S. Lewis

(From a letter to Sister Penelope CSMV, 31 August 1948. Printed in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 2.)

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.