Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 3: Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of those postmodernist philosophers that people can name but probably don’t know much about. He’s most famous for his work Simulacra and Simulation, in which he argues we’ve replaced everything real in our society by symbols (more on this later). If you’re thinking of the movie The Matrix, then you’ve understood. That movie gets misattributed to a lot of different philosophers, but the underlying concept is basically a fictionalization of Baudrillard’s ideas.

I thought we’d tackle his paper “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media” published in New Literary History, Vol 16, No 3. The paper appeared in 1985, and it tackles issues relevant to our current media environment. I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up now.

He begins with an observation about the media:

…they are what finally forbids response, what renders impossible any process of exchange (except in the shape of a simulation of a response, which is itself integrated into the process of emission, and that changes nothing in the unilaterality of communication).

In the 80’s, as well as traditional media today, this is certainly true. There’s no way to comment on or engage in a dialogue with the people presenting information on TV or radio or even podcasts or newspapers and blogs with closed comments. Traditionally, media gets to define the conversation, and when there is “response” to what they say, it’s still controlled by them, and they still distribute that response to you.

Baudrillard wants to frame this as a power imbalance. The media have a monopoly on information. When a response is allowed, the exchange of ideas becomes more balanced.

Baudrillard brings up the case of an opinion poll as an example to motivate the next part of the paper. He points out that this distribution of information is merely symbolic of the state of opinion. There is a complicated interaction where the information itself changes opinion, rendering itself obsolete. This type of distribution of information introduces uncertainty on many fronts:

We will never know if an advertisement or opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills—but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement.

Here, I have to say this analysis is a bit dated. This statement was probably accurate in the 80’s, but with Google, and other analytic big data companies, tracking so much of our lives, we can be quite certain if certain advertisements or polls have caused some sort of influence on both individual and collective wills.

This point is mostly not important to the overall thesis of Baudrillard in the article, though. He goes on to make an astute observation that can cause a bit of anxiety if you dwell on it too much. We don’t have a good way to separate reality from the “simulative projection in the media.”

It’s a complicated way to say that we just can’t check a lot of things. If we see on the news that there was a minor earthquake in Japan, we believe it. But we weren’t there. All we get is the simulation of reality as provided by the news. Of course, there are other ways to check that fact by going into public seismic activity records, etc.

But there are other narratives and simulations that are much harder to check, and in any case, we are bombarded by so much information that we don’t have time to check it. We believe the narrative as presented. If we come across a competing narrative, we only become uncertain. It doesn’t actually clarify the situation (here we get back into Lyotard territory).

Baudrillard would later write a book-length analysis of this about the Gulf War (entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) in which he claims that the American public only received propaganda about the war through the media. The war took place, but the simulated reality the public received did not accurately reflect the events that occurred. Moreover, there were pretty much no sources outside this propaganda to learn about the actual events.

We live in an age of hyperinformation, and the more we track how everything is changing, the worse our understanding gets. This isn’t Baudrillard’s wording, but I can see how this makes sense: we confuse noise for signal when we pay too close attention. We also get trapped in our own little information bubbles when we pay too close attention. “Hyperinformation” (his term) can lead to more uncertainty, not less.

I think we’ve come to a point where hyperinformation is at least somewhat good. Yes, for the reasons listed, it can be paralyzing if you want the truth. But at the same time, it means the truth might be out there to discover. We don’t only get the corporate media narrative now. There are independent reporters and journalists working hard to present viable alternatives. It isn’t hopeless to see through the noise now (as it was back in the 80’s).

Baudrillard says we can get out of the despair of all this by treating it like a “game of irresponsiblity, of ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.” The media manipulates and the masses resist, or better yet, respond.

I’ll just reiterate that what Baudrillard identifies as the central problem here has been partially solved in modern day. The masses have twitter and facebook and comments sections and their own blogs and youtube channels. The masses have a way to speak back now. Unfortunately, this has opened up a whole new set of problems, and I wish Baudrillard were still around. He’d probably have some interesting things to say about it.

Now that I’ve been doing this Critical Postmodern Reading series, I’m coming to believe these postmodernists were maligned unjustly. I’m coming to believe we should keep two terms distinct. The “postmodernist philosopher” analyzes the issues of the postmodern condition. The “postmodern academic” utilizes the confusion brought on by the postmodern condition to push their own narrative.

It’s easy to look at the surface of Baudrillard and claim he’s some crackpot history denier that thinks there’s no such thing as objective reality so we all make our own truth.

But if you read him carefully, he seems to be saying some very important true things. He thinks there is an objective, true reality, and it’s dangerous that we all simulate different versions of it (i.e. we filter the news through an algorithm that tells us the world is how we think it is). The truth gets hijacked by narratives. He sees the monopoly the media has on these narratives as damaging and even simulating a false reality.

His writing doesn’t even slip into incomprehensible, postmodernist jargon to obscure the argument. I thought this article was illuminating despite and comprehensible. The only parts that don’t still feel applicable are where he didn’t predict how technology would go.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 13

Graham Greene is one of my favorite “classical” English language writers (I guess I mean he’s taught in some schools). I first read The Power and the Glory eleven years ago, and I was blown away by it. I haven’t returned to the novel since then, but I wanted to use it to dig into Greene’s prose a bit.

I’m not religious, and I wasn’t back when I read it either. One of the things that struck me most about the novel is its ambiguous stance toward religion. The book takes place in a (future?) time where religion is banned. Literally every single reference to any religion is destroyed by the government.

The main character is a Catholic priest secretly keeping religion alive and standing up to the evil government. It sounds like the setup to a cheesy, made-for-tv, inspirational religious movie. But the priest is a drunkard (known as the “whisky priest”). He’s gluttonous and immoral. Now it sounds like anti-religious fiction about hypocrisy in the Catholic church.

Eventually I realized that thinking in terms of these competing narratives was a mistake. This setup was merely a powerful tool to examine the human condition. Each of us has virtues and vices. Each of us has a moral compass we try to live by, and part of the novel is to show how even the strongest of us can throw these ideals away when put in dire situations.

Greene writes with a simplicity and clarity necessary to drive these points home. The book could have easily slid into excess drama and cliche and angst if done by a less-skilled writer. Instead, we get a beautiful story of human frailty.

Anyway, I thought that preface was necessary to understand an analysis of the prose style. Here’s a segment from the second chapter:

The lieutenant walked home through the shuttered town. All his life had lain here: the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants had once been a school. He had helped to wipe out that unhappy memory. The whole town was changed: the cement playground up the hill near the cemetery where iron swings stood like gallows in the moony darkness was the site of the cathedral. The new children would have new memories: nothing would ever be as it was. There was something of a priest in his intent observant walk- a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again.

One of the hallmarks of non-professional writing is the misapplication of “show, don’t tell.” Something that is supposed to be a small detail blows up into paragraphs of showing for no reason. The brilliance of Greene here is how he uses single, carefully chosen descriptive words to evoke feelings, mood, scenery, backstory, and more. Lesson: one can show more with less words if those words do work.

One could imagine an exuberant young writer letting that first sentence get out of hand with descriptions of the shutters and houses and the general mood and atmosphere of the town. Instead, Greene’s use of the phrase “shuttered town” does all this work for us. We understand the people are terrified. They’ve shut themselves in. No one is out and about. It’s desolate and bleak.

All of this “showing” happens in our head, because Greene struck upon a great word. If the word “shuttered” were something like “terrified,” we’d only get the mood. If it were something like “locked up,” we’d get a visual, but not the mood.

Next, Greene does multiple things at once. He describes select places in the town in order to get backstory on the lieutenant and paint a picture and explain the current political climate.

When the lieutenant was a child, there was a school. He was part of wiping it out and replacing it with the “Syndicate of Workers and Peasants.” Greene doesn’t take the time to explain what this is, but it’s clear. This is some bureaucratic government thing. The name evokes this without further need to explain.

A cathedral was destroyed, and a playground put in. But if Greene had said it this way, we might think this is a happy place. Instead, he gives us the simile “iron swings stood like gallows.” It evokes the disturbing thought of children having to do with chopping people’s heads off. Careful juxtaposition like this can paint vivid imagery in people’s minds. Greene continues this theme. The playground is “cement.” It’s near the cemetery.

Everything about the description of this place is disturbing, and what’s brilliant is that he reveals so much about the character and the town while doing this. This is a man remembering his own history with these places: how he helped wreck the town.

Then he uses a parallel concept. The new children will have new memories. Greene shifts from the character’s childhood to new children and what they’ll think.

The paragraph closes by drawing a parallel to the priest. He connects two of the characters in the novel and draws out a theme. All people want redemption from their past mistakes. But sometimes things we do to absolve a “mistake” only makes things worse. Those “mistakes” might not even have been mistakes at all, but we only see this in hindsight.

The takeaway from Greene’s prose is that one can show more with a few carefully chosen details than if one were to spend paragraphs describing it all. This stripped back style strikes emotional resonance in the novel (especially the haunting last chapter).

Of course, style must be chosen to suit the needs of the work, so this might not be the best choice for everything. But it’s hard to think of a modern novel that wouldn’t be made better by moving in this direction a little.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 2: Finishing Lyotard

Last time we looked at the introduction to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. That introduction already contained much of what gets fleshed out in the rest of the short book, so I’m going to mostly summarize stuff until we hit anything that requires serious critical thought.

The first chapter goes into how computers have changed the way we view knowledge. It was probably an excellent insight that required argument at the time. Now it’s obvious to everyone. Humans used to gain knowledge by reading books and talking to each other. It was a somewhat qualitative experience. The nature of knowledge has shifted with (big) data and machine learning. It’s very quantitative. It’s also a commodity to be bought and sold (think Facebook/Google).

It is a little creepy to understand Lyotard’s prescience. He basically predicts that multinational corporations will have the money to buy this data, and owning the data gives them real-world power. He predicts knowledge “circulation” in a similar way to money circulation.  Here’s a part of the prediction:

The reopening of the world market, a return to vigorous economic competition, the breakdown of the hegemony of American capitalism, the decline of the socialist alternative, a probable opening of the Chinese markets …

Other than the decline of the socialist alternative (which seems to have had a recent surge), Lyotard has a perfect prediction of how computerization of knowledge actually affected the world in the 40 years since he wrote this.

Chapter two reiterates the idea that scientific knowledge (i.e. the type discussed above) is different than, and in conflict with, “narrative” knowledge. There is also a legitimation “problem” in science. The community as a whole must choose gatekeepers seen as legitimate who decide what counts as scientific knowledge.

I’ve written about why I don’t see this as a problem like Lyotard does, but I’ll concede the point that there is a legitimation that happens, and it could be a problem if those gatekeepers change the narrative to influence what is thought of as true. There are even known instances of political biases making their way into schools of scientific thought (see my review of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger).

Next Lyotard sets up the framework for thinking about this. He uses Wittgenstein’s “language game” concept. The rules of the game can never legitmate themselves. Even small modifications of the rules can greatly alter meaning. And lastly (I think this is where he differs from Wittgenstein), each speech act is an attempt to alter the rules. Since agreeing upon the current set of rules is a social contract, it is necessary to understand the “nature of social bonds.”

This part gets a little weird to me. He claims that classically society has been seen either as a unified whole or divided in two. The rules of the language games in a unified whole follow standard entropy (they get more complicated and chaotic and degenerate). The divided in two conception is classic Marxism (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Even if it gets a bit on the mumbo-jumbo side through this part, I think his main point is summarized by this quote:

For it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is—in other words, the problems its development and distribution are facing today—without knowing something of the society within which it is situated.

This doesn’t seem that controversial to me considering I’ve already admitted that certain powers can control the language and flow of knowledge. Being as generous as possible here, I think he’s just saying we have to know how many of these powers there are and who has the power and who legitimated that power before we can truly understand who’s forming these narratives and why.

In the postmodern world, we have a ton of different institutions all competing for their metanarrative to be heard. Society is more fractured than just the two divisions of the modern world. But each of these institutions also has a set of rules for their language games that constrains them.  For example, the language of prayer has a different set of rules from an academic discussion at a university.

Chapters 7-9 seem to me to be where the most confusion on both the part of Lyotard and the reader can occur. He dives into the concept of narrative truth and scientific truth. You can already feel Lyotard try to position scientific truth to be less valuable than it is and narrative truth more valuable.

Lyotard brings up the classic objections to verification and falsification (namely a variant on Hume’s Problem of Induction). How does one prove ones proof and evidence of a theory is true? How does one know the laws of nature are consistent across time and space? How can one say that a (scientific) theory is true merely because it cannot be falsified?

These were much more powerful objections in Lyotard’s time, but much of science now takes a Bayesian epistemology (even if they don’t admit to this terminology). We believe what is most probable, and we’re open to changing our minds if the evidence leads in that direction. I addressed this more fully a few years ago in my post: Does Bayesian Epistemology Suffer Foundational Problems?

… drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former’s existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter’s.

These sorts of statements are where things get tricky for me. I buy the argument that narrative knowledge is important. One can read James Baldwin and gain knowledge and empathy of a gay black man’s perspective that changes your life and the way you see the world. Or maybe you read Butler’s performative theory of gender and suddenly understand your own gender expression in a new way. Both of these types of narrative knowledge could even be argued to be a “necessary” and vital part of humanity.

I also agree science is a separate type of knowledge, but I also see science as clearly more necessary than narrative knowledge. If we lost all of James Baldwin’s writings tomorrow, it would be a tragedy. If we lost the polio vaccine tomorrow, it would be potentially catastrophic.

It’s too easy to philosophize science into this abstract pursuit and forget just how many aspects of your life it touches (your computer, the electricity in your house, the way you cook, the way you get your food, the way you clean yourself). Probably 80% of the developed world would literally die off in a few months if scientific knowledge disappeared.

I’ll reiterate that Lyotard thinks science is vastly important. He is in no way saying the problems of science are crippling. The above quote is more in raising narrative knowledge to the same importance of science than the devaluing of science (Lyotard might point to the disastrous consequences that happened as a result of convincing a nation of the narrative that the Aryan race is superior). For example, he says:

Today the problem of legitimation is no longer considered a failing of the language game of science. It would be more accurate to say that it has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force.

Anyway, getting back to the main point. Lyotard points out that problems of legitimating knowledge is essentially modern, and though we should be aware of the difficulties, we shouldn’t be too concerned with it. The postmodern problem is the grand delegitimation of various narratives (and one can’t help but hear Trump yell “Fake News” while reading this section of Lyotard).

Lyotard spends several sections developing a theory of how humans do science, and he develops the language of “performativity.” It all seems pretty accurate to me, and not really worth commenting on (i.e. it’s just a description). He goes into the issues Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem caused for positivists. He talks about the Bourbaki group. He talks about the seeming paradox of having to look for counterexamples while simultaneously trying to prove the statement to be true.

I’d say the most surprising thing is that he gets this stuff right. You often hear about postmodernists hijacking math/science to make their mumbo-jumbo sound more rigorous. He brings up Brownian motion and modeling discontinuous phenomena with differentiable functions to ease analysis and how the Koch curve has a non-whole number dimension. These were all explained without error and without claiming they imply things they don’t imply.

Lyotard wants to call these unintuitive and bizarre narratives about the world that come from weird scientific and mathematical facts “postmodern science.” Maybe it’s because we’ve had over forty more years to digest this, but I say: why bother? To me, this is the power of science. The best summary I can come up with is this:

Narrative knowledge must be convincing as a narrative; science is convincing despite the unconvincing narrative it suggests (think of the EPR paradox in quantum mechanics or even the germ theory of disease when it was first suggested).

I know I riffed a bit harder on the science stuff than a graduate seminar on the book would. Overall, I thought this was an excellent read. It seems more relevant now than when it was written, because it cautions about the dangers of powerful organizations buying a bunch of data and using that to craft narratives we want to hear while deligitimating narratives that hurt them (but which might be true).

We know now that this shouldn’t be a futuristic, dystopian fear (as it was in Lyotard’s time). It’s really happening with targeted advertising and the rise of government propaganda and illegitimate news sources propagating our social media feeds. We believe what the people with money want us to believe, and it’s impossible to free ourselves from it until we understand the situation with the same level of clarity that Lyotard did.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 1: Lyotard

I’m over nine years into this blog, so I think most readers know my opinions and worldview on many issues in philosophy. I roughly subscribe to a Bayesian epistemology, and in practical terms this amounts to something like being a rational humanist and skeptic.

I believe there is an objective world and science can get at it, sometimes, but we also have embodied minds subject to major flaws, and so we can’t experience that world directly. Also, with near 100% probability, we experience many aspects in a fundamentally different way than it “actually” exists. This puts me somewhat in line with postmodernists.

I believe there are valid and invalid ways to interpret art. This puts me in stark contrast to postmodernists. Postmodernism, as a school of thought, seems to have made a major comeback in academic circles. I’ve also written about the dangers posed by these types of ideas. For more information, search “philosophy” on the sidebar. These opinions have been fleshed out over the course of tens of thousands of words.

I first read famous postmodernists and proto-postmodernists like Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Hegel, and so on as an undergrad (i.e. before this blog even existed). At that time, I had none of the worldview above. I basically read those philosophers with the reaction: “Whoa, dude, that’s deep.” I went along with the other students, pretending to understand the profound thoughts of continental philosophy.

I’ve never returned to them, because I didn’t think they were relevant anymore. I kind of thought we were past the idea of “post-truth.” Now I’m not so sure. This whole intro is basically a way to say that I want to try to tackle some of these texts with a more critical approach and with the added knowledge and experience I’ve gained.

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers. Part of postmodernists “thing” is to dismiss any criticism as “you’re not an expert, so you just don’t understand it.” That’s fine. I’m going to make an honest effort, though, and if you love this stuff and think I’m misunderstanding, let me know. I’m into learning.

Today we’ll tackle Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. This is arguably the most important work in the subject, and is often cited as the work that defined “postmodernism.” Since I’ve already wasted a bunch of space with the setup, we’ll only cover the Introduction for now. I recall having to read the Introduction for a class, and I’m pretty sure that’s the extent we covered Lyotard at all.

The Introduction is primarily focused on giving an explanation of what Lyotard means by “the postmodern condition,” and how we know we are living in it. There is something important and subtle here. The section is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Modern (liberal arts) academia tends to think in prescriptive terms. We’ll get to that later.

I guess I’ll now just pull some famous quotes and expound on them.

Science has always been in conflict with narratives.

I don’t think this is that controversial. He’s saying science is one narrative for how we arrive at knowledge. The narrative might be called the Enlightenment Values narrative. It’s based on empiricism and rational argument.

This narrative is so pervasive that we often forget it is a narrative. We usually equate science with knowledge, but these values didn’t always exist in the West. There is a substantial body of work from Descartes to Kant that had to make the case for rationality and empiricism as a foundation for knowledge. That’s the definition of a narrative.

The fact that science comes into conflict with other narratives should be readily obvious. There are science vs religion debates all the time to this day. Lyotard also points out another vital concept we often overlook. There are lots of institutions and political forces behind what we call science, and each of these has its own metanarrative that might come into conflict with forming knowledge.

I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.

This is a bit deeper than it looks, but only because I know the context of Lyotard’s writing. Taken with the first quote above, one might just think that he’s saying the progress of science has led to people questioning the metanarratives of their lives, like the religion they were brought up in.

Part of the reason Lyotard has chosen the term “postmodern” to describe this condition is because of the artistic movements known as postmodernism. The utter destruction of World War I and World War II brought a destabilization to people’s lives.

Technology created this destruction, and it was fueled by science. Not only did people question the traditions they were brought up in, but they began to question if science itself was good. Much of the postmodern art produced in the decades after WWII focused on highly disjointed narratives (Lost in the Funhouse), the horrors of war (Gravity’s Rainbow), involved utter chaos and randomness (Dadaism), or emphasized futility and meaninglessness (Waiting for Godot).

All these aspects overthrew narratives and traditions. They weren’t just radical because of the content, they often questioned whether we even knew what a novel or a play or a poem or a piece of music was. If we no longer knew what these longstanding artistic forms and narratives were, how could we trust any of the narratives that gave our life meaning?

And I’ll reiterate, there is a pretty direct link from the science that brought the destruction to this “postmodern condition” people found themselves in.

The rest of the Introduction gets pretty jargony.

Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?

There is a danger that people will seize upon any stabilizing force once in this position. Authority figures can even ride this to power (we just watched this happen in the U.S.). They tell us stories that make sense and make us feel better, so we put them in power. This is an endless cycle, because once in power, they control the narrative.

How do we form truth and knowledge in such a society? That is the subject of Lyotard’s book and is not answered merely in the Introduction.

I’ll end today’s post by pointing out something very important. Lyotard seems to believe in truth and knowledge and science. He seems concerned by people’s rejection of these concepts due to the postmodern condition.

When people self-describe themselves as a postmodernist, they tend to mean they reject the notion of truth. They say that all we have are narratives, and each is equally valid. Maybe this is because Lyotard isn’t a postmodernist? He merely describes what is going on.

I think more likely it’s that this label has changed from descriptive to prescriptive. Current postmodernists think of the postmodern condition as being good. If science starts to dominate as a narrative, these people want to reject that. In some sense they see this as “liberation” from the “imperialist white capitalist patriarchy” that has dominated the West and caused so much suffering.

I’m very curious to see if these attitudes actually crop up in the writings of postmodernist philosophers or if the this view is some corruption of these thinkers.

Year of Short Fiction Part 4: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those weird cultural staples that literally everyone has heard of it. Most people over a certain age have probably seen the movie, but ask them what it’s about, and they probably have no idea. It’s kind of fascinating to think how a novella/film gets to such a point. I can’t even think of another cultural phenomenon of this type.

I was pretty excited going into this for a few reasons. I, too, had seen the movie enough years ago to not remember it. Oh, there’s the long cigarette, and a crazy cat, and a wacky party girl, and singing “Moon River,” but what was it about? What was the plot? The other reason I was excited was that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of two books that have ever made me cry. The way he writes is breathtaking.

The first thing to jump out at me was the vulgarity of the language. It was published in 1958, so we’ve moved past short fiction that hides indiscretions. But I still must imagine this novella pushed what was acceptable for the time. It openly talks about prostitution and homosexuality and a 14-year-old girl getting married to an adult man. Plus, Holly’s language is very direct and crude (I don’t recall if she swears, though).

Lolita came out a few years before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tiffany’s doesn’t compare in disturbing imagery to that. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It had more to do with tone than imagery, though.

The novella is basically a long character study, and it does an excellent job at this. Holly has to be one of the strangest characters of all time. Capote’s attention to detail is incredible. Almost every sentence that has Holly in it is crafted to expose some tiny piece of how her mind works. An early example is that the location on her business card is: traveling.

At first, it comes off as chaos. Nothing about the character makes sense, and the sentences she speaks come out in a stream-of-consciousness level of confusion. But then, by about halfway or so, she’ll do something weird, and you find yourself thinking: that’s so Holly. There appears to be a deep internal logic to it. Holly feels very real and knowable.

The plot itself is fairly melodramatic. It goes by at rapid-fire pace. This short novella has Holly being in love with and engaged to several people. She travels to probably a dozen places, often not even in the U.S. There’s parties. She’s involved with a scheme to smuggle drugs orchestrated by a man in prison. She gets pregnant and miscarries. It’s almost impossible to take stock of all that happens in this, and there’s almost no real emotion behind any of it.

Capote clearly did this on purpose. Holly’s character is flighty, and she often jumps into things without any thought. If we think of the novella as a character study, then all these crazy events occurring is part of the brilliance of the novella. The plot doesn’t have weight for the main character, so it would be a mistake to have the events play a significant role to the reader. Holly moves on, and so should the reader.

And now we come full circle. No one remembers the plot to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by design. We’re only meant to remember Holly. Even her last name is “Golightly.”

The only moments of emotional poignancy are when the narrator reflects on it all, and when we see beneath Holly’s shell. He falls in love with Holly for real (this is a bit of a theme to the book: what is love?). This is quite well done, because it contrasts so starkly with Holly’s indifference and shows how devastating her indifference can be as she tears through people’s lives.

Capote gives Holly one piece of depth that prevents her from being some caricature of a socialite. She cares deeply about her brother, and it is probably the only real human connection she’s ever had. A lot of her carefree attitude stems from a disturbing fact dropped subtly in tiny details. She runs from human connection because of the psychological trauma of being a child bride.

Overall, the novella was way better than I expected in terms of character development. It was also sort of disappointing in a way. I went in expecting it to be a romance between the narrator and Holly done in a brilliant literary Capote-esque way. It’s not that at all. But once you get over the initial shock (and genre confusion), it’s brilliant.

Two Letters of Wallace Stevens

I’ve been travelling for the holidays, so I don’t have a good place to pop out a nice 1000-word blog post this week. I’ve been reading The Whole Harmonium, a biography of Wallace Stevens. He is one of the greatest American poets, yet most people outside of poetry haven’t heard of him.

Honestly, his life isn’t all that interesting to read about. He basically lived a common life as an insurance salesman and wrote poetry in his spare time. It’s not like he was a Beat roaming the country for adventure.

Since many people return home during the holiday season, I thought I’d share some of my own interpretation of Stevens’ “Two Letters,” which I think is one of his lesser known poems. Stevens was a deeply nostalgic poet, and his poems often become self-reflective of this fact. It’s almost like he understands that nostalgia can distort our memory of the past, and he’s embarrassed that he feels it so much.

The “Two Letters” are addressed “A Letter from” and “A Letter to.” We’ll look at “A Letter from.” The central theme of this poem is a longing for his carefree childhood home again. The opening is breathtaking in its imagery, and once you parse the complicated phrasing, it strikes me as a deep truth about human nature.

Even if there had been a crescent moon
On every cloud-tip over the heavens,
Drenching the evening with crystals’ light,

One would have wanted more-more-more-

Humans can never be satisfied with what they have. We could be given the most stunning piece of heaven as described, but we’d still want “more-more-more-.” I thought this was an appropriate opening sentiment for a time of year that is all about consumerism and wanting more. We rarely step back and appreciate what we have.

Stevens opens this way, not for the consumerism aspect, but the nostalgia aspect. He’s saying he has trouble appreciating what he has now because he longs for the past too much.

Some true interior to which to return
A home against one’s self, a darkness

An ease in which to live a moment’s life,
The moment of life’s love and fortune,
Free from everything else, free above all from thought.

The poem then turns inward and clarifies that it is about his home. There’s comfort in reliving your life, but there’s darkness to it if you do it too much. I’ll try not to focus on interesting wordplay, but this is the type of stuff Stevens is most known for. He has “moment’s life” then “moment of life’s love.”

The first instance still only means a “moment.” You can ease whatever is going on for a moment by returning to those earlier comforts, but he chose this wording to prepare for a transition to contemplating the whole of life. These nostalgic memories let us stop thinking about our current life, if only for a moment.

It would have been like lighting a candle,
Like leaning on the table, shading one’s eyes,
And hearing a tale one wanted intensely to hear,

As if we were all seated together again
And one of us spoke and all of us believed
What we heard and the light, though little, was enough.

Stevens really delivers in the conclusion to the poem. He drops that nostalgic imagery again. This is like those scenes in movies where the music surges, the two main characters are standing in the rain, one declares their love, …

While reading these stanzas, he paints that image of being with family around a table. Everyone is telling stories and laughing. The light from the candle brings warmth to the scene. It’s brilliant how he puts that in to heighten the emotional content of the image.

He then concludes by returning to the opening idea. This is enough. Being with the family, telling stories, a gentle candle light. We can be grateful for that moment. We don’t need more-more-more-.

Using Poetry to Improve Prose

This is going to be a short one. I recently broke my ankle, so I’ve been kind of busy with other things.

I often talk about what makes good prose style. Most of these posts follow and give convention writing advice. I’ve done a few posts on poetry but not much. One of the most important pieces of advice for improving prose style that I never see given is to write some poetry.

You have to take the right attitude for this exercise, though. The point of doing this is to work intensely at exact and evocative word choices; brief sensory detail; creative metaphor; flow and rhythm of the phrases; and so on.

To compose a good six line poem could take weeks or months, but you’ll come out of the other side of the experience with a very different concept of how words can be used to create meaning in a better way.

I’d advise not using a standard form. If you’re trying to fit the words into a preset rhythm or rhyme scheme, then you’ll be thinking about the wrong things. The focus should be on the right words and flow to achieve the purpose—not on finding a word that’s close enough and completes a preset scheme (though that is a good different exercise).

I have a set of 20-30 poems I’ve been tinkering with for about 3 years now. They’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t think they’re embarrassing anymore, but it’s taken a long, long time. I started releasing them to the public at a rate of about one a week through Poets Unlimited on Medium.

I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ll continue to do it. If you’re curious you can check them out here.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 12

It’s been about five months since I’ve done one of these. My how time flies. I’ve almost exclusively used “literary” writers for this series. Today I want to examine the prose of John Irving. He’s had a lot of commercial success, but he straddles the literary/commercial divide more than many give him credit for. This is the opening line from A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

I don’t remember how I picked this book up, but I distinctly remember reading this opening line and being hooked. We’ll look at its structure and how it establishes so much in so little space.

We’ll start with the obvious. The sentence starts with “I,” so we are getting the voice of the narrator. But immediately, the whole sentence is about someone else. We can be pretty sure (especially with knowledge of the title) that the main character of the novel will be this other person. It’s like The Great Gatsby; the narrator will tell of his past with the main character.

“I am doomed to remember…” This opening phrase establishes that the story is going to be tragic in some way. The word “doomed” is no accident. If we look to the end of the sentence, we see “God” and “Christian.” There were a lot of words Irving could have chosen here, but “doomed” is consistent in tone and given a lot more power when reaching the end of the sentence. This isn’t a mere haunting memory. In the context of God, the word “doomed” tends to have one meaning: doomed to hell during the Final Judgement. The opening clause says: pay attention, this is serious.

The follow-up is “a boy with a wrecked voice.” It immediately forces a lot of questions into the reader’s mind. Wait. He’s only a boy? What could have been that bad? Why is his voice wrecked? This sounds even less threatening.

Irving em dashes into a sequence of clarifications. The clarifications serve the dual purpose of fleshing out the main character and raising the stakes of the forthcoming novel. Each detail gets a little more confusing and intense.

The boy is the smallest person he ever knew. Even more so than the voice, how could this boy be threatening at all? Then the kicker comes. The boy was the instrument of the narrator’s mother’s death. Now we really wonder: who could this boy be to have caused such a thing? And even then, we’re told there’s something more. The mother’s death isn’t even the reason the narrator is doomed to remember. This sequence ramps up the tension more and more until we get our relief at the true reason.

The boy is the reason he believes in God. Semicolon. We then get further clarification. He’s Christian because of this boy. It’s almost a let down when the reason turns out to be so anticlimactic. But, in a sense, this makes it better. What traumatic event happened that it surpassed his mother’s death by this boy?

And we’re hooked. By the end of the first sentence we have so many unanswered questions. Moreover, the sequencing of the questions makes them feel unanswerable.

When examining why prose works, it’s often useful to think why similar attempts don’t work. Think how boring this opening would have been if Irving merely wanted to establish the narrator’s voice and tell a few facts about Owen Meany.

I recall a boy with a wrecked voice. He was the smallest person I ever knew, and yet he was also the instrument of my mother’s death. I believe in God because of Owen Meany.

I could see many people starting their novels this way. Without comparison, it might seem fine. It still establishes point of view. It still lists some traits of Owen Meany. It still raises many of the same questions. But it lacks some extremely important points. There’s no dramatic tension. The questions feel easily answerable in this form.

I could see myself saying, “Eh. Some boy killed this guy’s mother. He now believes in God. I guess I’ll find out what happened soon enough.” These are serious matters, but the prose doesn’t feel serious. It almost has a comical tone in this form because, one, it lacks the word “doomed,” but two, because the juxtaposition of these sentiments is such a sudden and stark contrast with no build up.

Seeing these fake several sentences also brings up another point. It isn’t the right voice for the narrator. The narrator of this novel used an extremely complicated sentence structure: full clause, em dash, three negative clauses separated by commas building to a positive clause, semicolon, full clause clarification.

We’ll later find out that the narrator is an English teacher (and maybe writer? It’s been 15 years since I read this), but the astute reader will already have ascertained a linguistic sophistication and high education level for the narrator. The clunky sentences I wrote give none of this voice or information.

Who knew one sentence could contain so much?

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.

Tonal Consistency in Fantasy Writing

Today I’m going to discuss a topic that ranges from extreme, blatant violations to subtle, accidental slip-ups and why they matter. The language of fantasy writing is much harder to get right than many “literary fiction” writers give it credit for. In fact, I’d say it is much, much harder than novels set in modern times on Earth.

Let’s start with Shannara, because I recently decided to watch the MTV series based on The Elfstones of Shannara.

Major spoilers for the books; minor spoilers for the TV series.

Shannara puts a clever twist on the fantasy setting. Instead of it being some mystical past, Terry Brooks made it a futuristic world. The implication is that a nuclear war happened, destroying technology, and then the radiation mutation of people became elves, gnomes, goblins, humans, etc. I think this is described in one of the “prequel” trilogies/books, but I never read them to be sure.

The number one concern when doing something like this is consistency. Some people might not like this change up because it violates genre conventions, but I could care less. If something is done consistently, then you should be allowed to do it.

The series does a pretty good job at keeping everything consistent with this setting. For example, the hero has to journey to a place called Safe Hold. We find out that this is the Sa(n) Fr(ancisco) (G)old(en Gate Bridge), where the sign has the letters smudged out and disfigured to create the words: Safe Hold. This is a pretty neat discovery, fully consistent with the setting.

But consistency of setting isn’t the only type of consistency. There is also something I’ll call tonal consistency. Despite being the future, the tone of the series keeps to a traditional fantasy tone. This means no guns, no modern music, and so on. This is where the TV series is at its worst. When guns appear in an episode, it is big shock that totally pulls you out of the tone up to that point. When modern music and a video projector appear, you lose the suspension of disbelief for the tone.

As I’ve already said, you can put all of this stuff in your fantasy setting if you want. The problem isn’t the breaking of a genre convention. The problem is that the reader/watcher has experienced hours of this world and seen no evidence that such things exist. There must be consistency from the start (or done for very deliberate and good reason).

These types of errors occur in a lot of period fiction, but no single example is usually enough to ruin anything. The problem is that you can only lose the tone of a work a certain number of times before you get pulled totally out of the atmosphere it tries to create. It’s mostly a subconscious thing that you probably don’t even notice until it’s too late to get back into the mood.

Let’s talk about some more subtle examples that are the reason this is so hard to do well. The language itself can be the source of these consistency problems. One obvious one is using the word “earth” when the characters don’t know about the planet Earth.

It is so easy to accidentally do this (not actually from Shannara): “Wil dug into the ground and felt the warm earth fall between his fingers.” You can pretend that the narrator has “translated” this for the reader. The word here is technically synonymous with “soil” or “dirt” and not referencing the name of the planet. But then why take the risk? Just use “soil” or “dirt” if that is what you mean. If the characters haven’t heard of Earth the planet, then they wouldn’t be using the word “earth” ever. Period.

The way this usually sneaks in is with similes and metaphors. “The pieces fit together like clockwork.” Wait a minute. Does this world have clocks? Are they precisely put together? “An emotional roller coaster.” Really? This world has roller coasters? Idioms can be problematic as well. “When hell freezes over.” Does anyone in the setting believe that hell is normally full of fire and brimstone?

Those ones slip in but are usually pretty obvious and easy to catch if you’re paying attention to it. The truly nefarious ones are when a word is perfectly ordinary and not a noun referring to something that doesn’t exist, but it’s etymology contains something that doesn’t exist. Wow these are subtle, but a great fantasy writer will make every effort to weed these out as well for consistency of tone.

Here’s one: quixotic (this is actually used in The Scions of Shannara, which I started reading, inspired by the show). It means foolishly impractical in the pursuit of ideals. But wait a second. The only reason it means that is because of Don Quixote. So if this book doesn’t exist in your setting, this word also doesn’t exist.

I’m torn on whether this is appropriate in Shannara. Since we know the book did exist, it seems okay. But still, it seems to conflict with the tone, since the prequels hadn’t been written yet, and we aren’t supposed to know it’s okay.

Measurement tends to be a judgment call. I could go either way. English and metric units definitely ruin consistency of tone, but this might be one of those “lesser of two evils” situations. If there is an easy way out, for example, use “two-day walk” instead of “eighteen miles,” always go with that. Sometimes you have to get creative enough that it ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. My rule is to avoid precise measurement in that case, but there may be situations where it is needed.

As a final note, I’ll say this can go too far. Every writer has to decide for themselves where the cutoff is. Is “stoic” okay even though it originates from the ancient Greek school of philosophy Stoicism? I draw the line with these cases by allowing a third person narrator to use them if that narrator is clearly not someone in/from the world. A character is not allowed to think or say words that originate from a culture that didn’t exist in their setting.

Along the same lines, what about “philosophy?” The word itself is borrowed from Greek, and so if Greece doesn’t exist on their world, does this break tone? I’d say that’s going too far. Both narrators and characters are allowed to say borrowed words as long as the word isn’t in reference to a concrete person, place, movement, etc. You have to realize that most words in English are borrowed or have pretty clear traces from other languages, so you can’t remove all of these for practical reasons.

Anyway. Sorry for spoiling anything. The series got me thinking about this topic, and I realized I had never written about it.