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.

Year of Giant Novels Part 5: Ulysses

In the previous posts in this series, I’ve taken off with the assumption that most people reading will have a familiarity with the giant novel. This time I’ll start from the basics. Ulysses is one of those books that many people have heard of but probably still can’t tell you much about.

Ulysses takes place over a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. In fact, June 16 is called Bloomsday, and celebrations happen around the world in commemoration of the novel. I went into Ulysses knowing this much. What I hadn’t realized is that Stephen Dedalus, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is given equal weight as a main character.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style. People have probably heard this novel is “unreadable,” and this is the reason why. It’s not so much that the events of the day are mindnumbingly boring (this is true!), but that the prose itself is impenetrable. I’ve worked my way through many, many works of literature people have called unreadable and never found them to be so. This one actually is.

Unlike Proust, whose stream-of-consciousness prose is thoughtful and elegant, Ulysses fully embraces the utter chaos that is the human mind. Here’s a sample:

Proudly walking. Whom were you trying to walk like? Forget: a dispossessed. With mother’s money order, eight shillings, the banging door of the post office slammed in your face by the usher. Hunger toothache. Encore deux minutes. Look clock. Must get. Ferme. Hired dog! Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons. Bit all khrrrrklak in place clack back. Not hurt? O, that’s all right.

And on and on and on it goes: for 260,000 words. There are ways to ground yourself though. And that’s what I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about.

The name of the book is Ulysses in reference to the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The novel is divided into sections, and one can supposedly correlate sections of The Odyssey with sections in Bloom’s day. But why? And should you care? We have to take a step back and put the book in context to answer this question.

Ulysses is often considered the perfect culmination of all modernist literature. Modernism as a movement is sometimes considered to have started all the way back with Madame Bovary (1856) but didn’t fully come into realization until the devastation of World War I.

There was a vast turning inward. The classics like War and Peace or The Odyssey or Great Expectations all had grand sweeping plots, rigid forms and structures, and a focus on beautiful language to show these things. Modernism rejected these notions.

I think it’s very hard for us to understand the feeling in Europe after WWI, but once can try to empathize with the sense of futility. We’re all small. People’s lives didn’t seem to matter. There weren’t heroes. There weren’t illusions of being able to change the course of history. The classic form of the novel probably seemed a dangerous fantasy. The world was chaos and unpredictable not structured and clear.

All right. So what on Earth does this have to do with Ulysses? The one takeaway from the title is that this novel is self-aware of what it is doing. It says: Bloom’s ordinary day is the heroic journey of our time. Maybe in the past, people could be worried about saving the world. In our time, an ordinary person trying to make it through an ordinary day is just as grand a struggle.

Depressing. I know. For me, the only way to make it through this book is to get rid of trying to figure out how individual sections parallel The Odyssey. Also, give up on there being any sort of plot to follow (though the wikipedia page is quite helpful on this front). The main thing is to dive into the difficult prose and think: yes, this is how real people think, it is chaotic, and somehow we manage to get through it everyday.

So is this novel worth it? In my opinion: definitely not. As a perfect embodiment of the modernist movement, it is an extremely important historical work. As a work for scholarly study, it will give endlessly. As a giant novel people should read, it is a nightmare.

If this type of thing interests you, read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf instead. It is the exact same idea, an ordinary person’s ordinary day in the modernist style, but it is infinitely easier to read and much, much shorter.

Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 9

First off, Happy 8 Year Blogging Anniversary!

Although David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve put off examining his prose until this late in the series. I did this on purpose, because the writers we have looked at “follow the rules.” They use clean, minimalist prose. It’s easy to see and articulate why it is good. It’s what we should all learn to do before developing our own styles.

I know this is a bit of controversial advice. Many people say to develop your own style from the start and not waste time trying to emulate famous writers. It’s not so much that I think one should be able to emulate it, but that one should understand what makes simple prose effective before layering in complexity.

I’ve read about how DFW taught writing and believe he took this same approach. You can’t build a house without a foundation. I think that if anyone tries to write in the way of DFW without first understanding the basics, it will come off as a complete mess. So consider yourself warned, but do whatever you want.

To borrow a term from Greg Carlisle, DFW’s prose has an elegant complexity to it. The point of this post is to try to get at what this could mean (though Carlisle was referring to the overall structure of Infinite Jest with that term). His prose still has the elegance of the previous writers from this series but with a layered complexity built on top of it.

Here is a sentence we get early on in Infinite Jest:

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

Most people should be able to read this and understand it on the first time through. This should strike you as strange. It begins with the placement of a person, followed by an 18-word descriptive appositive (containing further qualification after the relative pronoun), continues the first part, and ends with a 21-word, nonessential comma clause descriptor.

Normally, a creative writing instructor would mark this as too long and confusing structurally to be read easily. So why does it work here? That question is hard to answer, because we don’t have earlier, unedited versions to compare it to. The best way to get a sense of its workings is to try to think of some changes and see how it makes things worse.

One thing we could do is eliminate this business about the smile. The passage as a whole would read more easily. But the phrase “impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material” is too good. This sentence is on the first page of the novel, and that phrase, in particular, sets the tone of the novel perfectly.

Think about that phrase for a second. There’s something very dark about it. It implies the person is forced to smile constantly (“fixed”), but who does not smile often (the stamp of the smile reverts to the original shape because of the “uncooperative material” aka his face). At the same time, the description is so unique and striking, it almost comes off as comical. And this perfectly describes the tone of the novel. It’s dark, yet almost comical.

So we can’t eliminate that part. We could always break it off into its own sentence, but again, it just doesn’t seem important enough to do that. The subordinate flow we get by sticking it into an appositive fits its importance.

In the next part, could we eliminate “lately” without losing anything? I’d say yes. This fits with the rule: eliminate adverbs. On the other hand, we’ve basically gone all-in on the wordiness, so it might be better to ask: does it sufficiently detract from the meaning to remove it? I’d say no.

It fits the wordy flow to leave it in, and we have to imagine there were other ones that were cut, considering it is the only adverb in the entire passage. Think about the alternative and more wordy “something stamped hesitantly into uncooperative material.” The adverb there really does add a few too many unnecessary words to make the image appear in your head. It gets a touch too confusing.

The last clause begins by reiterating “the type.” This acts to reground the reader. It reiterates the subject of the clause, and we could imagine many ways to phrase it that doesn’t make it this clear.

In conclusion, the structure of the sentence may be complex, and the word count makes it look excessively wordy, but DFW keeps the excess to a minimum like we’ve talked about before. He also keeps each segment fully self-contained so that there is no confusion about the subject at each point. The basics of clear writing are still there underneath the added complexity.

Homework: Try the same type of analysis with this sentence from a later section (hint: it might have lots of places it could be cleaned up, but has the voice changed? is the tone intentionally different? does context matter?).

If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 8

Today we’ll look at some prose from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t put this off forever; any series about prose would be remiss to skip Fitzgerald.

Many writers these days pop out 120,000 word novels every year. The Great Gatsby clocks in at about 47,000 words and was finely tuned over three years. This careful attention to prose is exactly the type of thing we should be looking at in this series of posts.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m pretty sure I read this book in high school, maybe 14 or 15 years ago. I may have just studied some plot summary handout, though. In the years since then, I’ve attempted to read it maybe five more times. I’ve failed every single time. Something clicked this last attempt, and I thought the book was brilliant.

This book is hard! It’s shocking that this is a standard for high school students. Structurally, it jumps around a lot. It is half the length of a standard novel yet has twice as many main characters. Nick, Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, Jordan, plus several other minor characters all have fully realized backstories, personalities, and relationships with each other.

The way Fitzgerald achieves this is with extraordinarily economic prose. Pretty much everything in the novel serves two or three functions (as we’ll get to shortly). The point of view is brilliantly chosen. The narrator is telling of events that happened in his past. This gives an intimacy from the narrator being there and knowing the characters, while at the same time serves a distancing function.

I wish this “partially involved narrator” was used more. It was quite refreshing. The narrator also served to complicate the structure, because we hear the events as Nick learned of them, rather than chronologically. The shaky timeline serves a dual purpose: it reiterates that this is all in Nick’s memory, and it heightens the sense that Gatsby is running out of time.

Let’s get to the prose. Here is an early description passage of a place between Long Island and New York City. This place has huge significance in the later parts of the novel.

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through powdery air.

It starts with a simple declaration to give the reader a picture then em dashes to more detail. It starts a metaphor: it isn’t just a valley but a farm for ashes. This makes sense, because the town is industrial and produces the ash. We immediately get a simile that the ash grows like wheat, staying consistent with the farm metaphor.

The picture is brilliant. We can almost feel it growing and covering everything. We get a few details, but these details are enough to paint a huge picture: ridges, hills, grotesque gardens, houses, and chimneys.

The sentence closes with a description of the people. The phrase “transcendent effort” here is so unique and unexpected. It creates a sense that these people require great will just to move in this oppressive ash. How do the men move? “Dimly” and “crumbling” evoke both the mood of the town but also keeps the description consistent with ash, which is also dim and crumbling.

In one sentence, Fitzgerald gave us all the description of the town we would need for the whole book. He achieved this through consistency in his metaphor but also making the different parts of the description reinforce each other. He used adjectives that did work for both physical description as well as mood.

Lastly, the sentence itself has a type of melancholy to it through its pacing and length. By chaining together those “ands” between the commas, the cadence gets drawn out. It plods along, almost losing you as it does it. The reader drowns in the description like the people in the town are drowning in the ash.

Sentences like these don’t come on accident. It reads like almost careless, effortless writing, but on close examination like this, we can tell how much work actually went into it. Almost the whole novel is like this somehow!

Let’s do some more:

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

I chose this one, because I wanted to reiterate a point from the first one. “He came alive to me” is a simple declaration. The sentence could have ended there, but this would be the type of laziness that pervades less professional writing. If you’re just going to tell the reader something like this, you may as well not include it.

So the elaboration is the interesting part. He again chooses a metaphor: delivered from a womb. This is the point I wanted to emphasize. This consistency in metaphor is one the annoying things I find when critiquing new writers.

Maybe they strike upon some surprising idea like “womb of his purposeless splendor” (though I doubt it). How do you work it in? Tons of ideas might come to mind like “arrived from the womb” and so on. But of course, one has to look to the previous part of the sentence.

We have the phrase “to me.” Babies are “delivered” to people from wombs, so to stay consistent, this is almost the only choice. It is at this point that babies first cry and “come alive” (I am not making any sort of political statement here). The whole thing works as one consistent unit to both elaborate on the coming alive, reinforcing the metaphor, and having dual meanings.

Then there is the last part of the sentence: womb of his purposeless splendor. As in the first example, this is such a striking and unexpected phrase. Gatsby has been living in a womb of sorts, hiding away in his giant house without purpose, but it is certainly magnificent. Somehow those few words capture all of this. Now he is emerging from it and will have a purpose. It is, in fact, this very scene where Gatsby first reveals the purpose of everything.

We could go on like this all day. Notice we’ve only looked at two sentences. I guarantee that if you open the book to any random spot and find a single sentence, you’ll be able to keep doing this. The book is so tightly constructed that it boggles the mind.

Replies to Against Theory, Part 2

Continuing on with the responses to “Against Theory,” I was kind of excited to see that Richard Rorty wrote one. I’ve written about him on the blog, and he is one of my favorite philosophers. Here are my notes on Rorty’s “Philosophy Without Principles.”

Recall that the original Knapp-Michaels piece tried to take out E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. The main point of Rorty’s piece is to identify the philosophical first principles from which such an (anti-Hirsch) argument could be made. For the record, Rorty disagrees with Hirsch but also think the Knapp-Michaels approach did not succeed.

Rorty begins by pointing out that not everyone agrees with their assessment that a random string of symbols appearing to be language has no meaning if there was no authorial intent. H.P. Grice is one person in this camp. There is a more subtle question that still leaves some room for theory: “Granted that the sentence means such and such, did its author use it to mean that on this particular occasion?”

Rorty takes what seems to be a radical view here. He claims that anything should be counted as language if a human construes it as such (he even includes “an arrangement of stars” as an example).

Recall that Rorty is a pragmatist, so basically he wants to say that Knapp-Michaels are being wildly unpragmatic with their view that we must always identify an author before considering something that looks like language to be language (i.e. have meaning). How do they know that the random symbols in the sand at the beach have no meaning if they come across them and can’t tell if it is an accident or intended?

Trying to identify intrinsic properties is futile in a pragmatic framework. Rorty wants to forget the question of what was intended and instead examine the language in various contexts and describe the advantages/disadvantages as such. We can never “know” the true authorial intent as a pragmatic matter anyway.

This view is clearly against Hirsch and an argument “against theory” (stop theorizing and interpret already!). But I’m not sure how he escapes the paradox that by describing why he feels this way, he has laid out the foundation for a pragmatic “theory” of interpretation. It’s a Catch-22. No one has the answer to why we should be pragmatic without the theory to back it up.

Rorty tries to escape these endless circles by appealing to Heidegger and Derrida. The philosophers who developed theory have skewed the debate by the terms they’ve deemed important enough to study: intention/meaning/etc. This jargon is in place because of tradition, and we should first ask if we have any reason to continue to go along with it.

We can’t argue against theory by using the language of theory. The vocabulary must be changed first, and vocabulary doesn’t change through arguments. It changes because a new vocabulary comes into usage and serves the discussion better.

Rorty takes the view that we shouldn’t stop teaching theory, because it gives philosophers the opportunity to discuss novels, poems, and essays with literature students. It is wrong-headed for Knapp-Michaels to think of teaching theory as some sort of indoctrination into a particular view of interpretation that skips out on the actual interpretation of texts (personal note: I don’t blame them if you think back to the New Critical climate in which the original essay was written).

Knapp and Michaels actually wrote a direct response to the Rorty article entitled “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What is Pragmatism?” So now we’ll look at that. First, they clarify that they are not against making critical arguments about a text. We can analyze texts without engaging in “theory.” The theory they attack is the attempt “to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without.”

Without going further yet, I have to insert my own reservations about this. I get the distinction, but they seem to run into the same epistemological problems they worry about in the original article. Sure, you can do some analysis, but I’m worried how you’ll know it makes any sense without some theoretical grounding. It’s sort of like saying: do math, no wait, stop formulating a theory, just manipulate the symbols, what do you mean you want to make sure you’ve done something legitimate?

Next they push back on the issue of “an author” vs “its author” (this was discussed last time). Knapp-Michaels reiterate that the same set of words authored by various people can have different meanings (one can’t help but think of Borges’ Pierre Menard here). This is because these are different texts. It is problematic to refer to the same text having different (even if fictional) authors.

Knapp and Michaels make a very strong case that the its/an distinction is irrelevant. When someone says “fire,” they could be talking about burning or discharging a weapon or terminating someone’s employment or any number of things. The only meaning that matters in interpretation is the one intended by the speaker. To even contemplate alternate meanings that “an” author could have meant is at best a masturbatory indulgence and at worst a complete waste of time.

Well, I think I’m done with this series of posts for now. I had planned on doing more, but I’m finding this quite tedious and exhausting. For now, I land somewhere in between the pragmatist and Hirsch viewpoints. On the pragmatic side, it does seem a waste to contemplate intentionless meanings. On the Hirsch side, we need some sort of foundation and theory to work out a range of valid interpretations (we get a range because we can never truly know the intention of the author).