Monday, November 20, 2006

On Clench Racing

Hmm. I read the essay by Nick Lowe that contains a description of clench racing.

Actually, Grace and I read it together in the car on the way to Saginaw and discussed it. Her comment was "I'm glad I have no idea who this guy is, because I can feel free to criticize his writing."

I did hunt through a few chapters of Lord Foul's Bane for "clench." I found it four times so far, enough to tell me the game probably would work reasonably well. But I have a couple of comments about Lowe's essay.

I took the Leonard Nimoy poetry challenge and I'm happy to report that I wrote concluding lines which were in all cases nearly identical to Nimoy's lines, except that I left out the word "love." Mocking Nimoy's poetry is not much of a challenge, sort of like killing fish in a barrel using a stick of dynamite instead of a gun, but let's take it as evidence that I have enough of an ear for phrasing to be able to knock these out without breaking a sweat. I can't really complain about this portion of the essay. Mocking bad writing is a long-standing form of entertainment at cons.

No, my first complaint is that he attempts to jump from a funny observation about Donaldson's use of "clench" -- which is about word choice and style -- to a point about predictability in word choice, to a point about plot devices.

First off, I don't buy his argument. Once you've read a novel, you can remember the words the author used a lot. In Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road the word "beat" pops up again and again. Does that mean Kerouac's prose is predictable? I wouldn't say that. Does it mean he was bad at plot? "Predictable" only works if you can predict it before you've read it, like you can with Nimoy. Is Donaldson really predictable in his word choices? Let me ask a related question -- do people's habits make them predictable? Covenant says "Hellfire and damnation." Speed freaks twitch. It makes sense to associate words with people; nervous people clench. I used to clench. My dentist gave me a bite guard and told me to avoid unnecessary travel to far-off Lands.

My next observation is that Lowe seems to be a bit dishonest about what writing is. Writing is artifice, genre writing perhaps even more so. It's fundamentally an unnatural activity. Writing seems "natural" only to the extent that the reader goes along for the ride with the writer.

Let's say I'm going to write a novel. What is it that I actually write about? Well, in general, unless I'm David Foster Wallace, or I'm writing something weird and postmodern about my childhood, I'm going to have to give my characters something to do. That's plot. It's an artifact. It is fundamentally artificial.

In a short story the plot can be vestigial, or seem very organic. I short story can even by primarily a character sketch, or about a place, or a memory. In a postmodern "blob" of a novel where there aren't any rules and there is almost no structure, it may seem like there is no artifice. The "plot" can feel seamless. In a genre novel -- particularly in a genre novel -- you have to build a scaffolding of plot. You do this whether you are very deliberative about it -- using note cards, or a timeline, or an outline -- or whether it evolves mostly in your head.

Lowe seems to be griping that some writers leave pretty obvious seams. But I want to be clear on this -- if you're a close enough reader, the seams are there in every novel, because ever novel is constructed, and can thus be deconstructed. Genre novels in particular follow conventions and thus have more overt structure. Make no mistake: looking for, and cataloging, plot holes and seams can be quite entertaining. But it is not necessarily the best way to enjoy a novel.

Lowe honestly doesn't seem to know that much about the history of the novel. To say that elaborate plotting first appeared in comic novels by writers such as Barth and Calvino is to ignore pretty much the whole history of the novel, including all of Russian literature. I like Barth and Calvino, but Barth and Calvino are very cerebral and self-conscious and ironic and self-referential. That's all well and good, but sometimes people just want to read a story. And they read genre fiction.

Lowe really rubs me the wrong way when he makes statements like this:
You've only got to look around you to realize that most books that get published are NOT good. This simple point makes a nonsense of conventional criticism, which lacks any sort of vocabulary to discuss badness in any meaningful way. And yet badness is the dominant quality of contemporary literature, and certainly of SF.
I'm a big fan of Sturgeon's law, so I have to agree that this is true, although I would place most books into a kind of no-man's land of mediocrity. It's important to keep in mind, though, that if Sturgeon's law is true, and I believe it is, then the only way to get more good books is to get more books. And that means more bad books -- a lot more bad books, or at least more mediocre books. That's how it works, and that's OK.

Is Lowe seriously coming from such an elitist position that he thinks he can convince us that Tolkien -- author of the best-selling novel of all time -- is a hack writer who churned out work that centered around plotting tricks? And even that Donaldson, whose works were huge sellers, was turning out turgid crap? Yes, that's exactly what he's saying. And he doesn't leaven his criticism with any light-heartedness at all. It might have been entertaining to hear him give his talk at a convention. I'm assuming that he actually was smiling when he said some of these things. On the page, though, the finished essay doesn't read as if he has any actual admiration for the genre underlying his funny, and mostly valid, criticism of the ways that authors create plot.

No admiration? What exactly is someone who hates most modern writing doing writing criticism of science fiction, exactly?

The author's elitism is revealed as a pretty hollow value system. He doesn't offer much to like. His attitude seems to be, at its core, "if people actually like it, it's crap." I'm reminded of a t-shirt I saw for sale online once. It says only "Your favorite band sucks."

In fact, Lowe's entire essay reads like something I might have written when I was sixteen. It has some superficial but funny insights but the overall tone is very elitist and obnoxious. In Lowe's world view readers don't rise up and demand something different because they are too stupid to understand that what they are reading is poorly written. Yes, that's really what he is saying. At the end of his ranting he comes right out and says it:
I hope that in revealing to you, for the first time in cosmic history, these precious secrets of how to tune and play your very own plot devices, I've given you some idea of the opportunities that exist for the talentless hack to abuse, short-change and exploit the mindless masses who put up with this garbage.
Huh. This is a bit like Arthur Dent confronting the Nutrimatic drink machine on the starship Heart of Gold. The machine attempts to convince Arthur that the drink it is producing for him is perfectly tailored for his nutritional needs and enjoyment, because it knows best. "But it tastes filthy," Arthur retorts. "I'm a masochist on a diet, am I?" Just what kind of tasteless gruel does Lowe think we should be enjoying if not the work we actually know and love? Personally, I'd rather settle down with a nice cup of tea.

And then:
The only thing that could possibly stand in your way would be a united resistance from those contemptible snot-gobbed arthropods the readers themselves, crying out against cheapskate exploitation fiction and demanding stories that can hold the road without the author stepping in every five pages to crank the bloody things up. Small chance of that, eh?
This is supposed to be funny, I suppose, but it reminds me why I will never be caught reading one of the "for Dummies" books. Why am I reading an essay by a writer who calls me "contemptible?" This essay should be entitled "Science Fiction for Contemptible Snot-Gobbed Arthropods."

I certainly have had a lot of fun mocking various writers. I love writing pastiche and parody. Parts of Lowe's essay are funny, but it left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Maybe that's the snot in my gob. Or maybe it's the snottiness in Lowe's essay.

Imagine that this sentence is a spirited defense of Gene Wolfe's work. If you've read Wolfe, you can write it for me. Although Lowe mocks some of the rare weak spots in Wolfe's writing in The Book of the New Sun, it is safe to say that now in 2006 Wolfe's reputation is firm. It remains to be seen what people will think in 2026.

I'd like to throw out a few closing thoughts inspired by a writing teacher of mine who loved Mark Twain and tried to remind me that James Joyce, whose work I love, was not a valuable model for a writer attempting (as I was) to actually complete stories that readers might actually enjoy reading.

- Readers are not fools. They appreciate work like Tolkien and Donaldson despite, not because of, its flaws. Both these writers told stories that people enjoyed reading.

- Writers are not fools. Especially not writers who have made far more money than I will ever make.

- To clarify: there is no shame in writing a book that stays on top of the New York Times bestseller list. These writers are doing something right. They may not share my priorities, but they aren't fools.

- I say this even about books I don't like very much. I could easily mock The DaVinci Code. I don't think it is a lasting monument of literature. Most works aren't. And yet:

- At one time I might have thought that I would never, ever want to write a book like The DaVinci Code. But as I think more about writing for money myself, I find I can no longer afford to hold such an elitist view. I can't afford to call the readers who bought The DaVinci Code idiots. If I myself aspire to write a novel and earn money with it, I'd do far better to call them something more like "a potential crossover readership demographic."

- About that "lasting monuments of literature" thing? A work is not best judged by its contemporary critics. It is actually not simple to predict what will be considered great and what won't be.

- Recently I've been really, really enjoying reading the complete works of William Hope Hodgson. He sold upwards of a hundred short stories, all written in about ten years, for money. To eat. Not for art's sake. He barely earned enough to eat, but did manage to make writing his job. A lot of the stories are really quite good.

- Hodgson also wrote poetry. I'm reading it. It's a mixed bag: a lot of it is wretched, but some of it is really pretty good. Some of it is coming into print now, for the first time, over 100 years after it was written. Remember what I said about how "a work is not best judged by its contemporary critics?"

- Conversely, it's hard to predict what will be considered crap and what won't be. There must have been an anti-Donaldson backlash about the time that Lowe wrote this essay, which seems to have been in the mid-eighties. But people are still reading Donaldson. He's in print, and his new series is selling well. But another writer he mentions, Susan Cooper? I've never heard of her.

- Lowe mocks Donaldson for his word choice, but the fact that he uses obscure and archaic words is seen by many readers, including me, as a strength. As readers who think of ourselves as smart and literate, don't we consider it actually fun to learn new words (or old ones)? I know that, personally, it is one of the things I enjoy about reading.

- Although in English classes we are trained to put different kinds of works into boxes, there is actually no sharp division between serious work, homage, pastiche, and parody.

- The category of "unintentional self-parody" exists mostly in the mind of the newly minted English major. It doesn't exist in the mind of most readers.

- This isn't actually because most readers aren't capable of being critical. Sure, they may not have training in criticism. They may not use the language of the academic. I'm starting to think that's a good thing. No, it's because most readers take what they enjoy out of a work and leave the rest behind. They don't start out from a pedantic, self-aggrandizing, mocking point of view.

- You can believe that there's always a better book. You can believe each year that the books you enjoyed last year are not worth reading, and that you only enjoyed them last year because back then you were young and naive and didn't know any better. But that way lies a lot of bitterness. Eventually you've cleared your shelves for everything except whatever undiscovered obscure Afro-Carribean novelist is being discussed by the literati this week. Nope, I refuse to go there. I prefer my shelves to be bulging with books I enjoy, but which I ought to know better than to waste my time reading.

- The difference between a bad work and a good work is often that the bad work doesn't know what it is actually doing. But I'd hazard that even Lin Carter knew what he was doing. And Donaldson certainly did. The readers said so, and his own work says so. I'd like to cite the following in defense of Lord Foul's Bane:
...he had tasted the consequences of allowing the people of the Land to treat him as if he were some kind of mythic figure. With an effort, the replied gruffly, "Nevertheless. I'm not used to such things. In my own world, I'm -- just a little man. Your homage makes me uneasy."

Softly, Mhoram sighed his relief, and Lithe raised her head to ask in wonder, "Is it possible? Can such worlds be, where you are not among the great?"

"Take my word for it." Covenant drank deeply from his flask.
And, even more to the point. Donaldson might have imagining his critics saying these words:
"That was a joke. Or a metaphor." Covenant made another effort to turn his sarcasm into humor. "I can never tell the difference."
And one more, which I'll let stand as my last word on Lowe's essay :
Watching him go, Winhome Gay breathed, "He dislikes you." Her tone expressed awe at the Warhaft's audacity and foolishness. She seemed to ask how he dared to feel as he did -- as if Covenant's performance the previous night had exalted him in her eyes to the rank of a Ranyhyn.

"He has good reason," answered Covenant flatly.

Gay looked unsure. As if she were reaching out for dangerous knowledge, she asked quickly, "Because you are a -- a 'leper'?"

He could see her seriousness. But he felt that he had already said too much about lepers. Such talk compromised his bargain. "No," he said, "he just thinks I'm obnoxious."


Thomas said...

I just came across your post after reading Lowe's article for the first time.

You make excellent points. I have always admired Donaldson for bringing complex and flawed characters who epitomize the shades of gray in our world into a fantasy world with the traditional black and white / evil and good. Lowe made me revisit my appraisal of Donaldson's works ("flatulent" was the description that stood out) and made me wonder, "Exactly what book would pass muster?".

I suspect he would have left Donaldson alone if Jordan's much loved/lambasted Wheel of Time had yet been published. (The horror, the horror :-)

Your post helped me put this in perspective and relax the clenched teeth since I read the essay. Lowe makes a number of good points -- things to be self-aware about when writing and I can see I'll be examining my own writing for seams, coupons and vouchers.

Paul R. Potts said...

Thomas, thanks for your note. I wrote this some time ago and promptly forgot about it! Your comment was an excuse to go back and read it again!

A couple of years on, I still agree with most of what I wrote, and I'm amused to look around my office and see some of the books piled that I've been reading lately: Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling, as well as some of the Nightside books by Simon Green (although these are pretty lightweight, and the most recent ones are starting to grate on me). Hacks every one, and proud of it!