[This post is something of a response to John’s recent post, and some of the comments made there by Darby, John, and me.]
Back in high school/college, my favorite filmmakers were Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Greenaway, and Martin Scorsese:
As you can see, I gravitated toward a visually spectacular cinema. Everything else looked so boring! So mundane!
Later, as I started watching a more diverse array of films, I learned to appreciate that movies could do other things besides “look outrageous”: tell compelling stories, focus on performances, innovate with structures, be tightly edited, and much, much more. I also learned that visual rhetoric could be more varied, as well as more subtle, and that good cinematography was not solely equal to spectacular shots.
For instance, I consider the cinematography in Lucrecia Martel’s La Niña Santa (2004) remarkably good, not to mention audacious—albeit in a subtle way. Throughout, Martel’s “overuses” close-ups, to the extent that she mostly forgoes establishing shots and even many master shots:
In scene after scene, Martel and her cinematographer, Félix Monti, crowd the frame, creating a claustrophobic tone that’s essential to the film. The film is largely about being crowded in, and touching, and being touched, and it’s wonderful how Martel brings the camera in so close to her actors. She also makes masterful use of offscreen sound to flesh out locations, often creating tension by allowing us to hear things just out of sight.
Well, this is a brilliant film that I probably wouldn’t have appreciated in the early-to-mid-1990s. But as I learned to enjoy a wider variety of cinema, my tastes necessarily changed. Indeed, I eventually concluded that Terry Gilliam was not a particularly good director, being overly reliant on extravagant visuals, to the extent that he’s unable to satisfy on other levels. (I still love you, though, Terry.)
At the same exact time, I was having a similar problem with literature. In college, my favorite writers were Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Thomas Pynchon, Joy Williams, and Virginia Woolf; before that, I gobbled down every book by Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams. Just like with film, I was looking for a heavily stylized, “bravura” type of writing. And I was biased against books that didn’t themselves match those linguistic stylistics—prose that didn’t “pop,” right from the get-go.
I still admire all of those writers. But on some level—and this was my failing, not theirs—I was succumbing to a desire for immediate gratification. I wasn’t being patient enough with literature, the same way I wasn’t being patient enough with film. There are so very many things that authors can do! Heavily stylized, acrobatic language is only one of them. But I wanted everything to impress me the way that Donald Barthelme impressed me:
The Wapituil are like us to an extraordinary degree. They have a kinship system which is very similar to our kinship system. They address each other as “Mister”, “Mistress”, and “Miss”. They wear clothes which look very much like our clothes. They have a Fifth Avenue which divides their territory into east and west. They have a Chock Full o’ Nuts and a Chevrolet, one of each. They have a Museum of Modern Art and a telephone and a Martini, one of each. The Martini and the telephone are kept in the Museum of Modern Art. In fact they have everything that we have, but only one of each thing.
We found that they lose interest very quickly. For instance they are fully industrialized, but they don’t seem interested in taking advantage of it. After the steel mill produced the ingot, it was shut down. They can conceptualize but they don’t follow through. For instance, their week has seven days—Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, and Monday. They have one disease, mononucleosis. The sex life of a Wapituil consists of a single experience, which he thinks about for a long time.
—from “Brain Damage”
I wanted only the Prose of Constant Surprise, writing willing to make dazzling departures with each new sentence. I still like that kind of prose. I still like (I adore) Donald Barthelme. But I also like a lot of writers now that I would have ignored a decade ago. For instance, one of my favorite books last year was Stephen Paul-Martin’s Changing the Subject (2010, Ellipsis Press). It opens like this:
The greatest mistake of all time took place thousands of years ago, when God let Noah’s family survive the flood. God’s plan was to start a new human race with a man he thought he could trust, but the limits of Noah’s mental awareness were obvious right from the start. No sooner had God’s rainbow vanished from the clouds than Noah was getting drunk and cursing his grandson, declaring that Canaan’s descendants—one-third of the future human race—would be the lowest of slaves, a monstrous over-reaction that would have tragic consequences for countless generations of innocent people. Clearly, Noah wasn’t the man God thought he was.
I think the writing in this book excellent throughout, very compelling and readable. Paul-Martin’s conversational tone is perfect for the rather complicated and experimental collection that he’s writing—he’s going to perform so many structural tricks that he needs something accessible and light to guide the reader through the stories. And the prose, while relatively simple and straightforward, is admirably confident and strong, and compulsively readable—it easily carried me through the book. I couldn’t put the thing down.
And, circa 1997, I probably wouldn’t have read more than the first few pages, because the writing wouldn’t have seemed “performative” enough to me. It would have been my loss.
Another example: my favorite writer in middle school was Lloyd Alexander. I cherished his Prydain Chronicles, read them repeatedly. Those books, probably more than any others, made me want to become a writer.
Later, in college, I decided to reread them…and found that I couldn’t. Ruined by Barthelme, insistent on stylistic adventure, I couldn’t stomach the plainness of Alexander’s prose:
Under a chill, gray sky, two riders jogged across the turf. Taran, the taller horseman, set his face against the wind and leaned forward in the saddle, his eyes on the distant hills. At his belt hung a sword, and from his shoulder a silver-bound battle horn. His companion Gurgi, shaggier than the pony he rode, pulled his weathered cloak around him, rubbed his frost-nipped ears, and began groaning so wretchedly that Taran at last reined up the stallion.
—The High King (1968), opening paragraph
I was horrified, and terribly saddened. My education, my changing tastes, had caused me to lose something extremely dear to me. Dejected, I put the Prydain Chronicles away, didn’t touch them or think of them any more.
In 2007, when Lloyd Alexander passed away, I decided to pick up those books again…and, this time, I found that the prose didn’t bother me at all. Yes, it’s simple, and fairly plain, and overly solemn, and at times even a little pretentious. But it’s also very emotional, and sincere, and frequently moving. And Alexander provides many other pleasures besides verbal gymnastics, pleasures well worth reading for. His characters are all indelible, complex and appealing. His plots are well-made, and put those characters through real trials. And he wasn’t afraid to write painful passages—the ending of The High King remains one of the saddest I’ve read. Taken all in all, they’re beautiful books, and I’m happy to once again count them among my favorites.
What had happened to me, I think, was that, for a while, I fell completely under the sway of a very dominant idea, an insistent preference in academic literature. For I would argue that academic writers and readers highly value—perhaps even overvalue—complicated, highly stylized prose. Indeed, a complaint I hear all the time from such friends is, “I couldn’t read it; the prose was just too bad.” At times it seems as though prose quality is, in these circles, literature’s litmus test.
There are a lot of reasons why this might be. Commercial prose is often mundane and functional, so writing lyrically and abstractly—foregrounding language as language—is a way for academics to announce themselves as Something Different—to establish a common, unique identity. (Cormac McCarthy, who writes strongly stylized passages, can therefore be an acceptable commercial writer in a way that Jonathan Franzen cannot.) And there’s also a long tradition of foregrounding very strong style: the writers I mentioned above, as well as their forebears (Flaubert, Proust, Joyce). The Language Poets have made careers pushing language to the forefront. One of my teachers in grad school explicitly told me that it was better to belong to “the Stained Glass School” of Barth and Gass and Hawkes, and not “the Windex School” of most realist fiction. (I didn’t disagree with him at the time.) And so on; I could list numerous other examples.
This is all fine with me, to some extent. I’m all for such writing; I’ve done some of it myself. Here are the opening two paragraphs of my first novel, Giant Slugs (forthcoming later this year):
We’ll all follow the finer taboos, the tattoos of a pro percussionist’s tom-toms. I’ll recall the tablets my kiddy fingers traced, guided by my father’s gauzy own, which when young gripped the blunt reed and delicately dedicated his bird-like words to clay. First the rubric, now lost, but whose age-old echo repeats: “Close your eyes; I’ll relate to you a mystery of great Uruk, and the stretch before giant slugs….”
Follow beyond: two big walls usher us through to the ancient city, past clay pits and the lossless floral gardens, past the coral lake and rosy hoi polloi, to the Temple Atari, central. Follow me follow my father’s ghost inside Atari’s most intimate vault, through tubular tunnels to the cerise-illuminated lumen where my ancestors—Unug, Erech, Warka, Orko, Nil, and Legal Band—mounted tablets engraved with red-plugged, wedge-shaped words: accounts of each prince’s required one-year exile, traditional tests in the broad-boned earth.
This is Joyce-influenced writing, overly stylized, syntactically acrobatic, layered with puns and other language play. I think that it makes a good fit for the novel, which is epic, grand, sprawling, expulsive.
But when I wrote my second novel, “The New Boyfriend” (not yet published), I wanted to do something quite different. For that story, which is more minimalist (a single scene with only four characters), I decided I needed something more restrained, more tantalizing, more titillating:
Last Sunday afternoon, Melanie came over, bringing along her new boyfriend.
I had been hanging out with Lauren, just playing the Wii. We’d spent our Saturday doing the things around the house. Lauren had a conference later in the week, but now, after no small amount of anxiety, as well as a few sleepless nights, she finally felt prepared.
Melanie and her new boyfriend arrived at noon and came right in. Certainly there was no need to stand on any formalities. Melanie had been over to the house to visit many times before.
I didn’t want the language to get in the way of the character relationships or the action that gradually unfolds. There’s still some punning, and a lot of prosodic effects (meter, alliteration, rhyme)—some things I just can’t help—but, overall, it’s much sparser than Giant Slugs. Which is, for me, much of the fun of writing—I like for all of my different projects to have their own unique identities.
Bad prose is bad, and lazy writing usually makes me cringe, sure. Criticize it, by all means, lovers of language!
But an artwork’s the sum of its parts, and prose quality shouldn’t be the sole metric, or necessarily even the chief metric, of the worth of a work of literature. Highly-wrought writing should be treasured, but not be the default. To believe that would blind us to so much of literature’s potential.