Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category
Words have a definite meaning. That is the first point every writer must address (though of course not every writer answers that question as I just have).
In fact, it’s become fashionable to say that language is arbitrary, and definitions are, at best, approximations. Indeed, many writers accept these tenets without even realizing that they’ve accepted them and without any regard for the fact that it’s not actually possible to write clearly unless you know the meaning of the words you’re using.
If you don’t know the meaning of the words you’re using, your writing will be unclear, and readers will not grasp your intent.
Clarity is the number one priority in all issues of writing style.
It is certainly true that language evolves, and that words develop new nuances and new meanings. This is natural and it is good.
This natural process does not, however, negate objectivity, but just the opposite: the evolutionary process of language is gradual, so that at any given period, the words you’re using do possess a definite meaning.
If a word does not possess a definite meaning, it’s a non-word (and there are examples of these: “postmodernism” being one of them).
What I’ve just described is the place from which every writer must proceed: Words possess a definite meaning. That is the beginning. This point is critical to note, because it’s the foundation upon which the rest of all literary knowledge is built.
But to fully understand the nature of words, we must ask ourselves next: what are words, exactly?
Words are what philosophers call abstractions. Abstractions are the human method of grasping things in nature. Our brains work by means of abstractions — i.e. concepts — which are, in essence, words.
For instance, when as a child you first discovered the meaning of the word “pencil,” you had to at some point be shown what in actuality a pencil is — i.e. this object. Once you learned that that’s what the word “pencil” referred to, the word was absorbed and retained by your brain, so that thereafter when you heard or saw the word “pencil,” you knew automatically what a pencil was. You grasped the actual thing in reality that is a pencil, and that knowledge paved the way for you to differentiate it from, for example, a pen, or a crayon.
That, in a nutshell, is the uniquely human method of learning, which language empowers us with.
Thus you yourself learned to use the word pencil in a meaningful way: The sentence “I write with a pencil” became for your mind not an unintelligible string of words, but denoted an act that you understood.
That very process which I’ve just described is, in abbreviated form, the process we all must go through in learning every single word we know.
The art of writing is this same process in more intensive form.
Why, though, is this important?
Art by definition is communication — communication between the artist and the audience. If it’s not communicable, it’s not art.
If in your literature you reject the notion that language is definite, you will not only confuse and frustrate your readers, but worse: you will confuse and frustrate yourself, because you won’t know the meaning of the things you’re trying to communicate.
And that is why intelligibility is the hallmark of quality art.
“One of the tests of a good writer,” said the poet Karl Shapiro, “is editorial acumen, the ability to turn down your work. It’s the amateur who falls in love with his own written words and holds them sacrosanct.”
I think that that’s essentially true.
I think also that anyone can learn to write formulaic fiction and pristine prose, the straightjacketed poem, but the question one must always go back to is this:
Will those polished stories and perfect poems be read fifty or one hundred years later? Will they matter?
Or will time sink them?
What makes some literature timeless?
Why is there a lot of sloppy literature that legitimately lasts?
And what, after all, is poetry? (click-click)
“Here all theory goes lame,” said Karl Shapiro. But with this I must stridently demur.
Two things determine timelessness in literature, and those two things are meaning and the authentic voice.
Poetry is a subset of literature, the art form of language, but it also legitimately belongs to another art: music.
Poetry is rhyme and rhythm, cadence and count, meter and metric. Poetry is prosody. It is scansion. It is versification. Those are the elements of poetry that make it a part of the musical.
But poetry is primarily a branch of literature, and the two main elements of poetry are style and theme. (Note: There is such a thing as narrative poetry, which is poetry that tells a story, but those two elements — storytelling and verse — combine poorly.)
It’s important to point out that the word “poetry” is not synonymous with the word “poem.”
Poetry is general; poems are specific.
All poems are in theory poetic, but not all poetry is a poem.
Novels, essays, memoirs, chronicles, short stories, and virtually every other form of prose can be poetic. For example, “The multitudinous seas incarnadine” is poetic, but it’s not a poem.
A poem, by definition, is a self-contained piece, of varying length, with a certain meter, rhythm, and style, all of which combine to convey a theme. A poem can rhyme or not.
The definition of poetry, on the other hand, has confounded writers and philosophers for centuries. Leo Tolstoy captured this well when he wrote:
Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.
But even “business documents and school books” could — at least, in theory — be poetic.
So what is poetry?
Poetry is style: stylized language.
Poetry is concentrated speech. It is density of expression.
Poetry is language at its best.
Poetry is writer’s writing.
Poetry is not, contrary to popular belief, pretentious or flowery language — or, at any rate, good poetry is not.
Poetry is technique. Poetry is skill. Poetry is metaphor.
Poetry is the beauty of language.
“Rat-eyed” Virginia Woolf described Somerset Maugham as.
“No man ever put more of his heart and soul into the written word,” said Eudora Welty of William Faulkner.
“Curiously dull, furiously commonplace, and often meaningless,” Alfred Kazin said of William Faulkner.
“Hemingway never climbed out on a limb and never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary,” William Faulkner said of Ernest Hemingway.
In response to which Hemingway:
“Does Faulkner really think big emotions come from big words?”“Dostoievsky’s profound, criminal, saintly face,” observed Thomas Mann, nicely.
“He wore a gray suit, black shoes, white shirt, tie and vest. His appearance never changed. He came down in the morning in his suit, and he would still be wearing it the last thing at night,” said John Huston of John Paul Sartre.
“Reedy and kind,” Truman Capote once described Albert Camus as.
“As a writer, he chews more than he bites off,” said Whistler of Henry James.
“An illiterate, underbred book,” Virginia Woolf called James Joyce’s Ulysses — which, however, she and her husband Leonard published.
“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing,” said Oscar Wilde.
“An enormous dungheap,” Voltaire described the entire body of Shakespeare’s work as. And went on to call Shakespeare “An amiable barbarian.”
“You have written a good book,” Victor Hugo told Gustav Flaubert in a letter, regarding Madame Bovary.
“House of the Dead is Dostoevsky’s best book,” said Tolstoy.
“That’s not writing — it’s typing,” Truman Capote said of Kerouac’s On the Road.
“A damned good poet and a fair critic; but he can kiss my ass as a man,” Ernest Hemingway said of T.S. Eliot.
“I find it impossible to take him seriously as a major writer and have never ceased to be amazed at the number of people who can,” said Edmund Wilson of Franz Kafka.
“A cursed, conceited, wily heathen,” said Martin Luther of Aristotle.
“He was a bum poet, of course, being a bum person,” Robert Graves said of D.H. Lawrence.
“Like many of us he was rather disgusting
with his deliberate dirtiness, his myopia, his smell,
his undying enmity for unfavorable reviewers,
his stinginess, his coy greed for titles, money, and gowns,
his contempt for Cockneys and Americans,
Sallow, greasy, handsome …”
Said the poet Karl Shapiro of the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson.
“I don’t understand them. To me, that’s not literature,” Cormac McCarthy said of Henry James and Marcel Proust.“Still remembered from antiquity:
That Menander was extraordinarily handsome,” wrote David Markson.
Elie Wiesel’s Auschwitz novel Night was rejected by twenty American publishers.Charles Baudelaire spent two hours a day getting dressed.
The genius poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wanted to change his name to Pook Tunks.
“I am a eunuch,” Gerard Hopkins told his friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges, “but it is for the Kingdom of God’s sake.”
Robert Frost had only five poems accepted in his first seventeen years of writing and submitting poetry.
The poetess Sara Teasdale committed suicide with sleeping pills.
The poetess Anne Sexton, who sexually abused her older daughter, slowly committed suicide by locking herself in her garage, starting the engine of her car, and inhaling carbon monoxide. She drank vodka all the while as she waited to die.
“Pouring out liquor is like burning books,” said William Faulkner.
When Edgar Allen Poe married his cousin Virginia, he was twenty-seven, and she was thirteen. And consumptive.
René Descartes (1596 – 1650), generally regarded as the first modern philosopher, whose influence on philosophy was monumental, almost never read anything except the Bible and the work of Thomas Aquinas. He called the classics “a waste of time.”
“A man will turn over half a library to make one book,” said Samuel Johnson, who singlehandedly compiled A Dictionary of the English Language, which took him nearly nine years to complete.
Thales of Miletus (624 BC – 546 BC), generally considered the father of western philosophy, is believed to have predicted an eclipse of the sun for May 28th, 585 BC.
Sir Thomas Browne wished that men could produce without intercourse: “Like trees,” he said. Which, however, did not preclude him fathering twelve children.Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was for many years a hosier.
John Keats wrote all four of his great odes in one month.
As an adult, T.S. Eliot powdered his face with greenish make-up — to make himself look as if he were suffering, Edith Stillwell suggested.
Lord Alfred Tennyson yanked his son out of Cambridge to be his biographer.
John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, once visited Galileo.
Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), Dutch philosopher of genius, died at age 44 of tuberculosis, which was aggravated by the glass dust in his lungs from his twenty years of grinding lenses for a living.
The poet John Masefield, off a ship at 18, worked for a while in a Greenwich Village saloon.
Characterization is a presentation of the personality of the people who populate a story.
Characterization is primarily a depiction of motivation and motive. The reader must understand what makes the characters act in the way that those characters do.
It’s been said that one of the truest tests of good literature is when you can discuss the characters as if those characters are actual people: when you can psychologize over them, talk about their strengths, their gifts, their shortcomings, their personalities, their deeds, all as if these people are real.
To create such a character — which is to say, to create a truly convincing character — the writer must first understand what motivates the people he or she is creating. By that I mean, the writer must have a fully formed idea of what the character’s premises and personality are. After which, by means of the plot (i.e. the action, which includes each passage of dialogue), you proceed to present the character’s motives and (in turn) their personalities.
Know what motivates your characters.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest living admirers (and arguably the world’s best-read human being), the critic Harold Bloom (not to be confused, as he so often is, with that hack Howard Bloom), honestly believes that in creating so many convincing characters, Shakespeare went far in creating our modern-day conception of humanity itself. It is an incredible statement, and yet I, for one, won’t argue it. In Harold Bloom’s own words:
“Shakespeare, who at the least changed our ways of presenting human nature, if not human nature itself, does not portray himself anywhere in his plays.”
Even more interestingly, perhaps, Mr. Bloom goes on to say this:
If I could question any dead author, it would be Shakespeare, and I would not waste my seconds by asking the identity of the Dark Lady or the precisely nuanced elements of homoeroticism in the relationship with Southhampton (or another). Naively, I would blurt out: did it comfort you to have fashioned woman and men more real than living men and women? (Harold Bloom, Genius, p. 18).
If plot is the skeleton — that vital framework upon which the rest of the body is built — then characters are the soul.
Characters are the reason we ultimately love or hate a story.
“I’m sick to death of the inarticulate hero,” said John Fowles. “To hell with the inarticulate.”
Characterization is in essence the depiction of those distinguishing characteristics that make a person individuated and distinct.
In real life, we are each defined by our actions and by what we say and do, and our actions are in turn defined by what we think. Thoughts shape actions.
In literature, that same basic thing is true: a character is shaped by his or her actions and words, and that is precisely why plot and dialogue are the sine-qua-non of character development.
But plot and dialogue are not the only tools we have at our disposal. Physical descriptions and narrative passages that tell the reader what the character is thinking are also important. Though neither of those two alone can completely flesh out a character, it is not true that you should never tell but always show. Narration exists for a reason.
Here, for example, is a short narrative description of one of the most unctuous and repugnant antagonists in all of literature: Pyotr Stepanovich, in the novel Demons, by Dostoevsky:
No one would call him bad-looking, but no one likes his face. His head is elongated towards the back and as if flattened on the sides, giving his face a sharp look. His forehead is high and narrow, but his features are small — eyes sharp, nose small and sharp, lips long and thin. The expression of his face is as if sickly, but it only seems so. He has a sort of dry crease on his cheeks and around his cheekbones, which makes him look as if he were recovering from a grave illness. And yet he is perfectly healthy and strong, and has never been ill.
He walks and moves hurriedly, and yet he is not hurrying anywhere. Nothing, it seems, can put him out of countenance; in any circumstance and in any society, he remains the same. There is great self-satisfaction in him, but he does not take the least note of himself.
He speaks rapidly, hurriedly, but at the same time self-confidently, and is never at a loss for words. His thoughts are calm, despite his hurried look, distinct and final — and that is especially noticeable. His enunciation is remarkably clear; his words spill out like big, uniform grains, always choice and always ready to be at your service. You like it at first, but later it will become repulsive, and precisely because of this all too clear enunciation, this string of every ready words, you somehow begin to imagine that the tongue in his mouth must be of some special form, somehow unusually long and thin, terribly red, and with an extremely sharp, constantly and involuntarily wriggling tip.
One page later in the same book, the reader is then treated to a narrative description of the protagonist — surely the damndest (anti)hero in all of literature:
But there are, it seems, such physiognomies as always, each time they appear, bring something new, which you have not noticed in them before, though you may have met them a hundred times previously. Apparently he was still the same as four years ago: as refined, as imposing, he entered as imposingly then, even almost as youthful. His faint smile was as officially benign and just as self-satisfied; his glance stern, thoughtful, and as if distracted…. Before, even though he had been considered a handsome man, his face had indeed “resembled a mask,” as certain vicious-tongue ladies of our society put it. Whereas now — now, I don’t know why, but he appeared to me, at very first sight, as decidedly, unquestionably handsome, so that it could in no way be said that his face resembled a mask. Was it because he had become a bit paler than before, and seemed to have lost some weight? Or was it perhaps some new thought that now shone in his eyes?
That, reader, is how you introduce with firepower your significant characters.
Stories are important because human beings are conceptual.
This among other things means that humans survive by use of their reasoning brains.
Humans evolved neither the balls of bulls, nor the trunks of elephants, nor the claws of bears, nor the necks of giraffes, but the brains of Homo sapiens, with a capacity to think.
And we think by means of abstractions.
Thus, stories (as with all other proper forms of art) concretize our abstractions.
“The function of art is to recreate, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvelous, more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon.”
Said Oscar Wilde.
Art starts with an abstraction, such as jealousy, and, in an artistic work like Othello, shows us how in human life jealousy manifests.
Jealousy is the abstraction. How Shakespeare dramatized it is his play is the concrete.
The degree to which a story (or any other artistic creation) persuades or seems plausible is the degree to which it is good or bad.
Painting and drawing perform the same function as Othello but in a purely visual manner.
Sculpture does so by visual-tactile means.
Music — which is unique among the arts — captures emotional abstractions, via sound, so that when you hear music, you feel yourself perhaps excited, or melancholic, or thoughtful, or sexy.
To qualify as a legitimate art form, the medium must have the power to convey ideas (i.e. abstractions) in a perceptual form — which is to say immediately.
This is why culinary art is not, in the true sense, an actual art but a skill: the best foie gras in the world cannot convey even the simplest human abstraction, let alone something as complex as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And the same thing is true of sewing, gem-cutting, carpentry, and many, many other difficult skills and trades as well. They don’t qualify as actual art, valuable and important as they may be, simply because they don’t have the power to capture or convey a wide range of abstract meaning. They cannot, in other words, objectify reality through their medium.
That is what art does. It objectifies the human experience. That is why art is a necessity.
To truly qualify as art, the medium must be able to reproduce nature and then infuse that data with conceptual content.
Abstractions, as previously stated, are thoughts — or, to put that more precisely, abstractions are the human way of grasping reality. We do this by means of thought. And we think by means of words.
Art assists in this. Which is why, philosophically speaking, esthetics is a sub-branch of epistemology: the science of thought.
Stories recast reality and show us our abstractions made solid. In this way, stories enhance reality, as all art does.
It is, paradoxically, artists themselves who are among the most inarticulate when it comes to explaining the nature and function of their art, and so to get beyond their artsy mumbo-jumbo so that we can see at last what gives rise to art, we needn’t listen to the artists and the critics but instead observe how the artistic drive develops in children.
Observe the stories that children write. Observe what the child with that big stick of sidewalk-chalk draws upon the concrete:
A large yellow crescent with blue stars around it.
A white house in a green field.
A blazing sun over black mountains.
Ask yourself: what drives the child to make those drawings. What drives the child to tell those stories? What is that child thinking about that makes her want to set it down in concrete form? What dictates her subject-matter? Why did she choose this and not that?
What, in short, is the child doing? And what is that process doing for her?
Why did prehistoric humans paint animals and hunting scenes upon cave walls? What drove that urge? Why did they tell stories? Why did these men and women choose the subjects they chose? And what did those stories and paintings fulfill within them?
Why have humans always invented stories?
Why have humans always enjoyed listening to those stories, or seeing them played out?
Why the human invention of musical instruments?
Why did David “dance with all his might before the lord”?
What need is being fulfilled in all this?
The answer to these questions is the same:
Each one of those things, through whichever medium, captures the abstract and makes it real and immediate.
Humans — the rational animal — need this because our rational mind operates in the opposite manner: it is thoughtful, it is inductive, it is long-range. Art brings the entirety of the universe into our immediate perceptual ken.
Art makes the conceptual perceptual.
That is why stories are important.
There is no mood or passion that art cannot give us…. Art is mind expressing itself under the conditions of matter, and thus, even in the lowliest of her manifestations, she speaks to both sense and soul alike…. It is through art, and only through art, that we can realize our perfection; through art, and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence…. Like Aristotle, like Goethe after he had read Kant, we desire the concrete, and nothing but the concrete can satisfy us.
– Oscar Wilde
Said the surrealist Andre Breton, explaining the possible provenance of some of his strange and early literature.
They rowed her in across the rolling foam –
The cruel, crawling foam — to her grave beside the sea.
Wrote the English author Charles Kingsley (1819 – 1875) — in response to which John Ruskin pedantically said:
“The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl.”
We talk about our assholes, and we talk about our cocks, and we talk about who we fucked last night, or who we’re going to fuck tomorrow, or when we got drunk, or when we stuck a broom in our ass in the Hotel Ambassador in Prague — anybody tell one’s friends about that?
Said “poet” Allen Ginsberg, in an anthologized interview.
A writer of something occasionally like English — and a man of something occasionally like genius.
Said Swinburne of Walt Whitman.
A man standing up to his neck in a cesspool — and adding to its contents.
Said Thomas Carlyle of Swinburne.
Lice in the locks of literature.
Said Lord Alfred Tennyson, describing critics.
Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) was a Russian lyric poet who, at age 30, hung himself. Vladimir Mayakovsky, his contemporary and also a Russian poet, angrily and in public print condemned Sergei Yesenin for his “cowardly” suicide. Five year later he, Mayakovsky, then shot himself.
The earliest hints of evolutionary theory can be found in Anaximander, Sixth Century, BC.
A damned good poet and a fair critic; but he can kiss my ass as a man.
Said Ernest Hemingway of T.S. Eliot.
John Keats pronounced his own name with such a thick cockney accent that his friend Leigh Hunt nicknamed him “Junkets.”
Junkets evidently being the way “John Keats” sounded coming out of John Keats’s own mouth.
The “Wicked Bible,” from London, 1632, omitted the word not from the 7th Commandment:
Thou shalt commit adultery.
The first priest was the first rogue who crossed paths with the first fool.
Man is the only animal that knows he must die.
A man may know that he is going to die, but he can never know that he is dead.
Said Samuel Butler.
Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death.
The English writer Anthony Burgess — most famous for his novella A Clockwork Orange, which Stanley Kubrick subsequently made into a movie — had eyesight so poor that he once accidentally walked into a bank in Stratford-on-Avon and ordered a drink!
Shakespeare’s name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high and will go down.
Said Lord Byron.
“The Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum” an early French critic called Dostoevsky.
The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon;
Where gott’st thou that goose look?
Wrote Shakespeare in Act 5, Scene III of Macbeth.
Now, friend, what means thy change of countenance?
Substituted one William Davenant, in a hacked-up version which nevertheless played for nearly a century.