06 February 2008

The Scarecrow-in-the-Desert Effect

I have been trying to pinpoint what, exactly, I dislike about many contemporary fictions, a certain effect or technique. (Perhaps a lack of effect or technique.) What I dislike feels to be the same in each story or novel, at least in what it does in my brain, despite these stories and novels being from all different genres. Thus, it seems to be some sort of effect of the prose, a way the narrative is presented, an early roadblock on the path from the page to my brain. I have avoided trying to write about it, because I know I will fumble around as I attempt to describe and analyze the problem, but what's a blog for if not to work through ideas...

The provocation for this writing was a quick blip from Galleycat about an article in Wired ("Why Sci-Fi is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing"). In describing the article, Ron Hogan wrote, "So why doesn't the establishment take science fiction more seriously? Because, [Clive Thompson] observes, 'the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists.' (Like the literary establishment doesn't?)"

I've been growing dissatisfied with the word "style" recently, because often it seems like a catch-all, a way of pretending to point at something without really doing so. I could probably trace my discontent back at least to my post on "PKD and Style", where the limits of my ability to find the right words for what I was trying to describe are at their height.

Thus, to say "the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists" seems to me simultaneously obvious and unhelpful -- obvious, because my current dissatisfactions with many of the books I encounter could be caused by something that might be connected to this thing we call style; unhelpful, because "execrable prose style" is a judgment that relies so much on personal taste and sensibility that I don't, myself, find it of much use when trying to explain why some things hold my interest as a reader and other things don't.

I liked Ron's parenthetical addition, because I've had as much trouble reading books marketed as literary fiction as I have had reading books marketed as science fiction, as much trouble with stories in literary journals as stories in science fiction magazines. (Or nearly as much trouble -- I do think the effect I'm circumnavigating has less prevalence in the most self-consciously literary circles.)

I always first identify the effect as a kind of image: the prose feels open and thin, like a picture of a tattered scarecrow in a vast desert. It has less to do with the shape and structure of the sentences than the content of paragraphs. It's not that the paragraphs are too short or long -- they can be any length, although the effect most often presents itself in short paragraphs -- but that they don't contain enough of certain types of matter, or they contain too much of another. The matter they lack is sensual or intellectual -- the accumulated paragraphs feel like a wide-angle lens's view of everything -- and the matter that overfills them is unwelcome or unnecessary information. (This is how I know this problem is not one of "good writing", whatever that is, but rather of my own prejudices about what narrative fiction should do, or can do best. Intellectually, I try to stay as open as possible to all sorts of fiction, but really there are only certain types that give me real pleasure as a reader.)

Some of this began to come into focus for me when I read James Gibbons's review of Susan Choi's A Person of Interest in the latest Bookforum. Someone at Viking had sent me the novel, and I have a particular interest in stories about politics and extremism, so I decided to give it a shot. Ten pages in, I knew it was hopeless. Gibbons gets at why:
After Lee is questioned by two men from the FBI about possible links to the Chinese Communists, Choi writes:
Only one thing remained beyond doubt: Lee really had closed the door not just on native country and language and culture but on kin, all of them, said good-bye to all that and stepped over a threshold of ocean to never look back. There had never been a divided allegiance, a pang of nostalgia, not even a yen for the food, so that only months into his life in the States, when faced by two FBI agents in an American bus station, he could almost have laughed—not to be thought Chinese but anything whatsoever, apart from American.
There’s too much of this kind of intrusive analysis in A Person of Interest. Choi writes ploddingly, and at too great length, about her characters in the abstract; the effect is like reading an outline rather than a novel.
"[L]ike reading an outline rather than a novel" -- yes, that was part of it. For the next step in being able to identify the effect that is so common and causes me so much annoyance, I needed Alan DeNiro's review of The New Space Opera:
What’s more disappointing is that in almost no cases is this disassociation from emotion made part of the story (something, ironically, that literary realist stories are often decried for in some genre circles); as an unexamined baseline, the affectless life forms plod through adventures whose outcomes appear meaningless against the larger backdrop of thousands of worlds, hundreds of civilizations. As Ian Macdonald’s meandering narration in “Verthandi’s Ring” tells the reader, “war was just another game to entities hundreds of thousands of years old, for whom death was a sleep and a forgetting.” Again, this galactic void could be part of the observable texture of the narrative, picking up on how the enclosed space of a story -- much like the sealed hull of an interstellar spaceship -- can only contain so much prose.
The section of Macdonald's sentence quoted there is of the sort that, unless the context is very different from the usual context for such sentences, I most dislike -- such sentences create an almost physical reaction in me. First, there is the part about war being "just another game", which sounds like a cliche, a flatfooted attempt at world-weariness (though it could be something different in the actual story). More viscerally, though, what fails for me is the perspective. I think Alan's right that there is a problem of texture here, although I have no idea if he and I are thinking about texture in the same way -- to me, a story with creatures of such age and attitudes would likely only be effective if the attitudes were conveyed through implication -- if we were made to feel their age and disconnection from human-sized events, and if nothing were stated so baldly as Macdonald states it. It doesn't take too much of a leap for me to make Gibbons's criticism of Choi fit with DeNiro's criticism of Macdonald: here is another example of intrusive analysis, another example of what is, to me, plodding writing.

(It's interesting to me now to read my review of One Million A.D., where I said some similar things to what Alan is saying about The New Space Opera. I also tried there to get at some of what I'm trying to get at here. I'm not sure I'm getting any closer now.)

I'm tempted to say that the plodding comes from the prose not doing what I desire prose to do: offer me more to think about than just one thing, but I'm not entirely satisfied with saying that; it doesn't feel like it gets at the heart of what bothers me about such writing. It's true that the feeling I get from such writing is that my brain isn't being engaged enough, but it's also that the abstraction sends my readerly brain down paths it finds dull and vacant, that such writing creates an imaginative distance more appropriate to, as Gibbons says, an outline than a piece of narrative fiction.

To some extent, too, it's a matter of the right details. Consider, for instance, one of the few books I've read recently with complete pleasure: Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I went into the book with some skepticism -- it had garnered so much praise, I was ready to be disappointed. While I certainly don't think it's the most extraordinary novel of our time (what is?), I enjoyed reading it and found much of it moving and impressive. What particularly made it impressive to me was how McCarthy balanced action, description, and dialogue, and how he built a world through implication rather than through statement, something much science fiction aims for and only rarely achieves. Here's a randomly selected passage:
When day broke he pushed his way out of their den, the tarp heavy with snow. He stood and looked about. It had stopped snowing and the cedar trees lay about in hillocks of snow and broken limbs and a few standing trunks that stood stripped and burntlooking in that graying landscape. He trudged out through the drifts leaving the boy to sleep under the tree like some hibernating animal. The snow was almost to his knees. In the field the dead sedge was drifted nearly out of sight and the snow stood in razor kerfs atop the fencewires and the silence was breathless. He stood leaning on a post coughing. He'd little idea where the cart was and he thought that he was getting stupid and that his head wasnt working right. Concentrate, he said. You have to think. When he turned to go back the boy was calling him.
There are bits of diction (kerf, sedge) that make the passage different from the sorts of description other writers would create, but there's also much that is not extraordinary about it, much that feels artless in the sense of being straightforward, plain, flat. It's not an artless passage at all, though, because the plainness of much of the diction is countered by the complexity of the rhythms. A chain of monosyllabic words gets broken by polysyllabic words. The first sentence has sixteen words, the second five, the third thirty-one. The vowels echo off each other. Etc. So much of The Road is like this that the accumulative effect is immense, and part of the novel's emotional power comes from the shape of the prose in concert with the actions and events it describes -- McCarthy leaves much unsaid in the novel, much unexplained, and for a reader like me it is a more evocative and compelling book because of this.

Some of what I'm trying to say here could easily be summed up with the cliche command issued to aspiring writers: Show, don't tell. I'm not convinced that's exactly it, though. If my problem with so much contemporary fiction was that it tells more than shows, why, then, do I find Roberto Bolaño's work so captivating? A story like "The Insufferable Gaucho" should drive me nuts, but it doesn't. Or what about Borges? Or, to return to genre fiction, Cordwainer Smith, whose "Dead Lady of Clown Town" begins:
You already know the end—the immense drama of the Lord Jestocost, seventh of his line, and how the cat-girl C'mell initiated the vast conspiracy. But you do not know the beginning, how the first Lord Jestocost got his name, because of the terror and inspiration which his mother, Lady Goroke, obtained from the famous real-life drama of the dog-girl D'joan. It is even less likely that you know the other story—the one behind D'joan. This story is sometimes mentioned as the matter of the "nameless witch," which is absurd, because she really had a name. The name was "Elaine," an ancient and forbidden one.

Elaine was a mistake. Her birth, her life, her career were all mistakes. The ruby was wrong. How could that have happened?

Go back to An-fang, the Peace Square at An-fang, the Beginning Place at An-fang, where all things start. Bright it was. Red Square, dead square, clear square, under a yellow sun.

This was Earth Original, Manhome itself, where Earthport thrusts its way up through hurricane clouds that are higher than the mountains.
It's not about telling or showing, not about dramatizing or summarizing, but rather about what the prose is up to. Bolaño, Borges, and Smith all fill their sentences and paragraphs with stuff, but there is something about all the stuff they throw in that makes it feel, to me at least, like something other than filler -- purposeful, deliberate, specific, vivid. McCarthy's details become compelling through the rhythms they create, but so do Cordwainer's Smith's, though the details in the passage I quoted are told rather than shown -- but the telling is meaningless on a first read, since we don't know what most of the details refer to, and so we are left with their sounds and shapes, the ways they work together, the music they produce. It's a baroque and even ridiculous sort of music, and yet it works, I think, just as well as McCarthy's mostly plain, mostly ordinary sounds, because it is so very much a thing of its own, simultaneously an object and an effect.

The opposite of this is the scarecrow-in-the-desert effect, the sort of writing that makes me most impatient, the sort of writing I am least inclined -- least capable! -- of reading to the end. For some reason, it has felt to me that I have encountered it with growing frequency in science fiction short stories and novels; the reason I feel this way is probably that I have reached a personal point of saturation and my tolerance levels are particularly low, my sensitivity particularly high. The details in stories seem to be presented too clearly, too obviously, too much for their own sake and not the sake of any additional purpose. They are the details of outlines, details that plod. Statements of action divorced from any purpose except to state an action. Background information that should be made important through implication, not assertion. The perspective of the writer toward the material is an abstract one, distant for (apparently) no good reason. The tone is affectless not because it needs to be, but because it fell out that way -- or the writing is "lyrical" because that's what the writer seems to think "good writing" is.

In his much-discussed Introduction to Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King complained about reading lots of stories that felt "airless". My metaphor would be exactly the opposite -- too many of the stories and novels I read feel full of air. That's the desert the scarecrow is in. There's too much dead space between the sentences and paragraphs, not enough for my brain to feast on. I've read (well, tried to read) entire issues of magazines that feel this way: stories with vaguely interesting situations and characters, written by people with the ability to put together smooth sentences, and yet there's nothing else there, and the simple fact is, for me at least, smooth sentences and vaguely interesting situations and characters are simply not enough. (Why should they be?)

Do these notes even describe a single effect? I'm no longer sure. It's possible I'm not bringing myself any closer to understanding the scarecrow-in-the-desert effect so many books and stories have on me these days. I'm curious, though, if anything I've written here resonates with other readers, because by blindly groping toward a description of the effect, I hope not only to be able to better describe how certain pieces of writing affect me, but also to discover ways to avoid creating such writing myself. (Or at least, I'd like to discover more ways to try to avoid creating such writing. Any writer can make grand pronouncements, but it takes a particular mix of skill and luck to be able to live up to such pronouncements even rarely in a career. Failing better all the time...)


  1. I don't necessarily mind intrusive analysis if the narrator has a (distinctive and interesting) personality. Which too many commercial-fiction narrators don't -- and, I think, by the authors' choice.

  2. The details in stories seem to be presented too clearly, too obviously, too much for their own sake and not the sake of any additional purpose. They are the details of outlines, details that plod. Statements of action divorced from any purpose except to state an action. Background information that should be made important through implication, not assertion.

    This sums up the way I feel about much genre prose. As an example (and I'm sure there are far worse ones) The Terror by Dan Simmons has been recommended to me repeatedly, and it sounds great, but every time I pick it up and try to read the first page, I feel as if he's just telling me all there is to know, leaving no room for inference or any sense of richness beyond the bare words.

    You're also dead right about writers being able to achieve this richness in any style. I can admire Avram Davidson for his baroqueness, and Hemingway for his plainness and Cormac McCarthy for both at different times in his career, but they were/are all capable of balancing the explicit and the implicit to achieve a desired effect. That's a big part of what makes writing seem "musical," I think.

  3. Thank you for clarifying something that has been bothering me for a while without me being able to put it into words. There is a sense of thinness about a lot of modern fiction (and thinness is nothing to do with 'spare prose' or whatever its opposite might be), and I don't think you are mistaken in finding it more common than ever in current science fiction.

    When I've workshopped fiction with Christopher Priest his constant theme is: 'think what the word is doing'. I fear that for too many writers nowadays the word is doing no more than being a word. They are not getting the texture because they think the texture comes at the level of the paragraph, not the level of the word. And so an ill-chosen selection of bland words is somehow meant to build into a vivid picture by accumulation, not by sense.

    Which is why I have a problem with the 'smooth sentence', because usually all this means is that you slide quickly over the story but don't get snagged on what is really going on under the surface.

  4. Perhaps something like this: the balance of importance between what is said and how it's said is skewed. You couldn't rewrite the Cordwainer Smith without destroying it, but what it says is important too. The only point of the Choi excerpt is what it says, the details of how are completely replaceable. ("Smooth sentences" is as much as saying that different smooth sentences would do the job, no?)

    It's not exactly "show, don't tell", but it's related: if you're telling, there had better be a reason why. (Is it easier to link form to content when "showing"? Otherwise, why doesn't this run both ways: if you're showing, you'd better have a reason... Honest question, from a reader not a writer.)

  5. Goddamn is it good to have you back, exactly because of posts like this.

    I'm not sure what it is either, but I feel like most readers, though clearly not most editors (how do these things get bought and published?), have shared that feeling of the worthless tale, poorly told.
    It's a trope, of course, that the exposition in SF has always leaned toward the heavy-handed. And maybe that's fortunate. It lends itself to the evocation of nostalgia, in the hands of a good contemporary SF writer.
    If you remember deNiro talking about Silverberg's weird venture into colonial revivalism, I think that's what he was trying, and failing, to do. Maybe nobody told him that the title would have New in it. It was an unfortunate addition to a mediocre anthology. I loved some stories, though. I'll loan it to you if I can ever find it again.

    This post, also, makes me want to hear your reactions to Javier Marias, whose prose, or what I've read of it, does nothing but tell - so thickly, so well, and at such length, that after reading him it is startling to pick up another book and see, laid bare before you, the clumsy mechanics of plot and character.
    Honestly, I only become a shill for this man's books when I speak to you. I don't know why that is.

  6. I stumbled into this from a friend of mine's blog, and I have to say that I was lamenting the same sort of thing a few days ago.

    There is a vague, vast emptiness of prose in vogue right now. Like Hemingway gone mad. Somtimes I read a story and it feels like tissue paper. But this isn't the only thing I'm becoming frustrated with in modern fiction.

    Thanks for pointing this out.

  7. I wonder if part of it might be the sense that the "author" (as in the outside agency and not merely the story writer) is too visible in the text, almost as if the gears were seen poking through a windup toy, ruining the simulacrum of a "live" story. That's what I've noticed in a few novels I've read recently - this sense that things are just too mechanistic, that I've been distracted from the story itself by the explanatory intrusions and other various small niggling bits that don't permit me to forget "that little man behind the curtain."

    Good post. I'll have to think upon this some more, as it's related to something that's bothered me about a few recent books I've read.

  8. This is nailing down a lot of things that I was trying to say in my review; great post. Have you (or anyone else) read Darkmans by Nicola Barker? The stream of consciousness gambits break out of this aridity you talk about--it can be quite funny in parts...a bit slow moving (which is odd to say about a novel that "reads" fast on the page...kind of hard to describe). I'm about a third of the way into it, and the weird temporality/ghost story effects are kind of lost in the shuffle by the prose, which I have to think is deliberate. Anyway, it's definitely worth reading.

  9. 'The perspective of the writer toward the material is an abstract one, distant for (apparently) no good reason. The tone is affectless not because it needs to be, but because it fell out that way -- or the writing is "lyrical" because that's what the writer seems to think "good writing" is.'

    Also, for me, this is the definition of slipstream circa 2007. It's really the worst of both worlds and sad.

  10. Great post!!!
    I think that readers who are troubled by 'thin' writing feel a sense of deep disconnection between an author's prose and the world buried in our psyches, which are filled with surreal and often frightening images( frightening, mostly because most people have learned to ignore these aspects of themselves), sensations and ideas.

    Without sounding too esoteric I believe that some writers are more able to tap into this part of themselves more than others. That said, we know that publishers are publishing a lot of this 'thin' writing and people read it and enjoy it. I've even been known to get something out of these books if I take them for what they are. I believe that this phenomenon in literature is largely due to fear of connecting with subtler aspects of ourselves. And this goes for readers and writers alike. I know that when I'm really stressed out and just want to be entertained and be told a decent story, I know who to reach for. But more often I find myself reaching for those who who write a little more in the depths, because I, unconsciously want to go to my own depths and learn more about myself.

    Perhaps if writers would think of each story they write as larger than what it is. Many of the early novelists were so magnificent because they seemed to believe in the import of everything they wrote.(forgive the generalization)They seemed so grateful to have found the vast canvas of the novel form to express themselves. This "epic"-ness carried over into every carefully chosen word and sentence, because they sensed that they had the opportunity to investigate human experience. This connection once realized can find its way onto every page, every word.

    Surrealism, in my opinion,(by the way I loved an earlier post of yours on Jan Svankmeyer)is the greatest approach a writer can explore, particularly if iintertwined with realism or even impressionism. This approach to writing readily establishes the wildest connections, and can make for stronger writing and reading experiences.

    I forgot what writer (maybe Checkov?) who said that everything a writer writes in a story should be part of the all. In other words treat even the landscape as story and character. The words are simply the writer's tool to record the stories in themselves and the more writer's of any genre have the courage to listen to that ancient voice I believe we can create a culture of much stronger writers and therefore readers who can help enhance our experience of the world in much deeper ways.

  11. Everything you've said makes perfect sense to me. I might just be simple-minded in saying that depth of character is what sets apart the good fiction from the I-can't-read-another-page-of-this fiction.

    For example, what wasn't said in The Road was what hit my heart. I was left with a heavy feeling, a my God, what if that happened to me feeling, a what would I do? And even months after reading, I can still bring up those feelings upon mention of the story.

    That's all emotion and character.

    My opinion is since most people would rather ignore their emotion and take a pill for it, this generation of fiction reflects our society's propensity for numbness.

  12. "From Where You Dream," by Robert Olen Butler


  13. You quoted a plain McCarthy bit, how about this, then? Not sure they make a purple that dark. :)

    "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark."

    and same book :

    "When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below."

    One of the worst pull you out of story lines I have ever seen in my life.

  14. The genre doesn't tolerate excerable prose.

    It CELEBRATES excerable prose.

  15. For comparison's sake, it's always good to compare today's prose with that from other time periods. I find that I can no longer criticize any particular stylistic idiosyncrasy anymore; rather I need to take on the work as a whole. To point out one thing, I almost never like books with lots of dialogue; they are usually novels where nothing takes place, where action and conflict come out in conversation. But novels from other time periods use dialogue-driven conflicts more often, so I have to accept its use as a convention of a time period.

    part of the problem is just unnecessary action or sentences. Not words, sentences.

    I never had a good sense of the open space of a novel (people like Jane Smiley seem to have better insight than I do). But I can tolerate stylistic weakness if the plot or character is out-of-the-ordinary. Novel about a telepathic grasshopper? I'm hooked.

  16. The attitude to science fiction reveals a lot of truths about the literary establishment. The things it does well they're not interested in. That is:
    1) exploration of the ultimate fate of mankind as a species (as opposed to the fate of individuals to fall in love and lose and die and so forth)
    2) plot. literary theory has no use for plot, but creating a well-paced, contradiction-free, non-obvious plot is really hard (as evidenced by the rarity of achieving it). Emphasis on plot is seen as low-brow. So they want books with no interesting plot to speak of.
    3) elucidation of complex or nuanced concepts, theories, or natural relationships.
    4) celebration of technology. Literary theorists don't understand science, math, or technology and have a natural averion to it. They are suspicious of people who want to fantasise about it and write books that evelate it.
    5) politics is all wrong. a lot of scifi- especially golden era- was libertarian in outlook. A big, fat, gong from academia for that.