Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Scruffian Rhymes

Ratatat Dan, the butcher's brat,
Give him a drum and a soldier's hat,
A Stamp and a shilling and half a cup.
We all fall down, but Dan gets up!


The cowboy was an Indian.
The princess was a knight.
The pirate and the ninja
Sailed a ship upon a kite.
The ship it had a tree as mast,
The tree it had a house.
The pilot was an astronaut
Who used to be a mouse.
One with his peepers open,
Four on the skive.
One Scruffian, two Scruffian,
Three, four, five!


What are Scruffians made of, made of?
What are Scruffians made of?
Knives and chains and elephants' brains
That's what Scruffians are made of.


Guinea for a gamin.
Tuppence for a tot.
Thruppence for a thump, sir.
Penny for your thoughts.


Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon in the sky's as bright as day;
Leave yer supper, and leave yer sleep,
And follow the Scruffians into the street.
Come with a whoop, come with a call,
Come with a mischief or not at all.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A ha'penny roll will serve us all.
You nick milk, and I'll nick flour,
And we'll have a pudding in half an hour.


West of sunset, east of dawn
Where the hours fly,
Norther than the Pole Star,
Souther than the sky,
Hidden from the groanhuffs,
Hidden from their God,
Outside, inside,
In the Land of Nod.


It's a hard life being a Scruffian, eh?

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Rule 7 for New Writers

Image and Import

If I can say anything important to writers who are still learning the craft of fiction, it's this: imagery does not occur on the writer's page; it occurs in the reader's mind.
-- Steven King

So the other day I came across a Steven King article on description, with the above quote, which rather echoes my own contention that narrative is not a static object but a dynamic effect. Or as I'd put it, that it's about conjuring rather than communication: the goal in narrative is not for the words on the page to communicate the image that's in your mind, but rather for them to conjure it in the reader's mind.

Communication and the fucking content metaphor -- as if your job is simply to inform the reader of what they are to imagine. Into a block of description, sure, you could simply spew out the pseudo-facts for the reader, so they can lift the book and pour them over their head, dumping the requisite details on themselves, item by item, in any order; this is no guarantee it will get inside their skull, no guarantee they will imagine it. If you want them to actually picture your image -- a setting, say -- you need to understand (intuitively if not consciously) that with each word you are not vomiting thought into an inky vessel for the reader to decant. No, you are setting a charge that will blow up on reading. You are using the words as tools to act indirectly upon the reader's imagination.

King points to where an attempt to do so may fail, in the inadequacy of a description that communicates without conjuring:

An example: A beginning writer may put down, "It was a spooky old house," and let it go at that, knowing it doesn't convey any real punch or immediacy, but not knowing what to do about it. The writer has a sense that "It was a spooky old house" is somehow wrong, but he or she doesn't quite... know why. It's like that maddening itch in the middle of your back that you just can't scratch. Well, I'll tell you what's wrong with "It was a spooky old house." It isn't an image; it's an idea.

To be clear: it's not the lack of detail that's the problem here, but rather the failure of the words to act upon the reader's imagination with any verve. As a notional communication ("an idea"), it lacks impact ("punch or immediacy.") It fails to really conjure any house at all, let alone a spooky old one. To understand why "spooky old house" fails to invoke a visual import though is to understand that in truth we could strip away the few details there are in that phrase, slice off the adjectives, and set ourselves up a process of conjuring in which it would have twice the impact, if not more, all on its lonesome ownsome.

How so? In narrative, every word, every phrase, every clause is an operation in and upon the reader's imagination, a word like "house" invoking an import, triggering a notion in their noggin. But each operation is always already taking the reader's imagination as its most crucial variable, the precise flavour of the import invoked dependent on the sum of all notions currently in play. This bears repeating: the full meaning of the word at the moment of use is profoundly reliant upon the state of the reader's imagination as set by the narrative so far. I recall Delany somewhere saying that there are no synonyms, that no two words have the exact same meaning. This does not go far enough. Even the one word does not have the same meaning twice.

Like the word, "house," say.


A House and a House

From the first word on, narrative is working on an imagination that is not empty, and the impact of the word fired into that shifting substrate is always already the reaction of that substrate to the impact. Not an essential meaning sealed into the inky vessel, as decreed in the dictionary, forever and ever, so mote it be. No, the reaction being a product of the narrative heretofore -- because the reader's imagination is still reacting to what it has read to date -- the import of "the house" will be quite different if it comes after "Through the gates and up the long gravel driveway..." or "About halfway along a Victorian terrace..." Even a single word -- "suburban" or "beachfront" -- may prime the reader this way or that, such that the word "house" has one action on the reader's imagination here, another action on it there.

Here is one "house":

I opened the car door to the smell of salt in the air, the sound of surf and gulls. Californian sunlight on the white gravel of the driveway. With its beachfront location, the house...

Here is another:

As his mum took the usual five minutes trying to get the car parked straight -- squeezing into the parking bay between a builder's van and a hatchback with one of those Baby on Board stickers in the window -- David sulked in the passenger seat, glowering out the windscreen at the suburban bollocks of it all. The house...

With the first example, there's not enough to prime you so that the house automatically has the same white clean-lined modernity for you that it has for me, but I'm certainly sending you in the direction of a more expensive property with the phrase "beachfront location," with smells and sounds of nature that, in the absence of the noxious and the noisy, should connote seclusion. To mention California, paint the sunlight on white gravel, is to further set the context and tone, and so set the action of the word "house."

With the second, there's not enough to ensure you imagine the pebble-dashed semi-detached on a UK housing estate, but the word "suburban" should have sent you that way. Note though that the import of "suburban" is itself dependent on the British detailing of the windscreen (rather than windshield,) the parking bay, the builder's van and hatchback, "his mum" (the only reason it's not a less sexist "women are bad drivers" stereotype "dad.") American detailing would conjure an entirely different "suburban" and so an entirely different "house" -- a detached house with its own driveway perhaps.

In both examples, the point is, the conjuring of the house begins before it's even mentioned. In my Rule #7 for New Writers, I say that action makes setting. I might almost say it does so in the sense that setting is manufactured in the reader's imagination by the action of the words upon the reader's imagination. That as soon as the words begin ("his mum" not "his mom") that action which conjures setting has begun. That's not actually what I mean by that rule though. I say all this only to highlight the principle, establish as underpinning this notion of narrative as cumulative conjuring.

But wait, I hear you say, don't the words "spooky" and "old" do much the same as "beachfront" and "suburban"? Well, yes, they do actually prime the reader's imagination such that "house" invokes a certain visual import, but they're generic and as such ineffective. That import is a cliché long past parody; the "house" that comes after "spooky old" is doomed by the operation of those adjectives to be no more than a trope, a trite cursory cartoon of an image, a silhouette in black cardboard of a haunted house from Scooby Doo or The Addams Family, decor for a children's Halloween party. The addition of the adjectives, the addition of the detail, actually makes that house less vivid than either of the other two which haven't been described in the slightest, not yet. Where the house is archetypal, an evermade symbol of the self (as Danielewski's House of Leaves so effectively explores,) the word in and of itself comes charged with a mystery and horror that "spooky" can only banalise.


Setting and Stasis

But there's another problem I want to pick out in that example of King's, another operation that's being performed in the narrative before we reach the word "house" and that contributes in no small part to the failure of the conjuring. The problem starts even before the adjectives, in the first three words: "It was a..."

Stasis is the problem here, the fact that "It was a..." slams the brakes on narrative, bringing action to a grinding halt to give us instead the inherently inert (and therefore deadening, therefore depositional) communication (not conjuring, not with that vague placemark "it,") of state. A description of state is static. This should be so blindingly self-evident it doesn't need to be said. But for many writers it seems it does; the moment any object comes into play, a halt is called to play itself in order to describe that object. Characters are introduced with profiles cribbed straight from notes as workaday as a police all-points bulletin. Objects are detailed flatly feature by feature as in some mail-order catalogue. And setting, of course... well, it's merely the theatre of action, the fixed context for stuff happening, so how could it not be described in static terms?

This is where we do start to get into the idea that action in the narrative sense -- stuff actually happening in the narrative -- can be crucial in the construction of setting. In previous entries, I talked about how character makes action, how the Actuality-Exposition structure can be corrosive of this, how descriptive detail that isn't woven properly into action can undermine it as mere activity and explication. In the paid critiques I do, writers often need to be told that they could be revealing the qualities of this or that object in passing, as the viewpoint character interacts with it. That rather than itemising what X is wearing, they might have him shove his hands in the pockets of his Y, brush lint off his Z, and so on. When it comes to setting, even to look at is to interact with, and as long as the description is taking place via such interactions, the narrative is not pausing. Which is, yanno, less boring.

More: if the description is taking place via the character's interaction, if the setting is being conjured via the character's experience of setting, it is likely to be far more vivid because of that. The chain formed by Rules 5 to 7 -- Voice Makes Character Makes Action Makes Setting -- is actually an argument that the character's voice can be a mode of narration the writer slips into, the character almost an alter ego, as some autonomous personality construct hosted in the unconscious which then surfaces in the text far richer than if it were consciously fabricated; that such a character's synthetic agency generates valid action automatically and organically; that everything they interact with, setting included, will necessarily be more fully conjured because it is, in fact, secretly part of that construct, part of the character: their experience. With a first person or third person limited PoV, this is to say, we need to invert our understanding of which contains the other. In these, the setting is not the frame that the character acts within, but rather the character is the frame for the setting; the only setting that exists in the narrative is the little ever-shifting model of the world the character is carrying around inside their head.

As noted in those entries though, there is a caveat: of course there is the descriptive passage in its own right, where nothing is meant to be happening. Whether it's an omniscient narrator setting up the scene or simply a viewpoint character paused to fully take in a sight worthy of a little lyricism, taking it into their nous as an object requiring assimilation in terms of what it is, not what it is doing or what is being done to it, there are times when you simply can't carry out all the description as an inline function. Not all narratives are headlong action/adventure, and even in such narratives the odd still point may be exactly what is called for in the conjuring. So we might want, might need, a conjuring of a house as tableau.

And yet, the reason I'm getting my teeth into King's "It was a spooky old house," example in the first place is that the counter-example he provides in that article caught my eye as a passage that surely fits that mold, but which is actually a rather neat demonstration, I think, of how action still makes setting even in such cases. How even in a tableau, the stasis of "It was a..." is not the aim of the game in conjuring setting.


The Action of the Inanimate

Here's King again then, giving an example from Salem's Lot of how one might actually conjure that sort of a "house."

The house itself looked toward town. It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look. Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a thumped, hunched look. A tattered no trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post.

So far, so static, right? Wrong. You think he's just painting an inert picture of the house, encapsulating its appearance as in a good, solidly-detailed photograph? No, he's not. There's no character looking up at it, not even a crow taking off from that collapsing roof or landing on that newel post, but even in the absence of beings to interact with it, there's actually a fair bit of action sneakily woven through that setting.

Here's a rewrite diminishing that action in order to demonstrate:

The house itself was facing toward town. It was huge and labyrinthine and saggy, with boards higgledy-piggledy on its windows, so it had that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. With its worn paint, the house had a uniform gray look. Many of the shingles were missing, and the west corner of the main roof was completely caved-in, so it had a thumped, hunched look. On the right-hand newel post, there was a tattered no trespassing sign.

The past continuous "was facing" instead of the simple past of "looked" turns action into ongoing action and thereby state. Switching the past continuous verbs "rambling" and "sagging" for the adjectives "labyrinthine" and "saggy" removes even the echo of action. The windows have no longer had an action perpetrated on them; the boards are just there. Where the original traces that action's impact, sets it as a follow-on action -- "giving it that sinister look" -- now the narrative explains that being in the state described therefore it has this other quality too. And so it goes, the action upon the paint, the action of the windstorms, the action of the snowfall all stripped from the passage.

Which should highlight just how much action there was actually going on there. But just to drive the point home, let me draw out the action of the inanimate by bolding the verbs that tell of action performed by or upon the house, actions that conjure its appearance as a product of events, that conjure the setting as a result of its own narrative in fact, the detailing of the image becoming a detailing of backstory.

The house itself looked toward town. It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look. Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a thumped, hunched look. A tattered no trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post.

Is it proper to say that any of this is action though, in my stricter definition of action versus activity? If action is activity rendered significant, activity happening to or because of an agency, how can any of the stuff going on here qualify? Well, it might well be a cheat, but I made my stricter definition, so I can stretch the boundaries if I want: I say that's action because sneakily, surreptitiously, whether intentionally or not, King is kinda sorta casting the house as an agency.

Note the distinction in the first sentence between his version and mine. In his, the house "looked." Where it could be simply oriented in a certain direction, with its facade aligned thattaway -- "facing"  -- it's performing the action of a sentient agency. It's gazing, watching. So, this is figurative -- so what? All narrative is figurative. Remember what I've said above: narrative is not communication but conjuring; it's the invoking of import with the words. Here the words conjure windows as eyes, imbue the inanimate with awareness, with intent. The echo of "self" in "itself" might even come into play here. And I might add that such a strategy of projecting agency into setting is hardly unfamiliar in horror or fantasy, that both idioms indeed often concretise that conceit, literalise the metaphor.

Whatever. What matters is that my rewrite, you should agree, is patently worse, less vivid, and not just because it's pairing "labyrinthine" and "saggy" or using the risibly off-tone "higgledy-piggledy." If King just about manages to get away with the repetition of "giving... look," (it's... debatable,) my variant manages to lose one of the three inadvertently and still, I reckon, sound more trudgingly depositional.


Action Makes Setting

Just to wrap things up by bringing the whole post full circle, while I'm butchering King's passage to demonstrate this subtler application of Rule #7, I thought I'd finish off with another rewrite. Something to show that, as King says, the image occurs in the reader's mind; that, as I say, it's about conjuring, not communication. That you can't simply spew out the pseudo-facts for the reader into a block of description, can't just expect them to lift the book and pour them over their head. That you can't just dump the requisite details on them, item by item, in any order. Here's King's passage with not just the action of the inanimate ripped out, but with any sense of words as action destroyed:

On the right-hand newel post of the house, there was a tattered no trespassing sign. The house itself was facing toward town. Many of the shingles of the main roof were missing, and the west corner was completely caved-in, so the house a had thumped, hunched look. With its worn paint, it had a uniform gray look. It was huge and labyrinthine and saggy, with boards on its windows, so it had it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time.

This, you should be crying with every fibre of your writerly soul, is not the conjuring of a setting.

This is just shite.


Thursday, November 01, 2012

Not a Bad Word

Krystal pays lip service to the notion that each idiom has its own standard, claims to be saying that "genre" is not a bad word:

"Quality comes in different forms: there is Cole Porter and there is Prokofiev; the Beatles and Bach; Savion Glover and Mikhail Baryshnikov—the difference between them is not one of talent or proficiency but of sensibility."

As in music and dance, so too in literature:

"A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose."

Krystal is actually correct here, in a way. The eschewal of the quirks (and associated dynamics) that constitute the sensational is indeed a matter of sensibility. His wrongness lies in imagining that the literary decorum being practised in fiction by the bourgeois for the bourgeois has any effect but the deleterious. Propriety leads to mediocrity, to banality. The failure is not however in the admitted "surfeit of decorative description, elaborate psychologizing, and gleams of self-conscious irony" -- as disingenuously self-serving a "fault" as "perfectionism" on one's resumé -- but rather in the triviality of what Krystal touts as grand ambition: the capacity "to break the sea frozen inside us."

Certainly it is a laudable achievement to crack the reader open emotionally, move them with the "felt life" of characters "complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception." But this frigid shell that Krystal imagines must be penetrated, this sterile solidification of ego binding self... what is this but the petit-bourgeois social angst of the Triple-M's -- the middle-class, middle-age and middle-brow? The project of punching through that sensibility to make the reader remember what it is to be alive is, I'm sure, of great import to those suffering that sensibility, but it is hardly the height of literary aspiration.

The difference of sensibility is, I suggest, the paralysing and self-involuting neurotic self-consciousness of those with little more to concern themselves with than themselves. The affair, the mid-life crisis, etc., etc., etc.. No surprise that the fiction pedestaled by propriety is one that can barely see past propriety, in which overcoming the problems born of propriety is pretty much the primary concern. No surprise that the petit-bourgoisie afford prestige to (i.e. privilege) the fiction focused on their trite issues.

Still, this difference of sensibility allows Krystal to wriggle out of his own (apparent) magnanimity, shuck the faux egalitarianism and reassert the superiority of the prestigious over the popular via a difference of effort, explicitly in the reading and implicitly in the writing:

"There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading... No such difficulty informs true genre fiction; and the fact that some genre writers write better than some of their literary counterparts doesn’t automatically consecrate their books."

The vapid collapse of all our literary conjurings at their subtlest and most complex to a mere act of communication that might be a bit hard is comical buffoonery. The "No True Scotsman" fallacy employed in an erasure of all subtlety and complexity in works of category fiction is not just comical but awe-inspiring in its bumptiousness. But so it goes with a waffleburper who's clearly as deaf to the music of Davenport as he is blind to the very existence of Delany (or to the other kinds of difficulty inherent in category fiction's idiomatic densities.) So the hierarchy of idioms is restored via the equation of the sensational with the superficial and the difficult with the deep:

"[M]ake no mistake: good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction in the same way that Santa Claus is inferior to Wotan. One brings us fun or frightening gifts, the other requires—and repays—observance."

So we find ourselves neatly returned to that disavowed attitude in which "genre" is indeed a bad word, in which it signifies a literary material of essentially lower quality (the fun or frightening, the sensational.) Whether the term used is "genre" or "commercial," it's the quality of being immediately engaging that must be devalued to glorify work lacking that quality. Never mind the actual capacities of the sensational. If the sensational is the superficial, if the lesser effort in reading is due to a lesser effort in writing, this essentialist characterisation of category fiction sets unquestionable expectations of a shoddier product:

"One of the things we don’t expect is excellence in writing... Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes... Commercial novels, in general... employ language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious."

Such stereotyping is of course about as trite-and-true as thought can get. Except for the "true" part. There is no argument here, only assertion. With his inability to describe the difference beyond that woolly "sensibility," Krystal can't even articulate that he disdains the sensational, let alone why. The best he can do to counter the obvious judgement of prejudice is appeal to the authority of Chandler’s self-assessment, as if one category fiction writer "knowing his place" proved the essential truth of his caste: “To accept a mediocre form and make something like literature out of it is in itself rather an accomplishment.” It doesn't occur to Krystal that the "like" in that sentence is ambiguous; one could just as easily read it as "such as" as "close to" -- to "make something such as literature."

Since it would be déclassé to insult writers of category fiction who happen also to be Poet Laureate (Cecil Day-Lewis) or Booker Prize-winner (John Banville,) the value of their works must be grudgingly admitted: "Sure, their books are escapist, but their plots don’t excuse or cover for bad prose. In fact, their books can actually be better than much of what passes for literary fiction." But this does not mean they "qualify as great literature." They do however click neatly into the "exceptions" hole that any essentialist nonsense must provide as get-out clause, allowing such "exceptions" to be sourced in the superiority of the anti-sensationalist literature. All the better that the division is reinforced by those writers' use of pseudonyms for their category fiction works. And where writers publish work in the sensational genres under their own names, well, these too can be rhetorically exempted:

"It seems to me that Chabon, Egan, and Ishiguro don’t so much work in genre as with genre."

With the term "genre" as stand-in for the quirks (and associated dynamics) that constitute the sensational, it is of course fair to say that a writer is working with that toolkit. The prejudice and presumption lies in the idea that writers of category fiction are not doing the exact same. (Newsflash: they are.) The presumption and prejudice lies in the idea that writers of category fiction are working within certain imposed restrictions allowing only a formulaic result. (Newsflash: they are not.)

That is to say, the rhetorical trick here is to conflate publication in a marketing category with working in a certain mode with being bound within essential imposed parameters -- this is what "in genre" means here. Meanwhile a "proper" writer like Ishiguro is working with the material characteristic of a certain marketing category, with that particular flavour of the sensational, with the quirks characteristic of that certain genre, but their work is never -- Cock forbid! -- to be classed as in/of that genre. That would be to admit the actuality that the imposed parameters are not essential, that any and every category fiction writer could be said to be as much working with the sensational as they are working in a genre, because they too are entirely capable of disregarding these purported limitations.

No, genre is "not a bad word" to Krystal. But we must be very clear that a "proper" writer can associate with it without being of it.

Whatever. One might say that as the category fiction writers, even more than an Ishiguro, "relish its conventions and their ability to modulate them," they are all the more likely to push the envelope in modulating them. One might, but to do so would be to fall victim to the fallacy that works of the genres in question are constructs of conventions, variations on a theme, built within set parameters. Conventionality, with the connotations of formulae it carries, is another of those wrong-headed conceptions of "genre fiction" that we've foolishly bought into. Automatically, it sets a work in a genre as bounded within the phasespace of tropes and traditions, playing within a circumscribed sandpit, parameterised. It's an outside-in view of these genres, complexity and diversity built inwards with the template as boundary. But rather the works in question are constructs around one or more quirks, built outward from them, with no limit on where they might go. It's just that the typification of quirks, the distinct flavours they come in, allows us to broadly circumscribe works using this or that set of quirks in a certain way as of a certain genre -- like tragedy, say.

But that's another argument.