Tag: prose quality

On fictions as machines

“What the would-be writer of ‘serious’ fiction (who would relegate plot and story to a place at the end of a long line headed by diction and that smooth flow of language which most college writing instructors mistakenly equate with style) seems to forget is that novels are engines, just as cars are engines; a Rolls Royce without an engine might as well be the world’s most luxurious begonia pot, and a novel in which there is no story becomes nothing but a curiosity, a little mental game.”

—Stephen King in Danse Macabre

“I like William Carlos Williams[‘] description of a poem: ‘a small (or large) machine made of words.’ Often I’m not sure what kind of machine I’m building until I start putting the thing together and fire it up. Sometimes I find I’m trying to cram toaster parts into a particle accelerator. Sometimes it works and I end up with a kick-ass toaster. Sometimes it’s a disaster and I make a super-slow accelerator.”

—Jason Marak (x)

 I’m pretty sure Roald Dahl said something about writing a long sentence axel followed by the cogwheel of a short sentence—and making it twirl. Can’t find the quote though.


On interestingness as a driving force in fiction

“Proust succeeds, in my opinion, by being interesting on every single page. [In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past] is one of the few philosophical novels, for instance, that actually has something to say. Proust’s ideas on art, on society, on love, on politics, are fascinating. It’s like going to dinner with the most interesting person you’ve ever met.

“And there’s also a certain moment to moment ingenuity. Unexpected things happen. People change in odd and striking ways. And, of course, the sentences are amazing. I hesitate to call them good or beautiful (because no one except Proust should ever attempt to write like this), but they are an experience. The nearest thing I can compare him to, in English, is Samuel Johnson: a writer who says, in page-long sentences, the kind of thoughts that can only really be expressed in page-long sentences.

“But none of this is any good to the aspiring writer of fiction, of course. And by giving writers the notion that they don’t need story—they just need to be interesting!—I’m pretty sure Proust has harmed many more writers than he’s helped.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

Short story: “Think”

“Think,” by David Foster Wallace

Appeared in Conjunctions issue 28, spring 1997, alongside another Wallace story; collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

About 2 pages in the book; 738 words (my guess was gonna be 1,000)

When I first read this it felt slight and excerpt-ish, but on a reread I find it excellent. A single scene implies a plot in which the main character’s soul or honor hangs in the balance, and Wallacianly, he has to make himself a bit hokey and ridiculous—in this case, he literally humbles himself—to earn his right to that soul/honor.

I really like “snaps clear” as a description of what your forehead does when you suddenly realize something.

Short story: “The Dupe”

“The Dupe,” by Jim Fusilli

Appeared in D.C. Noir (2006, part of the Akashic Books Noir Series), edited by George Pelecanos

About 15.25 pages in the anthology, unknown number of words

A good little yarn.

I thought opening the story on the day of the crime was a bad idea, especially because the author (or editor?) avoids past pluperfect, resulting in awkwardness (“Five days earlier, Port was summoned”). I understand the need to put the drama up front, but I would have opened with “My father is disappointed, Jordie.”

Short story: “The Tower”

“The Tower,” by Steven Millhauser

Appeared in Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 25, 2007

16 1/3 pages in McSweeney’s

Millhauser is always good but rarely as good as I want him to be. This story is a very long parable, maybe too long. When I reread it after some years, I realized I had forgotten the ending—not because the ending is arbitrary, but because it’s sort of parabolically inevitable, like the endings of “Paradise Park” and “The Dream of the Consortium.”

I really like this line, for no special reason: “a row of sparrows rose into the air with beating wings, like the sound of a shaken rug.”

On complacency and terror in prose style

“Wallace is hard to parody: the parodist reads with an eye for the moment when an author gets too magisterially comfortable with his own style, and slips momentarily onto autopilot, and Wallace frantically avoided such moments. The Howling Fantods ran a David Foster Wallace Parody competition in 2004, and what makes the authors of the winning entries in this competition not sound like Wallace is precisely a certain stylistic comfortableness/smugness/polish. E.g. several of the parodists chose to recreate the celebrated poet who is skewered in the story ‘Death is Not the End’—‘a poet two separate American generations have now hailed as the voice of their generation,’ or in other words the phony of phonies, a velveteen genius. Comparing the original with the parodies clarifies where the original gets its force, namely from Wallace’s sheer terror that the person he’s lampooning might be himself. What keeps that story ‘authentic’ is Wallace’s own fear of being inauthentic.”

—James Warner, in that essay I like to quote a lot

Short story: “Home”

“Home,” by Eddie Newton

Appeared in the May 2005 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

About 4 and 2/3 pages

This story annoyed the crap out of me. The unisex name tricks the reader into assuming Marion is a woman. The avoidance of pronouns for Marion makes for some clumsy phrasing (“Retreating to the kitchen, the search for a snack began”). The reveal of Marion’s true identity is awkward and sudden, and it forces you to go back and reinterpret the earlier passage about the Sugarman, which is all the worse for being written in Marion’s point of view. (The additional reveal that Mabel is a man is just the cherry on the annoyingness cake.)

Now, why do I hate this gimmick so much? I think because it’s a cheat. The reversal of expectations here is mostly about Marion’s feelings of nostalgia and fear, which make it seem like he lives here and is scared of outlaws, rather than wishing he belonged here and being scared of justice. That’s not bad. But there’s no good reason to conceal his gender! I’ll admit it makes him seem slightly more vulnerable, but not enough to make the concealment worthwhile. What’s more, this concealment makes it harder to feel like we’re inside his head, which makes it harder to stay invested in his feelings.*

The reversal should pay off at the end, when we see Marion finally making peace with his regret and nostalgia, as well as getting what he apparently deserves. That should be a moment of bittersweet catharsis. Instead we waste some time figuring out who he is, who his shooter is, who the Almonds were, et cetera. The moment is lost.

*There’s an interesting discussion to be had about how changing the reader’s perception of a character’s gender can make the reader feel betrayed. Does that feeling of betrayal come from arbitrary, overly restrictive cultural customs, like our convention that only girls can wear pink? Or does it come from a true breach of the unspoken contract between writer and reader? “Home” has nothing very interesting to say about gender, though, so I don’t feel conflicted about hating the reveal as much as I do.

Short story: “The Horse Lord”

“The Horse Lord,” by Lisa Tuttle

First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in June 1977; collected in A Nest of Nightmares (Sphere Books, 1986; later reprinted as an ebook by Jo Fletcher Books) and in Stranger in the House (Ash-Tree Press, 2010); featured in episode 450 of Pseudopod, August 7th, 2015

Maybe 4,000 words?

I was frustrated with this story. The old Indian burial ground/curse/legend/warning trope just doesn’t age well. One of the Escape Artists staff argues that Tuttle subverts it by making the real monster something older than the tribes, but if that’s true, the warning given by the “brave” is still played totally straight, and the main characters’ indifference towards the Native Americans is still off-putting. I was also annoyed by some minor lapses in prose quality.

I liked the ending, especially the revelation about the monster’s real nature.

Not all characters approve of their authors

 “A writer may write for thirty years without ever knowing why he spent all those years writing. I am not a man of letters and have no wish to be one; I would consider it indecent and despicable to drag my soul onto the literary market and turn it inside out while describing my feelings in beautiful words.”

—the narrator of The Adolescent, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as translated by Andrew MacAndrew

On the uselessness of fine prose

“MYTH: Beautiful Writing Trumps All

REALITY: Storytelling Trumps Beautiful Writing, Every Time”

—Lisa Cron in Wired for Story