Friday, November 25, 2011

Against obliteration

I'm in the "every sentence sounds kind of stupid" mode of revision on "Unearthed." Some of them may, indeed, be poorly done; as there's no ideal sentence, each is less than ideal; the broader problem is the usual one of voice, of making the narrator sound like one person (who isn't me) rather than like me at various times of day or states of mental with-it-ness. I keep seeing sentences that make me say, "Yeah, that's exactly how I'd write that," which makes me revise to be less-like-me, though, no surprise, that's still me because who else is there to judge how the sentence sounds?

Last night I began All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. Is that the same line drawing of a whale that was on the Philbrick Moby-Dick book? Hmm. I started this as a way to pull myself up from the obsessive thoughts of death spurred by Julian Barnes's excellent Nothing to Be Frightened Of. It may be "nothing to be frightened of," but it's also "nothing one wants to obsess over to the point of distraction," so rather than dwelling, in my reading, on my eventual obliteration, I moved on to a book more focused on the bright bonfire of storytelling and not the encircling dark.

The book moves briskly, though the culture its aiming to cure, no longer god-saturated (a process that started hundreds of years ago), isn't the whole picture. Certainly there are plenty of folks who, contra the fallout from the Renaissance and Enlightenment, still see the world as under God's command. Yes, even these "believers," of whatever religious background, approach things more independently and existentially than, say, their 14th-century peers, but they nonetheless inhabit a different reality than these writers. In any case, after an analysis of our current "nihilism," they move into a discussion of how David Foster Wallace both probed this radical uncertainty and succumbed to it. I'm only about 50 pages in.


Calvin said...

Right now I am reading "Out of Oz," the third sequel (fourth in the series) by Gregory Maguire to his book "Wicked." The whole series increasingly reads like a gedanken experiment in what would have happened if L. Frank Baum had gotten an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He (Maguire, not Baum) aims for lapidary prose; his sentences sure do shine. And occasionally I smile at them, enough to keep me reading. But sometimes I wonder if the forest has been lost for the trees, or maybe for a more germane metaphor, a kind of literary straw man--there are characters (hoo boy are there characters, although they all pretty much talk in the arch tones of an MFA seminar story) and there is a first chapter and a last chapter and there are chapters in between, but the stuffing feels often like so much straw. Of course it's possible that it's much cleverer than it seems on the surface, in the way the Scarecrow was in the original Oz books. But there are hundreds of pages of lapidary prose about characters wandering about in some literary swamp, speaking in nearly identical arch tones, and I wish the Tin Man were around, or a Tin Editor, to swing an axe and chop out a lot of unneeded polish and shine.

Not that this is necessarily bad. I am reading it, at a steady pace; it's more readable than many things these days, although that might be due to familiarity and residual love for the characters and situation. And it can be done very well; witness Michael Chabon, who if he strings together three sentences without six metaphorical devices is have a bit of a slow spot. But his stuff fairly crackle with stuff going on, if you don't mind my using technical terms. :)

This long-winded reverie is mostly tangential, or perhaps arc-tangential (that's a math joke, ask your daughter)(but not a very good math joke) to your post, but mostly: don't worry about putting too high a shine on your sentences. (For what it's worth, in your past work I think you've hit a really good balance.) And I realize too you are just putting down where you are struggling in the process.

Of course, a little bit of polishing is worthwhile; I didn't polish the above at all, and see what a mess came out! So this is mostly a long-winded way to say: hi.

And keep up the good work.

(And my apologies for sounding like I am criticizing MFA programs. They mostly do good work. Or at least not too much harm. Oh dear, I did it again.)

William Preston said...

>Right now I am reading "Out of Oz," the third sequel (fourth in the series) by Gregory Maguire to his book "Wicked."

I had no idea he'd kept going with those things, though obviously it's a cash-cow of an idea, what with the Broadway show with shite for tunes.
>witness Michael Chabon, who if he strings together three sentences without six metaphorical devices is have a bit of a slow spot.

Chabon's a guy I've never cottoned to, except in the abstract. I really should try the Yiddish Policemen's etc. To connect this with your reluctant assault on MFA programs, his early short fiction was exactly the kind of thing that got praise in MFA programs, but there was an actual "story" to be found. Then he got religion and discovered stories, but this after he was already well known as a writer, mystifyingly.

>This long-winded reverie is mostly tangential, or perhaps arc-tangential (that's a math joke, ask your daughter)(but not a very good math joke)

Said daughter has a visitor with her here for the holiday who is currently downstairs doing work for her topology class (which my daughter dropped). Oh, there's a whole lotta math going on.

And thanks for the encouragement. I did some work on the story today and was pretty pleased. I'll get this thing done before year's end. If only I didn't have all this reading to do for school . . .

Calvin said...

I liked Yiddish Policeman's Union; even though it's clear he had to jump on top of the manuscript to stuff as much figurative language (ah, that's the phrase I was looking for earlier) as possible into every sentence, he also has a compelling plot and a compelling story.

Topology is fairly arcane by my standards, and I have arcane standards. It's not arcane for mathematicians, of course, but few physicists except the most axiomatic mathematical physicists actually use it. That's neither condemnation nor praise. In fact, I wish I had time to learn me some topology and more modern differential geometry. Alas, I can only do my regular research line and then squeeze in some writing.

(I'm definitely not polishing these days--I'm sprinting through the 3rd quarter of my novel. Right now I'm just throwing ideas against the page, or the computer screen, to see if they stick. I like 'em fine, but time, and readers, will tell. I managed to blurt out 1700 words today. They'll all have to be rewritten--in fact a good 700 of them were just an alternate, farcical take on a passage I wrote yesterday--and maybe I'll take an ax to them. So don't take that 1700 words as a boast. It may be more of a chain around my neck.)

William Preston said...

The first step is definitely just getting words onto the page. Later, you can "get medieval" on them.