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Here’s the thing, if I got started on the depredations of insurance companies, or the mess that is the maze of insurance law, I’d be here for another year, and I wouldn’t get anything else done.  So–

Back to the books.   Or, specifically, to one issue in the reading of books, and of poetry.

Robert sent me an e-mail about a week ago with quotes from one of his favoite writers, who split the significance of books between those that people love passionately generation after generation (even a minority of people, if they’re passionate enough), and books that are important because their style changed the way people write forever afterwards.

If I had to split books into two different categories, though, these aren’t the two I would choose.   Nor are these the two categories I would choose in deciding what to put into the Canon and ask everyone to read.

On the more relaxed standard of books in general–rather than trying to decide what should be included in a curriculum–I tend to divide fiction, at any rate, between books that are “about plot” and books that are “about people.”

And I will admit, when somebody tells me that a book is “a great read” or “a good story,” the back of my head tends to go, automatically–ah, it’s a bad book.

I do that because the books people have recommended to me as “great reads” over the years have largely been the print versions of television shows: lots of  mindless, frentic “action,” “twists” for the sake of having “twists,” and “entertainment” defined as “shutting your mind down and not needing to think.”

There are certainly some exceptions to this rule–the early novels of Stephen King, for instance–but that’s what I usually get.  And I really, really, really don’t like this kind of thing.  I don’t even like it as television.   I fall asleep at Die Hard movies. I’ve got MEGO reactoins to serial killers, car chases, fight scenes, the place in the movie when it turns out that the hero’s best friend at Big Corp is really the corrupt killer, the place where the hero’s car explodes, and the revelation that our murderer had a sex change operation last year and that’s why we weren’t able to find him.

What I do like in what I read is strong characters, fully realized and portrayed in depth, the more depth (and the more individuality) the better.   I read fiction almost exclusively for character, and the “almost” in that statement is to accommodate some fiction  I read for its sense of place.  

I also, of course, sometimes read for prose style.  Good writing is like good music.  If you’ve got an ear for it, it can be a remarkable experience all on its own, without reference to plot, character, ideas or even general intelligence. 

I do, however, have to be in a rather odd mood to read fiction primarily for the prose style.  And I’m not in that  mood very often.

I also wouldn’t use prose style to determine whether or not a book, play, or movie belongs in the Canon, or even was a candidate for the Canon.

For all the yelling and screaming we do about how the items in the Canon are determined, the simple fact is that no book or play or movie or poem is there unless it lasts for a very long time.  I once gave fifty years as the minimum, but in reality we’re looking at at least a hundred, and maybe even more. 

That time frame creates a problem that would be insuperable for anybody really trying to judge works of fiction by prose style.  Poetic style is somewhat easier, but only somewhat.  Poetic form, being highly stylized in most eras, makes it possible for readers to read for style for at least a few hundred years longer than they could do the same with prose. 

The simple fact is that we have no idea how great, or poor, a stylist Chaucer was.  His language is almost as foreign to us as French, and all modern readers of The Canterbury  Tales find themselves in the uncomfortable position of either having to translate the work themselves while they read, or having to rely on somebody else’s translation.

And the stylistic virtues, or vices, of a work in translation belong to the translator.  If you don’t believe me, get a little stack of translations of Homer from over the years–start with Chapman and Fitzgerald and then pick up more modern editions.  If style was all we relied on to evaluate The Iliad, those could not be identified as the same book.

Three hundred years from now, whatever books of our era will have managed to last will be evaluated for form, for character, even for story, but they won’t be evaluated for style, because readers of that era will no longer be capable of perceiving that style. 

And the experimental stuff will be significant only insofar as it is no longer experimental. 

Time marches on.

Written by janeh

August 23rd, 2009 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Stylish'

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  1. Hmmm. Yes, but…
    I get that same “Must I?” response when someone recommends a piece of fiction because it’s about divorce, or environmental decay, or the Russian Revolution. If I find the non-fiction subject interesting, then I want a real non-fiction book, with footnotes and bibliography. And if I don’t find the non-fiction subject interesting, of course it’s even less of a recommendation.

    The novels which hold my interest longest are about people or groups of people, But that doesn’t mean a novel about someone having an affair or dropping out of school for a semester holds my interest at all. Wasn’t it Hemingway who spoke of “grace under pressure?” The pressure too is a necessary part.

    Jane Austen didn’t write about agreeable flirtations or marital tiffs. She wrote about courtship and marriage because this was the high stakes end of things where one could make irevocable mistakes. Her characters might have been as well drawn in such plots–they might even have been the same characters at other points in their lives–but I doubt the novels would have lived 200 years.

    Fast forward a bit. For me, the best SF novel for decades in either direction is Lois McMaster Bujold’s SHARDS OF HONOR. It too is a courtship novel, as our main characters of very different cultures meet and try to find a place and way to be together. But it wouldn’t be as good a novel without politics, interstellar warfare, at least two madmen and a Great and Terrible Secret. When Bujold applies pressure, she’s serious about it. “Think of the worst thing you can do to your characters,” she wrote once, “and then do it to them.”

    But I can find you a dozen novels which read like military histories of wars not yet fought. Those do NOT get shelf space. The pressure is there but not the people.

    A good novel may have car chases and explosions. But it’s not about car chases and explosions. It is a fine thing that Thuvia of Helium be threatened, that she may show her love of John Carter and he of her and his ability to protect her as well. But when it happens again in another volume, then it’s about the swordfights. This is why a good series often has something of an anthology feel as viewpoints shift and different characters take center stage.

    Television works great–well, CAN work great–for comedy, satire and social commentary, but a recurring drama in which nothing permanent will ever happen to the lead characters–they won’t be killed or crippled: they won’t even be married off–is difficult, and in some danger of being about the explosions. (A kind word here for Joss (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) Whedon who was perfectly ready to kill off anyone, and tried to end the series by killing off his main character. Way to maintain suspense!)

    As for style, I am not quite so despairing. Word choice and phrasing are at the mercy of languages, of course. But the order in which material is presented, the detail focused upon and the things ommitted will remain, and these are part of style as well. Shakespeare in translation is still Shakespeare.

    The kind of fiction which endures generally has many virtues, and appeals to different types of readers as a result–characters AND setting, plot AND style. But another has written of the need for balance:

    “Fortunate indeed are those in which is combined a little good and a little bad, a little knowledge of many things outside their own callings, a capacity for love and a capacity for hate, for such as these can look with tolerance upon all, unbiased by the egotism of him whose head is so heavy on one side that all his brains run to that point.”

    –Gahan of Gathol, CHESSMEN OF MARS


    23 Aug 09 at 2:28 pm

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