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Arrrrgggggghhhh. So To Speak.

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I could go into a lot of things here.

For instance, standards are objective.   If they’re not, they’re not standards. 

Tastes are subjective, and what people usually mean when they declare that standards in art are subjective is that their own tastes to not fit whatever they think the standards are.

I qualified that as I did because often what people think the standards in art are aren’t what the standards really are, but just something they sort of picked up somewhere.

This is especially the case in areas like contemporary painting, which have been taken over by a group of people hailing “standards” that have nothing at all to do with the actual standards in the field, but who have the money and the access to publicity to make themselves look important by declaring the “worth” of things they only choose to like because they figure nobody else will. 

That doesn’t mean there are no longer any standards in painting, only that you’re unlikely to hear much about those standards because an awful lot of people with an awful lot of money at stake have a significant interest in confusing the issue for the general public.

After all, how else would they get grants?

And I never said anything about the world coming to an end because lots of people like kitsch. 

I never said anything about people giving up what they like in favor of what is objectively good, either.

But I do think that the world is a poorer place because we are so endlessly inundated with kitsch–and that we are less than the human beings we could be.   Art is the way we tell ourselves who and what we are.  Our children model themselves n ot on the lectures we give them but on the images they see and hear.   A world where young women strive to be Isabel Archer is a better world than one in which they strive to be Lady Gaga.

But what I was talking about yesterday had nothing to do with ideas, images, characterization, plot or any of the rest of it.

I was talking about the rhthym and the music of the prose.

That’s it.

Nothing else.

Some very good and interesting ideas have been delivered in very bad writing–see Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”

Some very bad and morally objectionable ideas–hell, anti-civilizational ideas–have been delivered in some very good writing.  Try Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which is nothing more than a very elegantly stated “put up or shut up.”

Some good and involving stories, original and compelling, have been delivered in very bad writing.  Try Atlas Shrugged, for instance.

Some bad, boring, and intellectually trite stories have been delivered in very good writing.  Try, oh, I don’t know.  Ann Beattie’s Falling in  Place, for instance.

But the quality of writing is about the rhythm and the music of the prose, and nothing else.

This is bad writing:

“Mary strode purposefully into the large, elegant living room, her four inch red spike heels clicking against the aged hardwood floors as her bright red hair bounced and swayed against the expensive confines of her Marie Callienda black felt hat.”

Plot?  Characterization?  Ideas?  I have no way to know, but they don’t matter. 

The quality of writing is in the music and the rhythm of the prose, and that reads like the wailing of castrated cats. 

That sentencce up there could be the start of the best book in the world in every other way.  I t could have wonderful characters, an original story line, new ideas.  I still wouldn’t be able to read it. 

What surprises me is that so many people could read such a thing–that the wrong notes, the mangled rhythms, the excruciating clunkiness of the damned thing are under the radar of so many readers.  It’s as if they’re literally tone deaf.

And, not being tone deaf, I just don’t get it.

Written by janeh

November 13th, 2009 at 9:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Arrrrgggggghhhh. So To Speak.'

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  1. I’m nearly finished Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning “Wolf Hall”. Fascinating story which I heartily recommend to anyone with even a casual interest in Henry VIII and his era, but it’s extraordinarily hard to read because for some reason the author seems reluctant to use the normal convention (or what I thought was the normal convention) of identifying actors or speakers by their names rather than simply by the third person pronoun.

    The literary crowd must have liked it or they wouldn’t have awarded it the Booker Prize, but Thomas Cromwell – the book’s protagonist – is normally presented in narration or in direct speech as “he” – regardless of how many other male characters are being described or quoted in any given passage. Bloody annoying and disruptive.


    13 Nov 09 at 9:55 am

  2. Mique, I am interested the Henry VIII, but you have not convinced me to try that book. I tend to avoid anything that wins a literary prize like the plague because in my rather limited experience the authors tend to use some very distracting stylistic tricks, or else they go on and on and on and on about the extremely boring trivialities that I can’t believe anyone, much less the characters in the book, take seriously. And yet I can read and enjoy lots of trivial stuff that some people consider extremely boring, sometimes with stylistic tricks (like weird names or language in science fiction books) that drive other people around the bend.

    So I tend to put myself mentally in the low-class no literary or artistic standards category when anything like this comes up, because I don’t really think I can judge when writing is clunky and when it isn’t. I know when it just works for me; when it moves along smoothly and unobtrusively, carrying me along in the story, but that’s not the same thing. I also like some wordplay and allusion (eg Pratchett), but that’s not it exactly either.

    And yet I know exactly where Jane is coming from in her example, and I don’t like writing like that. It’s silly and distracting. I’ve seen a lot of it lately. The name-brand clothes thing gets to me more than most of it. I can sometimes read and enjoy a book that has a little of it, but it jars. I can’t find an example right now, and the book is on its way back to the library, but in a recent light read, at periodic intervals a well-established character would be described as a man – paraphrasing -‘The tall man turned and looked at her..’ Hello, this character has been in the book from the beginning; we know he’s a tall man.

    But I wanted to find out how the author would work out the plot and I mostly ignored these bits. But they annoyed me enough that I remember them.


    13 Nov 09 at 10:34 am

  3. My opinion:
    Popular lyrics and good writing on the same theme: “let’s get it on”

    Lady Willpower, it’s now or never. Give your love to me and I’ll shower your heart with tenderness endlessly. –Lady Willpower, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap

    It’s now or never,
    come hold me tight
    Kiss me my darling,
    be mine tonight
    Tomorrow will be too late,
    it’s now or never
    My love won’t wait. — It’s now or never –Elvis Presley

    Had we but World enough, and Time,
    This coyness, Lady, were no crime …

    The Grave’s a fine and private place,
    But none I think do there embrace. . .

    Let us roll all our strength and all
    Our sweetness up into one Ball:
    And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
    Through the Iron gates of Life:
    Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
    Stand still, yet we will make him run.
    –Andrew Marvell, To his coy mistress

    And, moving on to fiction:some popular writers produce decent, not outstanding, prose and a lot whose books reach the bestseller lists dig up every cliche ever written and transfer it to the page.

    As a librarian, I can buy it and display it but I can’t make them read it. Or not all of them, anyway.


    13 Nov 09 at 12:39 pm

  4. Standing fast here. I’m perfectly willing to be berated for bad taste, but before I’m beaten up for liking objectively bad literature and art, or despising objectively good literature and art, good and bad–let alone “kitsch”–will have to be defined in ways which will let intelligent educated adults look at works they have not seen before and agree on their standing without consulting one another.

    I know exactly how tricky that is, which is why I’m so suspicious of the whole concept. If it takes 50 to 100 years to decide whether a new book is worthy of study, something more than an honest and careful reading of the prose is involved. If it doesn’t take a generation, may I ask whose standard is objective? A great many critics, respected in their day, have expressed opinions few would now endorse.

    Besides, on any new work, even if the 50 year rule were objective, I’ll not see myself vindicated or refuted.


    13 Nov 09 at 5:06 pm

  5. OK, after a good dinner, I’m somewhat mellowed and more expansive. But I think we’re up against a basic problem. I tend to side with Lord Kelvin: “If you cannot express a thing in numbers, it is not fact: it is opinion.” That is, I think, too harsh, but at the least a fact has to be testable or refutable. One does not want an example of good or bad prose, but a standard by which prose can be judged, and I have not EVER seen the advocate willing to discuss the standard. They just keep showing examples. Fine if I agree, but how does one disagree? How does one demonstrate that one of these things is not like the others?
    (Let’s skip “concensus” please. In this context, it’s another word for “groupthink.” Are any of us truly prepared to judge the validity of an idea by how many people hold it?)

    All of which said, it was a pretty clunky sentence. But when we started this, I didn’t even have a sentence–just the tired assertion of objectively good and bad art.


    13 Nov 09 at 7:07 pm

  6. Argh yourownself, Jane. So standards are objective – then that’s not what Robert was having, then. He was stating what his tastes are.

    I think that what you’re coming up against, though, is that most people don’t read for the quality of the writing. They read as entertainment – if they like the story they’ll put up with bad writing. I’ve seen it over and over on RAM – people rave about a book and when I try to read it, the writing is clunky and I don’t want to finish. Now, it doesn’t bother me in the least if people like what I don’t. I just don’t pay any attention to their recommendations any more.

    But do see Robert’s point in his second post – how DO you communicate standards in art?


    13 Nov 09 at 8:21 pm

  7. Mary says, “But do see Robert’s point in his second post – how DO you communicate standards in art?”

    How indeed? But even if you try, you will inevitably run into the sort of problem illustrated by this headline to a news story put out by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, our answer to the Brits” BBC:

    “British military watched pirates hijack yacht”

    The fact was that it was a Royal Navy tanker, and thus the British Royal Navy, not their “military” that observed the hijacking without being able to do anything about it without risking the victims’ lives.

    The time-honoured deinitions of words simply don’t mean anything to many professional writers any more. If they themselves don’t know enough about the language that they make their living from to know that words such as “naval” and “military” have precise and very clear specialised meanings, and that only one of those two words is appropriate to the sort of scenario being reported, how can mere mortals such as their readership judge what is an acceptable standard?

    As I descend further into auld phartism, I’m starting to look forward to being relieved by death or senility from such rubbishl. :-)


    13 Nov 09 at 11:34 pm

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