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The Saturday Morning Freeze

with 3 comments

It is, at the moment, verycold in the room in which I write.  I seem to be among the minority  of writers.  I’m not looking to face a blank wall to keep myself from being distracted.  Instead, I like windows, and lots of them. 

I therefore write in a converted sunroom, which, when the weather gets cold, is itself cold indeed.  Windows, it turns out, do no retain much in the way of heat.  If I got to do it all over again at some point, I’d design myself a writing room that was floor to ceiling windows on three sides, but that had radiant heat in the floor, so that my feet would always be warm.

Either that, or I’d move to a more suitable climate.   Which is odd, when I think about it, because when I was youner I hated the heat.  Now I hate the cold.  I haven’t quite gotten to where my father ended up, where he could put on long sleeved flannel to go out and weed his eighty-degree Fahrenheit Florida garden, but I have gotten to hate the cold.

No, I’m not going to write about the weather all day.  It came up–besides the fact that the cold isn’t letting me forget it–because I’ve been reading Kipling, and a lot of what I’ve been reading takes place in India.  I’ve been in  India a couple of times, and it has never been cold while I’ve been there.  I think that most of the country manages never to get cold at all.

On Kipling, though, a couple of notes.

First, the book I’m reading is a collection of Kipling’s short stories for adults, heavily weighted towards work written late in his career.  So far, I haven’t come across any that I’ve read before, and I’m about halfway done.

Second, except for a couple near the beginning of the book that relied heavily on attempts to write in dialect, they have so far passed the most important test of any fiction I read outside of the summer vacation–I can write when I’m reading them.

I am n ot say8ing that I cannot write when I read bad books, or badly written ones–although if a book is badly written enough that does sometimes happen.

There are, however, some very good books that I can’t writen when I’m reading, including a lot of the early Stephen King.  Some people have narrative voices that are just too strong.  When I’m reading them and I try to write, I can’t prevent myself from imitating them, and then I sound awful.  And not like me.

Being  halfway through with the book, though I can make a few statements I think are going to stay with me to the end.

The first is that this Kipling so far strikes me like a lot of other Kipling–the work of a man with an interesting mind but  only a weakly developed skill at execution.

With that we get into a very old argument now–which is how much the technical aspects of a work of fiction of poetry should “count” in judging whether the work is “good” or n ot.

Writing is an art form–even the writing of n onfiction can be an artform–and technique always matters in any art form.  For many, it’s the o nly thing that matters.

Writing is different, partially because it deals with ideas, and the content of those ideas will be considered subconsciously if not consciously even by readers trying not to consider them.  That’s one of the reasons for the fifty-year rule:  it at least attempts to get us past the partisane political and sectarian religious fevers of our day to a place where we can at least attempt to jude the wok of art as a work of art.

But there is also a technological issue in judging works of literature as works of art, and that is the fact that until vey recently, lanuages and its uses changed so rapidly and thoroughly that questions of technique became moot.

None of us can know whether Homer was a “great writer” as a writer, or not.  There’s still something called Greek spoken in the world, but it’s not that Greek.  We know that the Greeks of the classical period held Homer to be a great poet, and that’s something.  We are still unable to make such a determination for ourselves.

Kipling is not so far from us as that, and we can make certain determinations as to h is technical skill at writing prose.  But although that is important to deciding if something is great literature or not, there must be other considerations as well, and those are harder to come by.

So, a few things, as I said. 

Kipling does not write great prose, or anything like it.  At this stage of his career, however, the prose isn’t bad, either–he is a “good enough” writer, and there are plenty of “good enough” writers in the Canon, there because they had other things to bring to the table besides technical perfection.

The prose itself, at this stage, reminds me strikingly of that of Conan Doyle, and I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense.  If they weren’t strictly contemporaries, their lives overlapped significantly.

What’s getting to me at the moment is story structure–or maybe what I mean is story execution.  I’m coming up blank for a term here.

I don’t need a lot of plot in my fiction.  In fact, I don’t need much of any at all.  With these stories, though, I keep running headlong i nto truly great concepts that then proceed to go absolutely nowhere at all. 

My present mania is over a piece called “The Finest Story in the World.”  In its way, it prsents the antithetical problem to a Kipling poem called “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” 

In “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” there is a first rate idea, and a signiicant insight, fully realized, in poetry so bad you have to hack at it with a machete to make it behave.  It’s not easy bad poetry, either, so that when I assign it to students I’ve got to pick it apart like the Gordian knot before they can understand it.

The premise of “The Finest Story in the World”  is this:  an older, established writer has as a young friend an ordinary bank clerk with literary aspirations.  Unfortunately, the bank clerk is not only a bad writer in the technical sense.  His ideas are utterly unoriginal, secondhand and trite.

Until one day the young man shows up with a new story he wants to write, and th is is, well, amazing.  It’s not only  new and original, it’s a detailed exposition of life on a Greek galley slave ship from the period before the rise of Rome. 

What’s more, among the notes the young man has made are several actually in Greek, a language he has never studied.  And some of these n otes consist of things that youn man says are supposed to be words scratched into their chains by the fellow slaves of the hero–and when our older writer takes these to the British Museum, the words turn out to e the actual names of actual Greek galley slaves, even though those names have never been published anywhere, and they can only be viewed by members of the Museeum, which the young man is not.

I’m sorry.  I’m not that great at consructing plots, but I could do something with that premise.  I could do so much with it, I’m even thinking about stealing it.

Kipling let it all sort of run out in a mush abou t sex and reincarnation.


Written by janeh

December 12th, 2009 at 10:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Saturday Morning Freeze'

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  1. How good is the glazing? Triple glazing and a good seal will generally stop heat loss even in New England, and, even throwing in the price of a pair of really warm slippers, it’s cheaper than moving to Florida–not to mention mold and insects. (The DC area is like living in the reptile house of a zoo, and I’ve had to run the AC in November. If there is a perfect climate, the people who live there are keeping very quiet about it.)

    The wasted plot. Yes, I remember that one, which is why I didn’t recommend it–but didn’t you have the same problem with someone else? I think it was Longfellow: a story about a man abandoning his family, living where he could observe them and returning after an absence of years?

    My advise in both instances is to steal the plot. If authors didn’t steal plots, literature would collapse, and we’d all be sitting here reading “Pyramus and Thisbe” thinking “Bill Shakespeare could have done something with this.” Except we wouldn’t, because we wouldn’t have any Shakespeare at all if he’d hesitated about stealing plots.

    And when you steal from Kipling, you have his own endorsement:

    When Homer smote his blooming lyre,
    He’d heard men sing by land and sea;
    And what he thought he might require,
    He went and took–the same as me!

    The market-girls and fishermen,
    The shepherds and the sailors, too,
    They heard old songs turn up again,
    But kept it quiet–same as you!

    They knew he stole; he knew they knowed.
    They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
    But winked at Homer down the road,
    And he winked back–the same as us!


    12 Dec 09 at 5:15 pm

  2. I recommend slipper socks from NZ Nature Company for cold feet. They ship to the US.

    My small, random collection of Kipling does not include “The Finest Story in the World” but I have a vague recollection of reading it. I wonder if the point is that the bank clerk had a brilliant idea and couldn’t do anything with it?


    12 Dec 09 at 5:31 pm

  3. Much (all?) of Kipling is available online – public domain and all that – you can read “The Finest Story” here http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/1981/

    For me, Kipling is part of my childhood. We had a wonderfully illustrated copy of “The Just So Stories” which I loved. Also, my father read aloud to us regularly – Kipling and Twain were among his favorites. In later years it was more reflective non-fiction like Loren Eisley.

    As for the cold – I live in southern Arizona – at a high enough altitude to get one snow day a year. I’m thinking of moving to Phoenix – just to get warm.


    13 Dec 09 at 2:36 pm

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