What do editors do when they edit? The best remove trip wires, solecisms, correct grammar and spelling, point out clichés and cut redundant amplification. This last function may be to fit the thing into a magazine with limited space. What they shouldn’t do is add or extensively re-write. But there are larger considerations of structure, focus and thematic consistency which an editor wouldn’t normally engage a writer in before sticking it on the spike.
The workshop is an expanded, transparent process which attempts a critical assessment in detail. I hope this will be a collaborative, constructive mechanism with contributions from anyone who feels up to it. The writer too can come back to correct any misreadings or even ask for the entire critique to be removed. A simple “That’s all bollocks Ken” should do the trick.
I don’t, of course, claim to be the final arbiter of taste. I’m just another reader with prejudices and blind spots. I do, however, believe strongly in re-writes – lots of them – and the importance of even tiny adjustments to improve tone and flow. I guess some of my tweaks will look like nit-picking but the default mode of first drafts (mine included) is pox doctor’s clerk – an over explained, unnecessarily detailed account such as PC Plod might come up with in court.
Considerations as to the commercial potential of the offering are entirely irrelevant. What we’re aiming at is the best presentation of the crazy oik’s vision. Or as Delacroix said of his rival Ingres “The perfect expression of an imperfect mind”
In the Repair Shop
Heat - Brett Wilson
Another Country - John Royson
All in This Together - Tom Kilcourse
Background Texts on Writing
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto –
Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing
Creative Writing - Opinions from The Paris review Interviews
Kurt Vonnegut's Rules for Writing
Susan Sontag on Writing
An Idiot's Guide to Writing
Books in My Life - Brett Wilson
Elif Bautman's Review of The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl
Edmund Wilson on Crime Writing
Jim Burns Write As Short as You Can
Class is Permanent - Susan Rustin
We Ten Million - Alix Christie
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto – David Shields reviewed by Blake Morrison
Most readers will know the feeling. You've been through an experience so consuming that you've no room in your head for made-up stories – or the recent choices at your book club have been dire. Either way, novels seem pointless. Why devote precious time to contrived plots and imagined scenarios? Why waste energy on invented characters? Only the real excites you: life writing, memoir, confessional poetry, witness statements from the front line.
There's a name for this condition: fiction fatigue. Readers who've experienced it will also know that it usually passes: time heals, the world opens up again and your faith in the novel is restored. David Shields hasn't been cured. He doesn't want to be cured. He thinks of "reality hunger" not as a sickness but as the defining spirit of our age, with its yearning for the music of what happens. His book is a spirited polemic on behalf of non-fiction – a manifesto in 618 soundbites.
The book comes laden with praise. Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Frederick Barthelme, Rick Moody and Jonathan Raban are among the 20-plus authors whose endorsements dominate the cover and end-pages (though intriguingly JM Coetzee's name, prominent on the proof copy, has disappeared). Some of the acclaim comes from writers whose work Shields cites to support his argument. Still, they're right to call Reality Hunger an important book. The fiction vs non-fiction debate has become intense in recent years, and Shields cranks it up a notch.
Every artistic movement is a bid to get closer to reality, he argues, and it's in lyric essays, prose poems and collage novels (as well as performance art, stand-up comedy, documentary film, hip-hop, rap and graffiti) that such impetus is to be found today. Key components include randomness, spontaneity, emotional urgency, literalism, rawness and self-reflexivity. A loosely defined genre, then: in fact, a genre committed to genre-busting. But a genre opposed to current fiction.
Early novels such as Robinson Crusoe passed themselves off as true. And at best the novel has always been hybrid, Shields says, with autobiography, history and topography part of the mix – hence his admiration for VS Naipaul and WG Sebald, and their "necessary post-modernist return to the roots of the novel as an essentially creole form". By contrast, the sort of novel that wins the Pulitzer or Booker has "never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself". Fabrication's a bore. Characterisation a puerile puppet-show. Plot the altar on which interest is sacrificed – only when it's absent are we given room to think. "If I'm reading a book and it seems truly interesting," Shields confesses, "I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be too deeply under the sway of progress." What he wants is distilled wisdom, and he's no longer willing to trudge through 700 pages to find it. He couldn't open Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections if his life depended on it – not because it's a bad book, necessarily, but because "something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the embrace of novelistic form".
Shields maps out the personal journey behind his polemic. As the son of two journalists, he grew up with a respect for reportage, but he also dreamed of a life consecrated to art. His first two novels were linear. Fluency and directness didn't come naturally, though (he'd had a bad childhood stutter), and realist fiction soon proved a dead end. Then one day he had an epiphany in the shower – an idea of juxtaposing fragments and seeing how that looked – and now he can't work any other way. His subsequent books have all been non-fiction, though if altering the facts makes a better story then he alters them. "Don't mess with Mr In-Between," his father used to say, but that's the ground Shields likes to occupy: neither straightahead journalism nor airtight art, but a no man's land of unverifiable authenticity.
All the best stories are true, or pretend to be true, and memoir is a seductive form for that reason. But Shields is keen to stress the unreliability of memoir, since "anything processed by memory is fiction". And where a non-fiction narrative follows an obvious pattern (triumph against the odds, etc), it will fail just as fiction fails by being mechanical and manipulative. That's where the advantages of the lyric essay lie: it isn't formulaic; it mirrors the contingency of life. What Shields means by the lyric essay isn't entirely clear. But he talks of rawness rather than polish, and it's safe to say he isn't thinking of Addison or Steele. He quotes Emerson and Montaigne a lot. Proust, though a novelist, is also enrolled, because "nothing ever happens" in his fiction. Crucial to the lyric essay is the lack of any obligation to tell stories.
Shields's other great buzzword is collage. He loves cut-ups, mosaics, found objects, chance creations, assemblages, splicings, remixes, mash-ups, homages; the author as "a creative editor, presenting selections by other artists in a new context and adding notes of his own". The novel is dead; long live the anti-novel, built from scraps: "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man," he says. Well, actually, he doesn't say it, James Joyce did. But there are no quotation marks to make that clear, and deliberately so: the book's premise is that "reality can't be copyrighted" and that we all have (or ought to have) ownership of each other's words. True, Shields has been forced to list his citations in small-print footnotes at the back of the book. But he invites readers to remove these with a razor blade, and in the main text we can't tell whether it's him or someone else talking.
There are other oddities, such as a chapter in which he reproduces letters he wrote to friends about their books without disclosing what those books are. And there are frustrations, not least with his discussion of reality TV, which fails to explore what, if anything, The Apprentice and American Idol have to do with reality. The real problem, though, is the central thesis. It's smart, stimulating and aphoristic, even when the aphorisms are stolen. But the more you think about it, the dodgier it seems.
First there's the relativism about truth and lies. In a chapter entitled "Trials by google" Shields defends (among others) James Frey for making things up in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. Of course Frey made things up, says Shields: who doesn't? Who cares? But there's a difference between false memory, rough recall, wilful deception and exaggeration for dramatic effect. And if Frey is, as Shields says, "a terrible writer", why defend him at all, since he's failed the first test? Carelessness with the truth and aesthetic failure aren't easily disentangled. We believe Primo Levi's account of the Holocaust because of the trouble he takes with small details, whereas the fuzzily predictable memories of Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments betray its fraudulence.
Second, Shields's excitement with the zeitgeist sometimes leads him down blind alleys. Take Sebald, who has replaced Raymond Carver as the doyen of creative writing programmes, much as Carver once replaced Angela Carter. Shields enlists Sebald in the cause of post-modernism, and it's true that Sebald blurs the margins between fact and fiction. But his voice is that of a German Romantic, half in love with death and decay. His art has nothing to do with blogging, podcasts and YouTube. And, seductive though his example is, a literary culture composed entirely of Sebald imitators, writing lyric essays and prose poems, would be arid.
Third, as Zadie Smith has argued, Shields sells fiction short. "Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole," he claims. Does it? Isn't this patronising to novelist and reader alike? Can't wresting order out of chaos be a triumph against the odds? And what exactly is this hated creature, the "conventional" or "standard" novel? The premise is that because life is fragmentary, art must be. But poems that rhyme needn't be a copout. And novels with a clear plot and definite resolution can still be full of ambiguity, darkness and doubt. By the same token, to engage with the dilemmas of an imaginary character means learning to empathise with otherness, and few skills are more important in the world today.
Shields has written a provocative and entertaining manifesto. But in his hunger for reality, he forgets that fiction also offers the sustenance of truth.
Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing
1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2 Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."
3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".
5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.
9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Creative Writing – Can it be taught or is it a scam?
Selections from the Paris Review Interviews
1. William Styron - PR Interviews Vol 4
INTERVIEWER What value does the creative-writing course have for young writers?
STYRON It gives them a start, I suppose. But it can be an awful waste of time. Look at those people who go back year after year to summer writers' conferences. You get so you can pick them out a mile away. A writing course can only give you a start, and help a little. It can't teach writing. The professor should weed out the good from the bad, cull them like a farmer, and not encourage the ones who haven't got something. At one school I know in New York, which has a lot of writing courses, there are a couple of teachers who moon in the most disgusting way over the poorest, most talentless writers, giving false hope where there shouldn't be any hope at all. Regularly they put out dreary little anthologies, the quality of which would chill your blood. It's a ruinous business, a waste of paper and time, and such teachers should be abolished.
INTERVIEWER The average teacher can't teach anything about technique or style?
STYRON Well, he can teach you something in matters of technique. You know—don't tell a story from two points of view and that sort of thing. But I don't think even the most conscientious and astute teachers can teach anything about style. Style comes only after long, hard practice and writing.
INTERVIEWER Do you enjoy writing?
STYRON I certainly don't. I get a fine, warm feeling when I'm doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell.
2. E.B White - PR Interviews Vol 4
INTERVIEWER Is style something that can be taught?
WHITE I don't think it can be taught. Style results more from what a person is than from what he knows. But there are a few hints that can be thrown out to advantage.
INTERVIEWER What would these few hints be?
WHITE They would be the twenty-one hints I threw out in Chapter V of The Elements of Style. There was nothing new or original about them, but there they are, for all to read.
3. P.G. Wodehouse - PR Interviews Vol 4
INTERVIEWER If you were asked to give advice to somebody who wanted to write humorous fiction, what would you tell him?
WODEHOUSE I'd give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel—if it's a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, Which are my big scenes? and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay—you're sunk. If they aren't in interesting situations, characters can't be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.
4. Marilynne Robinson - PR Interviews Vol 4
INTERVIEWER What is the most important thing you try to teach your students?
ROBINSON I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there's something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don't try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don't see any reason in fine-tuning something that's essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they're putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they're writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.
5. John Gardner - PR Interviews Vol 2
INTERVIEWER What about the teaching of creative writing?
GARDNER When you teach creative writing, you discover a great deal. For instance, if a student's story is really wonderful but thin, you have to analyze to figure out why it's thin, how you could beef it up. Every discovery of that kind is important. When you're reading only classical and medieval literature, all the bad stuff has been filtered out. There are no bad works in either Greek or Anglo-Saxon. Even the ones that are minor are the very best of the minor, because everything else has been lost or burned or thrown away. When you read this kind of literature, you never really learn how a piece can go wrong, but when you teach creative writing, you see a thousand ways that a piece can go wrong. So it's helpful to me. The other thing that's helpful when you're teaching creative writing is that there are an awful lot of people who at the age of seventeen or eighteen can write as well as you do. That's a frightening discovery. So you ask yourself, What am I doing? Here I've decided that what I'm going to be in life is to be this literary artist, at best; I'm going to stand with Tolstoy, Melville, and all the boys. And there's this kid, nineteen, who's writingjust as well. The characters are vividly perceived, the rhythm in the story is wonderful. What have I got that he hasn't got? You begin to think harder and harder about what makes great fiction. That can lead you to straining and overblowing your own fiction, which I've done sometimes, but it's useful to think about.
INTERVIEWER What are some specific things you can teach in creative writing?
GARDNER When you teach creative writing, you teach people, among other things, how to plot. You explain the principles, how it is that fiction thinks. And to give the kids a sense of how a plot works, you just spin out plot after plot after plot. In an hour session, you may spin out forty possible plots, one adhering to the real laws of energeia, each one a balance of the particular and general—and not one of them a story that you'd really want to write. Then one time, you hit one that catches you for some reason—you hit on the story that expresses your unrest. When I was teaching creative writing at Chico State, for instance, one of many plots I spun out was The Resurrection.
INTERVIEWER How does this work?
GARDNER One plot will just sort of rise above all the others for reasons that you don't fully understand. All of them are interesting, all of them have interesting characters, all of them talk about things that you could talk about, but one of them catches you like a nightmare. Then you have no choice but to write it—you can't forget it. It's a weird thing. If it's the kind of plot you really don't want to do because it involves your mother too closely, or whatever, you can try to do something else. But the typewriter keeps hissing at you and shooting sparks, and the paper keeps wrinkling and the lamp goes off and nothing else works, so finally you do the one that God said you've got
to do. And once you do it, you're grounded. It's an amazing thing. For instance, before I wrote the story about the kid who runs over his younger brother ("Redemption"), always, regularly, every day I used to have four or five flashes of that accident. I'd be driving down the highway and I couldn't see what was coming because I'd have a memory flash. I haven't had it once since I wrote the story. You really do ground your nightmares, you name them. When you write a story, you have to play that image, no matter how painful, over and over until you've got all the sharp details so you know exactly how to put it down on paper. By the time you've run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked every tic of your terror, it's lost its power over you. That's what bibliotherapy is all about, I guess. You take crazy people and have them write their story, better and better, and soon it's just a story on a page, or, more precisely, everybody's story on a page. It's a wonderful thing. Which isn't to say that I think writing is done for the health of the writer, though it certainly does incidentally have that effect.
INTERVIEWER Do you feel that literary techniques can really be taught? Some people feel that technique is an artifice or even a hindrance to true expression. ?
GARDNER Certainly it can be taught. But a teacher has to
know technique to teach it. I've seen a lot of writing teachers because I go
around visiting colleges, visiting creative writing classes. A terrible number
of awful ones, grotesquely bad. That doesn't mean that one should throw writing
out of the curriculum, because when you get a good creative writing class it's
magisterial. Most of the writers I know in the world don't know how they do what
they do. Most of them feel it out. Bernard Malamud and I had a conversation one
time in which he said that he doesn't know how he does those magnificent things
he sometimes does. He just keeps writing until it comes out right. If that's the
way a writer works, then that's the way he had to work, and that's fine. But I
like to be in control as much of the time as possible. One of the first things
you have to understand when you are writing fiction—or teaching writing—is that
there are different ways of doing things, and each one has a slightly different
effect. A misunderstanding of this leads you to the Bill Gass position: that
fiction can't tell the truth, because every way you say the thing changes it. I
don't think that's to the point. I think that what fiction does is sneak up on
the truth by telling it six different ways and finally releasing it. That's what
Dante said, that you can't really get at the poetic, inexpressible truths, that
the way things are leaps up like steam between them. So you have to determine
very accurately the potential of a particular writer's style and help that
potential develop at the same time, ignoring what you think of his moral stands.
I hate nihilistic, cynical writing. I hate it. It bothers me and worse yet, bores me. But if I have a student who writes with morbid delight about murder, what I'll have to do—though of course I'll tell him I don't like this kind of writing, that it's immoral, stupid, and bad for civilization—is say what is successful about the work and what is not. I have to swallow every bit of my moral feelings to help the writer write his way, his truth. It may be that the most moral writing of all is writing that shows us how a murderer feels, how it happens. It may be it will protect us from murderers someday.
6. Harold Bloom - PR Interviews Vol 2
INTERVIEWER What do you think of creative-writing workshops?
BLOOM I suppose that they do more good than harm, and yet
it baffles me. Writing seems to me so much an art of solitude. Criticism is a
teachable art, but like every art it too finally depends upon an inherent or
implicit gift. I remember remarking somewhere in something I wrote that I gave
up going to the Modern Language Association some years ago because the idea of a
convention of twenty-five or thirty thousand critics is every bit as hilarious
as the idea of going to a convention of
twenty-five thousand poets or novelists. There aren't twenty-five thousand critics. I frequently wonder if there are five critics alive at any one time. The extent to which the art of fiction or the art of poetry is teachable is a more complex problem. Historically, we know how poets become poets and fiction writers become fiction writers— they read. They read their predecessors and they learn what is to be learned. The idea of Herman Melville in a writing class is always distressing to me.
7. Toni Morrison - PR Interviews Vol 2
INTERVIEWER Do you think there is an education for becoming a writer? Reading perhaps?
MORRISON That has only limited value.
INTERVIEWER Travel the world? Take courses in sociology, history?
MORRISON Or stay home ... I don't think they have to go anywhere.
INTERVIEWER Some people say, Oh, I can't write a book until I've lived my life, until I've had experiences.
MORRISON That may be—maybe they can't. But look at the people who never went anywhere and just thought it up. Thomas Mann. I guess he took a few little trips ... I think you either have or you acquire this sort of imagination. Sometimes you do need a stimulus. But I myself don't ever go anywhere for stimulation. I don't want to go anywhere. If I could just sit in one spot I would be happy. I don't trust the ones who say I have to go do something before I can write. You see, I don't write autobiographically. First of all, I'm not interested in real-life people as subjects for fiction—including myself. If I write about somebody who's a historical figure like Margaret Garner, I really don't know anything about her. What I knew came from reading two interviews with her. They said, Isn't this extraordinary. Here's a woman who escaped into Cincinnati from the horrors of slavery and was not crazy. Though she'd killed her child, she was not foaming at the mouth. She was very calm; she said, I'd do it again. That was more than enough to fire my imagination.
8. Alice Munro - PR Interviews Vol 2
MUNRO …I got an offer of a job teaching creative writing at York University outside of Toronto. But I didn't last at that job at all. I hated it, and even though I had no money, I quit.
INTERVIEWER Because you didn't like teaching fiction?
MUNRO No! It was terrible. This was 1973. York was one of the more radical Canadian universities, yet my class was all male except for one girl who hardly got to speak. They were doing what was fashionable at the time, which had to do with being both incomprehensible and trite; they seemed intolerant of anything else. It was good for me to learn to shout back and express some ideas about writing that I hadn't sharpened up before, but I didn't know how to reach them, how not to be an adversary. Maybe I'd know now. But it didn't seem to have anything to do with writing—more like good training for going into television or something, getting really comfortable with clichés. I should have been able to change that, but I couldn't. I had one student who wasn't in the class who brought me a story. I remember tears came into my eyes because it was so good, because I hadn't seen a good piece of student writing in so long. She asked, How can I get into your class? And I said, Don't! Don't come near my class, just keep bringing me your work. And she has become a writer. The only one who did.
INTERVIEWER Has there been a proliferation of creative-writing schools in Canada as in the United States?
MUNRO Maybe not quite as much. We don't have anything up here like Iowa. But careers are made by teaching in writing departments. For a while I felt sorry for these people because they weren't getting published. The fact that they were making three times as much money as I would ever see didn’t quite get through to me.
9. Peter Carey - PR Interviews Vol 2
INTERVIEWER These days you run a graduate writing program at Hunter College. But the way you became a writer was completely informal, right? You had no training.
CAREY In one way that's true, but it would be too smug to go along with it uncritically. Yes, we tend to be self-taught, and there's a part of me that thinks that's the way it should be—you do it alone, you learn to endure loneliness. I never said, I think I'll just workshop this with twelve other people. But I did have help. I mentioned Barry Oakley, who'd been a schoolteacher. He encouraged me, he gave me books. He read my writing and infuriated me by telling me it didn't work. I somehow managed to cast him in the role of an old conservative father to my young radical. But when I wrote my first successful stories, he was the one who said, They're good. By then I couldn't bear to be rejected by anyone. Barry gave stories to this person and that person, and with his help they found their way into magazines. It wasn't an MFA program, but it was hugely helpful. If that had not happened I wouldn't have been a writer.
10. Kurt Vonnegut – Paris Review Interviews Vol 1
INTERVIEWER Do you really think creative writing can be taught?
VONNEGUT About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing. I did that well, I think, at the University of Iowa for two years. Gail Godwin and John Irving and Jonathan Penner and Bruce Dobler and John Casey and Jane Casey were all students of mine out there. They've all published wonderful stuff since then. I taught creative writing badly at Harvard—because my marriage was breaking up, and because I was commuting every week to Cambridge from New York. I taught even worse at City College a couple of years ago. I had too many other projects going on at the same time. I don't have the will to teach anymore. I only know the .theory.
INTERVIEWER Could you put the theory into a few words?
VONNEGUT It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers' Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: Don't take it all so seriously.
INTERVIEWER And how would that be helpful?
VONNEGUT It would remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes.
INTERVIEWER Practical jokes?
VONNEGUT If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.
INTERVIEWER Can you give an example?
VONNEGUT The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, and I asked him what the plot was, and he said, A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.
INTERVIEWERSome more examples?
VONNEGUT The others aren't that much fun to describe: somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; some body hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.
INTERVIEWER If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.
VONNEGUT I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn't get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now there's an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—
INTERVIEWER And what they want.
VONNEGUT Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. Modern life is so lonely, they say. This is laziness. It's the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can't or won't do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
INTERVIEWER Trade? :
VONNEGUT Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader's leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.
INTERVIEWER Surely talent is required?
VONNEGUT In all those fields. I was a Saab dealer on Cape Cod for a while, and I enrolled in their mechanic's school, and they threw me out of their mechanic's school. No talent.
INTERVIEWER How common is storytelling talent?
VONNEGUT In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by.
INTERVIEWER What distinguishes those two from the rest?
VONNEGUT They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won't want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.
INTERVIEWER You have been a public relations man and an advertising man —
VONNEGUT Oh, I imagine.
INTERVIEWER Was this painful? I mean — did you feel your talent was being wasted, being crippled?
VONNEGUT No. That's romance—that work of that sort damages a writer's soul. At Iowa, Dick Yates and I used to give a lecture each year on the writer and the free-enterprise system. The students hated it. We would talk about all the hack jobs writers could take in case they found themselves starving to death, or in case they wanted to accumulate enough capital to finance the writing of a book. Since publishers aren't putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn't buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks. Otherwise, we are soon going to find ourselves without a contemporary literature. There is only one genuinely ghastly thing hack jobs do to writers, and that is to waste their precious time.
INTERVIEWER No joke.
VONNEGUT A tragedy. I just keep trying to think of ways, even horrible ways, for young writers to somehow hang on.
11. Elizabeth Bishop PR Interviews Vol 1
INTERVIEWER Did you ever take a writing course as a student?
BISHOP When I went to Vassar
I took sixteenth-century, seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century literature,
and then a course in the novel. The kind of courses where you have to do a lot
of reading. I don't think I believe in writing courses at all. There weren't any
when I was there. There was a poetry-writing course in the evening, but not for
credit. A couple of my friends went to it, but I never did.
The word creative drives me crazy. I don't like to regard it as therapy. I was in the hospital several years ago and somebody gave me Kenneth Koch's book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? And it's true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged. From everything I've read and heard, the number of students in English departments taking literature courses has been falling off enormously. But at the same time the number of people who want to get in the writing classes seems to get bigger and bigger. There are usually two or three being given at Harvard every year. I'd get forty applicants for ten or twelve places. Fifty. It got bigger and bigger. I don't know if they do this to offset practical concerns, or what.
12. Robert Stone Paris Review Interviews Vol 1
INTERVIEWER Aside from that childhood training in rhetoric, did you learn anything about writing in other academic programs? Anything useful or valuable about creative writing?
STONE Not really. But a creative writing class can at least be good for morale. When I teach writing, I do things like take classes to bars and race tracks to listen to dialogue. But that kind of thing has limited usefulness. There's no body of technology to impart. But that doesn't mean classes can't help. The idea that young writers ought to be out slinging hash or covering the fights or whatever is bullshit. There's a point where a class can do a lot of good. You know, you throw the rock and you get the splash.
13. Richard Price Paris Review Interviews Vol 1
INTERVIEWER Can writing be taught?
PRICE You can't teach talent anymore than you can teach somebody to be an athlete. But maybe you help the writer find their story, and that's ninety-nine percent of it. Oftentimes, it's a matter of lining up the archer with the target. I had a student in one of my classes. He was writing all this stuff about these black guys in the South Bronx who were on angel dust. . . the most amoral thrill-killers. They were evil, evil. But it was all so over-the-top to the point of being silly. He didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't know this stuff either, but I knew enough to know that this wasn't it.I said to the kid, Why are you writing this? Are you from the Bronx? He says, No. From New Jersey. Are you a former angel-dust sniffer? Do you run with a gang? He says, No. My father's a fireman out in Toms River. Oh, so he's a black fireman in suburban New Jersey? Christ! Why don't you write about that? I mean, nobody writes about black guys in the suburbs. I said, Why are you writing this other stuff? He said to me, Well, I figure people are expecting me to write this stuff. What if they do? First of all, they don't. Second, even if they did, which is stupid, why should I read you? What do you know that I don't know? He turned out to be one of these kids in the early eighties who was bombing trains with graffiti—one of these guys who was part of the whole train-signing subculture, you know, Turk 182. He wrote a story, over a hundred pages long, about what it was like to be one of these guys—fifteen pages alone on how to steal aerosol cans from hardware stores. He could describe the smell of spray paint mixing with that rush of tunnel air when someone jerked open the connecting door on a moving train that you were "decorating." He wrote about the Atlantic Avenue station in Brooklyn where all the graffiti-signers would hang out, their informal clubhouse, how they all kept scrapbooks of each other's tags. Who would know that stuff except somebody who really knew? And it was great. The guy was bringing in the news. Now, whether it's art or not depends on how good he is. But he went from this painful chicken scratch of five-page bullshit about angel-dust killers to writing stuff that smacked of authenticity and intimacy.That is the job of the writing teacher: what do you think you should be writing about? At Yale I had the same problem. They'd write ten pages of well-worded this or that, but where's the story? I finally came up with an assignment. I hate giving assignments. I hated getting them and I hate giving them. But—the last of the good assignments—I made them all find a photograph of their family taken at least one year before the writer was born. I said, All right. Write me a story that starts the minute these people break this pose. Where did they go? What did they do? We all have stories about our family, most of them are apocryphal, but whether you love or hate your family, they're yours and these are your stories. On the other hand, Tom McGuane once said, I've done a lot of horrible things in my life but I never taught creative writing.
In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut qualifies the list by adding that Flannery O'Connor broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that.
submitted by Brett Wilson
Susan Sontag On Writing
Reading novels seems to me such a normal activity, while writing them is such an odd thing to do.. .At least so I think, until I remind myself how firmly the two are related.
First, to write is to practice, with intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading. You write in order to read what you've written and see if it's OK and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it: once, twice, as many times as it takes. You are your own first, maybe severest, reader. "To write is to sit in judgement on oneself," wrote Ibsen. Hard to imagine writing without rereading.
But is what you've written straight off never all right? Yes, sometimes even better than all right And that only suggests, to this novelist at any rate, that with a closer look, or voicing aloud (that is, another reading), it might be better still. I'm not saying that the writer has to fret and sweat to produce something good. "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure," said Dr Johnson, and the maxim seems as remote from contemporary taste as its author. Surely, much that is written without effort gives a great deal of pleasure.
No, the question is not the judgement of readers - who may well prefer a writer's more spontaneous, less elaborated work - but a sentiment of writers, those professionals of dissatisfaction. You think: "If I can get it to this point the first go around, without too much struggle, couldn't it be better still?"And although the rewriting, and the rereading, sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing. Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of "literature" in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit.
Let's say it's a mess. But you have a chance to fix it. You try to be clearer. Or deeper. Or more eloquent. Or more eccentric. You try to be true to a world. You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative. You want to winch yourself up from yourself . You want to winch the book out of your mind. As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be - what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be. You read the sentences over and over. Is this the book I'm writing? Is this all?
Or let's say it's going well; for it does go well, sometimes. (If it didn't, some of the time, you'd go crazy.) There you are, and even if you are the slowest of scribes and the worst of touch typists, a trail of words is getting laid down, and you want to keep going; and then you reread it. Perhaps you don't dare to be satisfied, but at the same time you like what you've written. You find yourself taking pleasure - a reader's pleasure -in what's there on the page.
Blindwriters can never reread what they dictate. Perhaps this matters less for poets, who often do most of their writing in their head before setting anything down on paper. (Poets live by the ear much more than prose writers.) And not being able to see doesn't mean one doesn't make revisions. Don't we imagine that Milton's daughters, at the end of each day of the dictation of Paradise Lost, read it all back to their father aloud and then took down his corrections?
But prose writers, who work in a lumberyard of words, can't hold it all in their heads. They need to see what they've written. Even those writers who seem most forthcoming, prolific, must feel this. (Thus Sartre announced, when he went blind, that his writing days were over.) Think of portly, venerable Henry James pacing up and down in a room in Lamb House composing The Golden Bowl aloud to a secretary. Leaving aside the difficulty of imagining how James's late prose could have been dictated at all, much less to the racket made by a Remington typewriter circa 1900, don't we assume that James reread what had been typed and was lavish with his corrections?
When I became, again, a cancer patient two years ago and had to break off work on the nearly finished In America, a kind friend in Los Angeles offered to come to New York and stay with me as long as needed, to take down my dictation of the rest of the novel. True, the first eight chapters were done (that is, rewritten and reread many times), and I'd begun the next-to-last chapter, and I did feel I had the arc of those last two chapters entirely in my head. And yet I had to refuse his offer. It wasn't just that I was already too befuddled by a drastic chemo cocktail and lots of painkillers to remember what I was planning to write. I had to be able to see what I wrote, not just hear it. I had to be able to reread.
Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you've become a writer, reading books others write - and rereading the beloved books of the past - constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration.
Of course, not all writers will admit this. I remember once saying something to VS Naipaul about a 19th-century English novel I loved, a very well-known novel that I assumed he, like everyone I knew who cared for literature, admired as I did. But no, he'd not read it, he said, and seeing the shadow of surprise on my face, added sternly: "Susan, I'm a writer, not a reader."
Many writers who are no longer young claim, for various reasons, to read very little, indeed, to find reading and writing in some sense incompatible. Perhaps, for some writers, they are. It's not for me to judge. If the reason is anxiety about being influenced, then this seems to me a vain, shallow worry. If the reason is lack of time, then this is an asceticism to which I don't aspire.
Losing yourself in a book, the old phrase, is not an idle fantasy but an addictive, model reality Virginia Woolf famously said in a letter:
"Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.” Surely the heavenly part is that - again, Woolf's words - "the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego". Unfortunately, we never do lose the ego, any more than we can step over our own feet. But that disembodied rapture, reading, is trancelike enough to make us feel ego-less.
Like reading, rapturous reading, writing fiction - inhabiting other selves - feels like losing yourself, too.
Everybody likes to think now that writing is just a form of self-regard, also called self-expression. As we're no longer supposed to be capable of authentically altruistic feelings, we're not supposed to be capable of writing about anyone but ourselves.
But that's not true. William Trevor speaks of the boldness of the non-autobiographical imagination. Why wouldn't you write to escape yourself as much as you might write to express yourself? It's far more interesting to write about others.
Needless to say, I lend bits of myself to all my characters. When, in In America, my immigrants from Poland reach southern California (they're just outside the village of Anaheim) in 1876, stroll out into the desert and succumb to a terrifying, transforming vision of emptiness, I was surely drawing on my own memory of childhood walks into the desert of southern Arizona, outside what was then a small town, Tucson, in the 1940s.
What I write about is other than me. As what I write is smarter than I am. Because I can rewrite it. My books know what I once knew, fitfully, intermittently. And getting the best words on the page does not seem any easier, even after so many years of writing. On the contrary Here is the great difference between reading and writing. Reading is avocation, a skill, at which, with practice, you are bound to become more expert. What you accumulate as a writer are mostly uncertainties and anxieties.
All these feelings of inadequacy on the part of the writer - this writer, anyway - are predicated on the conviction that literature matters. Matters is surely too pale a word. That there are books that are "necessary". That is, books that, while reading them, you know you'll reread. Maybe more than once. Is there a greater privilege than to have a consciousness expanded by, filled with, pointed to literature?
Book of wisdom, exemplar of mental playfulness, dilator of sympathies, faithful recorder of a real world (not just the commotion inside one head), servant of history, advocate of contrary and defiant emotions. . . a novel that feels necessary can be, should be, most of these things.
As for whether there will continue to be readers who share this high notion of fiction, well, "There's no future to that question," as Duke Ellington replied when asked why he was to be found playing morning programs at the Apollo. Best just to keep rowing along.
An idiot's guide to writing
Who is buying the promises sold by writer's magazines?
Dan Glover National Post
They could be mistaken for Cosmopolitan or Glamour, if not for the fact that the lacy come-ons on their covers promise a completed novel or sold poem rather than instant beauty or a thoroughly sated husband. Kneel before any city magazine rack, shift aside mildewed numbers of Rifle and Shotgun, Boy Bands and Fangoria, and you will find glossies like Personal Journaling, Scr(i)pt and The Writer, all promising to teach a gentler art than beauty or seduction -- the art of writing well, quickly.
To the cynical, reading writing about how to write may seem like chasing one's own tail, but to others these magazines have become the holders of Masonry secrets, month by month decanting the distilled essence of the craft. The acknowledged master of the scene is Writer's Digest, a Cincinnati-based monthly with a circulation of 180,000. Established in 1920, when it appeared in the guise of a pulpy Reader's Digest, Writer's Digest long ago learned how to compete in a glossy, large-format world, marshalling a sense of desperate immediacy with peppy slogans -- 8 Sizzling Ways to Start Your Scene! or You Can Write a Great Novel!
Extending hope where perhaps there should be none, these magazines are no favourites of the journals who receive the brunt of their readers' hopeful submissions. Asked about the 30,000 manuscripts that land annually on his magazine's slush pile, The Paris Review's Benjamin Howe responds by e-mail: "The job of sifting through them is handled by four or five readers, usually MFA students. These people, I've noticed, tend to leave the office at the end of the afternoon in a mute daze, which is the effect of reading so many fractured narratives. Less than a quarter of the manuscripts we receive are even somewhat publishable."
Published writers, at least the kind who are invited to major short story conferences, also feel fiction takes more time. Speaking at the recent Wild Writers We Have Known symposium in Stratford, Ont., panellists said even the shortest stories linger a year or two at least before they assume a publishable form.
In an example she acknowledged was extreme, writer Robyn Sarah recalled starting a story about a woman who veiled a suicide attempt as an accident, revealing her intent years later when she finally killed herself. Begun with a line scrawled on a piece of paper in 1975, the story took 18 years to finish, after an arduous struggle against half-starts, years-long blank spells and false victories.
This was not how Sarah imagined writing would be, having inherited a mammoth box of issues of The Writer and Writer's Digest as a teen.
"They made writing a story seem so easy, and it just didn't happen. I remember reading in Writer's Digest that the first draft of most saleable stories is written in one sitting. It wasn't so."
To the audience, it seemed Sarah's point was not to claim every story requires a decades-long steeping, but that to write fiction is to enter into a pact without guarantees or deadlines, a view contrary to the school of thought that promises publishable manuscripts within 90 days.
Writer's Digest is the foundation of an empire that has channelled the secrets of writing into every possible profitable form. Readers of Asimov's Science Fiction will have seen ads for the Writer's Digest Book Club, which sells everything from The Art of Compelling Fiction to You Can Write Greeting Cards, all with a value "up to $89.95!" Emergency room screenwriters can buy Code Blue; those with a taste for the law can get "an inside look at the U.S. legal system" via Order in the Court.
The force behind these works is F&W Publications, a how-to giant that churns out fathomless numbers of books and magazines on art, design and woodworking. Like Alexander the Great, F&W must have surveyed the writer's advice market and wept because it had no more worlds to conquer. Bearing great block 'W's at the base of their spines, Writer's Digest volumes have stormed writer's shelves in bookstores everywhere, leaving nothing but a few scattered Strunk and Whites or Chicago Manuals of Style in their path.
For those new to the territory, the ads in the writer's magazines seem a queer republic of their own, with all the gusto of traditional advertising but none of its polish. Leafing through Writer's Digest, one finds a spate of ads taken out by the makers of Kleenex™, Rollerblade™, Post-it™, Velcro™ and Wite-Out™, all petrified that writers will become tempted to use their names as nouns or, God forbid, gerunds. All respect for intellectual property aside, it is hard to envision a new wave of writers describing their heroes sniffling into "Kleenex™ brand tissue paper" when a single abused generic might do.
The number of trademark ads, however, palls next to a series of darker pitches. Suggesting that anyone can write, perhaps for a price, scores of curious ads for vanity presses, ghostwriters, Christian guilds, correspondence courses and $40,000 poetry contests conjure a dimly lit parallel world where freelance secretaries still type out longhand manuscripts and agents in crisp, white, collared shirts linger at street entrances to publishing houses to push their latest discoveries.
It is, of course, debatable whether this world exists. The agency and self-publishing ads seem always to lead to P.O. boxes instead of street addresses; and the correspondence courses originate in cyberspace rather than physical campuses.
A case in point is a full colour ad that appeared in a recent Writer's Digest. There a sexless purple dinosaur leaps from a thin, waxy page, trespassing on Barney's intellectual content beneath the slogan, "We're looking for people to write children's books."
In the small print, the advertiser reveals itself as The Institute of Children's Literature, a correspondence school that challenges writers to get in on the "more than $1.5 billion worth of children's books ... purchased annually." Based in Connecticut, the Institute awards six college credits per course and boasts a 95.2% student approval rate, a figure that would not seem awry in a North Korean election.
Entering the world of children's publishing comes at a cost. When I called the Institute, a cordial operator named Sarah told me sending in my stories would cost $895 Canadian over 14 months, but said I would have at least one manuscript to submit to publishers by term's end.
Although not as machine-like as Writer's Digest, many of its competitors have a deep history. The oldest is The Writer, a monthly born in Boston in April, 1887, with the stated goal of trying "to interest and help all literary workers."
This year, the 20,000-circulation magazine was bought by Kalmbach Publishing, stripped of its editors and moved to Waukesha, Wis., a bedroom community just outside of Milwaukee. Kalmbach, the publisher of Model Railroader, Scale Auto Enthusiast, BEAD & Button and Astronomy, has sprung for a much-needed redesign and, hopefully, a staff that knows the correct spelling of Katherine Mansfield's name, one of many errors that dotted October's valedictory Boston edition.
For all its flaws, The Writer seems to keep to a higher terrain than Writer's Digest, recommending voracious reading while discussing ways to climb out of artistic gullies. If behind its competitor's sugary slogans awaits a sour truth -- You will never write a novel -- The Writer whispers a gentler message: You might.
Maintaining a more combative view is Toronto's Write magazine, whose editor, Chris Garbutt, calls his competitors "snake-oil salesmen" and Writer's Digest in particular "the Jenny Craig of writing" and an outlet for "career hobbyists."
Recognizing that writing is an industry of hope -- and hope is easily preyed upon -- Write recently published editorials decrying submission guidelines and the fly-by-night literary contests that charge writers vast fees to enter their work.
"We take writing a lot more seriously and a lot less cynically," Garbutt says. "These other magazines get your money and get out of town."
Writer's Digest editor Melanie Rigney says her magazine occasionally rejects the ads of companies it feels have abused the trust of readers -- outfits she calls "rip-off people, the Edit Inc.s of the world who really made people think that if they used these editing services, their books would be published."
While Rigney says Writer's Digest accepts no payment for its workshops, the magazine does run ads for the Writer's Digest Criticism Service, a "tailored advice" program that charges US$46 for the first 3,000 words of a story, and US$8 for every 1,000 words thereafter. She adds the magazine has a "Church and State" policy in which the advertising department has no inside view of the editorial product, but admits vetting advertisers has become "kind of a balancing act."
All the evidence points at Writer's Digest encouraging a class of writers who seek a quick, tidy profit -- quite hopelessly. Beneath stories of first successes and pie-in-the-sky paydays (US$75-$125 an hour for brochure-writing; US$130-200 per page for white papers), the magazine buries listings that offer better assessments of what journals pay -- Murderous Intent US$2-$5 per poem, Century four cents per word for fiction, The Leading Edge a single cent for prose.
More lost hope is apparent in a Writer's Digest column called "Writer's Clinic." Chosen from a pool of approximately 30 to 50 submissions, the four pages critiqued in the September issue are marked by dialogue as level, colourless and well-drained as the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Although the work is entirely without merit, the Writer's Clinic editor refuses to say so, gravely advising his charge to evoke character by using verbs like "scurries," "sweeps" or "strides." An outsider cannot help but see a greater flaw in the story: that it is painful to read.
The problem the editor avoids is evident -- and, if acknowledged, endangers the life of his magazine. A novel, any good novel, whether an intellectual romance, a satire, a potboiler or a thriller, begins with a line that works, a line tense and rare enough to pull the reader to the next line. The lines resolve into paragraphs, the paragraphs into chapters, the chapters eventually into the vaster work, the novel. Only the greatest page-turners are able to exploit this truth, which is why there are so few of them. The rest, no matter how hard they try, cannot tug readers so forcibly from line to line.
There is another point of view, one that heralds writing as an act of observation and expression, regardless of whether it leads to publication -- an act that exists in a chorus alongside reading and thinking.
"I think that writing is one of the most important artistic endeavours," says Write's Garbutt. "Whether you're writing a cute little memoir or a political treatise, I think that writing is a political act.
"Should everyone write? Why not? Should everyone get published? Probably not."
For all the criticisms aimed at the writer's advice magazines, their audience is indisputably loyal -- or at least well-poised in a renewable industry of hope.
In a craft that traces its roots to prophets and soothsayers, few writers like to admit that they have taken inspiration from lesser sources, let alone from low-cal glossies at the base of magazine stands. Still, while James Joyce may have been a genius from the cradle and William Faulkner motivated enough to write As I Lay Dying over four weeks of night watchman shifts at a power plant, other storytellers needed to be taught and inspired, such as Flannery O'Connor and J.D. Salinger, whose writing flourished after they entered workshops.
As improbable as it might seem, the writer's magazines may hint at a truth. For all the forms our literature admits, there may still only be "8 Sizzling Plots" or "2 Foolproof Endings" -- with our best proof the generations of novelists who use comedy or tragedy as a backbone, and can't finish a book unless wedding or funeral bells are cascading in the distance.
I first delved into the reviews posted by readers on Amazon.com for utilitarian reasons. I will soon be publishing a serious nonfiction book; I wanted to know what kind of attention such a book could expect to get from this particular sample of the reading public. My case study, I decided, would be Susan Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.
I came, I clicked, I read. Stiffed, as of this writing, has been reviewed by 75 Amazon.com users. Quite a few pieces were thoughtful and well-turned, often outstripping in quality the capsule reviews that run in outlets like Booklist and Library Journal. I began availing myself of the feature that lets you see all the other pieces a particular reviewer has posted, and a brief autobiography. There was the man who has devoted his retirement to the study and practice of social criticism; the "graying engineer" who recommended Stiffed to his fellow Promise Keepers; the environmental science student at Rice University whose searching reviews of such works as the Koran, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and an entire shelfful of books attempting to refute the theory of evolution provided a moving portrait of a sensitive mind composing itself into maturity. The part of me that instinctively defends Average America against charges of numskullery--my inner populist--was gratified indeed.
Then I was visited by my inner Reinhold Niebuhr. That happened when one anonymous writer, after several insightful paragraphs on the Faludi book's pros and cons, veered off into an unhinged rant about the evils of the alimony system. I now glanced over the 75 reviewers with different eyes, saw that many of them, perhaps a plurality, were eaten away by resentments of "this new matriarchy we are suffering with" and "another foaming-at-the-mouth denunciation of men." But they, too, got me going: Plumbing such depths is something a chair-bound intellectual anxious about losing touch with the real world can always enjoy.
I was, at any rate, hooked. Amazon.com was interesting. I spent the better part of a month absorbed within what can fairly be called its culture.
Amazon ranks its reviewers via a complex algorithm based on the number and popularity of their reviews, and, besotted by Malcolm Gladwell-think, I hit upon the brilliant idea of finding reviewers to whom--through whom--I might promote my own book. I soon discovered that top Amazonians are far too busy to countenance such a nuisance. The first-place reviewer earned a profile in People by reviewing over 670 books in five years--15 over one five-day stretch. Another's reading is booked through the next decade. A third clawed his way to 17th place by writing word-splicing reviews in analytic philosophy mode, 22 in the month of May alone, on the likes of Spinoza and Hume. ("If his distinction between 'personal' and 'impersonal' values is also found wanting," he observed of Thomas Nagel, "then his argument is an extended ignoratio elenchi." But you knew that.)
I wondered why they did it. So I began to get to know them. Some are possessed of a simple sense of craft and calling. One of my favorites, a Proust fan and student of superstring theory, described to me the centerpiece of his elaborate reading room: a sculpted recumbent leather chair that holds him "sort of in a spaceship takeoff position." He marvels that house guests see nothing in wandering in and engaging him in conversation when he is so ensconced. "I suppose to most Americans," he complains, "reading is what you do when you haven't anything better to do."
Others' motives are not so pure. A general contractor who calls himself Toolpig--people review all kinds of consumer products on Amazon, not just books--explained to me that he had been happily rating tools for years simply for the pleasure of helping others. Then, this spring, he received an e-mail from Amazon honchos informing him that they would soon be inaugurating the rankings program and that he was among the site's top reviewers. Before that, he was planning to retire. "Now it's different," he says. "I've been ranked. I love competition."
From writers Amazon.com often gets poor reviews. "It may mark an excessive surrender to the anonymous mind-suckers who inhabit the Internet these days to give any credit to the amateur 'reviewers' who comment on new books via Amazon.com," wrote novelist Rosellen Brown in a recent issue of The Women's Review of Books, "but they're a nasty fact." I can see from whence her anger springs. Brown's novels harvest praise in Time and The New York Times Book Review, blurbs from people like Cynthia Ozick and Anne Tyler, but on Amazon, she's something of a goat. "Shallow and somewhat insulting," is one typical verdict; "so frustrating in its obviousness that the novel is almost unreadable," is another. Amazon wears away all those insulating cushions--reviews by relatively thoughtful professionals, cosseting praise from friends and family, readings before fans (never critics)--that have ever protected authors from the outrageous opinions of poor, indifferent, or even hostile readers. Who are perhaps, even, the majority of readers. Our public: Take them or leave them.
Though a surprising number of Amazon reviewers are professional writers themselves. Did I mention one of the reviewers of Stiffed was Nation columnist Katha Pollitt? Her 14 reviews of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and children's books are enough to earn her 1,966th place in the Amazon rankings--only 256 spots behind Newt Gingrich.
It's the glaring, almost structural, discontinuity of interest between readers with clout and readers on Amazon that is most fascinating. You see it again and again: Books reviewed "everywhere"--the kind of books a print addict feels like he or she has read even without cracking the spine--do not make a ripple here. Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, a ballyhooed title from the spiffy new conglomerate Talk Miramax, has been reviewed once.
The gap may be widest in the realm of politics. The Amazon page for Paul Berman's '60s study, A Tale of Two Utopias, excerpts five glowing reviews from newspapers and magazines but not a single one from an Amazonian; John Judis's new book has six print reviews to one Amazonian. Books about Clintons and Reagans are well-covered. Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the White House has been reviewed on Amazon 70 times, garnering, like most conservative books, 80 percent five-star ratings and 20 percent one-star, as opposed to pro-Clinton books, which receive 20 percent five-star, 80 percent one-star. In both cases, the quality tends to be as debased as ... well, the typical political campaign. We get the political reviews we deserve.
Amazon rewards its top reviewers with gift certificates and "Amazon.com Top Reviewer" knickknacks. No surprise; this is their sales force. But it is also so much more: a political commons, a fairly extraordinary congeries of demotic expertise, a semi-spontaneous system of pools, eddies, and currents--the more dynamic the more people participate. Writers stake out niches--five-star business books, fine collectibles guides, Regency romances, the Final Solution. University of Massachusetts economist Herb Gintis's page constitutes an excellent lesson plan for the student of evolutionary game theory, an increasingly important sub-neck-of-the-woods for social scientists. Some cater to still more esoteric tastes--like Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, who uses his presence in the top 100 to promote a site featuring "the Web's most extensive FAQ on cases of reincarnation from the Holocaust period." Barron Laycock is a daunting expert in twentieth-century European history (whose other reviews, however, draw hate mail from feminists); Duwayne Anderson is on a mission to spread the word on all the science books he has discovered since abandoning the intellectual strictures of his former Mormon faith.
At first it hardly seemed romantic to imagine the site might go on of its own steam, even if the commercial enterprise were to collapse tomorrow. But then I heard from a few late respondents. Amazon's volunteers are constrained from the start, it emerges. All reviews are evaluated by corporate personnel before they are posted. Personal attacks are (imperfectly) screened out; more portentously, negative reviews are often disallowed unless the writer recommends some alternative purchase. As for the ranking of reviewers, thoughtful observers are beginning to agree--even as they are left unclear how this occult scheme actually works--that it is becoming irredeemably corroded by various ways of gaming the system. (Attract, for example, a flock of friends to praise your two-word review, "cool music," and you advance dramatically.) "The reviewers were invited to become a community," one of them told me, "and then the community was handed over to thugs."
Our Amazonians, ourselves--honorable, vulnerable, both. "If men were angels," said James Madison, "no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Whether as book reviewers or as citizens, people are as good as the rules they work within; make the rules progressively worse--as excessive concern for money tends to do--and "cool music" (or, to take another example, campaign finance hogs like Senator Mitch McConnell) soon enough set the standard. We, meanwhile, are left to our own critical faculties to find richness among the ruins--which is all we ever had. And if there's a new book on World War II you want to size up, let me recommend to you a visit to Barron Laycock's page on Amazon, because he's already been there. ¤
The Growth of the Poet's Mind #1 Brett Wilson
The books that make a difference are the ones you remember. These are the books that define your life, set you off in new directions, and influence your style. I still own the first comic book I bought: Thor #141: The Wrath of Replicus. Many would decline that to call it a book. But the majestic graphics of Jack Kirby do not detract from the quality of Stan Lee’s words. I was eight years old. When I think of the disdain with which my teachers treated comics, I feel sorry for those boys who were turned off books but didn’t have a marvel such as this. The writing alone surpasses anything offered to an infant in our unimaginative system of one size fits all education.
Robert E Howard could create atmosphere like the best gothic novelists and to this he added action and narrative drive. Colin Wilson’s book, The Occult was my template for essay style along with Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching didn’t start my interest in mysticism but it is concise, beautiful and deeply perplexing. David Hume’s challenge in A Treatise of Human Nature was not met by me, nor by any other thinker. He successfully undermines empiricism and the collective project of science (fortunately he was ignored). As a young man I was depressed by this idea, as I was by Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The idea of automating theorem production (first proposed by David Hilbert) and hence automating thought, seemed like a prize within reach, but Gödel showed that the enterprise was a chimera. Wittgenstein had already abandoned his picture theory of language proposed in the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, and Turing in his doctoral thesis was able to show how the halting problem delimited classical computation.
I was always fascinated by the spastic narrative. What Kurt Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse Five is make it serve the story. The resignation and black humour chime with the inhumanity of war. CH Waddington was a member of the Club of Rome, a group with the avowed aim of diverting humanities advance toward a Malthusian demise. In Tools for Thought he explores the problems in describing complexity, in the fashion of his inspiration D’Arcy Thomson. After reading this book I realised that this was in essence the fundamental intellectual problem, more relevant than cosmology or particle physics.
The Wasteland by Thomas Eliot was my template for poetry, later to be modified by Hopkins’s alliteration, Auden’s use of the preposition and to some extent by Keats and Blake. I read Shakespeare’s Hamlet like an obsessive compulsive and the Sonnets still live in my top pocket. The siren Conjectures and Refutations by Karl Popper called to me from a second hand book shop (now a hair dressers) on Broadstone Road in Heaton Moor. ‘Read me’ it whispered, with its sisters Bricks to Babel by Arthur Koestler and The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski.
Survival Into the Twenty First Century gave me a recipe for practical mysticism. The basic proposition is: eat raw food to become spiritual. It’s not that simple, and the book is deeply flawed in the way that it uses evidence to support various beliefs. The book doesn’t know what it wants to be. But my fatal attraction is for books. I loved this crank.
What Do You Say After You Say Hello? is by Eric Berne. Less well known than The Games People Play, but is the one that defines transactional analysis, a sort of structural Freudian psychology. It seems simple now but its simplicity is still useful. Novels don’t get much of a look in on this list but Waterland by Graham Swift is exceptional. It is everything I enjoy in a long story: temporal fluidity, atmosphere, characters, detail and a span of generations, the disjunction between story telling and recording, embedding story in record and record in story.
When I was a boy I used to write encrypted messages. FL Bauer wrote a book for the man that used to be that boy and Decrypted Secrets is a joy of concision. A New Kind of Science makes big claims, has been severely criticised for not sharing credit, but is a book that could shift the method of science away from the empirical root exemplified by Bacon and Galileo. It is the heir to Tools For Thought. The Computational Beauty of Nature is almost the companion volume to A New Kind of Science. Its subject matter is broader. Stephan Wolfram uses one dimensional cellular automata to analyse complexity while Gary Flake revels in variety. Like The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch (although less explicitly), it is suggestive of a link between evolution, virtual reality and complexity theory.
Watchmen is the third novel on my list, although some would not accept that classification. The Crazy Oik was created by the slightly batty Kenneth Clay, who I am expecting to join me in Bedlam soon. His creation reminds me that there is talent all around and that surmounting the publication lottery was only possible for the rich and their cronies, and for the well connected – no more…. The creation of The Crazy Oik is an act of generosity.
Thor #141 “The Wrath of Replicus” Jack Kirby/Stan Lee Age 08
Conan the Adventurer Robert E. Howard Age 14
The Occult Colin Wilson Age 16
The Waste Land T.S. Eliot Age 18
Tao Te Ching Lao Tse (trans J Legge) Age 20
Hamlet and the Sonnets William Shakespeare Age 21
A Treatise Of Human nature David Hume Age 23
Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut Age 24
Tools for Thought C.H. Waddington Age 26
On Formally Undecidable Propositions… Kurt Gödel Age 27
Conjectures and Refutations Karl Popper Age 28
Survival Into the 21st Century Viktoras Kulvinskas Age 29
What Do You Say After You Say Hello? Eric Berne Age 31
Waterland Graham Swift Age 35
The Ascent of Man Jacob Bronowski Age 43
Decrypted Secrets FL Bauer Age 44
A New Kind of Science Stephan Wolfram Age 47
Computational Beauty of Nature Gary Flake Age 48
Watchmen Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons Age 49
The Crazy Oik Ken Clay (ed.) Age 50
Thor #141 “Who is Replicus?” Jack Kirby/Stan Lee Age 8
I was just a sprog, fresh off the oik block. I read the Beano and played with rubbish on the back field. But then something came to awaken me from my dogmatic slumbers. It was time for the yearly holiday and Mum and Dad had got us all onto the local boneshaker direct to Victoria Station Manchester where we were due to be whisked off to sunny Abergele in a big chuff chuff. I was hauling a huge old suitcase, twice my weight, as usual. For once we weren’t late and I managed to sneak off to the small book/magazine stand where my eyes feasted for the first time on what would be an obsession until my early twenties. I lived in grey Manchester you see. This was the time when all moths were speckled brown, to match the grime festooned walls. Even the sparrows had a poorly chest. TV was black and white and our first fridge was three years away, the telephone four. Another thing: in those days you left childhood as early as possible. If that meant wearing a Mac and slicking your hair back then so be it. Adults didn’t extend their childhood as they do now. No, they were serious. Now I was hypnotised, wide eyed before these pages soaked in colour, and ready to stay in childhood forever. Superheroes, gods, aliens and robots. They (Marvel comics) even threw in a good hearted crime boss. It was also my first encounter with American hyperbole delivered by the master of melodrama, Stan-the-man. It was Lee (or Lieber if you prefer) who brought day to day concerns out of soap opera and into comics. That is why Spiderman is neurotic and has an ulcer, the Fantastic Four worried about fame and the X-men were subject to prejudice. All Superman worried about was who was packin’ kryptonite. I mustn’t forget Jack Kirby (the artist). Kirby is able to capture motion so perfectly, you can feel it. Many of his hero’s poses are so primal they gouge appreciation out of your chest. I should also mention that other great penciller Steve Ditko, who drew Spiderman like an anorexic and made Dr Strange wander psychedelic lands just as LSD was hitting the streets. But that’s for another time….
Conan the Adventurer Robert E. Howard Age 14
When you are fourteen, Conan is the kind of hero you can understand. He’s an all drinking, all womanising muscle machine and he has a warrior’s cunning. I had found a shop on Underbank in Stockport that stocked comics, and Marvel had started to venture into the Sword and Sorcery genre with the Conan magazine. Up until then I had avoided reading any books for fun (yes there was that WE Johns book Return to Mars, but that doesn’t count….) and now I was staring at Conan the Adventurer, a collection of short stories, with the awesome Frank Frazetta cover. It was swiftly purchased and the tales gobbled up. I needed to write a few short stories for my English class and naturally it would be in the Howard style, set in some pre-history with Kingdoms, magic and impossibly curved women. That’s what it did to you. You wanted to write like the man. I took the trouble to read some of those stories again recently and Howard does have something. Not only can he write a cracking yarn, but he is able to produce music with his words, portray physical action in real time; drench the senses in a sumptuousness. It’s simple psychological stuff though. The characters have little depth, the motivations atavistic at best, but Howard weaves with golden thread.
The Occult Colin Wilson Age 16
Of all the writers on my book list, Colin Wilson is the one I currently like the least. Perhaps I shall grow to admire him again, but for now I resent him for not delivering on the promise. Because there is something of the partial dénouement in all his works, a winding to something like an answer that is never reached, perhaps like one of the those spiral disks that never really moves but hypnotises you with its apparent motion. But there is also much to admire. The writing is energetic, scholarly and learned. It kow-tows to no school of ideas. It is all his own. It provided a door to the world of Gurdjieff (thank goodness, because Wilson writes about G’s ideas better than Gurdjieff ever did). What Wilson does, and perhaps what all new age thinking, spirituality, whatever you want to call it provides, is an antidote to the over-reaching metaphor of science. Many equate the scientific viewpoint as reality itself, but really it is a modality, a filter with which to interpret experience. We have forgotten that people experienced the world in radically different ways in the past. The modern man is dulled by the mono-culture of science and his deep imagination has gone to sleep. Some self preserving instinct helped me reach out to the occult for a few years, as an antidote and corrective.
The Waste Land T.S. Eliot Age 18
April is the cruelest month...
I first read The Wasteland when I was 18. I found this 20th Century classic via Gerard Manly Hopkins. I was reading this book by Theosophist Douglas Baker and he quoted Hopkins’s “The Windhover” whose directness and boldness is striking (it’s also easy to produce a passingly good imitation, since it mainly derives its style from its use of alliteration) I somehow leapt from the Windhover to the Wasteland (was I researching all poems beginning with the letter W?) Now here was something as authentic as Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin (although now I must admit that pop bands increasingly look like small fish in small ponds). Great poetry is a key to the emotions and it’s sexy in the way that pop music is sexy. Teenagers divide the world into authentic and inauthentic and disregard anything that falls into the latter camp. I was no exception. There was no more pouring over pop lyrics that made no sense. Now it was the sleek cynical and barely intelligible lines of Thomas Stearns Eliot. The unabashed, fatigued and multi-voiced poet describes the fractured post World War One civilisation and he uses a kaleidoscope of technique. Pound’s Cantos never grabbed me, and Steven’s Emperor of Ice cream left me cold. I just wanted to write with that weary voice, I longed to be all men at all times. Eliot has adopted the attitude of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, but also the schizophrenia implied in Cubism, and the blood, mud and semen in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Eliot gave me beautiful ruins. Not ancient, but bombed out or in economic decline, like the factories I could see on the bus route into Manchester. I can still marvel at decay and see death and procreation as the same thing. Shantih shantih shantih.
Tao Te Ching Lao Tse (trans J Legge) Age 20
I stand before a work which I hold in such reverence, with such esteem, that I feel unable to express the words. The Tao Te Ching is a lot more than it says on the label. It’s caviar and crackers in a baked bean tin. This is a work of unparalleled concision. Less than ten thousand characters in Mandarin, a summation of the natural philosophy of Lao Tse (literally ‘the old philosopher’), the title means the classic of the virtue of the way. Lao Tse describes the Way by example. Nature is at its core, but not nature as arcadia nor nature as the converse of technology, but something more fundamental. Lao Tse is grappling with the problem of describing the principle of the influence of absence or the power of the vacuum. Since it is absent, we never see it so it is easily overlooked. Since it is not kinetic, but potential, it is inactive but still influential. Trying to define it is problematic, since we can only use a negation of the opposite principle, so instead of constructing a philosophical system, Lao Tse uses examples. Water seeks the lowest position (and by analogy so does the great man), silence begets great words, and wisdom comes from peace. But I don’t want you to think that Lao Tse is a fortune cookie philosopher.
By the time I was twenty I had amassed a 600 volume library on the occult and mysticism. It was time for a clearout, so Lobsang Rampa, the Illuminati and Velikovsky went on the tip. Classics from Blavatsky, the Golden Dawn, Annie Besant and magic, rituals, alchemy, Charles Fort went to friends. I kept the Upanishads, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Vedas, Pantanjali’s Sutras, the I Ching (several translations), the Secret of the Golden Flower, Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings and so on, and top of the pile – The Tao Te Ching (translated by James Legge).
Let’s get this clear: the Tao de Ching deals in principles. The so called ‘law of diminishing returns’ is a principle. It is not like the law of gravity which has a clear line of cause and effect, observable data and internal and external consistency. We must be careful how we apply principles, but they are no less real. I leave you with his words;
The sage is like a square which cuts no one (with its angles); like a corner which injures no one with its sharpness. He is straightforward, but allows himself no licence; he is bright, but does not dazzle.
On Formally Undecidable Propositions… Kurt Gödel Age 27
Sometime after leaving university, I seem to have spent a lot of time wondering why certain people (such as JS Bach or Shakespeare) could be both creative and productive. Inspired by Edward de Bono and Noam Chomsky I hoped to create a terrible hybrid, a snarling dog, to do the intellectual dirty work. I first read an introduction to Gödel’s Theorem while perusing a handy three volume set of Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedias and I was both intrigued and dismayed. Dismayed that in the light of his theorem, my search for an organon of creativity now seemed as futile as the actions of the Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels. I had spent time cleaning up the attic and filling it to the brim with ply board, upon which were attached many strips of paper, each daubed with some profound truth, which I believed might be rearranged into every possible masterwork from the Tao Te Ching to the Schrodinger Equation. Alas, Gödel disabused me of that ambition.
The First theorem is about the Principia Mathematica (or ‘PM’) of Russell and Whitehead (and related systems). It is widely regarded as showing that Hilbert's program to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all of mathematics cannot ever be finished (if this insight is expressed in the language of computation, in contrast to proof theory, it tells us that there must be computational tasks that go on without halting). Gödel’s methods expose problems around the way language is sometimes wrongly used. Consider the following: London is a city. This expression tells us that London is a place where lots of people live. However ‘London’ is a word of two syllables, asserts something about the word ‘London’. Failure to recognise this metalanguage distinction had caused confusion, especially in philosophy and it allowed Bertrand Russell to dismiss Hegel and Nietzsche among others as irrational (strangely the issue has been bypassed by 20th century continental philosophers), but Gödel cleverly exploited it to derive a shattering contradiction if it is assumed Hilbert’s statement is true.
During the 19th century plane geometry had been deepened and became extended to include other geometries such as projective geometry and none Euclidean geometry (in which the parallel postulate is different). Also with the advent of set theory, arithmetic and logic became better understood leading to an axiomatic culmination in the Principia Mathematica. On the eve of publication Russell found a contradiction. This led to questions about consistency: Which choice of possible axioms will not generate an inconsistent set of theorems?
When choosing a set of axioms, it is necessary to be able to prove as many correct results as possible, while avoiding proving any incorrect results. Choosing the correct and sufficient set of axioms to achieve this is by no means a trivial task (and the exemplar of this is Euclid’s Elements). A set of axioms is complete if, for any statement in the same language, either that statement or its negation is provable from the axioms. A set of axioms is consistent if there is no such statement that both the statement and its negation are provable from the axioms. An inconsistent set of axioms will prove every statement in its language (the principle of explosion), including contradictory ones, and hence will always be complete. A set of axioms that is both complete and consistent, however, will prove a number of theorems without containing a contradiction. Gödel was able to translate (‘arithmetise’) statements about PM (i.e. metalanguage statements) and show that no such system could be both complete and consistent. The proof can be generalised to any system rich enough to contain arithmetic.
There have been several readable books about the theorem, notably Gödel’s Proof by Nagel and Newman, and the overly long Gödel, Escher, Bach by Hofstadter, but the mathematical impact outside proof theory has been small. Instead the theorem has inspired a literature stemming from the apparent proof of the impossibility of mechanising thought. Even Roger Penrose (in his Emperor’s New Mind) dips into doubtful territory when he uses a Gödel-like result to delimit AI (Artificial Intelligence). It turns out that the imaginations of the early proponents of AI were not up to the job. They knew that if mathematics could be axiomatised then all possible theorems could be generated by a mechanical process (today we would say by a Turing Machine i.e. a universal computer that obeys the laws of classical physics) and this led them to believe that all thinking could be likewise generated. This idea expunges all creativity, and is closely related to Laplace’s view of a Newtonian Universe, where Newton’s descriptive laws seem to eliminate non-deterministic action from history.
But Gödel proved that mathematics must be a discovery process. For example we must look for new prime numbers, we can never predict them. Likewise original thought cannot be generated in a mechanical way. So the denial of the claims of the strong AI proponents seem to rest on Gödel’s shoulders. But machines can be used to engage in searches, and machines can adapt and evolve. It’s just that no one knows the extent. So the question remains open. But Gödel unintentionally stopped us shutting the door on creativity.
Hamlet and the Sonnets William Shakespeare age 21
When we read Hamlet in the 21st century we tend to think of the prince as a sensitive intellect, unprepared for the cruelty of succession by murder. Think Russell Brand in the Big Brother House with the Borgias and Peter Mandelson. The writer has been variously described as the author of a management course in leadership, the creator of an oedipal psychodrama anticipating Freud, the architect of an existential dilemma and the originator of the first fictional anti-hero. Instead it seems more likely that as the critics have struggled to comprehend the play, they have constructed multifarious filters through which to understand the hero (or villain?).
But we know that Shakespeare wrote for the general populace and that many of them were illiterate, so the prism through which we see Hamlet, if we must deconstruct the play, is one in which we are obliged to view the results with deliberate superficiality. In my case, I read the play when I was twenty one and I had few problems viewing anything that way. My brother reads Catch 22 every ten years and each time, he tells me, he discovers a new book hidden in the same words. I know how he feels. It must feel the same way to the interpreters of Hamlet. Joseph Heller’s novel is more consciously layered than Shakespeare’s play, but the complexity of the Bard’s mind has created a rich depth of field that we cannot fail to respond to with some counter theory or analysis.
In the case of the sonnets we have less trouble. I read somewhere that the sonnets are like little pieces of starlight. But even though they shine brightly, still the night sky is black. Shakespeare constructs his star field with Euclidean rigour so we can easily mark out the constellations, but it is the starlight that entrances us. He wrote them as eunoia, powered by Eros, but unlike the plays, the formal construction provides a place to hide. The light took such a long time to reach us. We are looking at the afterglow of dead stars. They are fractured pieces of starlight, far from perfect, locked in antique glass.
The sonnets are not a dialogue, so they may be the voice of a hapless fool talking in vain, perhaps a madman like some early version of Eregon in Waiting For Godot, perhaps old toothless Ben Gunn pacing an empty treasure island. Whatever the situation, we are aware of the silence, the non reply, the unfeeling vacuum. This is the loneliness in company and the ensuing dread which the lover may feel in powerless and forlorn expression. It is the silence as response to poet, as opposed to the clatter of verbal reaction as response to playwright (the Newtonian counterforce of passion, the chaos spilling out in events: that is the noise the play must proof).
Three beautiful sonnets illustrate the poet’s expected artifice (60, 61, 62). While time is the enemy turning flesh to worm food, the poet’s words are untouched. They are constructed like compact Rubic cubes, interlocking perfectly, with word repetition occurring in a confined space. It was not so much the subject, but the manner in which the subject (love) was argued that led me to examine Shakespeare’s construction. It is clear that Hamlet as the author of the sonnets would be undecided in love and his case would be equivocal, whereas the lover must be full of conviction, must persuade. Shakespeare is the older man of course, and he knows how to love….
Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye,
And all my soul, and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account,
And for my self mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me my self indeed
beated and chopt with tanned antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read:
Self, so self-loving were iniquity.
'Tis thee (my self) that for my self I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.
A Treatise of Human Nature David Hume Age 23
When you are a child, if you are fortunate enough to avoid any physical upheaval, threat or calamity, then generally you will live in a cocoon of undisturbed surety. Some time after adolescence the psyche becomes aware of mortality and it is impossible to find surety in physical existence. This is when that surety transfers to a parallel world constructed of ideas. Some call it religion. Others call it belief. I have also heard it described as an emotional crutch.
I have spent a lot of time investigating the basis of eastern mysticism. As a child, what I absorbed about Christianity had been unenlightening, but more importantly, the Christian religious structure I inherited necessitates an intercessionery to mediate experience of the divine, and anyway, I always regarded religion as political and opaque. By contrast eastern methodology, although it drags around an equally weighty intellectual baggage, is based on direct experience and this was more suited to my doubting nature. I had read many of the philosophical classics and when I came upon Hume my mind was grappling with different systems for describing reality. The burning questions were existential and are the traditional domain of religion: why are we here, who are we, where are we going, what happens when we die? I don’t reread David Hume’s Treatise very often. It’s justification for sitting on my shelf derives from the galvanising power of its challenge. Kant famously wrote that Hume’s critique ‘awoke him from his dogmatic slumbers’. So what is it about Hume’s challenge that so roused a great philosopher and a callow youth?
Hume is not the first sceptic. The word hints at its Greek scholastic origins. As a method, it later emerges powerfully in the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Descartes uses systematic doubt to demolish inherited philosophies until he is left with the ‘indubitable truth’ I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum). He uses this notion as a foundation to build a new system which he claims must be sound. But Descartes’ process is closely allied to deduction and his philosophy relies on the idea that observation, if handled with reason alone, will always lead to correct conclusions (Rationalism). However, it was noticed that the critical dependence rationality has on starting out with the correct observations made it vulnerable to producing valid but incorrect conclusions. This weakness made philosophers such as Francis Bacon give priority to observation above rationality (Empiricism): ‘Of the three ways in which men think that they acquire knowledge of things: authority, reasoning, and experience; only the last is effective and able to bring peace to the intellect. Experimental Science controls the conclusions of all other sciences. It reveals truths which reasoning from general principles would never have discovered’.
Hume inherited from Locke and Berkeley the idea of induction. It’s a fairly straightforward notion and it is pivotal to science. Collect enough observations of a similar kind under controlled conditions until you clearly identify a causative relation which can be expressed in the form ‘A causes B’. Hume’s critique is equally simple: we observe A and B, but never causation. Causation is an impression, which as he says is treated the same as ground and consequent in logic. This is an error. As Hume says: ‘We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have always conjoined together…. We cannot penetrate into the reason of the conjunction’ (my italics). David Hume is in your face. He’s yapping at you. He’s the uncouth interloper who is trampling over your systems and you can’t expel him. Every time you build a structure, Hume appears and tears it down. The alternative appears to be the choice of an existence without a belief system, of knowledge of any kind, in a state of applied ignorance. You can also try self deception.
What Hume teaches us is that there is no impregnable system and it is folly to look for one. Kant thought that he had found one, but he failed. At the very least we must be aware how vulnerable the systems we construct really are. Our certainty is psychological, perhaps a defence mechanism and we are reluctant to face challenge. We do not wish to meet the world naked. As Nietzsche says ignorance has as much structure as knowledge. Most of all he shows us that the application of scepticism is arbitrary: when you introduce it, how far you take it, and when you withdraw it is an unjustifiable choice, but one which you may make. For many, this is the starting point for existentialism. That we always begin with arbitrary choices. If you want to take a wrecking ball to your house of cards then so be it. All systems teeter on the edge of collapse. If you want a system, you must be aware that.
The world turns. What Hume failed to distinguish was that some systems are more likely to be right than others, can be more content rich, can be more precise, and so on. Adopting a system may not be arbitrary after all. Our choice will be dynamically dependant on a shifting array of probabilities that must change in the light of new information. Our language is generally too linear and awkward to articulate this change quickly. Philosophers never satisfactorily answered Hume’s critique. Instead they derelevated it. In the 20th Century, Popper’s shift away from induction to a consistent description of the theorisation process is a richer, and critically, more relevant theory than Hume’s. I will return to Popper’s ideas in a later essay in this series.
Watchmen Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons Age 49
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. So say Time Magazine. Although it was published in 1988, I didn’t get to read it until a score of years later. Given that I was raised on comics, I should have been one of the first to recognise it as an important step in the coming to maturity of an art form. But I always come late to a party.
The first comic I read was Thor #141, a classic of the ‘silver age’, the period between 1964 (the creation of the Fantastic Four) and 1970 (the end of the Silver Surfer). The golden age was before my time (the 1940s of Superman and Captain America), but this second coming appealed to my protean imagination. It turns out that the golden age was a seed bed for the imaginatively rich and emotionally complex silver. It was Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko along with several other comics’ creators who inaugurated this new age. They had seven good years. Steve Ditko left Marvel comics after an argument. Stan Lee, editor and scripter (the marvel method called for the writer to ‘colour in’ with words the story created by the artist) became proselytiser and promoter, touring the universities now filled with young men who grew up with the Marvel characters. Kirby joined DC.
In the 1970s Roy Thomas took the helm at Marvel and steered the vehicle squarely in the direction of realism. It is during this period that comics caught up with twentieth century novelistic inventions: the omniscient narrator gave way in favour of the parochial, stream of consciousness became common and found its natural home. The decade saw graphic experimentation. Marvel introduced a short lived range of large format black and white magazines. They used them to explore adult themes of horror and sexuality which had been banned with the introduction of the publishing code. These comics allowed the artist to use fine pencilling, which would normally be obliterated by the colour inking process.
The 1980s saw multi-issue stories grow longer. This was to be the decade of ambition and expansion.
Moore conceived the twelve part series and micromanaged its production, sending Gibbons detailed notes on the graphic setting. Watchmen introduces several characters, who will be recognisable to the regular comic reader as archetypes of the comic universe. Dr Manhattan resembles the Silver Surfer of Jack Kirby in both appearance and character, Rorschach reminds us of Ditko’s Spiderman, and so on. The story is a noirish mystery linked by the investigations of Rorschach. All characters are given a backstory told in flashback and there is the postmodern story-within-a-story (the pirate tale redolent of Brecht) and sections of prose sandwiched in the nine panel layout. The colour palette is sombre and restrictive, though with great tonal variety and an often primal juxtaposition of its tones imbuing the narrative with naive qualities within the murky atmosphere.
The experimentation of the 1970s and early 1980s graphic narrative now comes together to create a summation of what the form may achieve at this time. Each character provides a first person narrative voiceover, with linking sections of dialogue from one person to the next, which then overlaps the narrative. The backstory of the comedian is told by attendees at his funeral. The life of Dr Manhattan is related as a series of recollections as he contemplates his life. The attitudes and behaviour of each contrasting character is shown as a dysfunctional reaction to society and so operates as a social critique. Society is itself described as dysfunctional, echoing the condition of the characters.
There are visual and scripted motifs in the text, the most obvious being the smiley of the comedian (the textual equivalent is the notion of a joke), though they are not discussed explicitly. There are other themes such as which alter ego is the authentic identity of the character.
There are various forms of interlacing technique, producing opportunities for the counterpointing of text with graphic. Panel echo means having a changing section of text, perhaps a first person narrative or dialogue, while there is a repeating background, like a drone. Panel expansion again has a repeating background but with increasing scale. Travelling panel would mean the foreground, such as a piece of speech would repeat for emphasis while the background changes. Keeping the foreground the same while the background changes is also used. Overlap describes how for example a conversation might start in a particular physical context; the conversation then continues as a disembodied narrative while the graphic moves ahead. Graphics can show variation in perspectives of time, something hard to do in text alone.
John Salter makes a pertinent point about how film is trying to emulate the graphic novel: “Christopher Nolan’s recent £125m blockbuster film Inception concludes with a 45 minute setpiece in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s team of idea thieves descend through nested dreams, in each of which time runs more slowly than in the previous layer. Any graphic novel fans in the audience would have watched this complex sequence with nods of recognition. But perhaps with sighs of exasperation, too: the films showpiece effect – creating the illusion of relative time, of events happening simultaneously but being experienced at different paces – is difficult to achieve in the linear medium of cinema but easily suggested in comics and graphic novels. Inception is rigid with explanatory dialogue to help the viewer interpret the final hour: a kind of endless tutorial leading up to a deft but soulless showpiece. When it comes to the medium of graphic novels, however, years of experimentation combined with certain defining features of the form, have resulted in a complex medium that excels at portraying multiple time schemes and shifting conceptions of reality.
Reading a graphic novel is at once a complex and instinctive act. The reader is forced not only to parse several narrative streams – speech bubbles, the silent communication of figurative attitudes and scenic arrangement, repeated visual symbols, often a narrative commentary – but also construe them as a continuous sequence that represents the passage of time. It’s an act we perform without thinking, but is nevertheless a complicated piece of translation between the concrete and the abstract.”
The power of the novel, beyond its baseline noir construction, lies in the enjoyment of this complexity. We are forced out of our conception of what a comic is, and the final feeling is thoroughly satisfying.
On Slaughterhouse Five
Slaughterhouse Five was the first book I read that seriously messed with the timeline. Shakespeare didn’t do it: he had to obey the aesthetics of Aristotle, like every other playwright of the pre modern era. In the 20th century we got comfortable playing with the timeline, so I don’t know why I should be so excited by it. I know lots of people who get pissed off by it. They think that the writer isn’t skilful enough to write an interesting linear plot. But a science fiction reader, and science fiction is what Slaughterhouse Five is, as well as a fairly decent history of a particular event, is more than happy to entertain a thoroughly diced narrative.
Kurt Vonnegut has a distinctive voice. That’s something every teacher of writing urges their pupils to develop, but cannot tell them how. There is no path leading to it, except perhaps experimentation. Kurt Vonnegut’s voice is mature, weary, and blackly comic. There are punch lines: lots of them. Vonnegut could have been a gag writer, except that his vision is bleak.
In Slaughterhouse Five he has plenty of opportunity to lament man’s inhumanity when the allies firebomb Dresden in February 1945. In a bombing raid designed to inflict mass civilian casualties it killed 80,000 people (by some estimates) in a single night. It would have been less surprising had it been the Nazis, but it was our side that did it. They dropped vast quantities of TNT and incendiaries, and Vonnegut was there, locked in a cellar, where he survived to incorporate the experience into his story.
His novel follows Billy Pilgrim: a spastic in time. Billy Pilgrim wakes up in 1962 and walks through a door into 1973. Billy lives all the parts of his life in a jumbled fashion. Billy Pilgrim is a passenger. Billy is an observer. Billy Pilgrim’s life as a prisoner of war, a dentist and absurdly as a prisoner of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore is visited randomly. This is the point of view which suits Vonnegut’s style. It is one of detachment. Detachment for a writer, it must be said, is not generally a good thing. It means lack of passion, non-engagement. But what Vonnegut does is to remind us that in the face of horror we become emotionally and mentally detached. Detachment is also the mode of the scientist. Vonnegut’s thesis is that the scientist can invent terrible weapons in a state of detachment, which others unleash in a state of passion.
There is enough in Vonnegut’s story to cast doubt on the character’s experience. The writer adds a post modern element and diffuses the objections of readers who dislike science fiction. Vonnegut lets us know that this may all be in his character’s head. “All this happened” he writes “More or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” He then recounts the horror of Dresden in a disinterested manner. The attitude of the narrator, and very much Kurt Vonnegut, is one in which there is no choice. The only freedom Vonnegut allows is black humour. The book finishes with Billy Pilgrim walking the streets of Dresden. It’s not long after the bombing. The Germans have to figure out what to do with all the corpses.
On Tools for Thought
CH Waddington’s book was a book of magic I used to lend out to friends. They would hand it back open mouthed. When they said something it was along the lines of wow. Waddington was a biologist (he died in 1975). He had already written the ground breaking Behind Appearance, and was a member of the Club of Rome, a group dedicated to the problem of overpopulation, the Malthusian problem. What Waddington’s training enables him to do is to clarify and examine complexity as it occurs in any subject area as if it were a species of flora or fauna (Stephen Wolfram does the same with cellular automata decades later in his book A New Kind of Science). Like his inspiration D’Arcy Thompson, his argument is convincing. In many respects the book is old fashioned. It predates Pierre Mandelbrot’s investigation into fractals, and it also misses out on what was exciting computer departments from the mid 1970’s to 1980: mathematical chaos. What Waddington’s book does is to neatly organise much of the thinking up to that date, with clearly argued examples and no attempt to force them into some overarching intellectual scheme.
My first encounter with complexity was in economics. Economics is filled with principles such as the principle of diminishing returns or the marginal value theorem. At the time I was studying economics, the status of these principles was not explained. They seemed to be scientific, but they are not. They are too general to be scientific laws. Scientific laws are framed within clearly defined context. Newton’s laws for example describe material objects in motion, gravity and forces in time and space. The law of diminishing returns can be applied in different contexts. So if it is not a scientific law, what kind of law is it? Is it a law at all?
A distinctive feature of such principles is the general applicability and their characterisation of a process, i.e. a description of the form taken by systems over time. Attempts to generalise processes is not new. Marx crudely adapted Hegel’s principle of dialectical synthesis to history in the form of dialectical materialism.
After economics and university, where I studied chemistry, I began my own philosophical work in earnest, beginning a journal when I was 21. My first discovery was the cybernetics of Norbert Weiner and then, what was called systems theory. These subjects are still popular, particularly in cross-disciplinary studies. But when I discovered Waddington’s book, his magnum opus became the point of reference and a fertile ground for a decade of thinking about complexity. Waddington discusses his subject from a number of viewpoints, but he never sounds like a scientist. This is because he had written in other fields such as ethics and general science and knew how to write for the layman. The equivalent book today would be Garry Flake’s Computational Beauty of Nature which is brilliantly written but does not have the poise of the original.
Waddington’s purpose is simple. The science of complexity is young, perplexing even, and has no unifying theory. After a philosophical and practical introduction he introduces complexity via the idea of shape. This is Waddington’s forte, since in his study on gene expression he has spent decades studying the morphology of embryo development. After defining structure he looks at processes, how they are described and then seeks a more profound explanation, introducing concepts like feedback, stabilization and information theory. His analysis of systems tends to be in another area he is familiar with: the philosophy and method of science. The rest is wide blue sky.