Those words were once spoken to me by the Regimental Gunnery Officer, and they come to mind today as I consider the latest contribution to the flood of writing advice with which we are now inundated: “A reader’s advice to writers” at Salon.com.
Of course, readers do know what makes a good book, according to their lights, but they know it from the reader’s side; this doesn’t imply that they can advise on the mechanics. When I flush the toilet, I know that various things, which for reasons of good taste I shall decline to name here, are supposed to absent themselves from my bathroom. That doesn’t mean I can tell the plumber if his work is up to code.
I’m not going to pick on the fact that almost everything in that article is contained in any of the numerous books on writing found at your local bookstore, that said books proliferate like fruit flies, this topic being (as Russell Smith observes in the Globe) a sure-fire winner, and that those things are already, therefore, known to writers. Writing about writing is the oldest scam in the book. It’s the easy topic, what you do when you’re creatively bankrupt and have nothing else more interesting to write about.
Which is exactly why I’m doing it right now.
Moving on, then:
I am going to pick, without mercy, on the following remarkable statement: “You probably don’t go to movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don’t come to books in search of breathtaking sentences.”
Let me point out that if you don’t go to the movies to see lighting and photography, you’d better just close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, because that’s all you’ll have left. Lighting and photography are what make movies movies; without them, you’ve got a blank screen. Lighting and photography are the entire medium of film. This is what defines the film experience and separates it from theatre.
You may not go to the movies and take note of the moody, high-contrast lighting, or reflect on the use of wide-angle lenses for dramatic effect, or the choice of camera angles, but these things nevertheless define your experience of the film. They affect the viewer in ways he may not consciously realize. Doing these things well won’t make a bad story good, but doing them badly can make a good story flat and uninteresting. It’s through lighting and photography, and in no other way, that the story is told.
Similarly, sentences, breathtaking or otherwise, are the entire medium of prose. The idea that you can carry a story without narrating it well is simply nonsense. People who subscribe to this notion should study comedy and ask themselves why some things are funny, and other things are not, and why the same joke can be very funny when Uncle Hank tells it but fails utterly coming from the mouth of cousin Ernest.
A good joke badly told is never funny.
It really is that simple.
These various lists of rules for writers begin to irritate me, because as interesting as these lists may be, so many of the rules listed thereon are what we writers, what with our advanced vocabularies and all, like to call horseshit.
Which brings me to an offering from Joyce Carol Oates, who quotes Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
This word, sincerity: I don’t think you’re using it very carefully.
Quick — who can name one, just one single important and lasting work of literature that is disingenuous and insincere? That was tossed off by a writer with nothing at stake?
This is why I’ve never really had much time for the wit of Oscar Wilde. I can easily picture Wilde sitting up at night, thinking up new sparkling witticisms while preening in the mirror. The man was both a sartorial and an intellectual fop. His overwhelming quality was self-regard.
Sincerity is good. It’s that quality of earnest import that’s deadly.
Witness Steinbeck at his worst, in the more obnoxious intrusions of his various Doc Ricketts characters, who give him license to muse at length on Serious Topics, and in his sentimentality. This is what people object to in Steinbeck — apart from his occasional tendency to drive in a thumbtack with a ball-peen hammer.
But as Jim Harrison said, “the people who condescended to Steinbeck didn’t even write the Grapes of Goofy.”
As much as I hate writerly talk of risk-taking — if you want risk, take up commercial fishing, logging, or fighting Afghan insurgents — Harrison is on to something. It isn’t possible to write anything great without taking a risk, without abandoning chickenshit and standing for something, whereupon everyone gets to smirk at your sincerity, without walking that tightrope and risking sentimentality.
Jim Harrison again: “I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and risk being corny, than die a smartass.”
Oscar Wilde died a smartass.
All these lists of Rules for Writers have me paralyzed. I’m unable to proceed, sitting as I am at the wrong kind of chair, using the wrong kind of pencil, working at the wrong time of day … and now I’m thinking I might as well quit, because apparently I’ve already broken Richard Ford’s rule number two: don’t have children.
I’ve consulted with my wife, but apparently there’s no way to stuff this genie back into the bottle.
There are probably risks in following other people’s rules, as suggested by The New Yorker: “I delight in Richard Ford’s terrifically sourpuss ‘Don’t have children,’ because I’ve read his books and this rule strikes me as being so Richard Ford.”
Being Richard Ford works for Richard Ford, but only because he’s Richard Ford. And if you consider his attitude towards children in fiction, and in life — “I sometimes see them as such malevolent little creatures who rule (and not often benignly) the lives of adults” — and then read The Sportswriter with that in mind, you might decide that his attitudes have limited his emotional range.
I can’t think of any genuinely tender depiction of the father-son relationship, fraught as it can be, in the Frank Bascombe novels; certainly nothing on the order of that Thomas McGuane achieves in Something to be Desired. Ford’s children are usually teenaged boys (Rock Springs, Wildlife), or small, manipulative creatures who speak in preternaturally adult voices.
Which is no accident:
You use them as extremely potent characters, rather than as bothersome non-entities (which they mostly are in life); little oracles who speak as adults or who affect events in large ways yet remain deceptively “innocent.” You know, if you have to have children speak as children, they won’t say anything very interesting. They don’t know anything.
But surely what a character says is not his sole value to a story. Perhaps Ford’s attitude towards kids prevents him from seeing them as important in other ways, and most importantly to the motives and actions of his adult characters, over whom their influence, to him, seems primarily malign. In fact, he seems to resist their possible influence:
… children are, for me, little condiments in stories. You know, you shake them in to spice it up, but the real events take place in the lives of people who are responsible, who bear the consequences of action as fully as it can be borne.
So Ford’s stories center around adults moving through a world in which children are mere ornaments, without any sense that children can, in fact, bear the consequences of action in ways that parents often prefer not to contemplate.
Those consequences reverberate throughout adult life. This is not lost on Thomas McGuane, whose fiction is deeply influenced by a difficult relationship to his father. Something to be Desired begins with young Lucien Taylor and his father, lost on a dark mountainside; father has returned from Peru, whence he has “mailed deranged letters to his son until his son flunked his courses and got kicked off the baseball team,” and has now abducted him. This father is an absentee or a failure.
And then the fictional clock fast-forwards to adult life, in which Lucien abandons his own family and then tries to win them back. Lucien’s son, James, fears him but also loves him as only a son can love a father. Lucien returns that love, but with the father’s terrible sense of his own power. In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Lucien takes James to capture and band a prairie falcon. They lie under camouflage netting with a pigeon for bait, and the boy falls asleep only to be awakened in panic by the violence of the falcon’s strike, and the ensuing struggle to band it.
Lucien held the terrifying bird out before him and released his grip. The falcon pulled vertically from his glove and with hard wing-beats made straight into deep sky, swept straight off and was gone.
When Lucien looked over at James, he was holding the pigeon in his hands. Its eyes were closed. Its head was angled harshly onto its back. Blood ran from the nostrils down the domestic blue feathers of its narrow shoulders. Lucien said nothing.
“We both fell asleep at the same time,” said James in an unsteady voice.
One of the great challenges in writing children, a challenge that McGuane meets, that many writers fail, and that Ford, I think, shies away from attempting, is to avoid sentimentality. But this is the challenge that great stories have to meet: to confront the real emotional content of our lives without becoming corny. The relationship between parent and child is one of the most important, and difficult, that we can deal with. It would be a mistake to ignore it altogether.
On Photography, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 1977.
Anyone with a serious interest in photography has probably encountered Sontag’s On Photography. I first read it about ten years ago, and thought I should re-read it as part of my homework in the run-up to the publication of Combat Camera. When you write a novel that deals extensively with photography, you should be prepared to talk intelligently about the subject. This is not a review, then. It’s simply a reaction.
On Photography is a serious and intelligent book that is continually thought-provoking. That the thoughts it provokes may often be along the lines of “You’re full of shit, Sontag” hardly diminishes it; one measure of its quality is the mental resources Sontag forces you to muster to argue against it.
At its best, On Photography is brilliant: page after page, it presents brilliant ideas concerning how we look at photographs, what photographs mean to us, and how photography alters our world.
At its worst, however, On Photography is disingenuous intellectual sleight of hand, a game of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t in which Sontag continually shifts the goal posts to support her generalizations, and constructs houses of cards based on premises that she never fully examines.
Photography is a broad and complex subject. From Aunt Matilda’s snapshots of little Johnny’s birthday to Robert Capa’s photos of the first wave hitting Omaha beach, from the deliberately constructed work of Ansel Adams to the happenstance captures of unmanned surveillance cameras, from studio to street riot: all this is Sontag’s subject. From all this, she takes her evidence wherever she finds it, and applies it wherever it suits her.
For example, her insistence that photography is inherently aggressive, a premise that seems sensible when you consider Bruce Gilden popping his flash in your face on the street, but seems somewhat less so when the happy tourist couple asks you to take their picture with their camera. Oh, but that’s apples and oranges, you say; Sontag isn’t talking about holiday snapshots. Except that she often is, especially when critiquing photography as an acquisitive activity through which we attempt to collect the world — a context very close to that in which she calls it aggressive.
It is easy to prove anything when you’re selective in this way. Fruit are sour, for example; consider the lemon. Never mind the apple, the peach, the pear, or the lemon’s close relative, the orange. I’m going to keep you distracted by talking about lemons just long enough to get your head nodding in accordance with this notion that fruit, in general, are sour. Then we can move on.
Sontag constructs houses of cards, such as the notion that we perceive photographs as more real than reality, a claim that rests (in part) on the fact that survivors of traumatic events often say it was just like a movie. Look, says Sontag: we don’t feel that the event was real unless it was like a movie! But this is not what those people are actually saying — by comparing events to a movie, they’re either saying that it seemed unreal, as a movie is, or they’re admitting that their only other experience of trauma is through film. Specious interpretations of this sort pop up too often in support of suspect ideas.
And those generalizations! All photographs are touching if they’re old enough; it is a fact that many superb photographs are made “by photographers devoid of any serious or interesting intentions”; nobody has ever “discovered ugliness through photographs.” We read often this, many of that, and so on, with never a scrap of supporting evidence to suggest that often is not, in fact, occasionally, that many is not a few, that all is, in fact, all.
It’s natural to finish this thing feeling somewhat manipulated. I’m reminded of an anecdote Thomas McGuane told of Sontag: he had read a book she blurbed enthusiastically, and when he met her, he thanked her for her recommendation. She sneered that it was a very bad book; when he asked why she’d given it such a glowing blurb, she said that she wanted people to find out just how bad it was for themselves. This was a woman who kept copies of her published essays in her purse and handed them out to impress people at parties. It is not difficult, in this light, to see parts of On Photography as disingenuous exercises in self-promotion: look at me, I’m an intellectual.
And you can tell I’m an intellectual, because I insist that all obvious things are untrue:
Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.
This is Sontag tipping her hand, as she also does here:
Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.
Pick a card, any card, and I’ll show you just how wrong all your ideas are.
Sontag is deeply skeptical of humanist photography, which aspires to show us that at some level we’re all members of the “family of man”; she’s deeply infatuated with Diane Arbus, whose photography is a catalogue of human freaks. Humanism, she insists, is sentimental — and therefore, it must also be untrue. Arbus is the real deal; we’re all freaks, suffering in a permanent state of alienation.
It’s a point of view belonging to a certain time and place: to New York in 1977, and to that circle of thinkers so afraid to be labelled sentimental that they actively seek the opposite. But science, a field not known for deeply sentimental thinking, supports the humanist premise, and the view that we’re all alienated freaks belongs not to humanity but to it’s context, to the times and places where it becomes true. The fact that humanism can be sentimental does not mean that it must be sentimental, nor that it’s premise is false.
On Photography is not aging gracefully. Two of its key ideas, points to which Sontag continually returns with hammer in hand, have been overtaken by events. Photographs are no longer treated as precious relics, in the digital age; they have become disposable because of their sheer volume. And this was becoming true even in the 1970s, although Sontag failed to take note of it. The Polaroid was a disposable photograph.
And photography is no longer a “bourgeois” activity in an age where everyone owns a camera — indeed, it is no longer a “Western” activity, as international photojournalism has increasingly relied on local stringers. In fact, photography was not a “Western” activity in 1977, either; it was only that the work of Indian photographers, for example, was not seen by New York intellectuals who perceived the world as terminating just beyond the boundaries of Manhattan.
This, perhaps, is the key weakness of On Photography: it seems to be unaware that the one thing that is constant in the world of photography is change. It is so fixated on describing how we look at and think about photographs that it never considers the more important question of how our understanding of photographs may be changing, and in turn, changing us.
Here at Banjaxed, we fly executive class so that you won’t have to.
Well, actually, our clients won’t pay for those kinds of luxuries, so we fly cattle class like the rest of ya. But I flew back from Montreal in executive class today, by the luck of the draw, having drawn a seat up there for reasons I don’t quite comprehend, and I’m here to report on that experience, at least as it relates to language: up in those first few rows, they even speak to you differently, using the rhetoric of aren’t-you-special. And people respond differently. The whole discourse is elevated.
In economy, they say, “Would you like something to drink?”
In executive class, they say, “May I offer you something to drink?”
Yes: they ask permission to ask you if you want something to drink. You’re that special.
In economy, people say, “Could I get a ginger ale, please?”
In executive class, it’s “Orange juice would be lovely,” a turn of phrase that suggests the man sitting behind me takes orange juice far, far too seriously. Or, “A glass of red wine sounds wonderful.”
You think I’m making this up, but this is why I carry a notebook. It must be the leg room, the unrestricted circulation, that makes people speak this way.
… the earth continues to spin on its axis, kids continue to believe they know everything, and the almighty continues to look down on his idiot children in a state of baffled melancholy. In a world where technology renders itself obsolete minute by minute, it’s comforting to discover these touchstones. Some truths are eternal.
The degree to which Lost continues to suck is easily demonstrated by the fact that my post on that subject — a post entirely parenthetical to the actual interests of this blog — continues to be my top attractor of traffic, and the fact that said traffic peaks on Wednesdays, following each episode.
I’m not sure how I should feel about this. Perhaps, if you buy a copy of my novel this fall, Lost will suck less? I’m willing to believe that if you are. But enough with the shameless plugs.
Why does Lost suck? Lost sucks because it has become evident, and grows increasingly so, that they are making it up as they go along. Lost sucks because the only way they can cut their way out of the plot tangles they’ve created is to add further tangles. Lost sucks because they killed so many interesting characters, and then tried to sustain the show using Sawyer, Jack, and Kate. Lost sucks because we’ve tumbled to their game and know full well that they don’t dare knock off one of those three. Lost sucks because that dramatic tension is gone.
Who is that frigging kid in the jungle, you ask? I ask, why should I care? This kid is not a character; he’s a plot device. What is the connection between those numbers and those characters, you ask? I ask, is this not simply a cheesy way to explain something that they, themselves, really don’t know? What will happen next, you ask? I ask, where did I put my fingernail clippers? I can’t find them anywhere.
Lost sucks because they keep milking their cash cow with no respect for what the cow must eat to produce milk. Lost sucks, above all, because the producers have lost sight of the very things that made it work in the first place: episodes grounded in their characters’ struggle for redemption. Lost sucks because, after viewing any given episode, reasons for giving a shit about the characters themselves will no longer be foremost in your mind.
It’s all about the big mystery now, and as far as mysteries go, I’m more compelled by those missing fingernail clippers.