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June 18, 2003

Kem Nunn 2: Writin'

Friedrich --

More musings prompted by my reading of Kem Nunn's surf-noir novel Tapping the Source. Yesterday I scratched my chin a bit over the topic of neo-noir. Today: writing per se. How important is the word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence writing -- I always think of it as "writin'" -- in a work of prose fiction?

I know all too well that the professor-and-critic-approved line is that for a work of true literature, the writin' is everything. Sigh. Lord, am I aware of this. I dispute it, though. I don't see -- given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary -- how the case can even begin to be made. There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin' is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin' is first-class that have no life at all.

And there's the gigantic question that history itself poses, namely: How certain can we be in our judgment of a lot of the writin' of the past? We've lost much of our feel for it. To take two examples of certified Important Literature that I happen to have read fairly recently: How well-written can "Beowulf" be said to be? How well-written is "Clarissa"? And how can we know for sure? "Clarissa" struck me, as it has struck many people, as horrendously written -- but, although I'm a bit of an 18th-century prose nut, who am I to judge? I feel semi-qualified to characterize Richardson's style by comparison to the other 18th century prose I know. But I clearly don't have the same in-the-blood feel for this that a good 18th century reader would have had. There may well be much there, style-wise, that simply eludes me.

There's also the major/minor issue of how much lit we know only via translation. Thanks to a long-ago year in France, I can sort of judge, or at least characterize, recent French prose (or I semi-could at one point). I still feel competent enough to get good and furious over a recent, highly-praised translation of Stendhal's sublime "The Charterhouse of Parma," which strikes me as an abomination. Grrr, snarl. But so much lit from so many other countries I'll only ever know through the work of translators. I loved the writin' in "Anna Karenina," for instance, along with much else about the book. Yet how can I know for sure whether what I responded to was Tolstoy or Constance Garnett, or some combo of both? I can't, for another example, think of a more beautiful novel than Lady Murasaki's "The Tale of Genji." But, sheesh, that's a novel dating from a thousand years ago that was originally written in an archaic form of Japanese, and that I read in a famously loose and poetic translation. Exquisite writin', for sure -- but was it Lady Murasaki's? Are we stuck making do with the word of the translator, or (worse) of the professor? Perhaps, alas, we are.

I'm not remotely averse to writin'; I just don't assign it the kind of importance that the lit class does, and I can't see why anyone should. Happy to admit that there are people whose word-by-word stuff is phenomenal. Prose poem-like stories, such as the ones in Janet Kaufmann's "Places in the World a Woman Could Walk" or Barry Hannah's "Airships," can have an intensity and wildness that's very heady. I'm certainly glad I read "Ulysses" and spent a few hours with "Finnegan's Wake" -- though no gladder than I am to have spent serious time with another, equally great, prose stylist, P.G. Wodehouse. The word-by-word writing in Maurice Shadbolt's two fab frontier war novels "Season of the Jew" and "Monday’s Warrior," has a shocking, propulsive quality that effectively heightens the surreal/martial qualities of the books' storylines. Life would be much the poorer without the great voices (Mencken, Liebling), and the great schools, such as the epigrammatic and the hardboiled. I only recently found the groove of the French mystery writer Simenon, author of the Maigret novels; now that I'm tuned in, his flat-as-a-pancake writin' has me mesmerized.

But there's the darker side of writin' too. Updike, for instance, who has an undeniable, even freakish facility with words. Despite it, and although I've read a half-dozen of his novels, not a one has stuck with me. They struck me as bejeweled nonentities -- all spices, and no meat and potatoes. Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" had its share of verbal glitter, but it was so narcissistically writin'-besotted that it made me giggle uncontrollably. I nominate it as a kitsch classic.

By comparison, and to get back to "Clarissa": horribly written (if my judgment is to be trusted, and I don't know why it should be) but a powerful emotional experience, and of immensely more lit-historical importance than Updike or Roy are ever likely to be. So, perhaps everyone can admit that such a thing exists as a novel that's great in spite of its laughable writin'. The classic cases that are cited when this topic comes up are Dreiser and Fenimore Cooper -- lousy writers (in the sense of prose stylists) yet the creators of some great, or at least important, books.

So why not simply admit that a continuum exists from, on the one hand, someone like the High Modernist Gilbert Sorrentino (for whom writing is all about word arrangements and image patterns) to, on the other, flat-footed clod-giants like Richardson, Dreiser and Cooper? Hats off to writin', but, for god's sake, let's not get hung up on it. Why not instead acknowledge that many, many elements go into the creation and enjoyment of prose fiction -- including story, character, politics, pacing, tough-mindedness, perceptiveness, structure, fantasy, sociology, descriptions, drama, etc -- and that writin' is just one of them, and not automatically the most important? Why not acknowledge that no
writer is strong in all departments, and that it's perfectly possible that too much of a writer's energy can go into the writin' and not enough into the other elements? Anyone who has followed contempo lit isn't exactly unfamiliar with the phenomenon of literary fiction that's topheavy with writin' and undernourished where its other elements are concerned.

How have you felt about writin' per se over the years? I think I was more of a fool about it than you were. I spent more than my share of time under the spell of the Great Nabokov, alas. Wowee and gollygosh: You can create effects just through the arrangement and patterning of the words themselves! Books are just collections of little squiggles of ink on paper! (To think that I wasted my sorely limited brainpower on such thoughts ...) But, even so, my fascination with novels and stories as a more or less purely linguistic constructs didn't outlive my college and grad school years. (It's a concept of fiction that seems to suit academia.)

I'm musing about all this because of the Kem Nunn book I've just finished. As I wrote in my previous posting: Great concept, good surfing evocations, nice try at a genuine story. Yet I didn't enjoy the book: too damn much writin'. The writin' never stops, to be honest, and too much of it is intrusive and overmuscled. As a writin'-writer, Nunn is certainly pretty talented. He messes with words more than competently. But there are virtually no paragraphs in the book that didn't strike me as overlabored. It’s as though he’s terrified of not fucking with his sentences. Waking his main character up in the morning can take paragraphs of knotty and highly-worked prose. Here's one typical short passage:

Ike watched the muscles bulging beneath those jailhouse tattoos, the dark hair and red bandana rising on the wind, the sunlight on metal. He could hear the engine for a long time after the bike was out of sight. He looked down the street past the short drab buildings and weedy lots, the palm trees just beginning to stir in the wind that had shifted, was no longer offshore but from the sea and carried with it the smell of salt. He walked back to his new board.

I read these sentences wondering why the MTV/noir-gone-mythic spell isn't working for me, and thinking, Hmm, if only he were trying a little less hard ...

Perhaps I'm not generous enough. Perhaps it's my fault that I was unable to surrender myself to Nunn's vision. Happy to admit my reaction may be nothing but a reflection of my own tastes. I tend to prefer more in the way of attention to contrast, pacing and rhythm. I tend to wonder, when bogged down in what strikes me as pointlessly heavygoing passages, Why aren't we skedaddling through this unimportant but necessary stuff? And something I seem to value (perhaps more than most readers) from a writer is a sense of proportion and perspective.

There's a forever-ongoing debate in the lit world about the proper role of writin'. Should it be something that calls attention to itself? (That's the baroque, modernist/po-mo argument: Why not be frank about the writing-ness of the writing?) Or should it be unobtrusive, prose conceived of as a window, as a clarifying agent that helps you see the subject matter in greater depth than you can in real life? (This is the Classical point of view.) My stop-the-presses feeling about this debate is, Why not feel free to use both? And why not adapt your attack to what seems most appropriate to the fictional moment?

Your feelings and thoughts about these matters?



posted by Michael at June 18, 2003


It seems to me, from my own days in academia, that literary scholars got over the idea of the "well-wrought urn" long ago -- especially if they specialized in American lit.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 18, 2003 10:26 PM

Re writing per se: Yes, there always a set of values important to any endeavor. When it comes to telling yarns, you're dead right - "writin’ is just one of them, and not automatically the most important." Writin', however, is easy to spot and easy to discuss. Things people are comfortable talking about tend to be popular conversation topics.

Hey! Drieser is not at "flat-footed clod-giants," the man is a honest and sturdy workhorse. As surefooted, in his steady way, as Saki. Did Cooper ever write a book that was about anything?

On Nunn: after reading your first post, I considered the possibility that Nunn was doing Noirish in a wannabe kind of way, and mused that Nunn went for Noir because the barista's favorite crusty perve, Bukowski, is finally falling out of fashion. Just, you know, because there's a lot of that going around.

Over-wrought writing is like any display of flair - worth watching if done with joy or for lagniappe. Hunter S. Thompson's style has always entertained me - and I think it serves his purposes. Hawthorn would be a good example of a joyless, elegant writer. Far too much over-wrought writing is as annoying as a spooky horse: I wish they'd stop dancing around and concentrate on business. Pam Houston, for one, manages to produce writing that is painfully over-worked and yet not that well-crafted.

Tim, I long to meet these wise academics you drink with.

Posted by: j.c. on June 19, 2003 01:06 AM

Using writin'--which I take to mean the aspects of a writing style which aspire to the condition of music--as the main yardstick of literary quality would be a better idea if our ideas of musical quality were far more rigorous and universally accepted. This condition, however, obviously does not obtain. I remember a very interesting essay on the difficulties of translating Greek poetry, from which I got the impression that its "musical" properties were enormously different from anything that has ever achieved common acceptance in English. (If I remember correctly, Greek poetry is written in couplets, each with a very strict meter, but the meter can and does change with every couplet.) The "foreigness" of such a poetical style to an English speaker (as well as the ongoing evolution of English language poetical styles) calls forth a constant stream of translations in an attempt to bridge an essentially unbridgeable gap. It would seem, therefore that to view literature solely as an opportunity to show off good writin' is a pretty silly exercise, akin to trying to parse out exactly what constitutes good cooking. To paraphrase the great sage Richard Dreyfuss on the acting of Charleton Heston, any acting is good acting if it gets you where you're trying to go. One suspects the same could be said of literary style.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 19, 2003 01:11 AM

Hey Tim, My fault if I'm being unclear, but the well-wrought-urn thing isn't what I mean to be referring to. And you've got much more recent experience with academia than I have, so please fill in the blanks here. But I've taken a fair amount of recent creative-writing classes -- and they've all taught a predictable thing, which has zero to do with, say, storytelling, and mucho to do with word patterns, image patterns, etc. And in my regular dealings with recent Eng-lit grads, as well as with critics and editors and such, the first thing most of them talk about when the topic is fiction is what I'm calling here the writin'. They've been trained to recognize and discuss writin', it seems -- the fucked-with sentence, the striking editorial move, the sudden shift in angle, etc etc. They tend to have zero idea of, say, what makes for interesting subject matter, or how to create a character who's worth paying attention to. And they feel completely free to dismiss a given novel entirely because they feel the writin' is bad. So in my experience, anyway, I'd say that, yeah, there's a wild overemphasis out there on writin', and a marked lack of respect for fiction's other elements. But maybe this didn't hold true among the profs you've known? Good to hear.

J.C. -- So true, thanks. As a critic friend of mine (a dissenter in the ranks) argues, 1) Writin' is easily discussable and doesn't tend to provoke uncomfortable arguments, and 2) What the hell do critics and editors (and, often, writers) know about character/storytelling/life anyway? Is Bukowski falling out of fashion? That was slipping by me. And glad to hear of your lack of enthusiasm for Pam Houston, who struck me as a drag too.

FvB -- That Dreyfus-on-Heston quote pretty much sums it up, many thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2003 04:09 AM

Your comments on Nabokov ring very true.

I was talking about him with a friend and we realized simultaneously that, for both of us, the second half always felt like a chore.

Posted by: alexis on June 19, 2003 07:24 AM

I'm not much of a fan of the show-off "look at me, Mom" style of writing, typified by people like Will Self or Rushdie or Martin Amis, in their different ways. Amis in particular seems to believe that literature is purely about style, and is clearly indifferent to plot. Read his collection of literary criticism "The War Against Cliché", and all he talks about is literary style (or more often lack thereof). The very title is telling.

My personal feeling is that style is very important but should mesh seamlessly with the story. I can't read show-offy po-mo novels, but nor can I read poorly written genre novels. It all has to come together. The affectless style of Simenon is actually very hard to pull off. In my experience, it's harder to write simply and concisely than it is to write in a more conventionally "literary style". "Poetry" and clever use of language are a necessary ingredient to any style, but they have to be used very sparingly, like vermouth in a martini.

But I don't think it's about the opposition between a po-mo "it's all artifice" vision and a classical "window to reality" vision. Fictional narrative is neither artifice nor reality. It's not reflecting anything; instead, it simply *is* one of the experiences of life, like good cuisine or sex.

Posted by: Hugo on June 19, 2003 08:01 AM

For me a variety of style and substance is what keeps me reading. I can appreciate spare, understated prose as well as Pynchon's literary fireworks. However, with most commercial fiction, the poor quality of the writing is a tremendous distraction from my enjoyment of the story, however well it may be plotted. That's why I appreciate writers like Patrick O'Brian and John le Carre, who are able to write beautiful prose in the context of a popular genre.

A footnote on "Beowulf," since Michael mentioned it: however strange it seems to us, the poem in the original is very self-consciously literary (in the context of an aesthetic that is radically different from our own) and carefully constructed. Once you spend some time translating it, any idea of its primitivism goes by the board. Whether or not it was "well-written," whatever that might mean, the poet was certainly trying to make it so.

Posted by: John on June 19, 2003 09:46 AM

In my view, prose fiction must tell a story worth listening to, and the "writin'" must serve the story. In Wodehouse's "Jeeves and Wooster" stories, the plots are always tight and well-designed, and Bertie's foppish voice serves them perfectly. Take Bertie out of the picture, and all you've got is sitcom material. Remove the carefully designed plot, and all you've got is a foppish ass and tedium.

A novel can succeed on plot alone; it can't succeed on style alone, or not for long. But the best work will always have both.

I could rant on about this for hours; hmm, I've got my own weblog; perhaps I should.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 19, 2003 11:22 AM


Wow, you read and *finished* "Ulysses"? You are the first person I've ever conversed with who's made that claim. Wow!

Anyway, you're right. The continuum is the thing.

That said, I really do enjoy a writer who knows how to write what they're writing, which is different from the Flaubert idea, i.e., the writing is good enough that topic and plot should not matter; or the current pomo lit crowd, i.e., Flaubert's idea mixed with the idea that the words themselves have a meaning only unto themselves within the context of the piece (which is horsecookies, imo), mixed with identity politics and a disdain for plots.

The writer who knows how to write WHAT they're writing is the best. By that I mean John Irving whose layered prose is perfect for his layered tragicomedies. Stephen King's colloquial phrasing and pop culture settings for the horror hidden just underneath the bed, and our lives. Robert E. Howard's unmatched ability to write straight-ahead action in the Conan stories. Dashiell Hammett 's tough-guy prose for detective stories. Anne Rice's baroque prose for her even more baroque(n) vampires. Kurt Vonnegut's setup-joke setup-joke style for deeply tragic stories, which makes them readable. Even Jay McInerney's one hit wonder "Bright Lights, Big City" for self-conscious youth in the midst of self-destruction. Etc.

So a combination of the correct style for the genre, to me, is the best of all.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 19, 2003 11:46 AM

My preference is for transparent prose, but I recognize that as a preference. One piece of advice that I've heard more than once goes something like, "If you have just written a sentence or paragraph that you think is brilliant, rip it out and throw it away immediately."

I see "writin'" in prose about the way I see brush technique in painting. In some cases it can be very important, command of it is important for a writer/artist, but it should almost never call attention to itself.

If you want to write exquisitely crafted sentences, write poetry. The additional constraints of the form will help the writing, and the writing will not detract from the form.

In prose, the object should be to write a novel (or short story, novella, novellette, etc.), not a sentence or paragraph.

But then I identified my prejudices up front.


Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 19, 2003 12:32 PM

I checked out some of the authors you cited for writin', and all their writin' sucks eggs.

That said, I think style is the most important thing in a book, because otherwise it's just "facts, facts, facts" as Mr. Gradgrind would say.

It just has to be good style: A) Clear B) Dramatic C) Fun.

"Distinct, cooly, calmly distinct, fell those few simple sounds within my ear, and thence like molten lead rolled hissingly into my brain."

That's a good sentence.

The stuff you cited looks like the authors went to grad school. (And, knowing grad students, they're probably still there.)

Posted by: Brian on June 19, 2003 12:38 PM

Ah, so we're talking about creative writing classes. I don't have much experience with them, alas. I know that as an expository writing teacher, I started out as a classic Strunk-and-White "style fetishist" (we teach as we were taught, at least until we learn better) and gradually moved to a more structuralist approach to argument.

Most literary scholars (which I'll admit aren't connected to the publishing industry) left their interest in pure literary style long ago. Nowadays we generally prefer ideology -- the more left-wing, the better. This is the basis of "poststructuralist" criticism, which always sounds more complicated than it is.

To J.C.: I've known several academics whom I would consider truly wise, and more than a few who I think have a really good chance of getting there. The odds of obtaining wisdom as an academic seem neither better nor worse than they are in the population as a whole.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 19, 2003 03:27 PM

BTW, when it comes to style, the most painfully self-conscious writers I can think of (in the English language at least) are George Orwell and Mark Twain. For Orwell, style was a matter of moral urgency; for example, he deplored "bureaucratese" because it served to cover up atrocity. For Twain, it was a matter of achieving a maximum designed impact on his audience; he learned through trial and error that if he wrote (or spoke) something one way, we'd laugh, and if in another way, we'd recoil in horror.

I'm indebted to Twain for the ultimate style-fetishist maxim: "The difference between almost the right word and the right word, is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

BTW, should I be surprised that these two self-consciously stylistic writers used pseudonyms?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 19, 2003 03:36 PM

Brian, that sentence doesn't work at all without the preceding... what, five or six pages? You need the buildup of constantly contrasting images of burning hellfire and cold, dead ashes or it's just a jolt.

I think the problem with these damn over-wrought writers is that hear about a superstar sentence like that and never catch on that such words only work in the service of ideas. Woody Allen mocks this in Sleepers, with the arty Trustafarian writing a poem about a butterfly who turns into a caterpillar, by and by.

But perhaps I'm between a rock and the deep blue sea...

Posted by: j.c. on June 19, 2003 03:36 PM

Brian, that sentence doesn't work at all without the preceding... what, five or six pages? You need the buildup of constantly contrasting images of burning hellfire and cold, dead ashes or it's just a jolt.

Fair enough. (The sentence BTW is from Poe's Morella.) I just picked it cause I like it.

I didn't say style is everything, but I think it's first in importance because it's the first thing encountered, and there's no escaping it. My criteria are pragmatic: a dull story I quit on page twenty, but dull prose I quit on page two.

Trollope, for instance, writes Seinfeldian stories about nothing, doesn't he? The interest, at least for me, comes first from the way he writes them, second the way he structures them, and then last of all what the story is actually about. (Church politics, in which I have no interest.)

I can take Trollope a lot easier than, for instance, an exciting detective yarn told in stripped down, utilitarian prose. Perhaps it's just my kink.

Posted by: Brian on June 19, 2003 05:22 PM

There's an age issue involved in this. The young tend to enjoy lyric writing more, with hyper-beautiful descriptions of objects, while the old like social complexity. Your coming out from under the Nabokov spell is tied into this natural aging process.

Obviously, it's hard for a writer to do both prose style and social depiction extremely well, but having just reread Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" for the 9th time, I can attest that it can be done.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 19, 2003 08:39 PM

Alexis, Hugo, Yahmdallah, Will, Doug, J.C. -- Glad to shake hands with fellow teammates. What you're saying is pretty much exactly how I feel.

John -- Point taken about how lousy the prose per se is in many bestsellers. Still, I'd argue that a fixation on prose style (not that you have one) blinds many lit-class people to the many other elements that go into fiction, one of the most important being structuring a story, a craft that many genre writers know infinitely more about than do most lit writers. Fiction operates on many levels, and since no book and no author is strong on all of them, why not be open to what a book or author does do well? On the other hand, and as you point out, no harm either in having a taste for fine writin'.

"Beowulf"'s an interesting topic where style's concerned. I'm away from my reference books and on a lousy AOL connection that breaks down every five minutes, so I'm relying on my unreliable memory here ... But as I recall, the general feeling is that it's made up of elements from folklore and history, was probably evolved into shape through oral performance by many performers over a long time, and only then was written down, god knows by whom. So its literary qualities (like those of the "Odyssey," say) are the result of vastly different processes than the ones that lead to the literary-writin' qualities a contempo author might give a book. The difference between evolved structures and consciously-applied design, more or less. But if you've been involved in translating "Beowulf," you know mucho more about the poem/epic/story/whatever than I do. Interested to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Brian -- Glad to hear about your enjoyment of style, and I share it to an extent. But I'm not sure I agree that it's present only on the level of the prose per se. Style's there to be enjoyed on other levels too. Hardboiled stories, for instance, usually get told in a cinematic, one-fact-after-another, linear way, where psych-suspense stories are often delivered in a rather decentered and discursive way. There may be no difference in style on the level of the sentences in these two cases, even while there are enormous diffs in style on the level of storytelling. I've grown to be a bit of a "what is this story and how is it being delivered to us" buff, and possibly because of this I've gotten to be more forgiving of "style" on the sentence level than I was as a younger lit dude. But this could just be me.

Tim -- I'm thinking less of the creative-writing industry specifically than I am of the "we make and discuss fiction" world generally, most of whose members seem to come from either creative-writing or Eng-lit backgrounds. English profs count in this process only insofar as they manage to brainwash the kids who then go off to take part in the "making and discussing fiction" world. As you say, what the profs seem to be peddling these days is some variant on structuralism crossed with the usual boring political nonsense. Alas, many of the kids show up bearing both loads -- silly (and unrealistic) ways of looking at how fiction is made and radical political attitudes they'll soon outgrow (but will usually have to support publicly anyway). They're also full of very knowing chatter about writin', and they're ignorant of many of the other elements that go into narrative fiction -- one-trick ponies, basically, who sometimes wind up in positions from which they lecture the rest of us about what's good and what's bad. Which is what makes me want to set off cherrybombs beneath them. I'm curious: Do you find Orwell and Twain "painfully self-conscious" to read? What writers, by contrast, strike you as more (I suppose) natural?

Steve -- Excellent point about age and literary taste, thanks. (Although in my case, losing my taste for Nabokov occurred more or less on the day I left grad school, so I think it was more a function of "being or not-being in academia" than it was of age.) The usual thing, in fact (judging from what I heard and observed in the publishing world) is for people to start losing interest in new lit fiction at about 30, and to start losing interest in fiction generally at around 45-50.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 20, 2003 03:08 AM

From my fairly recent read of Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf, it was written down by a 8th century unknown monk. If you read it, there are obvious allusions to Christianity in several places--from what I understand that was done to make a pagan story more palatable to a Christian audience. It also was not much studied until the end of the last century and didnt really become an object of interest until J. R. R. Tolkein gave a lecture and wrote a paper on it.

Yahmdallah, I have read "Ulysses" all the way thru! So now you've heard of two people. And I've read "Clarissa". You can ooh and ahh now.

Posted by: Deb on June 20, 2003 09:31 AM

Concerning "Beowulf," ask twelve scholars about its origins, and you will get twelve different answers. Some recent theories hold that it is as late as the tenth century (see the critical anthology "The Dating of Beowulf"). The manuscript dates from around 1000. Its tradition is probably largely oral, but there is evidence that the poet is being intentionally antiquarian, that he is trying to construct an oral style for effect. A fairly recent book by Katherine O'Brian O'Keefe discusses the orality/literacy problem of Old English and suggests that most of the manuscripts we have fall into a transitional stage. The poem as we have it, however, is very much an example of "writin'", though not as we are used to.

Deb--you are right that Tolkien's essay "The Monsters and the Critics" refocused critical attention. The poem had received a great deal of attention in the previous half-century, but it had been largely a search on the part of Germanic scholars for Germanic analogues. Tolkien treated the poem as a self-conscious work of art, which was a new perspective at the time.

Concerning Christian references (though they are oblique and they never refer to Christ himself), many critics (myself included) hold that they are integral to the effect of the poem--a kind of evangelism by contrast. They show the desparate hopelessness of even the best of pagans, pagans who have no alternative vision. The poet tells us that no one knew where Scyld's funeral ship went after it was cast into the sea--a vivid metaphor.

All this seems off-topic, but stay with me: I think "Beowulf" demonstrates a point about what Michael call "writin'". It's a moving target, with aesthetics that differ radically with cultural and literary contexts. I suffer a somewhat snobbish reaction against the prose of most commercial fiction, but only because I have been culturally conditioned to recognize some prose as good and some prose as bad. Doubtless, in a hundred years or even twenty years, the paradigm will have shifted, and my tastes will seem antiquated (if they don't already).

Posted by: John on June 20, 2003 10:15 AM

I can't resist pointing out that John, who appears to know what he is talking about (in contrast to, say, myself), seems to be essentially repeating the point I made in the context of translations from classical Greek; aesthetic systems and their consequent tastes are very culture-specific (as well as time-specific), thus rendering definitive judgments on the quality as writin' produced across a variety of them ultimately silly. It doesn't seem to occur to many people that the standards of writin' applicable to supermarket romance novels may be radically different than those applied to the novels of Henry James--but not less demanding. I don't see Henry supporting himself very well writing bodice rippers. Setting oneself up as an arbiter of style (viewed as a unitary category, applicable always and everywhere) is sort of akin to building a very big sand castle below the high tide line.

Many thanks to John for helping me articulate what I think I was trying to say above.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 20, 2003 11:52 AM

So Michael, If I am understanding you, you are saying that you cannot judge a work, such as Richardson's "Clarissa" by contemporary stylisitc standards. That to fully appreciate a book, you must know something of the historical and cultural context that it was written in?

Posted by: Deb on June 20, 2003 12:11 PM

Wow, it's a Beowulf Scholars Convention! Fascinating stuff, many thanks.

I'm thinking of writin' in a much more limited sense than many of you, happy to report. An image comes to me: writin' is like the paint job on a house. There to be enjoyed, perhaps fine and dandy in its own right. But also not to get hung up on, and not to be mistaken for the complete package.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 21, 2003 01:23 AM

I don't think Twain and Orwell are painfully self-conscious to read -- well, okay, sometimes more obscure Twain can be painfully self-conscious to read -- but they're both deeply concerned about language and the effect it can have on an audience. Both Twain and Orwell tend to write very naturally (the consumption end), but as writers (the production end) they are painfully self-conscious on matters of style.

Good points on oral vs. written literary traditions here, too.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 23, 2003 02:05 AM

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