Twitter and Difficulty


This post is brought to you by an unseemly urge to over-expound.

Anna and I are now both on Twitter. Already, I’ve been involved in genre wrangles. Jonathan McCalmont is currently reading In Great Waters, which you might remember I liked, though not as much as some. Apparently, he’s been reading some classics, too, and remarked that moving from Fitzgerald and Camus back to genre writing was a curious experience: like moving, I guess, from cordon bleu to pub grub. I’ve some sympathy with this feeling – rare has it been that I’ve moved from a out-and-out literary text to a pure work of genre (which In Great Waters is not, despite its clear relationship to SF&F) and not felt the downwards gear change. This, however, is also true of moving from a canonical author to a contemporary novelist yet to prove his mettle – so the contest is somewhat rigged.

In Whitfield’s defense, her own eatery is a gastropub rather than a boozer with a few sarnies on the bar. And here lie the limits of Twitter – Niall Harrison objected to Jonathan’s use of the word ‘simplistic’ to characterise In Great Waters. I’d agree with him that ‘simplistic’ is not the word to use – because, yes, it suggests distorting naivety – but by the same token I think we both agree that In Great Waters doesn’t quite pull itself together. That is a fault, ultimately, of its prose style, which cannot sustain and stretch itself across the novel’s length and breadth. To this extent, then, the spirit of what Jonathan was saying was spot on – he was experiencing less powerful prose.

Twitter, however, is not the place to have a semantic debate – it pretty much demands poor choice of words. How is it possible to have a proper debate about difficulty in prose (and there is now a putative Obfuscatory Writers project abroad) when you are being forced to limit your own words to 140 characters? Whitfield’s writing is not simplistic in the way that – as again we all agreed – much genre writing can be; but it isn’t as rewardingly complex as the writers Jonathan cited. Again, important semantics are unexplorable in a Tweet.

What are the pleasures of difficult writing, though? A plain, unadorned style can be a thing of beauty – Kurt Vonnegut remains one of my very favourite writers, and it is stunningly difficult to emultate his spare, skeletal style. Whitfield’s own writing is comparably full of allusion and play, and, if it is without the on-the-other-hand poetry of a Fitzgerald, is that so bad a thing? Some baroque edifices are ugly; there is a limit to the virtue of ornamentation. But it also seems to me that the fault of Whitfield’s style – its ultimate failure completely to encompass its theme – proceeds from what Jonathan may or may not still call its ‘simplicity’. Moby Dick, for example, is a forbidding novel; but its success lies in that repulsion. Its discursive, Biblical, roiling style provides the echoing space and inward movement required fully to explore depths not entirely divorced from Whitfield’s. The difficulty of the style supports the easing of the theme.

Not all books benefit from an excess of style. Dorothy Parker wrote of Ernest Hemingway (not a writer I care for, but still) that “Hemingway stands as a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection. He discards details with a magnificnet lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path.” This control – a word used by Niall to describe (some of) Whitfield’s prose – is, like Vonnegut’s, key not only to the merits (as they may be) of Hemingway’s writing, but also the success of its content. It’s missing the point, of course, to think all good writing must be difficult; but there is still a difference between Hemingway’s unadorned prose and the simplistic failures of genre: a clarity, a precision. It may well be harder to achieve this trick, this stripping back, than Melville’s deep soundings. Parker on Hemingway again: “The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.” Even unadorned prose is difficult.

Jonathan was aiming, perhaps, at the descriptive rather than the evocative function of genre prose versus its literary counterpart’s. In this lies the real issue, not the ‘simplicity’ or ornament of the styles in question: it is not enough to tell; prose, as much as the story it strives to contain, needs also to show.


Frankie and Johnnie

My copy of Dune looks like this.
My copy of Dune is vintage.

Over on the Guardian Books Blog, Sam Jordison continues his slog through past Hugo winners with Frank Herbert’s desert planet epic, Dune. I have a great deal of (possibly nostalgic) affection and admiration for the novel, and Jordison seems to, as well. I was particularly interested by his observation that, “The fact is that Herbert writes wonderfully and can carry all but the most cynical over any amount of rough ground as a result.” It’s not often you here that an SF writer is saved by his prose.

Dune could undoubtedly have been a mess in another writer’s hands: its labyrinthine, often absurdly complex, plot is all dynastic conflict and shadowy conspiracy, and as Jordison notes some of the characters are too one-note for the reader to fully buy their motivations. It is bold and bonkers.Yet the setting is so rich, and the writing so careful, that the reader doesn’t mind: there is more than enough in Dune to make up for its imperfections as literature.

I’ve just finished reading Rabbit, Run, the first of John Updike’s famed series of novels featuring the ‘everymerican’ figure of Harry Angstrom. Updike’s reputation is not one which has made me eager to read his work; to boot, my only previous exposure to his novels was his late career philandering chronicle Villages, and that misfire didn’t encourage me to read further, either. Following Ian McEwan’s rhapsodic eulogy for Updike, though, I decided to give the old boy another chance.

So too is this photo of Updike.
So too is this photo of Updike.

Undoubtedly, Rabbit, Run is both better written and philosophically more interesting than Villages. And yet the things that most frustrated me about that book are present in the earlier work: the self-absorption, the attitude to women, the distancing style. Updike’s sentences are frequently things of true beauty, replete with arresting images and new perspectives. But it’s hard not to question whether there’s anything (or, at the very least, anything palatable) to all that verbiage. Rabbit, Run is as expertly written as any novel I’ve read, yet somehow it lacks the exquisite quality of a novel which is also about something else.

In this sense, and to follow Jordison, Herbert’s Dune achieves a richness Updike lacks. I might hesitate to say I’d read Dune over the Rabbit novels – Updike’s language is still purer stuff than Herbert’s, and despite the absences that lurk beneath it this represents a very special richness of its own – but it is certainly true that in Dune SF can at least claim to have something which addresses the world beyond itself (and indeed which challenges it, something which again seems beyond the bounds of Updike’s interest). There is something small and suburban about not just Updike’s characters but his prose, too: his books seem to care little for the existence of things except insofar as they affect the self.

There are more things in heaven and Arrakis …