Oh, hiya. Something not exactly comics, for a change, or at least not entirely comics: today I’ve been reading mediocre book reviews.
Mediocre reviews of books, I’m beginning to think, are as ubiquitous in our culture as tiny bits of plastic are in our oceanic environment. In other words: there’s a lot of bad out there. So what’s responsible for it?
North America’s the worst, of course; but even England is falling, great tubs of plasticky prose tumbling into the sea. It’s really awful. Which is why — last read-through of the night — I was happy to stumble on this. It’s Neil Gaiman, writing about H.G. Wells, and it’s very restrained. Thank God! I thought I was going to go blind. Of course Neil’s English, and many of the English still give a damn about English…but I think there’s another explanation for why he turns in such a swell job here. Raymond Chandler said it first: if you want to see Art stepping forward, you won’t find it in the mainstream, you’ll find it in the ghettoes and fahvelas of genre writing.
I paraphrase a little, there.
It’s true, though. I think. Where the rules and the resources get tight, that’s where you find the creative solutions to long-standing problems. Because, very simply, that’s where you find the energy that it takes to do it. I was party to an interesting mini-discussion about this not long ago, and Dashiell Hammett came up…well, I brought him up, although it turned out that I didn’t know enough about him…and just today I’ve been thinking: with all the mainstream novelists that’ve been compared to Dickens in the last twenty years or so (finding a new Dickens seems to be kind of important to us English-speaking people lately), has there yet been one of ’em who resembles him more than Hammett did? I don’t know, it’s just a thought; still, Dickens as genre-writer, sure…well, why didn’t I see that before…?
Back when I was still an essay tutor, I was talking with a friend of mine about a paper he was doing on the intersection of sports and art…the basic argument we thrashed out was something like: maybe art’s more necessary, when all the allowable moves are strictly circumscribed. Wayne Gretzky had to learn to pass to himself, when there was no one else open. I once saw…oh, damn, who was it, that guy who played for the Raptors, name starts with “T”…a basketball player use a guard’s head to sink a basket: he jumped up, ball in one hand, and used his other hand to leapfrog off his opponent’s skull…shot, nothing but net, and the beauty of it was that the other guy couldn’t’ve possibly touched him without fouling him.
In basketball, they’re coming up with insane new stuff within the (unusually) restrictive rules all the time. That’s why people watch: there’s art, there. Expression. It’s like the classic science fiction TV show double-disaster, that comes in the last ten minutes of the show: suddenly the one possible solution to the Big Problem is rendered no good, unreachable…and then you wait to see how the heroes will come up with an impossible solution in the five minutes they’ve got left. That’s just plain action-adventure…
Did you read Neil’s article yet?
Okay, good; because what I’m saying here is that he’s better than most, and that’s probably down to working most of his life in a very tough genre, that for all its freedoms has some very exasperating limits built into it, and only for some of his working life has he been in a somewhat freer genre, and even that’s a restrictive one compared to the literary mainstream. Anyway, Neil’s learned to do a lot with a little, and to make every move count, so he does, and it’s nice to see. He’s lucid, economical, and (as I said) restrained — and as a result I’ll read any piece of criticism he cares to write. No, more! I’ll go further! I’d read a book he wrote on How To Write, and that’s just about the tallest compliment I know how to give, because those books are garbage. “There’s only one way to write, and that’s well, and it’s your own goddamn business how you do it!” Name the quote, there’s a prize. Why, I believe I’d even be willing to take a night-school Creative Writing Workshop class, if he were teaching it! Now that really is going too far, but I think I would. Because I know — I know! — that Neil is not lazy.
And now let’s briefly turn (as you all knew we would), to Alan. I mean, we’ve talked about Neil, so now we have to talk about Alan, right? It’s practically de rigeur. If anyone’s reading this blog, more improbably still if you’ve been reading for a while, then you’ll know I was absolutely, ridiculously blown away by the first chapter of Voice Of The Fire. I mean, I was blown away by all of it, but in that first seventy-five pages or so Alan writes in first person using a lexicon of about 400 words, and I can’t think of a single writer living or dead who could’ve employed such a strict confinement to open up such a touching, and complex, affect in the reader. And if his self-imposed rules had been loosened-up, would it have been as affecting? Hmm, this is what comes from having an editor named Weisinger, I guess…I’ve often thought good writing’s really a bit like chess: leaving a pawn where it is is a move, too, right? Haven’t quite mastered that storytelling Jeet Kune Do, myself. But Alan has, and so has Neil. And I’m not even going to talk about our great and legendary comic-book artists in this vein, ’cause it’s just too damned obvious: as Gretzky said about hockey, the thing people don’t realize is that all of our guys, even the role-players, have to be able to skate backwards at ten miles an hour while simultaneously thinking about strategy, minimum. Minimum! And comics artists do that too, of course, so there’s almost no point making a shortlist…
Oh yeah, and wow: today I read some piece where the writer had chosen (actually chosen!) to say that such-and-such a person had “perhaps, found some measure of peace.”
In 2007, they said this!
Can you imagine?
How Chandler would have laughed…
Neil is, of course, far too respectful to laugh…but you won’t catch him saying in 2007 that anybody’s perhaps found some measure of peace! What incredible garbage. This was from a big North American mega-magazine, the kind that sells as many copies in a week as I have hair follicles. It was from the cover story. Good God. Once — once! — Ed told me that I’d written a story loaded down with cliches, and that it was no good. I stared at the drawer that held the story for two solid years, and then I took it out and burned it in the fireplace. This was in the mid-Eighties, so, weirdly, I did perhaps find some measure of peace in it. Well, but that was all part-and-parcel with the screwy semi-tainted retro thing we were all doing in those days. You young kids wouldn’t understand. We were constantly talking about finding some measure of peace, at that time. Which may explain our modern-day lameness, a bit…but anyway…
Oh, yes. Genre fiction as the incubator of what they sometimes call, in critical circles, “muscularity”. I still don’t know exactly what they mean by that. I mean, I know what I take from it: I think they mean that that the writing is vigourous. Or simple, perhaps, like Chandler’s descriptions, Hammett’s actions, Dickens’ names and voices, Hemingway’s punctuation, Wells’ plots, Buchan’s settings. Of course none of these things are simple at all; they’re compressed, like the diamonds Superman makes in his idle hours.
Now, lookee here, I’m old enough; I can admit that I’m fascinated by genre fiction.
And this is why.
At least, it’s part of the reason.
Possibly more later on this. Meanwhile, follow Neil wherever he goes. His name has become a guarantee, and as he gets older and more experienced it’ll become more of one. He’ll never bottom out at sixty, or sixty-five. He’ll just get better. All hail Neil, I say. He saved me from crap writing tonight.
Now everytime I see crap writing, I’m gonna jump out a window, or hit my signal-watch, and count on him to save me.