Within That Inch, We Are Free

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?

Probably laziness.

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, minimumMinimum!  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…

Anyway…

What?

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.

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One response to “Within That Inch, We Are Free

  1. Reviews of any sort are difficult to do well. Orwell wrote a classic piece about it that contains many truths.

    Criticism, like many arts, seems easy to a bystander. At a very basic level, it is easy. To critique well, by which I mean to make insights into a work, connect it to the larger world, and illuminate aspects of the work that may not be apparent at first glance, is difficult.

    Moreover, it’s a very particular skill, and it does not overlap with skills one would expect to be similar. Writers may or may not make good critics, and vice-versa. Many great novelists are mediocre critics. The greatest literary critic the United States ever produced, Edmund Wilson, was a mediocre novelist. Yet his criticism…oh, his criticism.

    The closest parallel is comedy. Everyone thinks he’s funny. Yet how many people are good stand-up comics? The internet, the Eternal Open-Mike Night, affords every jerk, myself included, to take a shot at “being a critic.” Little surprise that most of the “criticism” produced is twaddle.

    Professional criticism has weakened as well largely for the lack of a paycheck. Paid review jobs are disappearing. When the only way to become a skilled critic is to toil in perpetual penury, it shouldn’t be that surprising that reviews are quickly written, and that people with experience would refuse such gigs.

    On another of your topics…

    Hammett and Dickens? Oh my lord no. No, no, no. Dickens was a sentimentalist; his books are soaked in emotion like a Tres Leches Cake in milk. His language was florid, his emotions outsized, and his characters were caricatures. Brilliant caricatures, but cartoons nevertheless. Hammett was his opposite: tight, controlled language and imagery, emotional opacity, and little sentimentality.

    Now Chandler, Chandler had a lot more in common with Chucky-Dee. He gave us the over-ripe narration, the flood of similes, and the romantic “battered knight” archetype of private eye.

    The continual search for the “new Dickens” is hilarious. “Maximalism” is the new hot style in mainstream fiction. Asides! Footnotes! Digressions! Grotesques! Whee-haw! That’s new. Twenty years back, everybody wanted to be Raymond Carver and turn out emotionally-muted, precise little gems of quiet people having minor epiphanies. I’m sure the wheel will turn back to minimalism soon enough.

    The rules of genre fiction do, or more accurately, can, promote creativity and art. When the rules are gone, one has to exert a tremendous amount of effort to simply create new rules. Which, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, end up identical to a pre-existing set of rules and/or don’t work very well.

    However, the rules of genre fiction also allow for coasting and the scourge of genre fiction: the Gimmick. How many sci-fi, western, and detective books are built by throwing up the standard genre framework and then pivoting the entire story on a gimmick? Far, far, far, far too many. (“The space pilot was actually a time-travelling Rudyard Kipling! Genius!”)

    God, I hate “gimmick” fiction.

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