They say everybody’s a critic. So? Everyone else thinks they’re an author
The case contra on-demand publishing
On the second anniversary of the appearance of this essay in the print publication, we post it here the better for other anal-retentives to bask in its glow and bathe in its delights. Or something like that.
Ahem. Allow me to present Prof. Frumly Lymphschtickenraad, to deliver the latest in his series of lectures on the decline in American letters since Feb. 29, 1997. The professor (whose seminal study of cheese as metaphor in Moldovan literature during the brief post-prandial renaissance of 984 to 1011 we are all familiar with), has in this essay—which he will present with the aid of Ashlee Simpson using a laser pointer to keep him focused on his TelePrompTer—updated Herr Mark Twain’s rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction, which that luminary applied so incisively to the work of Mr. J.F. Cooper. Ms. Simpson—please—no—The laser pointer is only to be used with the briefest of applications to the professor’s sensitive nasal lesions and diaphanous wattle, just to keep him alert—no—no!—please, not in his eyes. OK, then.
Wusses! Have we yet failed to to exorcise, expectorate and scuff into the dust, like a worm, the last castings of the putrid, pusillanimous pastiche of sensibilities and execrable esthetic errors that characterized the ’60s and ’70s? While there is the ages-old maxim, “Dance with the one what brung ya,” must we be Brautigan and again back to this sad and laughable era? What Merry Pranksters have visited this viscid and flaccid “literary” corpse upon us? O exquisite corpse, would that you did not, like wide-gauze-bandaged mummy or pale and ghoulish zombie, visit and revisit yourself upon us, spreading pestilent prose, dusty declamation, and chalky snowblindness upon those who would gaze upon your papery raiment?
Well. Let us now, for the purposes of our elucidation, distill the illustrious Prof. Twain’s 19 or so rules governing the art of fiction to a mere two or three:
- Do not, unless with artful skill and satiric intent, sully sublime notions, vulgarize eternal mysteries, excrete on the ethereal essences.
- Do not depict chemically-altered psychic excursions, or physic ecstasies, unless with clarity of vision and dextrousness of narration that would suffice to suggest why the depraved seek (yet, paradoxically, fear) these debased states.
- If, indeed, you are authentically acquainted first-hand with these states, would you, nonetheless, mind terribly refraining from writing whilst in them?
- Employ your language of choice in such manner as to avoid boring or repulsing the reader.
Here, we assess the literary efforts of one Henry Wingfield; and, to adumbrate our conclusion, we find that H.W., a fervid if not continuously employed massage therapist, ought reserve the laying on of his hands, not to the alphabetic keyboard, but to the human or (if also a pet masseur) animalian corpus. H.W., having graduated in his literary output from a book relatively blank and at least inoffensive in its austerity (Imagine Art) to one busy, verily squirming, with words, ought to be sent back a grade.
The subsequent tome is notable. It is remarkable. It is even admirable (if one admires crime consistently, predictably and reliably committed) in the breaking of at least two of the four foregoing rules in nigh every paragraph of H.W.’s novel Ancient Lovers—and of all four on virtually every page! Multiple times, in many instances.
Synoptically, we describe the book as mucking about in the notion of “past lives”—as far as we can tell. Apparently, in the main, modern phase of the novel, certain antiquated paramours’ spirits dwell or manifest in the embarrassingly juicy and concupiscent flesh of modern humans, who, without prior contemporary acquaintance, then justify their hedonistic couplings—not to mention their nostalgic gazings one into another’s eyes—by their ineradicable and soulfully “deep” connection across time and space. (A process and a connection, we venture, not unlike when VP search committee chief Cheney became George Walker Bush’s vice-presidential running mate Dick.)
Contrary to supposition, Abby and Pedro are not engaged in a brief constitutional during a furlough off the grounds of an inpatient mental health sanitarium. But nor, whatever other purposes it serves, is this necessarily a fitting paragraph to hold up against the harsh requirements of the rules of fiction-writing. For, whatever errors and gaffes, lamenesses and atonalities might appear in it, who is to say Mr. Wingfield did not knowingly intend his speakers to sound thus, in a subtle exposition of their particular foibles?
No, it is in the narrative and descriptive stretches of Mr. Wingfield’s writing that we can most instructively apply the rules. Such a segment may be found on virtually any page of the book; we marveled at these paragraphs found as early as page 13, at the beginning of the second chapter:
Abby suffered a broken leg, cuts and bruises and a concussion. She was transported to Callebocca, Guatemala, on the east coast near the Caribbean Sea to a small public medical clinic. She was unconscious for five days while under Pedro’s care and supervision. He took an unusually special interest in Abby. Something touched him with her beauty. He could somehow see a past life from deep inside her eyes. Pedro checked them every day for consciousness or awareness, but instead saw into her past like a movie flashing before his eyes. He recognized a main character as himself in someone else’s body It was, in fact, a movie he was watching inside Abby’s eyes. He was fascinated by this, not freaked out or scared. He fell deeper into the plot, but really did not know where it was going.
On points more mundane—but, in their pervasiveness, equally grave—Rule 4 of our abridged set finds ample play. To begin, writing with good English requires avoiding clichés, as well as empty, gushy descriptives lacking in concreteness and specificity. (To its credit, the Moldovan tongue and literary canon also support these virtues.) Note the number of words and phrases violating this prescriptive in this brief passage: “madly in love,” “bountiful life,” “about to transpire,” “care and supervision,” “like a movie flashing before his eyes,” “freaked out,” “fell deeper.”
Too, Mr. Wingfield seems much in haste to get wherever it is he is going—maybe to the “movies” of the sex scenes, ja?—rather than attend to basic matters of the storyteller’s art: painting the setting, imagery—concrete specifics—that would place us in the characters’ world, and in turn, keep them from resembling Punch and Judy animated by a drunken puppeteer. We learn merely that the star-crossed couple were “vacationing” “in Central America,” that their jeep overturned “in a dreadful, fatal single-car accident.” It might further the verisimilitude of the tale to know something about how they were spending their vacation, and, especially, what they were doing that resulted in the tragic upending of their Jeep. Were they miles beyond ordinary, enjoying a few Coronas? Did the flash of a bright-plumed macaw or menacing jagular catch Stephan’s eye and cause him, mortally, to swerve? Was Abby engaged unseemly with the gear shifter? Sadly, we do not know.
On additional inspection, the generally clumsy, cluttered stacking up of words without care for sound, sense or meaning grates on the reader throughout the passage. For example, that Abby “did not know the long-range ramifications of what was to transpire” should surprise us so little as to require no mention, as we had not been previousy advised that she possessed any extraordinary faculty of prescience.
To say she “suffered” “a broken leg, cuts and bruises and a concussion” comes off as a mere statistic, as Herr Twain would say. It reads as if quoted from the clinic’s chart, not the imagination’s tabula rasa. Truly she may have “suffered,” and from the broken leg most of all, yet it is only in the academic sense that the word is used, i.e., as in “sustained a copious bleeding from the ears.” Cuts and bruises, and a broken leg—Oh my!
Abby was “transported” to Calleboca, about whose geographical situating we learn much; while about the particulars of her life-threatening trip thence, nothing. “She was unconscious five days while under Pedro’s care and supervision.” Do we here detect the suggestion of a causal connection, so that when Pedro relinquished her care and supervision to another practitioner, her condition improved? (If so, Pedro, at least, took not only a special interest in Abby (in her vulnerable state), but an “unusually special interest.” Hmmm. Nurse, please remain in the room at all times.)
Here’s our favorite: “Something touched him with her beauty.” Now, we all know what Wingfield here means. But that is not his fault. It’s due only to our toleration for syntactical impreciseness, as veteran language users, that we understand him. We take him to mean, “In some indefinable way, her beauty touched him.” And so he should have put it. Or, it could be as simple a fix as by the choice and placement of preposition; viz.: “Something in her beauty touched him.” Or: “He was touched by her beauty.” As it reads on the page, however (“Some thing [nom., subject] touched [v.t.] him [d.o.] with [i.e., “using,” “with the instrumentality of”] her beauty.”), it is as if something—perhaps a wandering howler monkey—somehow actually held Abby’s beauty in its simian grasp, and poked (or merely stroked) Pedro with it, as if with a leafy tree-limb. Clearly, as an abstract, even Ideal-partaking Platonic form informing and infusing the substance of Abby’s human visage, her “beauty” is not something to be bandied about like a stick in such manner. So one should not write as if it was.
Too, not only should the writer stick to the possible, or at least dabble in rendering the improbable plausible—he should avoid the use of such fake and facile realism-intensifiers as “in fact,” “literally” and suchlike clichés, reminding ourselves anyway that they are mental placeholders serving largely to give thinking a holiday. “He recognized a main character as himself in someone else’s body. It was, in fact, a movie he was watching inside Abby’s eyes.” (Emphasis reluctantly added.)
First, a hint please, as to how Pedro “recognized a main character as himself in someone else’s body”? —We are not being coy. Please make something up—anything: a tic, a certain leer of lip, a piebaldness, or one eye being a different colour than the other—to justify and explain how he recognized himself in someone else’s body; not a regular occurrence, after all.
Then, no matter how sincerely Mr. Wingfield wants us to believe Pedro’s experience is like watching a movie play in Abby’s eyes, let us not abandon and deny the essential artifice of simile and insist there is literal cinema-going going on here. For I doubt Mr. Wingfield envisions a little film projector—nor even a tiny iPod Photo—perched on Abby’s nose, or hidden inside a sinus or tear duct or Eustachian tube, “in fact” projecting a movie in her eyes there for Pedro to see. No, no matter how much he would like to indulge—sloppily, incoherently, and impossibly—to the contrary, there are no such miniature movie projectors in the jungle (or on the coast) of Guatemala. Nor is there sufficient bio-mechanical expertise in that largely agrarian economy to implant such technology and operate it—much less maintain it. Nor did they have the filmmaking equipment “way back then” to make the movies now “in fact” playing in Abby’s eyes ... in the time, as if in ancient Greece, that the original souls lived and loved under the moonilght by the wine-dark sea, la-de-doo-dah (just like they “didn’t have marriage” then, either). (Well, OK: Maybe gay marriage.)
— D. Tell
Editor’s note: The foregoing is loosely—maybe feebly—modeled on two classic, hilarious essays by Mark Twain on the “literary offenses of Fenimore Cooper.” The first of them may be found online at users.telerama.com/~joseph/cooper/ cooper.html. We also advise our readers that Henry Wingfield, as a good sport, agreed to see a review published that took this tack. Still, fortunately for Cooper, perhaps, he had established his literary fame and reputation—and had been dead for over 40 years—before Twain published his calumnies. (And, as it turned out, Wingfield was not so sanguine after seeing the published review.)
Ancient Lovers can be ordered from Xlibris, 1-888-795-4274, www.xlibris.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.