Nudging the Doorstops

A few days ago, I posted a few comments on what I saw as a rise in novels being sold by the pound. A dear friend of mine — of more than four decades standing — has responded with some points of disagreement.

With regard to the “prog begat punk” portion of the discussion, which was part of an analogy I offered late in the piece, I think my friend makes some interesting points. Arena rock (with the lack of intimacy the term implies) was another key factor in the rise of punk. I should have mentioned that, and indeed thought of doing so, not least because it also offered its share of overlong, self-indulgent work.

I might take some issue with his comments on timing. He says, “The 70s “bloat period” of prog was basically over by 1976.” While “basically” allows some wiggle room, I would counter that my friend’s choice of date is interesting. While bands like the Damned, Pistols, and Ramones wouldn’t make it to wax until ’76, groups like the Dictators, London SS, and Rocket from the Tombs had been working from the sort of stripped-down aesthetic I discussed for a few years, and even the Ramones and Blondie started gigging in ’74, which either puts us in that aforementioned “bloat period” or suggests that the period may only have lasted for a few minutes on a Tuesday afternoon in 1972, probably for less time than it would take this morning to listen to “The Ancient.”

But enough neckbeard trainspotting (he said, lovingly cradling his copies of Lark’s Tongues in Aspic and Brain Salad Surgery — no one will hurt you, no, and not Stormwatch either). Let’s get back to the issue of overlong books. As I noted in my original post, the issue ultimately isn’t one of how many words a story has, but how well those words work together.

My friend says:

A novel is just as long as the story mandates. Writers know that when things are right with the Muse, the characters will dictate their own dialogue/actions, the story will take you where it wants to go, and everything will end when it’s time to end.

In this sense, we can say that a story is like Abraham Lincoln’s legs — if it’s long enough to reach the ground, it’s fine. OK, sure. And as I noted, there are long books I’ve enjoyed (including one he mentions) and short books I haven’t (Gatsby again.)

However, immediately after, my friend says,

[…A]lthough I think an editor (literary world) and a producer (music world) are worth every dime in working with the artist to help him or her present their art in the most direct and honest way, it is, at the end of the day, the artist whose name appears on the work. [Emphasis mine — Prof. M]

That’s true, but not necessarily relevant to the matter of quality. An author may — indeed, must — have his vision of how the work should be. And if the author has sufficient commercial clout (as with a King or Rowling), or can persuasively sell the idea that size=complexity=quality (an idea derived both from High Modernism and much older ideas about poetry), he or she may be able to have his vision brought forth more or less unmediated (within the limitations of the medium.) But if we value that directness mentioned in the first part of the passage above, then the question becomes, “Is what is lost (e.g., directness) worth what is gained (e.g., fullness of the author’s vision)?” At that point, it turns once more to our questions of chocolate and vanilla.

Again, the big point to all this is that the point of the entire exercise is to put the words together well. But I remain firm in my belief that length for the sake of length is not a praiseworthy quality. Don’t be impressed because it’s thick — be impressed because it’s good.

Posted in Literature, Music, Pixel-stained Wretchery | 1 Comment

The Traditional Memorial Day Post

Once again, we remember. For Sgt. James Michial Moore, USA, KIA, Vietnam, and those before and after.

Archibald MacLeish was an ambulance driver and artilleryman in World War I, and his brother, a naval aviator, was killed in 1918. This poem appeared in MacLeish’s collection Streets in the Moon, published 1926. The version that appears in his Collected Poems omits the final eight lines.

Memorial Rain

Ambassador Puser the ambassador
Reminds himself in French, felicitous tongue,
What these (young men no longer) lie here for
In rows that once, and somewhere else, were young
. . .

All night in Brussels the wind had tugged at my door:
I had heard the wind at my door and the trees strung
Taut, and to me who had never been before
In that country it was a strange wind, blowing
Steadily, stiffening the walls, the floor,
The roof of my room. I had not slept for knowing
He too, dead, was a stranger in that land
And felt beneath the earth in the wind’s flowing
A tightening of roots and would not understand,
Remembering lake winds in Illinois,
That Strange wind. I had felt his bones in the sand

Reflects that these enjoy
Their country’s gratitude, that deep repose,
That peace no pain can break, no hurt destroy,
That rest, that sleep. .

At Ghent the wind rose.
There was a smell of rain and a heavy drag
Of wind in the hedges but not as the wind blows
Over fresh water when the waves lag
Foaming and the willows huddle and it will rain;
I felt him waiting.

. . Indicates the flag
Which (may he say) nestles in Flanders plain
This little field these happy, happy dead
Have made America. . .

In the ripe grain
The wind coiled glistening, darted, fled,
Dragging its heavy body: at Waereghem
The wind coiled in the grass above his head:
Waiting–listening. . .

. . .Dedicates to them
This earth their bones have hallowed, this last gift
A grateful country. . .

Under the dry grass stem
The words are blurred, are thickened, the words sift
Confused by the rasp of the wind, by the thin grating
Of ants under the grass, the minute shift
And tumble of dusty sand separating
From dusty sand. The roots of the grass strain,
Tighten, the earth is rigid, waits — he is waiting –
And suddenly, and all at once, the rain!
The living scatter, they run into houses, the wind
Is trampled under the rain, shakes free, is again
Trampled. The rain gathers, running in thinned
Spurts of water that ravel in the dry sand,
Seeping in the sand under the grass roots, seeping
Between cracked boards of the bones of a clenched hand:
The earth relaxes, loosens; he is sleeping,
He rests, he is quiet, he sleeps in a strange land.

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On Doorstops

The Great Gatsby is not one of my favorite books — far too soapy for my tastes. On the upside, at just over 47,000 words, it’s less than 5% as long as the Bataan Death March of British literature, Clarissa. (By way of comparison, Atlas Shrugged comes in at about 65% of Clarissa, and War and Peace makes it at about 60%.)

Another couple of comparisons — The Postman Always Rings Twice runs about 35,000 words, while each of the five installments (thus far) of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series come in at over a quarter-million words. Now what’s important in the long run is not how many words a work has, but whether they’re the right words — ultimately, a novel needn’t be long to be good.

But we might not know that based on recent publications. In recent years, we’ve seen a serious rise in the “fat novel.” At The Independent, Alice Jones takes a look at some of the literary/mainstream works heading our way:

The cover [of Jonathan Franzen’s forthcomingPurity] is very nice – bold and graphic, like a cool birthday card you might pick up in the bookshop at Tate Modern. But when I was allowed briefly to touch The Independent literary editor’s copy, I skipped right past the cover to the back page: 576. That’s not so bad, I thought. Pretty long but it’s no Luminaries.

The fact is, 576 pages is long for a novel, but we are now apparently in the Year of the Very Long Novel so Franzen’s is small fry – a minibreak, rather than a long-haul holiday read. Death and Mr Pickwick, a prequel/ sequel to The Pickwick Papers, by Stephen Jarvis,out this week is 816 pages long. It is already being talked of as a Booker contender. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life about four college friends who go to New York to seek their fortune is 736 pages. When her editor told her to cut it by a third, she directed him to Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch (881 pages) and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, at 832 pages the longest book ever to win the Booker Prize. She also sent him a photograph of her manuscript next to a 900-page issue of Vogue and Vikram Seth’s 1,400-page A Suitable Boy. The message: pages win prizes.

And as we’ve noted, Martin’s books (and Rowling’s Harry Potter series) indicate that genre fiction easily falls into the category of “big honking mofos” as well. Even one of my more recent reads — Lamentation by C.J. Sansom — runs to 650 pages. If you’re planning on doing vacation reading with these things, you’d better pack an e-reader — or a truss.

And we’ve seen older books reissued in heftier “director’s cut” editions as well. As it happens, I had read both of these in the original/shorter releases before happening across the expanded versions. I didn’t see them as being particularly improved by the restoration of material. To the contrary, they showed me how much even authors I enjoy can benefit from a tight editor.

So, what to make of this rise in “doorstop novels”? Because I’m the guy I am, I find a metaphor in the music world. The 1970s saw a rise in a subgenre of rock called “progressive rock.” Some of it was very good — indeed, some of today‘s practitioners still do excellent work. However, far too much became self-indulgent and flabby. This led to punk and its successors — a stripped-down return of the repressed simplicity and energy of rock and roll.

Perhaps we’re due for a return of a direct, energetic, punky approach to fiction, both literary and genre. As ever, your thoughts and recommendations are welcome.

Posted in Culture, Literature, Music | 1 Comment

QotD: Commencement Edition

While I recognize the name of British novelist Ian McEwan, I have to admit that I’ve not read his work that I can recall. (Anyone who has been dubbed “Ian Macabre” may be worth a look, say I.)

However, Mr. McEwan scored some points with me in his commencement address at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. He chose as his topic a defense of free expression, and noted such defenses are in short supply these days, particularly in places where the defense should be strongest — you know, like a college or university, or a writers’ organization. For National Review, Mark Antonio Wright reports:

McEwan directly confronted the problem of a country rooted in the tradition of free expression under the First Amendment meekly submitting to what he called “bi-polar thinking” — the eagerness of some to “not side with Charlie Hebdo because it might seem as if  we’re endorsing George Bush’s War on Terror.”

[…] He argued that the time to “remember your Voltaire” is precisely when confronted with scathing speech that “might not be to your taste” and said he was disappointed that “so many authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy.”

But it’s the punch line that is our QotD. Take it away, Mr. McEwen:

[B]eing offended is not to be confused with a state of grace — it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.

Thank you, sir. (The entire speech may be seen at the NR link.)

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(High School) Senior Citizenship

Last night we trooped to Mondoville High for awards night for the graduating class. The Spawn sat with three of her best friends, and her fall roommate sat a couple of rows away. It was the sort of thing one would expect — kids were recognized in the program for scholarships they had earned, and were celebrated for various academic accomplishments. The Spawn was noted for her membership in Beta Club and the National Honor Society, and was one of only three or four kids out of a class of about 150 to earn what’s called an Honors diploma, awarded for a combination of strong standardized test scores and high grades in an academically demanding course of study.

Clearly, she gets that from her mom. From me, she gets a depraved sense of humor and an impressive ability to stay in bed and surf the web.

But I think one of the things that made me particularly proud and happy last night was how happy the Spawn was when her friends earned awards. When her buddies were called for individual achievements, I watched her face light up, and when they returned, she was quick to give hugs and congratulations, and showed a genuine interest in seeing the plaques or certificates in question.

At the reception afterward, she and her friends posed for pictures in the cafeteria, and I thought about the old, dark line: “It is not enough that I succeed; my brother must also fail.” Speaking from literal personal experience, that’s not a treat, nor was it anything I asked for. I’m proud of the Spawn for a lot of reasons — but one of the most satisfying ones is that she can be happy when her friends succeed.

L-R: The Musician (who will study music at Winthrop U), the Spawn, the Color Guard Captain (who will study Marine Science at Coastal Carolina U), and the Roomie (who will study Pharmacy while co-existing with the Spawn). Congrats, ladies!

L-R: The Musician (who will study music at Winthrop U), the Spawn, the Color Guard Captain (who will study Marine Science at Coastal Carolina U), and the Roomie (who will study Pharmacy while co-existing with the Spawn). Congrats, ladies!

Love you, kid.

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Cleared for Launch

I’ve talked before about how thrilled I am with Dark Corners magazine, even beyond the fact that it publishes work from Clan Mondo. If anything, I’m even more tickled that Dark Corners editor/publisher Craig T. McNeely has decided to expand his empire with the creation of Double Life Press, a new entry into the indie publishing biz.

DLP is getting started in a big way, too, publishing five books today, ranging from a novella by Andrew Hilbert to a novel from Pablo D’Stair and three different collections from the master of Thrillsville, Will Viharo. And there’s more to come, both from Dark Corners and other works that include a certain academic and garage rocker.

Craig’s doing this stuff out of his love for good stories, a trait I suspect is shared by many of y’all. Help him keep doing it, and get some really cool books in the process. Such a deal!

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It’s a Week Before What Would Have Been…

… Dad’s 72nd birthday. As I’ve mentioned before, he was the mayor of our small town in Kentucky for about 20 years, finally deciding not to run again as he moved into retirement. (Later, he would return and serve as city administrator, the position he held when he and Mom were killed. And of course, the city building is named for him, and the building’s garden for my mother.)

Union City Building

When we moved to Union in 1978, the listed population was about 500. We were the second family to move into our subdivision (which was rather cynically given the same name as one of Greater Cincinnati’s wealthiest neighborhoods.) There was an actual hitching post for horses in what passed for a downtown (a bank, a convenience store, a grocery, and a butcher shop.) Kids four miles away at my junior high school thought of Union as the sticks. They had a point.

Dad and the city commissioners were sharp enough to recognize that the region was growing rapidly, and they wanted to accommodate that growth while maintaining the town’s quality of life. As a consequence, although Union’s population is now more than eleven times what it was when I moved there, and now actually is home to some of the region’s wealthier citizens, it retains its bedroom community feel, the sort of place where each family who moves there is convinced that it’s just right.

And with that growth, of course, comes demands on the infrastructure. To that end, I see today that one of the new subdivisions in Union will house a new middle school in the next few years. I’m glad to see that — and I think Dad would be as well.

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