Friday, February 15, 2013

The Shifted Diamond's Instant Shock of Light

In the wake of modernism, some fascinating writers were cast aside, and one of these was a California poet with an interesting circle of friends and an even more interesting way with words: George Sterling.

I came to Sterling late. His friend and pupil, Clark Ashton Smith, I discovered when I was ten years old; his friend and mentor, Ambrose Bierce, I discovered a few years later. Books by Smith and Bierce were easy to find in affordable paperbacks, but books by Sterling were scarce and expensive.

In recent years, thanks to archive.org, scans are now available of the poems that were collected while Sterling was alive, and they are the most fascinating things that I have read in a long time.

Time has been no friend to Sterling. He was one of the latest of late romantics, and by the year of his death in 1926, much of what he had written was considered old-fashioned, obsolete.

I agree with old-fashioned: his language was often deliberately archaic; but obsolete makes me bristle like a tomcat in the dryer. I have my reasons:

The experiments of modernism and the energies they released are one of the great legacies of the 20th Century. Writers, poets, artists, composers, anyone who felt the need for a new form had the freedom to develop it. Yet this development coincided with an idea that I consider false: that previous forms were now automatically and inevitably obsolete.

When writers discover the need for new forms, when they realize that old forms are hindering what they have to say, then by all means, they should experiment. Whether or not a particular experiment will succeed depends largely on what the writer wants to do.

As an example, the "condensed novels" that J. G. Ballard collected in The Atrocity Exhibition were suited uniquely to his obsessions, to his detached and clinical style; for that reason, I doubt they would have functioned for anyone else. But for him, they were essential, and he made them work beautifully.

On the other hand, if writers are able to work at their best in traditional forms, then critics and readers should give them a certain leeway.

(Please note that by "forms" I mean technical approaches to writing, structures for narrative. These are quite different from genres, which often owe more to marketing categories than to creative needs; in contrast, forms are devised and developed by writers themselves, for their own purposes. Sometimes, in other arts, a form is imposed as the one and only legitimate way to create something: this happened with serialism in music; and while serialism can be fascinating and beautiful in the right hands, it can be limiting for composers who have something else they need to say. Writers, in contrast, have had more freedom to pick and choose.)

Sterling chose to work in traditional poetic forms like the sonnet; he also chose to rely on the imagery and idioms of romanticism. For many of his critics, and for many of the poets who came after him, Sterling's embrace of tradition and archaic language made his work obsolete.

But I am neither poet nor critic; I have no battles to fight for the sake of modernism and no reputation to build in academic circles. What I want to do, is to learn as much as I can about writing, so that I can apply these lessons to my work.

So what do I find in Sterling?

Consider this:

Blunt as a child, since child he was at heart,
And sun-sincere, my friend to many seemed
Dull, rude, aggressive, tactless. Add to all
His bulk and hairiness and stormy laugh,
And one can find them some excuse for that.
'Twas seeming only. We, who found his soul
Thro friendship's crystal, saw beyond the glass
The elusive seraph.  In his mind were met
The faun, the cynic, the philosopher,
But first of all, the poet. Give to such
Apollo's guise, and matters were not well.
Too glad to pose, ofttimes he held his peace
Before the jest that sought his heart; but let
The whim appeal, and all his mind took fire --
The shifted diamond's instant shock of light.
Beauty to him (as wine's ecstatic draught,
Richer than blood, and every drop a dream)
Was like a wind some hidden world put forth
To baffle, madden, lure -- at times, betray,
Then win him back to worship with a breath
Of Edens never trodden. Yet he stood
No dupe to Nature in her harlotry,
Her guile, her blind injustice and the abrupt
Ferocities of chance, but swift to face
The unkempt fact, and swift no less to snatch
Its honey from illusion's stinging hive --
No moth that beat upon Time's enginery.
Yet loved he Nature well, as one might love
A half-tamed leopardess, for beauty's grace
Alone. Within his enigmatic soul
Sorrow and Art made Love their servitor,
For he would have no master but himself.
To what best liken him? Some singer must
Have used the star-souled geode's rind and heart,
Telling of such as he. Let me compare
His rugged aspect and auroral mind
To that wide shell our western ocean grants --
Without, all harsh and hueless, with, perhaps,
A group of barnacles or tattered weed;
Within, such splendor as would make one guess
That once a score of dawnings and a troop
Of royal sunsets had condensed their pomp
To rainbow lacquer which the ocean pow'rs
Had lavished, godlike, on the gorgeous bowl.

-- "A Character," from The House of Orchids and Other Poems. A. M. Robertson, San Francisco, 1911.

In one of his essays, Gore Vidal pointed out that the best use of an adverb is to surprise. When I read Sterling, I am reminded that adjectives can take on the same role: not only can they describe, but they can illuminate, they can shock, they can surprise us into recognition.

Auroral mind. Sun-sincere. Shifted diamond. The abrupt ferocities of chance. The unkempt fact. The star-souled geode.

When we concentrate on the modernity of form, when we use form as a basis for judgement on someone's relevance or obsolescence, we can all-too easily forget about something much more important and much more instructive: the writer's use of language.

By its nature, prose tends to be prosaic, but a poet like Sterling shows that other ways of writing are not only available, but are lively, electrifying, and necessary.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ecstasy, Yes... But Keep On Truckin'

When I began to write seriously (back in the Late Devonian), I imposed on myself a strict set of guidelines, and the most inflexible rule was that I could write only in a spare style.

In this I was motivated not by any classical desire for purity, but because I wanted to build a rock-solid foundation for my true ambition: to smash down the walls and to go wild.

I loved writers who wrote with abandon, with ecstasy, with passages of neon colour and all the brass of the orchestra bellowing for blood, and I very much wanted to bellow.

At the same time, I recognized the value of self-discipline; I understood the need for pacing, variety of tone, and a structure of narrative that would build towards and justify these loud and colourful passages.

What I sought to do, then, was to teach myself how to write without ornamentation, so that I could gain a sense of when it might be appropriate to blast the brass. To this end, I wrote for years without allowing myself more than the bare minimum of adjectives, and I still recall a day when I found myself shocked at the realization that I would have to use an adverb.

The result was a pile of prose that no one could want to read, but in the process I learned some lessons of value.

I also learned by studying these colourful passages from the writers I admired, and I came to realize that even here, there was more self-discipline at work than I had supposed.

One of these writers was Clark Ashton Smith: loved by a few, loathed by a few more, ignored by all the rest. Even today, in our age of post-literacy, some readers are still able to respect elaborate and labyrinthine stylists like Thomas de Quincey and Thomas Browne, but not many people seem able to stomach the prose of Clark Ashton Smith.

I love it.

And more to the point, his work taught me a fundamental principle that I keep in mind whenever I create a story:

No matter how elaborate the prose might be, no matter how dense the physical description or purple the rhetoric, the story must keep moving.

Smith kept his elaborately-written stories in motion by making sure that his prose did many things at once.

For example, instead of imposing a speed-bump with a static description of a landscape or a building, he would have his character walk through the scene, and while in motion, observe the details that came to him with every turning passage or opening door. The result was a sense of being there, of seeing not only what the character saw, but seeing with him.

In short, instead of interrupting the story, the descriptions became the story; and like the narrative itself, the descriptions kept on moving.

This might sound elementary, perhaps even too simple for consideration. Yet I've read many writers who never seemed to grasp this fundamental principle, who never seemed to realize that a story is not a painting. A story moves.

So yes, bring on the neon colour, bring on the bellowing brass. But even here, lurking behind the curtains, you often find self-discipline and craftsmanship.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Readers Without Borders

I've come to believe that the greatest challenge a writer has to face is not the long task of learning to apply words with precision, clarity, and force; nor is it the day-by-day sorting through experience, imagination, and dreams for story ideas; nor is it the life-long attempt to make any sense out of life.

The greatest challenge is to find readers.

This idea was reinforced last week when I spent several days poring through lists of people willing to review books, and then ebooks, and then self-published ebooks, and then erotic self-published ebooks that were also science fiction. I started on Wednesday, then looked up again to see that it was Friday. Now I understand the concept of missing time....

At the heart of the challenge, I suspect, is a fundamental difference between the way that most readers think, and that most writers work.

(This is hypothetical; I'm likely wrong. But it's a fun idea to kick around.)

I suspect that for most readers, reading is a repetitive pleasure. They read a story, they love it, and they would like to find a similar story to repeat the experience. Not only does that make sense, it's to be expected. If we try a bowl of squash soup and we love it, we are perfectly justified in hoping that the next bowl will be as good. At the very least, it should smell and taste a little bit like squash soup, and not very much like tumbleweed salad.

Repetition requires categorization, and again, that's to be expected. If we read a science fiction book and we love it, then we expect the next book we choose to have similar characteristics. As a result, readers, reviewers, publishers often have distinct ideas in mind about how a science fiction book might differ from a romance, or a mystery, or a guide to carp farms in Vanishing Point, Ontario.

Yet I suspect that for many writers, the circumstances are completely different.

Writing is often a way to make sense of life, and life is multiplicity. We live in a science fiction world of rapid technological change and looming planetary catastrophes. We live immersed in eroticism, in sexuality. We find ourselves confronted by mysteries, by puzzles, by nightmares and by joy. Life is a comedy, a tragedy, a thriller (and for anyone who tried to set the clock on an old-style vcr, a techno-thriller).

Because of this multiplicity, and because of this attempt by writers to capture a sense of how it feels to be alive, publishing categories are often less than helpful. By their nature, they impose repetition on something that wants to be vital and complex and free: an accurate impression of experience right now.

And again, not only does that make sense, it's to be expected. Art is a safe pathway into the unknown, a level catwalk over the abyss, an ideal way to plunge into risk, into darkness, into mystery, and to walk through the other side with all your bones intact.

In short, the needs of readers are often quite different from the needs of writers.

So perhaps, then, the challenge is not only to find readers; the challenge is to find readers who love safe pathways into strangeness, ambiguity, multiplicity; readers who love the melding, or the shattering, of categories.