Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Emperor has no clothes

A generous retelling ...

Arts progress somewhat like fashion. There are eternal verities around which variations develop. Some changes are introduced by new technology, affecting content (Science Fiction) or means (oil paints). Others are inspired by rediscoveries or by observations from other cultures. Yet others are brought about by anticipation, extrapolating from "interesting" contemporary work, fumbling ahead in the dark. A sequence of small steps may lead to a conscious break with the past, producing a trend, a school, or even an Age.

Trends come around again, lapping those slower to change. Problems can arise when the two camps can compare their works. If there's little difference what was the point of all that effort? Does the artistic journey (which is exterior to the work) matter? Clearly it does to many - people care about the authenticity of the work, and a painting made using the artist's blood will be viewed differently to one using brown paint. Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" describes another example.

If the new work resembles the old but in some way seems less good (realistic but less detailed; formalist poetry but fewer sound effects, etc), the comparisons are more awkward still. Even in evolution there's no pressure towards complexity - changes can as often simplify: features atrophying, development arrested (a sketch accepted as a finished work). Is the new art older but wiser in some way? Maybe it is more sophisticated. A work of art requires an audience which the journey can create. The sum of a sequence of tweaks and reactions to previous works might not just make a new work of art possible but may make a pre-existing item into art.

The Emperor's parade was a mistake though, forcing the premature collision of two viewpoints - a Turner Prize without a PR machine. The masses may at first respect authority, but eventually they'll resent seeing their money spent in ways they don't understand. In such situations the artists' peers may offer no support, seizing an opportunity for selfish advancement.

The fable fits most closely with Minimalism. Yury Lotman wrote that "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system". Poetry's gone through phases of selective minimalism, being shorn of various poeticisms and conspicuous craftsmanship. Random and procedural works (N+7 etc) in particular are met with responses like "I could have done that" (and if it's Found Poetry maybe they have indeed "done that"). Unless observers have been on the journey they won't understand - the Emperor should have educated his public.

The tailors who stitched the Emperor up were good at filling in grant forms; they were the performance artists of their time, creating a situationist stunt. But the Emperor wasn't merely a fashion victim - he thought he'd spent his money "quite well"; he was hoping to use the material to produce performance metrics to discern who was ignorant and incompetent. Only the failures would see him naked - he was prepared to accept that minor humiliation for a higher cause. The public were in fear of losing if not their heads then at least face, but at least they showed an interest in the arts. A child with nothing to lose, who could only see things as they are, symbolised another type of artist.

Those who come off worst out of the story are the administrators, the fawning staff who feared losing their jobs. No doubt they had wives and children to support. A more cunning advisor might have taken the Emperor to one side saying - "You and I can see the the fine cloth of course, but how will we know if others are just pretending that they can see? Let's devise a test, and try it out on those tailors first". A blind test perhaps. A contest with anonymous entries. Can real art survive such a trial? If people produce variations on a Mondrian piece (swapping colours around, say) they might be accused of lacking originality, but are the variations any more worthy of respect if Mondrian produces them? In the rarified world of high art, or Oxbridge entrance interviews, discussing marginal/charlatan works is one of the best ways to identify talent. That boy in the street deserves one of the Emperor's finest ice-creams.

Thursday 23 December 2010

The Sound of Poetry and the Poetry of Sound

With the rise of isms (deconstructionism, eco-feminism, post-colonialism) in recent years, literary theorists have rather neglected sound effects, often quoting Saussure's view that the sounds of words are arbitrary.

But they're not. Of course we've always known that chickens cluck and cows moo, but the influence of sound goes wider and deeper than that. We 'chip little bits' but 'chop logs'. Twigs are small; trunks are big. There are exceptions (big should refer to little things, and bugs should be big) but words derive from many sources and we should expect some exceptions.

The more that these trends are studied the more universal they seem - petit, piccolo and klein contrast with grand, grande and gross. And the trends go beyond simple concepts like size. With some poets it's possible to guess the theme of the work without understanding a word of it by calculating the relative proportion of sounds - the guess isn't always correct but I'm amazed that it's possible at all. People have tried to create dictionaries of sound meanings. Here's an extract about the L sound from Galt's book - Positive skews in love poems and narratives: strong positive skews in "tender" and "musical" poems. Negative skews in poems of family and home, nostalgia, and humor, with a negative skew for "non-musical" poems which is just below the level of significance. This phoneme certainly distinguishes, in Storm's verse, between "musicality" and its opposite, and its presence can evidently also contribute to a feeling of "tenderness"

If isolated sounds aren't arbitrary, still less are the sounds of sentences and poetry whose patterns produce effects that isolated words can't. In Violi's book Haj Ross spends 40 pages on the sounds in "The Tyger" pointing out dozens of features such as

  • The sound F only occurs on even-numbered lines, and gangs with R.
  • while all the words in the Tyger line except one are bisyllables, this line being the most polysyllabic of the whole poem, all of the words in the Lamb line are monosyllabic

These effects are in addition to the regular patterns of stress, rhyme, etc. However, with free verse these dispersive patterns are beginning to dominate. We lack the vocabulary to describe them well, and I suspect they often go unnoticed (at least consciously) by readers. Here's an extract by Ruth Padel where she describes an easily missed pattern in Michael Longley's Ceasefire

Achilles, the key name, appears in every stanza. Its central syllable is repeated in the first stanza ("until", "filled", "building", with a sideways echo in "curled" ...), reappears in the second, resonates in the third with "built" and "still" (plus an echo in "full"). and reaches a climax in "killer": bringing out the fact that "Achilles" has the sound of that word "kill" in his name

Interest in sound effects has revived because 1) computers can now analyse a lifetime's work in minutes; 2) brain-scanning has enhanced our understanding of music's effects; 3) the study of pragmatics has attracted attention to the non-semantic effects of words. If music can be profound, why not the sound of words? It too uses repetition combined with variation. It too has incantatory power. The semantics can modulate sound's meaning much as the choice of instrument can affect music's meaning. A violin's C isn't the same as a trumpet's, just as oo is recognisable but differently received in moon and spoon.

Though we may never return to the clogged tongue-twisting of William Barnes'
       With fruit for me
       The apple tree
       Do lean down low in Linden lea.
we might hope for more tolerance of poets like Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. When they stop making sense perhaps they're not lapsing into non-sense but instead bringing out the tonality of words, an alternative mode of meaning making sense an echo to the sound.


  • "Sound and Sense in the Poetry of Theodor Storm", Alan B. Galt, Herbert Lang, 1973
  • "52 Ways of Looking at a Poem", Ruth Padel, Chatto & Windus, 2002
  • "The Sounds of Poetry", Robert Pinsky, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998
  • "Phonosymbolism and Poetic Language", Patrizia Violi (ed), Brepols Publishers, 2000

(published in Acumen)

Saturday 4 December 2010

"The Method" by Tom Vowler

Sometimes I read more as a budding writer than a reader, seeing (or imagining) the churning mechanisms - Chekhov's guns and nails hanging from every wall. My writerly reaction to this book might have been because

  • The author and I try for the same outlets - he's winner of Salt's Scott competition (which I entered); there are stories from Brand, Riptide, etc (which I've never been in, though I've tried).
  • I use the same rather scientific analogies that he uses, and I often write about raids on the past.
  • Though I empathize with the downbeat mood, it's hard for me to continually empathize with the relentlessly embittered characters
  • Once I realised that hints of terror in an initial paragraph were never in anticipation of a visit to the dentist or being dragged by mum around clothes shops but were more likely to involve murder, I was less immersed in guessing the ending.

PoV is 1st or 3rd person. Both male or female voices are represented, usually aged 25-40 and street-wise, WASP, in a generic England during the noughties. A few non-linear forms keep readers on their toes. The language is lively and entertaining. The mood is sustained using a catalog of woes. Halfway through the book (after stories about death of parents, child abduction, wife-swapping, visiting an ex) I tried to guess what further common themes would be used (a partner leaving with a same-sex lover; upstanding parents embarrassed by relatives; waiting for results of (partner's?) medical tests; how to cope with a young daughter's pregnancy and unsuitable boyfriend; pretending that you've not lost your job; a relationship crisis on a family holiday). In the end there were none of those, though we had an e-mail epistolary piece.

In the title story an author lives out his draft character's life. A nice idea, well executed. The 2nd piece, "Seeing Anyone", stays just about on the approved side of the contrived/controlled border. A man's visiting his re-partnered ex. Here are the images and turning points that struck me as I read

  • p.11 It starts with "The day stretched out before him like some vast desert he didn't want to cross"
  • p.12 The long initial build-up of tension continues after he's arrived, then suddenly she says "She's in the garden, under the tree". Who? Ah, their dying dog - apparently the reason for the couple communicating after a gap of months. What does it symbolise - their love hanging on for dear life? (the woman says "I have to decide when enough's enough for her, really. Not be selfish about it") Or the child they never had? (the bitch's stomach - ironically? - is bloated) Or her image of him?
  • p.12 We learn that her current partner's away on a golf weekend. Aha.
  • p.13 "'I didn't know whether to tell you [about the dog]. I thought about it for days'. A warm breeze weaved between them carrying a small flower from the cherry blossom in the far corner. It caught in the strands of her hair". More objects fill the gap left by their silence about their feelings for each other
  • p.13 "He remembered looking hard at her that day, trying to see if all her love for him had left, like a distant star that's seen but is no longer there". Neat though not original
  • p.14 "the Doppler effect of love, where sound and language differ so much depending on whether it's arriving or departing". Neat. New to me.
  • p.14 At the start we're told that he'd bought some photographs. Now they appear - "She took the envelope and started to look through photographs of the first four years of the dog's life. 'I don't remember any of these'". There's ambivalence in her eyes, then she recovers. He offers to copy any that she wants.
  • p.15 "The homemade soup was like visiting his childhood home" - his memories are being pushed further back, looking for roots to re-grow from.
  • p.16 "He pictured himself in an upstairs window, watching as she tended the garden" - his imagination is building a new life based around domesticity
  • p.16 "They didn't wave. He looked at her in the mirror watching to see if his brake lights came on". Up to now, the story's all from his PoV, so how are we to interpret this final phrase of the story? Apart from a timely glance and prolonged goodbye hug (both of which are given alternative explanations in the story), the only come-on is the timing of the weekend, but that's accounted for by the dog having only days to live. One imagines the dog might be taken to the vet on Monday.

In "Busy. Come. Wait" a son meets his sister at the house where they grew up. Despite the initial hints I was doubting at first whether their father was dead. He was though. She blames her unfaithful mother for their unhappy childhood and her unhappy life. He doesn't tell her that their father was no angel either.

"They may not mean to but they do" intersplices narratives from 2 eras. Dating turns to the real thing. Then there's a plot turn that's not new, but it caught me by surprize in the context - he finds a soul-mate, she wants to find her natural parents, and there's a clash. The story does a lot in a short space.

"Staring at the Sun" is nearly in real-time, the protagonist waiting 10 minutes in a pub for a blind-date to appear. His previous partner had died of lung cancer. He runs through various metaphors of time and grief. "My father would have understood. 'Just look at the stars,' he once told me. I'd opened the telescope that was a badly-kept secret one birthday. 'That's looking back in time.'". It ends with "I observe the moment as if from above, for the first time glimpsing a time ahead of this one. I once read that if you forced yourself to stare at the sun for eight seconds, you'd go blind. I stand, wave to the woman and smile"

Welcomingly McEwanesque is "The Last Supper" where the death of a child leads to the parents' suicide pact, dying by starvation. But before they board themselves in they cook themselves a final meal. "Hare's Running" concerns skullduggery in betting shops, "Breathe" is only a page - macabre. "Offline" is set in the future, satire coming thick and fast - "As he lay dying in the transition ward". "One Story" is about writers block where a drunk, separated writer chats to his idealistic son - 'The icecaps safe tonight, then, Jack?' I ask.
'Can't stop. Got to be somewhere.'
'Let me guess: knitting bongos outside some landfill?'
'I see you're drunk for a change.'
'When you've lived with your mother a few more years, you'll see it's a perfectly desirable state. Care to join me for one?'

Several of the pieces involve private/secret missions to re-live, commemorate (or avenge for) a significant event. Retribution can easily go as far as murder. The indirection of these stories' first paragraphs (mysteries about the age, gender, status, motivation, etc of main character) could have been extended to generate tension, but issues are usually resolved on the first page. As an example of how info-dumps are avoided, take "Homecoming" which begins with

Shop façades offered different wares but it was the buildings themselves, the roads and trees, that resonated so profusely with a childhood echoing through the decades. And the bridge, of course. He'd crossed it that day, just ahead of the others - breathless, still convinced that some game had gone wrong.

It's a teasing start. We know that the character is decades from childhood, that he probably hasn't been to his hometown for years, that something momentous (and bad?) had happened. In paragraph 2 we learn that the event erased his previous childhood. By paragraph 3 we're pretty sure that he's alone. In paragraph 4 we're told that he's called Michael. After the initial inevitable bridge a gate leads towards the place; a gap in a hedge leads him further. Paragraph 8 mentions that he's been in "a unit" for a few years. In paragraph 10 there's

Didn't cells constantly die, being replaced by new ones? Aren't we, literally speaking, recycled every couple of years or so? And without a soul, wasn't it the case that he was no more connected to the boy he was that day than to the ground he now stood on? Only history linked him. Just a narrative, that's all.

The location helps him recall the event, even some new details as he traces his steps. By the end of the story we know with forensic precision what happened.

"The Arrival" and "Team Building" were the only disappointments, though by the time I'd reached "The Little Man" I'd met enough bitter murderers. That, I suppose, is my main criticism - en masse the stories dilute each other. In "Reload" the main character says "I wonder if I'll be regarded a serial killer and how they decide. I think it's something to do with the gap between the first and the last" (the gap's about a 100 pages in this book). I've tried writing about happy people (most successfully I think in an unpublished piece called "Good Losers"). Life's not a bowl of cherries, but well, you have to try. The author/narrator/language/reality constellation remains pretty stable too.

Diction tottered in places - "parochial denizens" (p.88) and "aired reluctance" (p.143) for example seem misplaced. I noticed 2 typos: "ringing water from a sponge" (p.106 - or is that deliberate?) and "she call my a" (p.136).

Other reviews include

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Time and Narration

A 10 minute story rarely covers 10 minutes of events from beginning to end - some parts are compressed and others expanded. Not only that, but flashbacks and other effects are used to jump backwards and forwards in time. I think some short-story writers under-use these effects, so I'd like to talk about them now


Changes of speed are so common in all forms of storytelling that we hardly notice them. Here are some examples

  • compression: "So we lived in Texas for five years, and then we moved to California."
  • expansion: "All of the sudden it occurred to me in a flash of insight that she never really loved me and had only been using me to make her husband jealous and to ensure that one way or another she could get her green card. How could I have been so stupid, how could I have courted such a disaster?"

Thriller writer Lee Child said "write the fast slow and the slow fast" (i.e. write the fast-action scenes in slow motion and gloss over the long, boring journeys, etc). Passages of dialogue bring us back to real time.


Our thoughts are rarely satisfied to stay settled in the present moment; instead, they tend to wander nostalgically into replays of past scenes, or to fantasize about the future. So it's natural that authors go back and forwards in time. The flashback [analepsis] is quite common. Flashbacks

  • help give short stories the illusion of depth
  • help to "show, not tell" - rather than mention that someone used to be a soldier, flash them back to a battlefield
  • can be used at the start of a story to capture the reader's interest.

but they have disadvantages too

  • they interrupt the momentum of the story
  • overused, they can disorganise the story, especially if there's no "present" to contrast them with. It helps to use them right at the start or to fully establish the characters first
  • the choice of tense to use can be tricky. Authors usually begin a flashback in the past (or pluperfect) tense then drop it once the flashback is established

Flashbacks are typically provoked by

  • going through an old photo-album or diary - see "Krapp's Last Tape" (Beckett)
  • finding an object you haven't seen for years
  • revisiting a place where you used to live
  • a taste or smell - Proust's madelaine

and ended by an interruption from the present. Flashbacks can be extensive. Sometimes the first chapter of a novel is a flashback, but you don't find that out until later. Sometimes most of a story is a flashback framed by the words of the narrator or author. Sometimes the flashbacks and the present alternate through the piece.

A special case of the flashback is the story-within-a-story [or intercalated story]. Detective stories use this idea quite a lot - each witness giving their version of the events.

Less common than flashbacks are glimpses into the future. These might seem to spoil the surprise, but often it increases anticipation

  • foreshadowing [or premonition, prefiguration]: short hints about the future - "grey shadows portending deeper shadows to come.", "little did they know, as they kissed on the platform, that they'd never meet again". These are sometimes used at the ends of sections to encourage the reader to continue. Sometimes however, it takes a second reading to discover them.
  • flashforward [or prolepsis]: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." (opening line of Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • adumbration - in older works, chapters often had titles or summaries. For example Galsworthy uses chapter titles like "Soames Breaks the News".

Finally there's repetition - a word, gesture or memory used as a leitmotif having the effect of making time cyclical.

The Short Story

Opinions differ on whether flashbacks work in short stories

  • "Flashback is almost always necessary at some stage in the writing of a short story" - "Practical Short Story Writing", John Paxton Sheriff, p.83
  • "In writing a short story, the flashback should probably not be used", "Guide to Fiction Writing", Phyllis Whitney, p.113
  • "Confession stories nearly always need a flashback", "How to Write Stories for Magazines", Donna Baker, p.45

It's easier to use direction-changing in novels where there's more room to explain what's going on and chapters provide handy dividing lines. In the short story rapid jumps might confuse the reader. On the page, italics and roman text could be used to show the transitions, but it's not common. Breaking the story into short sections with subtitles can help too.

One tip from Sol Stein ("Stein on Writing", p.144) is that the first sentence of a flashback needs to be arresting to jolt the reader from what went before.

Foreshadowing is sometimes added (especially in later drafts) to give the work more unity (see the Old Testament rewrites, for example). In "The Great Gatsby" the foreshadowing is unlikely to be noticed on a first reading but they add to the sense of inevitability.


I've already quoted a few examples. Here are some more

  • "Time's Arrow" - Martin Amis. In this book time goes backwards. Food is taken out of the mouth, put on the plate and eventually taken to the shops in return for money. In Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" and Dick's "Counterclock World" the device is used to a lesser extent.
  • In Alexander Masters' "Stuart: A life backwards" the chapters are in reverse chronological order - an idea by the biography's main character
    • "'Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.'" (p.6)
    • "Stuart's backwards inspiration has turned out to be excellent. At a swoop, it has solved the major problem of writing biography of a man who is not famous ... introduce Stuart to readers as he is now, a fully-fledged gawd-help-us, and he may just grab their interest straight away" (p.11)
  • Steven Maxwell's short story "The Fade" in "Staple" (issue 73) begins "At seven in the morning, as the sun was setting, his wife's expansions began". Later in the Departure Room something is pushed into the wife - "'The placenta', said the midwife, ... 'Just making the bed, so to speak.'". They go home, dashing through red lights. The story ends with "But for now they are content just to be doing their best for the baby, whoever it was, and making its fade as painless as possible. And in nine months time, when his wife has ejaculated her seed into him, all will be forgotten, the fade will be complete."
  • "Otto Grows Down" by Michael Sussman is a children's picture book where the child, Otto, experiences time in reverse after his baby sister is born
  • "A Rational Man" (Teresa Benison) uses various tricks.
  • "Wuthering Heights" (Emily Bronte) uses flashback.
  • "Beloved" (Toni Morrison) uses flashback.
  • "Nostromo" (Conrad) and "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (Spark) uses flashforward.
  • "Turn of the Screw" (Henry James) is a framed story.
  • "The Sound and the Fury" uses various narrators describing the same events.
  • "The Time Traveler's Wife" has a man who travels backwards and forwards in time. The reader's given chronological information - a sample section heading is Friday, June 5, 1987 (Clare is 16, Henry is 32)

Next time you read a story, look out for the changes in narrative speed and direction. It's quite common for narration speed to match chronological speed at the climax of the story.

Also look at how films use the same tricks. Several films I've recently seen ("Saving Private Ryan", "Cinema Paradiso", "La Vita e Bella", "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind") use flashbacks extensively. "Memento" intersplices 2 story-lines, one going backwards and the other forwards. Directors can switch between colour and monochrome to show the transitions. Compression is harder though, requiring voice-overs or a caption saying something like "5 years later".