philosopher’s style

Frank & Ernest -- http://comics.com/frank&ernest/1996-06-19/

I have a good friend who’s a professional artist—a painter of abstracts.

When she was a first year art student, she had a class with a renowned teacher whose name I forget. They studied the core principles of Western visual arts, what elements go into creating a painting, color and shading, balance and composition, texture and arrangement. Technicalities and techniques which I—poor writer—won’t attempt to explain.

Then the renowned teacher took the class to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. She took the class to a strange, disturbing abstract with no apparent subject. The painter was a famous artist, whose name I also forget.

‘What,’ said the renowned teacher, ‘do you think of this painting?’

The class didn’t like it. They hated it. It was ugly, some said. It was confusing, said others. It was just plain weird, said the rest. It was puerile, one well-vocabularied student said, and looked around smugly.

It was, everyone agreed, a piece of junk any three-year-old could have scribbled.

The teacher thought a sigh, and said, ‘I didn’t ask whether you liked it. Look at it. Tell me what you think of it in light of everything we’ve been studying.’

The students looked—not to see if they liked it. They looked at the color, the composition, the balance, the shading, the technicalities, the technique.

‘And we saw,’ my friend told me, ‘that it was a work of a genius.’

That, she said, is when she fell in love with abstract painting.

As part of our ongoing discussion of the theory of writing, editing, and storytelling, Jenna St. Hilaire has suggested the discussion be called a webate. Internet conversations have to have weird names, right? As a weird names go, that’s not a bad one. I was thinking of blogalectic. Though now diawebtic sounds a cooler.

The internet offers many difficulties to the thoughtful user, not the least of which is what the heck anyone it talking about.

More to the point, Jenna also managed to ask precisely the right questions, cutting to the center of our webxchange.

Whatever you wish to call it, this conversation has a common question running through the posts, working on macro and micro levels, powering the frustration that sparked the post that fired up the diablogue: What is good writing? Or, phrased a little more personally, what does it mean to write well?

Jenna discusses the quandary which germinated these questions—the rules which are ‘supposed’ to guide you in writing well. It is, she argues, easier to recognize bad writing than good. The tyranny of the present can obscure our vision of what makes writing great or not.

So, for instance, W. B. Yeats—indisputably one of the greatest and most important poets in the English language, or any language—was snubbed by the critics of his day when the fashion shifted from traditional poetic forms to ‘modern’ verse.

Yeats survived by adapting, and writing modern verse better than the other moderns (hah!). But not everyone is Yeats. Not everyone can so manipulate the tyranny of the moment. As often as not, we find ourselves writing outside the fashionable lines.

Jenna gives a telling list of ‘Writing Rules’ that the masters have broken. The list is not too surprising—the Victorians had no concept of short sentences, and Stephanie Meyer has never claimed to be a master of style.

The editors and agents, of course, tell us writers never to break any of these rules. Which is understandable. They want us to write  books that sell, so they can keep their jobs. We want them to, too.

The problem is the tension between a business world, operating on caution and fear, and an artistic voice, speaking with danger and risk. Which brings Jenna back to her question: when is writing written well?

There is always room for disagreement among critics over who succeeds and who fails and why. For instance, I consider Chesterton one of the greatest English writers in history, yet I’ve known people who found him unbearably rambly. I poke fun at Hugo for his intra-novel essays, but my husband loved Les Miserables, essays and all. There’s no accounting for taste—mine or anyone else’s.

This, in fact, is the heart of our quandary. Everyone writes, and everyone reads. We have taste. These tastes will influence what we buy, and thus what the market will sell. We know what we like and maybe why we like it. But we assume that if we ‘like’ something, it’s a good book. If we ‘don’t like’ something, it’s bad.

To a certain extent, this may be true. C. S. Lewis argued that a book should be judged by its readers. Anyone reading this who hasn’t read his An Experiment in Criticism (1961), please rush out and read it now.

But Lewis distinguishes between types of reader—the answer is not sales numbers, before anyone thinks that. It’s that distinction that ‘taste’ blurs. The truth is, whether we ‘like’ a book or not doesn’t tell us anything about whether it’s good writing or not.

I ‘like’ Agatha Christie for a different reason than I ‘like’ Dickens. Christie is a thumping good read. Dickens is great Victorian literature. There’s a tangible difference.

I ‘like’ Hamlet because, even though I ‘don’t like’ the actual story, something about it wrenches me and shatters my vision of the world an opens my eyes to an understanding of—everything—that I never had before. And the music of its words haunts me.

Hamlet is great writing. If you don’t like it, fine. It’s still great writing. No one can argue that. ‘Taste’ simply doesn’t apply.

Because there are rules, and not just fashions. There are histories, and not just markets. There is light and darkness and music and structure and sound and fury—and these coalesce to make great literature.

We must judge a text by the fashion of its own time, not ours. We must look endlessly for those texts which transcend time. When we find them, if we care about what great writing is, we read them, submit ourselves to them, to learn why.

Jenna concludes with a comparison of writing and alchemy. That image haunts me. This is an alchemic art, this storytelling, a quest for the unattainable, a wild, mad dream of golden leaves under a golden sky. We work to find the philosopher’s style, the excellence of writing and craft of words that turns our stories to gold.

We catch, perhaps, only the glimmerings. Our stories, perhaps, are a bitter trail of almosts. But we keep writing. And every now and then we find a story—a turn of phrase of a glitter of dream—that reminds us why.

And we remember what it’s like to fall in love with this funny old writing life.

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9 thoughts on “philosopher’s style

  1. I like this. And with relatives from across the country in town, I haven’t had time to think about it since I first read it yesterday. I’ll try and leave a real comment in the next couple of days, and plan of course to continue the conversation.

  2. John, your brother sent me here, and I’ve just spent some time browsing your last few posts and the comments. They’re wonderfully brain-stretching. I’ll be back.

  3. Funny thing, taste. Taste is mutable. It can be acquired. At a banquet one can afford to be picky. And when you’re starving – everything tastes good.

  4. Right–whether or not we ‘like’ something doesn’t affect that objective quality of the writing, and as Joivre pointed out, taste is mutable and can be acquired. It took me reading a couple of plays to get into Shakespeare, as so many of the words are obsolete nowadays, but even before I learned to love the rhythm and melody of his works, I would never have thought it poorly written. And I can’t bear Steinbeck, but he also writes beautifully.

    I think the rules of fashion differ in ultimate worth from the rules of good sentence construction, and the ability to create a meaningful and interesting overarching story is something else again.

    More coming Monday, if I can scrape my brains together in time. It’s been a busy week. But I intend to give it my best effort.

  5. Thoroughly enjoying the webxchange (for some reason this is my favorite noun y’all have come up with so far for this back-and-forth). Just chiming in here to say I like the title of this post, w/ its play on the new alchemical thread that Jenna introduced in her last post.

    Keep ’em coming.

  6. Excellent thoughts, everyone. Thank you!

    Eric— leave it to McIntyre to find the exact right note. Everyone go read that post!

    Meg, welcome! Glad to have you around Paradoxes. I’ve been over to your site a few times, and will be going more regularly.

    Joivre, exactly right. Some forms of art are certainly an acquired taste. And some forms of art are worth acquiring a taste for. I remember when I first fell in love with Chopin. I’d been listening to a new Coldplay album, really getting into it, relating to it, and so on. My brother was listening with me–inveterate curiosity for all things musical. When I turned the CD off, Eric went over to the piano, and played I forget which Chopin nocturne.

    ‘That,’ he said, ‘said everything that album was trying to say. And it said it better.’

    And he was absolutely right. The difference in depth and emotion was astounding. I still like Coldplay. But now I like Chopin better.

    Jenna, read Shakespeare aloud. The words are delicious as they unfurl across the tongue. It’s surreal.

    Welcome to Donna, too! I think it’s the distinctiveness of the ‘bxch’ that does it. We don’t usually get to have so much fun with consonants in English. (Although ‘ngl’ itself ain’t too bad.) I’m still haunted by the alchemy idea…

  7. Thanks for the welcome. I feel like a distractable kid who’s found new friends with fun toys at a cool sandbox. The conversation/play might go in any direction, at any moment. I hope I can keep up.

    I just read the McIntyre article. Good stuff. It made me think of “Inventing English” by Seth Lerer. Has anybody here read it? I loved the first half but ran out of time before it was due at the library.

  8. Chopin was a poet who didn’t need to use words.

    For that matter, who can forget the scene in The Pianist when the entire film (Holocaust and all) was completely summed up in the playing of one Chopin Nocturne? Absolutely devastating.

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