Sunday, March 15, 2009

Utility to Beauty

A few weeks ago, a friend lent me a spy thriller, one of those read-it-in-one-sitting stories that regularly crops up on the bestseller lists. It was competently executed, with breakneck pacing, a plot twistier than a tornado, and lots of gadgets, guns and high-stakes geopolitics. One irritation, though, just wouldn't go away -- chunks of description drier than a Saharan summer. That shouldn't have surprised me. Genre aficionados know that too often entertaining narratives hold hands with dull prose. Speculative prophets and world-building wizards abound, but you can't call many in the field artisans in words. Day laborers, maybe, if we wanted to be cruel, but we don’t and so we won’t. Still, the challenge remains: How can genre writers move from mere utility to beauty?

Here’s a suggestion -- read poetry.

Verse is largely foreign territory for those weaned on broadswords and lasers, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid it. The poetic greats have a lot to teach us about style. Consider how
Robert Browning’s complex rhythm and rhyme add punch to ghastly psychological horror. ("That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good: I found / A thing to do, and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around, / And strangled her. No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain.") Or how William Butler Yeats underpins a homebrewed myth with allusion and strong word choice. ("The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; / A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.") Or how John Donne turns a steamy stereotype into something downright scalding with a little alliteration and metaphor. ("License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below. / O my America! my new-found-land, / My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned ...")

Of course, poetry can prove dangerous for narrative writers, especially if they overindulge. Intoxication with language can make one’s writing rococo, over-ornamented, impenetrable. Sometimes a plain sentence works best. But sometimes a little beauty can be a twist of the knife, so to speak; it goes into you and marks you, and you never fully recover from it.

(Picture: CC 2005 by
Thomas Hawk)


Ana S. said...

Thank you for this. I need to be reminded to read poetry more often. And I love the three poems you cited.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks! I particularly love Browning's "Porphyria's Lover." Actually, I love most everything by Browning.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I certainly feel that, in talking with poets, there is something in common between their work and the more closely-edited of my obsessed-over short stories. Modern (i.e. post-Medieval) poetry is, when one comes down to it, the most compressed form of language--not only should every word be critical, but as many aspects of every word as is possible should come into play. Ideally, that should be true of prose. (At least a couple of folks have said that this is why Tolkien's works are readable--"The Council of Elrond," for instance, is essentially a long chapter of confusing backstory. But the rhythm and voice of each character is conveyed so clearly--so poetically--that what should be distancing is actually interesting and engaging.)

The only advantage poetry readers have, of course, is that they can be a bit opaque and expect their readers to read more slowly to fiction. And, of course, rhyme means something different in poetry (though, not to use one example twice, don't tell that to Tom Borombadillo).

Strangely enough, the author I think does this best in the mainstream thriller category is Tom Clancy (when he's on his game, which isn't always.) Yeah, he loves overly-detailed explanations to show off his extensive research, but he often manages to introduce a character with a half a page or more of expository dialog--and yet he can pull it off simply because he has such a sense of rhythm.

But don't sell the sword-singers short! Ursula K. LeGuinn, Neil Gaiman, and most recently Patrick Rothfuss use a clever manipulation of the sound and patterns of language to rather devastating effect, when they want to.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, the big names often rise above the rank and file, which encourages me. I hope the rest follow. I haven’t read much Le Guin yet or any Rothfuss (what has he written?), but I’ve seen Gaiman turn out some lovely stuff. Stardust has a number of absolutely elegant passages. Tolkein, as well. What’s not to like about JRR? LOTR is pure gold.

I like tightly edited stories, too, which is why I think I’m such a William Gibson fan. At his best, his prose is rhythmic and musical, which you can hear in his abridged reading of Neuromancer. (Don’t say I told you where to find it!)

B. Nagel said...

Jumped over from RCWC. This post is golden itself.

@Chestertonian: The best poets guide you through the magical fog of their metaphors, the worst dump you in the misty clouds of their supposed brilliance. The mystery of poesy means that the poet can mail it in.

Every single one of my English teachers claimed the short story as the hardest, most rewarding form: thinly fleshed bones without an ounce of "rococo" narrative fat.

Loren Eaton said...

Gee, thanks! That's really nice of you. Made my Sunday, it did.

I'll agree with your teachers that the short story is a challenging form. I've got a couple I'm trying to revise that are kicking my rear right now.

ollwen said...

I came to comment, but reading the others, I don't think I have anything to add, except perhaps a hearty, "Hear hear!"

Loren Eaton said...

Yay! (It's nice to be liked. Though not strictly necessary.)

ollwen said...

I was just thinking about this this morning. Somewhere in our culture's history, there was a divorce between utility and beauty. It's not universal, and often people bridge the gap, but it's still there and is kind of assumed. I was struck traveling in Japan lately, that in their culture, that break never happened. There seems to be such an aesthetic sensibility in everything they do. There also was never a divorce between the ritual diligence and the every day task. I'm still trying to put my finger on some things here, so I'll leave it at that.

Loren Eaton said...

I don't know when the American (or maybe European) break began, but I can tell when it started in my life. I had these professors in school, wildly charismatic people who could make words dance for them but who were completely off their rockers, intellectually speaking. Nowadays, I want things to be beautiful, but I always scrutinize their content really carefully. That can be a good thing or it can make you an utter stick-in-the-mud.

Tara Maya said...

I think that's a good point. One learns to be suspicious of beauty if it too often masks vapidity. But it would be a shame to shun beauty just because of that.