Monday, November 14, 2011

Orson Scott Card on Not Being Literary

Well, this provides an interesting counterpoint. In my previous post, I wrote how the typical genre scribe "rarely earns kudos for presentation" and that "few praise SF, Fantasy and their friends for stylistic excellence." I saw that as a blot upon the field as a whole. Then I read the Orson Scott Card's introduction to his award-winning novel Ender's Game and happened upon this passage:
The attacks on the novel -- and on me -- were astonishing. Some of it I expected -- I have a master's degree in literature, and in writing Ender's Game I deliberately avoided all the little literary games and gimmicks that make "fine" writing so impenetrable to the general audience. All the layers of meaning are there to be decoded, if you like to play the game of literary criticism -- but if you don't care to play that game, that's fine with me. I designed Ender's Game to be a clear and accessible as any story of mine could possibly be. My goal was that the reader wouldn't have to be trained in literature or even in science fiction to receive the tale in its purest, simplest form. And, since a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel, it is not surprising that they found my little novel to be despicable. If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for the impenetrability.
I find myself agreeing with much of Card's analysis, even though I still believe that the majority of speculative fiction comes off as compositionally tone deaf. See, the difference seems one of degrees. Beauty catches one's breath, stops you in your tracks, makes you stare. But an obsession with personal vanity or an overdeveloped fashion sense yields results that are striking for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps that's what Card is criticizing here, a piling on of technique that turns loveliness into narcissism, charm into impenetrability. Like him, I wish that works exhibiting such obsession would become objects of pity rather than approbation. Still, is it too much to ask that genre authors value beautiful prose? I grew to love Bradbury, Tolkien and Gibson not only for their characters, settings and ideas, but also for the elegant ways in which they communicated those very things.

(Picture: CC 2008 by digitalthom)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I have to disagree. First of all, if you publish a book, you will be attacked. No book is to everyone's taste--if it were, all other authors would be out a job. Those who don't like a book, and who are decent folk, will refuse to buy it, or mumble angrily when it doesn't turn out right. Some will object strenuously, on a variety of levels.

But just because some jerks object to Ender's Game unjustly doesn't mean that Card's clear prose and storytelling (which he himself abandoned for the more literary, if still relatively transparent, prose of Speaker for the Dead) is or ought to be the only game in town. I get something profoundly different when I read, say, Gene Wolfe or Jorge Luis Borges or China Mieville or Cathrynne M. Valente or Haruki Murakami, all of whom use more or less non-transparent prose forms, than what I get out of Ender's Game. Card's story isn't better.

It isn't worse, either--and I tend to loan out Ender's Game more frequently, since it distills so much of the wonder of SF and fantasy into such an accessible form. But those other authors, whose books force readers to look closely, pay attention, to savor and contemplate the way language comes together and the way we make stories, have different things to say.

To continue with your analogy--an obsession with clothing is not a virtue in and of itself, and can be quite a vice. But a true lover of the craft of weaving might prefer the type of clothing that shows its well-made stitching over dyed, more commonly appreciated cloth (especially if much--though by no means all--dyed cloth happens to also be ragged and survive only a few washings.) This is not a bad thing.

Finally, I think it's important to note that the words we use to form our thoughts and attitudes and speech are MUCH more morally charged than the clothes we wear. In light of such, texts that use their difficulty to make the reader question his or her speech- and thought-patterns can have some moral good. Just so long as one isn't a snob about it, of course--there are of course people who read good books simply because they're allegedly good, with no regard for what they actually want out of them. But those people are not the best standard from which to judge a whole mode of fiction.

Loren Eaton said...

Just so long as one isn't a snob about it, of course ...

And that seems the clear distinction. I haven't finished Ender's Game yet -- terrible to admit I've never read it, right? -- so I can't really weigh in on Card's technique. But the attitude he seems to be attacking really is one of snobbishness. Some authors pile on "technique" with the goal of making their work less accessible to the general public and to sometimes even undermine their chosen field. Consider M. John Harrison's Viriconium. It took my breath away to read the anthology and watch him move from exceedingly engaging, largely conventional fantasy to uber-arty, opaque prose that had as his stated goal to deconstruct genre fiction. Not cool, man.

That being said, you've read my stuff. You know that I like some craft in my writing.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I guess my defense is not merely of "beautiful prose," so much as of "self-concious literary artifice." Gene Wolfe is one of my literary heroes--his works range from nearly impenetrable metaliterary games to simple-hearted coming-of-age stories. Most of these stories certainly limit his audience to those with time and neurons to burn, and I think Card's article implies that this is a bad thing, or that it is necessarily pretentious or snobbish. I don't want all stories to have transparent narratives (like Ender's Game) because I think there is a real value in looking at how words come together--in deconstructing genre fiction, if you will.

Yes, some authors over-stretch their reach. Some develop a nihilistic worldview in which all that exists is literary games (and the intellectual recognition thereof), and exclude concepts such as wisdom, truth, or beauty from their writing. But some authors write nearly inpenetrable stories because, for whatever reason, they want the reader to think about the story's language and composition as much as (or more than) its characters and situations. Or because they want to blaze new pathways, deploying experimental techniques that will later be watered down and incorporated into more full-bodied narratives.

"If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for the impenetrability."

This is the core of my problem. Card reacts to the worst of one-sided literary snobs with the worst of one-sided antiliterary snobbery. C.S. Lewis once said (in a very different context) that "to see through everything is to see nothing." In fiction, I think that to "see through" prose, however well-written or colored that prose window may be, is to be blind to the nature of storytelling itself. Inpenetrable stories don't allow us to "see through" them. But when done right, they allow us to see their machinery in a way that transparent narratives don't.

Loren Eaton said...

Perhaps some of this conversation should focus on the impenetrable/clear divide. Although it's a decent dichotomy, it has some flaws. For example, just because something is difficult doesn't mean it's impenetrable or won't become clear once we start to understand what the author wants to communicate. I think we both agree that's a perfectly legitimate way to write. And though Card admittedly gets a bit hyperbolic in his critique, I'll wager that he'd agree with it, too.

Wolfe serves as a good example, because he tends toward difficulty that can become clear, although sometimes he gets too oblique for his -- and our -- own good. "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" is beautiful even though it challenges readers a little, while "The Tree Is My Hat" remains stubbornly obscure after multiple readings. Still, one gets the impression that Wolfe wants his readers to understand what he's communicating, unlike -- say -- James Joyce, whose opening to Ulysses is so impenetrable that one can hardly tell that it opens with the main character masturbating. Yeah, that kind of writing deserves the critique that Card gives it.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The thing about later Joyce (as opposed to the Joyce of Dubliners, who is clear, comprehensible, and beautiful), is that so many of my favorite authors love him. Heaney may have a few excesses, but it's hard to accuse the author of the easiest to read Beowulf, or "St. Kevin and the Blackbird," or "Digging" of writing in an arrogant style. Yet one of Heaney's most inspiring literary figures in Joyce--even the later Joyce. (In fact, I've once heard the novel defended as a series of poetic experiments, which might explain why poets love him.)

I can't truly defend later Joyce, since I don't understand him and I find his arrogance and misogyny disturbing. Yet I love Spencer's Faerie Queene, which seems to pose its own sort of difficulty.

As far as what Card would say, as opposed to what he did say, I can't really draw conclusions. Lately, he seems to be a bit of a provocateur, purposefully overstating his opinion in order to gain attention rather than speaking reasonably. I can, however, only disagree with his hope that all "stories should be told this clearly" putting "professors of literature ... out of a job" and making "writers of obscure, encoded fiction" to be "pitied for their impenetrability."

Sure, we could discuss Card's slippage between "obscure, encoded fiction" (meant to be understood with difficulty) and "impenetrabile" fiction (apparently not meant to be understood at all.) But the point of his article seems to be that everyone should write like Card.

Again, if Card were a novice writer, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. I'd say that he's responding to unfair criticism with an unfair reaction, or that he understands what he does well but not what he does poorly. Yet Card isn't, and he doesn't. He has a good point to make, but he doesn't make that point. Or at least, he goes far beyond what is reasonable.

Loren Eaton said...

Well, this took me a few days to respond to! Apologies. A paper and a presentation got in the way.

But the point of his article seems to be that everyone should write like Card.

Yeah, I'm not quite sure that's what he's trying to communicate. Card seems to be hitting out not so much at literary authors who write fiction that's meant to be understood with difficulty or even those who pen works apparently not meant to be understood at all, but moreso at authors who write in a way that is supposed to be understood only by a small, enlightened group. Call them the literary elect, if you like. It's the old populist/elitist debate. And no matter one's opinion of Card -- I haven't followed him much, truth be told -- I think it's a debate worth having, even if it can get belabored beyond the point of profitability sometimes.