Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category
This seems to be a very good time for science fiction. I was prompted to explore some of it partly on the strength of this novella, which hit me like a blow between the eyes and left me breathless and dizzy for a few days.
The writing is very smooth and controlled. I love clean, precise writing like this, especially when it involves a swimming pool and the promise of sensuality. This drew me in and took me swiftly to the end of the first chapter, where I received my first shock.
I won’t tell you too much more about the plot. There’s some science stuff and a little problem with a particle accelerator. Reality takes a bit of a knock. Strange things start to happen. There is some sex, lots of nudity, some cross-dressing and a birth of sorts. But it’s all a little bit surreal.
Perhaps it’s also a little bit old-fashioned. Think Dada and Derrida, Brecht and Barthes. You might get all kinds of dubious intellectuals latching onto this and confusing you with their philosophical babble about it.
The thing you’ve got to hang onto and not forget is that the book is short and really easy to read. It’s also funny and light.
When dealing with elusive concepts, it’s very important to keep your writing plain and concrete. This the author does with admirable consistency. The ending couldn’t be clearer.
I’d never heard of Douglas Lain before and still don’t know very much about him. He seems to be one of those cult science fiction writers who carves out his own niche and tries not to get noticed too much.
But it’s probably wrong to call this a science fiction book. It’s probably better categorised as literary philosophy.
But it’s all just words, really. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind. Or don’t. It’s up to you.
When asked which of his novels he thought would last Stephen King said The Shining, The Stand and Salem’s Lot. The ‘S’ novels.
I think they’ll all last because Stephen King has the knack of getting inside people’s lives and putting them on the page.
Stephen King reminds me a lot of Dickens without being as good. While Dickens can skewer a character in a single phrase, Stephen King recreates them with layer upon layer of trivial details. You might not like his characters but you can see them in your mind’s eye and in that respect they are real.
Another thing Stephen King does well is to vary the rhythm and syntax of his sentences, which means his prose is relatively free from noticeable mannerisms and you can read it for a long time without getting tired. This is the mark of a writer who has read and written a lot. It’s something the reader appreciates only subconsciously. Although his books are long, they are very readable. He doesn’t talk down to his audience. Some of the passages in this books are quite poetic and his vocabulary is very rich. But his sentences are elegantly constructed and the details he notices and presents are very pertinent.
It took me a while to appreciate how deeply literate Stephen King is. I am not a big fan of his but I admire his craftsmanship and I always find his books pleasurable to read. I have been drawn to his books more and more recently, since I have begun to write for publication. I think all writers can learn a lot from him, not so much from his book On Writing as from the novels themselves.
If I were being totally fair, I suppose I should give this 5 stars. But since he is not quite as good as Dickens and this is probably not his best book, I’ll give it only 3. Sorry, SK, but I don’t think you need a leg up from me.
In reviewing the stories of Akutagawa I selected just one for comment, The Writer’s Craft. Even then I didn’t say all I wanted to say about that story.
I try to keep my reviews short. But it’s hard sometimes to have to omit things that are interesting.
The Writer’s Craft is autobiographical. The tetchy Yasukichi, like Akutagawa, taught English at a Naval Engineering School and wrote stories in his free time.
In the course of this story a student asks him the meaning of the word masochism. After learning the definition, the student asks:
“Now, this writer, whose name the word comes from—Masoch, you said?—are his novels any good?”
“No, they’re all terrible.”
My reason for mentioning this is self-serving. I am convinced that this was Akutagawa’s own view and Akutagawa was a very fine writer. It’s also my view. Which makes me a very fine reviewer.
Interestingly, though, Yasukichi doesn’t leave it there. The discussion continues.
“He must have been an interesting person, at least.”
“Masoch? Masoch was an idiot. He tried to convince his government to take money out of defense and put it into keeping whores.”
Newly apprised of the idiocy of Masoch, Tanaka at last gave Yasukichi his freedom. The business about whore support was far from certain, of course; Masoch probably believed in national defense as well. But Yasukichi knew there was no other way he could impress the cheerful lieutenant with the stupidity of abnormal sexuality.
I find this interesting because it is multi-layered. It seems very prejudiced. These days it is a virtue to be tolerant of diversity in every sphere of life even that of other people’s sexual preferences. It seems wrong for a teacher as eloquent as Yasukichi to slander another writer to a pupil just because that writer liked to have a woman crush him beneath her heel.
But why is it so difficult for Yasukichi to explain to his pupil his real reason for disliking Masoch?
And why does he confess his lie? Why mention it at all in this story?
He is, in fact, like Masoch, debasing himself. His antipathy towards Masoch arises from an unacknowledged and festering envy. And in debasing himself in this way, is Akutagawa not also showing an unacknowledged empathy?
Yasukichi’s stories are not successful. A bad review depresses him.
His eulogies worked, his stories failed miserably: it was funny for everyone but Yasukichi himself. When would Fate be kind enough to bring down the curtain on this sad comedy?
Misplaced praise, shame, ridicule and dejection are the story’s themes. But the story ends on another telling detail, a detail, like the conversation about Masoch, that puzzled me at first:
As he stood looking at the moon, Yasukichi felt the urge to urinate. The lane was hushed and empty, enclosed on either side by the bamboo fences. Aiming at the base of the right-hand fence, Yasukichi enjoyed a long, lonely pee.
He was still at it when the fence creaked and began to pull away from him. What he had thought to be a section of the fence was in fact a gate. And through it strode a man with a moustache. Unable to stop himself, Yasukichi turned aside as discreetly as he could.
“Oh, no,” the man sighed, as if dismay itself had become a human voice. When he heard this, Yasukichi discovered that the sun was too far down for him to see his own stream.
Sacher-Masoch had a moustache.
Is there a connection between Akutagawa’s spiteful lies about the renowned author Sacher-Masoch and his peeing on a stranger in the dark? If it is too dark to see his own stream, how can he see the moustache on the stranger? Why do we even need to know the man had a moustache? What difference does it make? Unless the man is an unconscious symbol of the renowned Austrian author?
But in telling us all this, Akutagawa is of course supremely conscious of the ironies. Although he cannot see his own stream of piss, he knows he has aimed it badly.
Because he cannot explain the stupidity of abnormal sexuality, he tells a stupid lie.
Although he disapproves of sexual self-abasement, he abases himself in his art.
That’s one reason why his stories are very subtle and resonant. There’s quite a lot going on.
So maybe Sacher-Masoch is not so bad. And I am not such a good reviewer after all.
Or maybe I am just an Akutagawanist, which would be absolutely brilliant.
It’s impossible to write a definitive book on writing. There’s so much to say and everybody is at a different entry point. But the first 118 pages of this book are padding and, though interesting, can be skipped. The last 65 pages are also disposable.
The meat of the book is in the middle section called Toolbox, which is about 180 pages in my edition and can be read in a few hours as there aren’t many words per page.
It’s probably not advisable to read it so quickly, though, as there is a lot of wisdom distilled into this section. If you can already write you won’t disagree with anything that Stephen King says. If you can’t write, I’m not sure it will teach you very much. But it serves as a useful reminder of things that writers should keep in mind.
Some writers will agree with it but still not follow his advice and not realise they are not following it.
Just this week I came across several aspiring writers who are happy to tell the world that they don’t have time to read and have never read much. They think it doesn’t matter because they write what they know.
Stephen King’s prime rule is: write a lot and read a lot.
If you don’t follow it, you don’t know anything.