Well, if nothing else it’s nice to see that I’ve made it to the top of someone’s list about something. Scott Edelman is upset by my review of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet at The Fix. Thanks to Niall at Torque Control for bringing this to my attention… I think.
Let’s see, where to start… First, to help out Mr Kaufmann in the comments, I didn’t call LCRW “pretentious” in my review in The Fix, nor, to the best of my recall, did I use the word “pretentious” anywhere in the review – as he’d see. if he bothered to read the review or, for that matter, bothered to read properly the quotation pulled from my review by Mr Edelman.
I opened the article reflecting on the name of the magazine and said that the title suggested “Pretensions to literary stylings” – here I use the word “pretension” in the sense of “aspiration” – with none of the negative baggage Mr Kaufmann associate with the word “pretentious”. I apologise if I’ve used a big, unfamiliar word, I hope his dictionary gets out from under the television soon.
I opened the review by considering my reaction to the name of the magazine. Honestly, I could have been a lot harsher. I find it silly rather than whimsical – this may be a matter of taste, but it seems to me to smack of sixth-form pomposity – but more crucially, the title doesn’t really reflect the content of the magazine. It has put me off buying the magazine in the past, and when presented with it for review, it put me off again.
The opening two paragraphs discuss the type of thing I feared the magazine might contain given the title and gave the reader a clear indication of the reviewer’s preferences. It seems fair that a review should set out a reviewer’s expectations and prejudices, no?
As I note in paragraph three, most of the content of this issue of LCRW didn’t live down to my concerns – the standard of story was generally very high. Although (sadly) Brian Conn’s story came closest to bearing out my worst fears, being almost unreadable because the author (and the editors) seem to be too impressed by the cleverness of the writing and not interested enough in what the story actually says.
Reading that opening section again, I agree it does sit a little awkwardly with the rest of the review – mostly, I think, because in editing down what was originally a much longer and meaner rant about the name I haven’t continued to make it clear that I’m considering the impact of the title on my expectations of what I was about to read.
Nevertheless – I am happy to stand by the basic argument that writers who seek to communicate widely are preferable to those who use language to obfuscate.
Scott Edelman then goes on to defend a group of writers he assumes need to be protected from philistines like me, which is very noble of him but a touch presumptuous. I happen to be a fan of both Le Guin and Wolfe – I’ve read only bits of Disch and Delaney but liked what I read. Sadly I’ve read nothing at all by Malzberg or Crowley, but perhaps I should take that as a recommendation to seek them out since I liked the others?
Unlike Mr Edelman, I have read Finnegans Wake (at least in the sense that I’ve passed my eye over every word in sequence and attempted to parse meaning out of the phrases and sentences). Joyce is a hero of mine, a writer who opened my eyes up to what was possible with the English language when I studied him for A-Level and who has lived with me ever since. Indeed I even praise Joyce in this review, nominating The Dead” as the greatest short story ever written in English as I point out that Matthew Cheney pinched the ending for his story, “The Lake.
But I think Mr Edelman’s being a little disingenuous when suggesting that Joyce didn’t write Finnegans Wake knowing that his style would exclude people from reading it. Joyce knew perfectly well what the reaction to the release of Wake would be. That book was the most leaked pre-release item in the world before the invention of the Internet – there were at least two “work in progress” volumes issued – and it had already cost him his friendship with people like Ezra Pound. Joyce’s construction of the book is quite deliberately designed to be shocking, complex and to make reading the book very hard work (and therefore to exclude the majority of readers who cannot or will not put the effort to master this work).
But as I say in my review, good writing is not limited just to one group of writers.
Actually the kind of writers I was referring to were the targets of George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” (http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit) (which, while I’m handing out accolades, I consider to be the greatest essay in the English language) – not good or even great writers who choose to challenge their readers but the over ambitious or the downright incompetent who attempt to use complexity in language to hide the incoherence of the babbling inside their skulls. These are not writers using complex words to convey complex ideas, no one could fairly accuse Joyce of not trying to communicate something to his readers, even if he did choose to do it an alien tongue, but writers using complex words to hide that they’ve got not the slightest interesting or original idea in their head.
Brian Conn’s story teeters on the edge of that abyss. Any number of pretentious (now I’ve used that word!) literary magazines (usually published by university presses) will be happy to supply Mr Edelman with a deluge of better examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about. Other examples are common enough on the edges of genre publishing – there’s a higher than average number amongst slipstream writers but also almost everything written by precocious teenagers, professors of sociology, bureaucrats, and almost every piece of fiction written in a “post-modern” style that doesn’t have the name Pynchon or Coupland on the cover.
My first preference, I confess, is for writers (like Orwell or Graham Greene) who could write profound, intelligent, moving books (1984 or The Power and the Glory) using language that reaches out and embraces as many readers possible. I actually believe that such writing is far more demanding of the author than any other – indulging oneself in long words and longer paragraphs makes communicating complex ideas easier for the writer but harder for the reader (who has to possess greater intellectual capital to decode the writer’s meaning). Delivering complexity in a format that all (or almost all) readers can absorb demands much greater rigour from an author. That’s not to say I can’t appreciate those writers who choose to use language in a more expansive way, but I set them higher standards – my bullshit detectors are tuned more finely, I expect them to justify the extra work they demand of me.
Generally speaking, in all cases, Sturgeon’s Law continues to apply.