Writer’s Block

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What I mean by “writer’s block” is when someone stares at the paper / screen & can’t think of what happens next.  This should never happen.

If you’re ever reduced down to just one interesting thing that could happen next, it means you’ve written your story onto train tracks, and your story is now boring, because only one interesting thing could happen next.

If you’re down to zero interesting things, that means you didn’t stop when you had just one interesting thing.  You need to back up at least to the last point where you had to choose between two interesting things that could happen next, because everything after that point is no good.

But even focusing on what happens next is weird.  Why are you staring at the last word on your page?  What about the setting of scene two–should it move to a different location to symbolize progress from scene one?  Is the level of omniscience you gave character A in scene 3 inconsistent with her puzzlement in scene 1?  If your story isn’t finished and you don’t still have a dozen different issues to reconsider, something has gone wrong.  Either your story is too simple, or you’re an incomparable genius, or you’re not being demanding enough.  Stories don’t drip out of the pen in an ordered, final state.  It just can’t happen that you’re stuck on the last word you wrote, yet have no questions about anything that came before or will come after it.  There should always be problems throughout the story all shouting for your attention.  The particular point in the story where you last stopped writing should not be so prominent in your mind.

Why are you writing the story from start to finish?  Seriously–why would anybody do that?  Do you not know how it’s going to end?  That means you’re not writing a story, because you don’t yet have a story idea.  A scenario is not a story.  If you don’t know which direction to go in because you don’t know where you’re going, I don’t think we should dignify that with the term “writer’s block”, as if it were an aberration rather than exactly what you’d expect to happen.

The normal state of writing is not staring at the last word on the paper and wondering what could happen next, but thinking about the entire story, the entire set of possible stories, characters, and events you considered while writing it, and choosing where to strike next, what to change, and which alternative to use, to hammer the thing into one unified story.  The normal state is to have too many possibilities, not too few.

If I have a dozen scenes that need to take place then I should be able to work on them in any order.  I could have written scenes 2, 6, and 1, in that order, because those are the longest scenes, (and it’s easier to start with scenes that have some meat to them.)  Even then I might have a lot of issues up in the air:  How much should Character A know about what’s going on?  How much humor do I get from her being oblivious versus being sweetly nefarious?  Same question for Character B.  Should Character C appear in the scene related to her interests, or should Character B stand in for her?  Have I got too many people in scene 1?  I have a weak transition marked in the middle of scene 1, around a joke that doesn’t really work.  Can I punch it up and make it funnier, or rip it out?  Can I substitute a similar joke?  Can I delete the entire opening and so not need that transition?  Is scene 6 too long — it should be picking up steam as we head into the final scene, not dragging out its joke.  Etc.

My point is that even though this hypothetical story is a very short one, I could easily reel off twenty issues in the first 2,000 words demanding my attention.  Issues that any story is going to have and any writer should be thinking about.  If I were stuck, I’d start working on these 20 issues, and I guarantee that at least one of them would open up a path forward where I was stuck.  To get writer’s block, first I’d have to resolve all these issues to my satisfaction, and that never happens.

There are always dozens of issues that could go another way in a story, even when it’s “done”.  If you’re staring at the screen and don’t have even one issue demanding your attention, something went badly wrong long before you got to that point.

Most likely, the problem is either

(A) you don’t know how the story ends, or

(B) you’ve eliminated tension by closing off too many possibilities earlier in the story, or

(C) you haven’t got enough awareness of craft, technical issues, and how life works to detect the problems in what you’ve already written, and to focus your attention on what the unwritten sections of the story need to accomplish and to avoid.

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Brooks & Warren, The Scope of Fiction

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Remember when I plugged one of Brooks & Warren’s books about what stories do & how they work, Understanding Fiction?

Last week I discovered they published a condensed version in 1960 called The Scope of Fiction.  This is based on the 2nd (1959) edition of Understanding Fiction.  The chapter list below has stars next to the ones included in The Scope of Fiction.  Each chapter has about 2/3 of the stories given in that chapter in the bigger book.  It includes the opening commentary for each chapter, which are all slightly different than in the 3rd edition.

   1. Intentions & elements of fiction

* 2. What plot reveals

* 3. What character reveals

* 4. What theme reveals

5. The new fiction (metafiction)

6. Fiction & human experience (writers write about how they developed their stories)

7. Stories for reading (great stories without comments)

IMHO the only important stuff missing from The Scope of Fiction is chapters 1 & 6.  Chapter 1 is more basic than 2-4, so you can probably do without that, too.  Chapter 6 was in the 2nd but not the 1st edition, which had “Special Problems” and “Technical Problems & Principles in the Composition of Fiction” instead.

Best of all, right now Amazon has 34 used copies for 1 cent plus $3.99 shipping!  There are also 37 copies of the full Understanding Fiction, 3rd edition for $3.70 right now.

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 2: Famous fictional detectives

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(This continues from The Mystery of Mysteries, part 1: Core narratives of genres.)

Famous Fictional Mysteries

The earliest mysteries (ignoring some stories by Voltaire) are usually said to be Edgar Allen Poe’s stories starring his detective Auguste Dupin: “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). (Although the word “detective” didn’t yet exist.) Dupin has super-human powers of observation, concentration, and analysis, but explains his deductions as being simple and obvious.  This is from the first scene written of Dupin (I have edited some of it out):

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varieties.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, absorbed in reflection. In an instant I recollected myself. “Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have fathomed my soul in this matter.”

“I will explain,” he said. “The larger links of the chain run thus—Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer.  After leaving the Rue C ——, a fruiterer, with a large basket upon his head, brushing quickly past us, thrust you upon a pile of paving stones collected at a spot where the causeway is undergoing repair. You slipped upon one of the loose fragments, slightly strained your ankle, muttered a few words, turned to look at the pile, and then proceeded in silence…. You kept your eyes upon the ground—glancing, with a petulant expression, at the holes and ruts in the pavement, (so that I saw you were still thinking of the stones,) until we reached the little alley called Lamartine, which has been paved with overlapping and riveted blocks. Here your countenance brightened up, and, perceiving your lips move, I could not doubt that you murmured the word ‘stereotomy,’ a term applied to this species of pavement. I knew that you could not say to yourself ‘stereotomy’ without being brought to think of atomies, and thus of the theories of Epicurus; and since, when we discussed this subject not long ago, I mentioned to you how singularly the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with confirmation in the late nebular cosmogony, I felt that you could not avoid casting your eyes upward to the great nebula in Orion. You did look up; and I was now assured that I had correctly followed your steps. But in that bitter tirade upon Chantilly, which appeared in yesterday’s ‘Musae,’ the satirist, making some disgraceful allusions to the cobbler’s change of name upon assuming the buskin, quoted a Latin line about which we have often conversed. I mean the line

Perdidit antiquum litera sonum.

“I had told you that this was in reference to Orion, formerly written Urion. It was clear, therefore, that you would combine the two ideas of Orion and Chantilly. That you did combine them I saw by the character of the smile which passed over your lips. You thought of the poor cobbler’s immolation. So far, you had been stooping in your gait; but now I saw you draw yourself up to your full height. I was then sure that you reflected upon the diminutive figure of Chantilly. At this point I interrupted your meditations to remark that as, in fact, he was a very little fellow—that Chantilly—he would do better at the Theatre des Varietes.”

Poe was capable of great feats of logic himself. In his article “The Philosophy of Composition”, which I highly recommend, Poe describes the astonishingly logical process by which he wrote “The Raven”, emphasizing that there was no “inspiration” involved, only intelligence, knowledge, and logic. So he knew that logic doesn’t work this way, and could have constructed a feasible feat of logic if he had wanted to. Instead of logical, Dupin’s ability is magical.  We’ll see this again and again in other detectives.

Dupin has an odd detachment from humanity which manifests in his voluntary seclusion, his preference for leaving his home only at night, his lack of interest in being recognized for his accomplishments, and his boasting that “most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms.” He disquiets his unnamed Watson, who describes Dupin as having a “diseased intelligence”, by responding to the gruesome murder of a mother and daughter by saying, “An inquiry will afford us amusement.” He is active, bold, and delights in laughing at the police and in concealing how far he has gotten in order to make a sudden dramatic revelation. In short, he is the model for Sherlock Holmes. Jean-Claude Milner claimed that Dupin is the brother of the genius villain D___ in “The Purloined Letter”.

 

Sherlock Holmes appeared in stories written from 1887-1927, and is based on Dupin, as evidenced by many similarities between them, and by Conan Doyle’s citing Poe’s stories as a model. In the first Holmes story, Holmes resented being compared to Dupin and immediately claimed differences between them which did not, in fact, exist, and in “The Cardboard Box”, after Watson remarks on the implausibility of the scene with Dupin quoted above, Holmes replicates Dupin’s feat for Watson.

Holmes is super-humanly observant and intelligent, arrogant, detached from humanity, never visibly emotional, and seemingly unwilling or unable to fall in love. He has no respect for conventional thought or morals, and sometimes lets criminals escape when he judges their crimes justifiable. Between cases he often descends into depression and drug abuse. His lifetime adversary, Professor Moriarty, is a sort of evil Holmes.

Holmes is misogynistic, and not by accident on the author’s part. From The Sign of the Four, chapter 9:

“I would not tell them too much,” said Holmes. “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.”

I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment.

Holmes stories have a moral stance that Dupin stories did not, frequently showing crime as a result of moral weakness.

 

G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown (1910-1936) is a humble, unimpressive priest who solves mysteries. In many stories, some other characters laughs at the little priest’s plain appearance, jokes about the priest’s presumed simplicity and superstition, concludes the mystery has a supernatural explanation, and is then humiliated when the priest reveals a natural explanation. Unlike Holmes, who uses reason guided solely by empirical observation, Father Brown uses reason guided by observation but also by intuition, a reflection of medieval scholasticism.

Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot (1920-1975) is a physically unimpressive old Belgian exile in England, introduced as “a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.” He speaks apologetically yet impudently, is neurotically fastidious about his appearance and the shine on his shoes, and tries to always keep a bank balance of 444 pounds, 4 shillings, and 4 pence. One of his techniques is to make people dislike and underestimate him:

It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly…. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” … And so, you see, I put people off their guard.

He sometimes lets criminals escape, or to be punished extra-judicially. In 1960, Christie, probably a little tired of him, called him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. I haven’t read these stories.

 

Sam Spade, the semi-hero of The Maltese Falcon (1929 novel, 1941 film), was the original hard-boiled noir detective. It is to the usual detective story as a story in which the hero fails to change is to stories in which the hero changes. This is symbolized by the fact that, though Spade unravels the murders that happen, he never solves the original mystery—he never finds the real falcon.

Wikipedia says, “Sam Spade combined several features of previous detectives, most notably his cold detachment, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice.” Sam gives his view of the world towards the end of the novel:

“Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before–when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights–but that’ll pass.”

        Sam does not love her, and she doesn’t love him, not in any sense that wouldn’t degrade the word. But his debate with himself shows that he thinks maybe he does love her, because what he feels for her is the closest he can think of as to what “love” might mean.

The novel keeps going after it wraps up the mystery, and ends on a note of psychological horror: Sam tries to flirt with his secretary Effie, teasing her a little cruelly for her innocence, but she shrinks from him in revulsion at—what? What he did? What he is? Or that he can do such things and not be broken by them? Sam turns pale on seeing the distance between them, and turns instead to his dead partner’s wife, Iva. He doesn’t like her very much but has been banging her since before his partner’s death. He realizes, at that moment, that that’s all he’ll ever know of love.

The girl’s brown eyes were peculiarly enlarged and there was a queer twist to her mouth. She stood beside him, staring down at him.

He raised his head, grinned, and said mockingly: “So much for your woman’s intuition.”

Her voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

The corridor-door’s knob rattled. Effie Perine turned quickly and went into the outer office, shutting time door behind her. When she came in again she shut it behind her.

She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”

Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he said, and shivered. “Well, send her in.”

THE END

If the story is about finding the Maltese Falcon, why does it end with that scene?

 

Philip Marlowe is Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective, who appeared first in The Big Sleep (1939). He’s outwardly similar to Sam Spade, but rather than being corrupt himself, he’s incorruptible.  Chandler described his philosophy in creating Marlowe in “The Simple Art of Murder” (The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1945):

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

Marlowe is a different kind of loner. He’s the one virtuous man surrounded by filth. Chandler’s black-and-white puritanism made Marlowe repulsive to me—he hates gays, gamblers, drug users, rich people, and women, in a world in which the first four are always moral degenerates, and all beautiful women throw themselves at him, usually literally, begging for dirty, vulgar sex, and he slaps them aside, sometimes literally, in contempt.

I pushed her to one side and put the key in the door and opened it and pushed her in through it. I shut the door again and stood there sniffing. The place was horrible by daylight. The Chinese junk on the walls, the rug, the fussy lamps, the teakwood stuff, the sticky riot of colors, the totem pole, the flagon of ether and laudanum–all this in the daytime had a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party.

The girl and I stood looking at each other…. The smile would wash off like water off sand and her pale skin had a harsh granular texture under the stunned and stupid blankness of her eyes. A whitish tongue licked at the corners of her mouth. A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick.

— The Big Sleep, chapter 12

I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy [gay] has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.

— The Big Sleep, chapter 17

The bed was down. Something in it giggled…. Carmen Sternwood on her back, in my bed, giggling at me…. Her slate eyes peered at me and had the effect, as usual, of peering from behind a barrel. She smiled. Her small sharp teeth glinted.

“Cute, aren’t I?” she said.

I said harshly: “Cute as a Filipino on Saturday night.”

I went over to a floor lamp and pulled the switch, went back to put off the ceiling light, and went across the room again to the chessboard on a card table under the lamp. There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight, then pulled my hat and coat off and threw them somewhere. All this time the soft giggling went on from the bed, that sound that made me think of rats behind a wainscoting in an old house.

“You’re cute.” She rolled her head a little, kittenishly. Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right. She lay there on the bed in the lamplight, as naked and glistening as a pearl. The Sternwood girls were giving me both barrels that night.

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.

I looked at her again. She lay still now, her face pale against the pillow, her eyes large and dark and empty as rain barrels in a drought…. There was a vague glimmer of doubt starting to get born in her somewhere. She didn’t know about it yet. It’s so hard for women–even nice women–to realize that their bodies are not irresistible.

I said carefully: “I’ll give you three minutes to get dressed and out of here. If you’re not out by then, I’ll throw you out–by force. Just the way you are, naked. And I’ll throw your clothes after you into the hall. Now–get started.”

… She stood there for a moment and hissed at me, her face still like scraped bone, her eyes still empty and yet full of some jungle emotion. Then she walked quickly to the door and opened it and went out, without speaking, without looking back….

I walked to the windows and pulled the shades up and opened the windows wide. The night air came drifting in with a kind of stale sweetness that still remembered automobile exhausts and the streets of the city. I reached for my drink and drank it slowly…. I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets.

I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting gray rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads…. I went out to the kitchenette and drank two cups of black coffee. You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.

— The Big Sleep, chapters 24-25

James Ellroy explained why Hammett was a better writer than Chandler like this:

Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be – gallant [and strong, and sexy] and with a lively satirist’s wit. Hammett wrote the man he feared he might be – tenuous and sceptical in all human dealings, corruptible and addicted to violent intrigue.

Marlowe doesn’t appear magical on the surface (except in his ability to be knocked out repeatedly without suffering permanent damage), but he is magically lucky. He’s another brilliant detective who does incredibly stupid things. He’s savvy and street-smart, yet like clockwork, he does the street-dumb thing: he finds murdered bodies or witnesses murders, and instead of informing the police, steals evidence from the scene and leaves his fingerprints behind; he hides murder case evidence from the police based on nothing but a hunch; he goes into potentially lethal encounters for clients he hates and refuses to charge them more than his expenses; he incriminates himself to protect people he doesn’t know from being suspected of crimes they might have committed… the list goes on and on.  Every novel has scenes with him privately meditating on the unjustness of the world, yet Chandler’s world must have some pretty strict karmic laws for him to follow his moral code of hunches and poverty and always get away with it.

 

Isaac Asimov wrote a series of detective stories and novels (1953-1986) starring Elijah Bayley, a human, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, in a world in which robots have no freedom or rights. The robopsychologist Susan Calvin, a human who identifies with robots, also appears in some stories. The plots usually turn on questions of how to interpret Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, while their themes often deal with human prejudice against robots, and the philosophy of good and evil.

 

Dr. Who (1963-today) is called science fiction, but the plot is often a mystery: The Doctor appears someplace and sometime where things are not as they at first appear, and he must puzzle out what is happening, and prevent some bad thing from happening. The Doctor’s character is a warmer, fuzzier Sherlock Holmes, who travels with one or more semi-disposable Watsons and finds humans silly but endearing rather than tiresome. (That photo is of Tom Baker playing Dr. Who playing Sherlock Holmes.)

Dr. Who is presented as a genius, yet the Doctor is not rational. He never plans anything; he rushes into traps unarmed and trusts that he’ll come up with something. He refuses to carry a weapon despite having run into hundreds of situations where a weapon would have been helpful. He solves problems with sudden inspiration or intuition rather than logic. He refuses to use consequentialist ethics; he won’t harm a Dalek or an insane Time Lord bent on destroying humanity.  Again, he uses magic, or luck, not logic.

 

The Pink Panther’s Jacques Clouseau (1964-2009) is a bumbling idiot who solves cases mostly by accident. Yet he’s also dedicated, energetic, and creative (witness his elaborate training methods). Much of the humor comes from Clouseau misunderstanding everything that he sees and, far from being a detached observer, managing to remain all the time in his own fantasy world. He is magically lucky:

        Including The Pink Panther here is like including Spaceballs in an analysis of high fantasy. I don’t expect it to match thematically, since it’s a parody, but it will share some attributes.

 

The Great Brain (1967-1976) is a series of children’s detectivish novels whose child protagonist, Tom Fitzgerald, alternates between solving crimes and committing them. He cheats his neighbors so often that the other kids eventually kidnap him and put him on trial in The Great Brain Reforms. His younger brother J.D. is his Watson. The stories often contrast Tom’s intelligence but lack of empathy with J.D.’s lesser intelligence but greater humanity, and show Tom mastering the world intellectually, but not really understanding how to relate to it.  Tom is noteworthy for having a great but merely realistic intelligence, and for making money from his great brain.

 

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse (books 1975-1999, TV series 1987-2000) is a lonely, secretive, bachelor detective chief, at least in the one book I read (The Dead of Jericho). To quote Wikipedia, and I agree, “He claims that his approach to crime-solving is deductive, and one of his key tenets is that “there is a 50 per cent chance that the last person to see the victim alive was the murderer”. In reality, it is the pathologists who deduce. Morse uses immense intuition and his fantastic memory to get to the killer.”  Rather like Sherlock Holmes, he claims to use logic but actually uses intuition and magic.

After finishing The Dead of Jericho, I went back to check whether it was solvable. Technically, the reader had enough information to solve it before the reveal, but some of the crucial details appeared trivial in context, and I think it was not designed to be solvable, but for the reader to be able to recall all the necessary details after the reveal, and think it was solvable.

 

Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (1970-2006) solve crimes on a Navajo reservation. I haven’t read any of them. I’ve read that they’re usually about conflicts between Indian and white culture, religion and materialism, and rich and poor. They’re written in third-person interior (basically first-person written in third-person grammar).

 

Stephanie Plum is the detective in Janet Evanovich’s novels (1995-present). I learned about her when I read Evanovich’s book on writing. I noticed that

– Janet Evanovich didn’t know anything useful about writing,

– half of the book was Evanovich reading scenes from her books, and

– all of the scenes she chose to read, in her book about writing, were dreck.

Stephanie Plum is an “unSue”, who gets all the benefits of being a Mary Sue while being below average in looks and intelligence. She’s pursued by all the hot sexy bad boys even though her most-described physical attribute is how overweight she is. They are  okay with her banging all of them, though she can’t stand it if they “cheat” on her. It sounds from summaries I’ve read like the crimes are partly an excuse for Stephanie to have emotional drama and shift up her rotation of men. They’re supposed to be romantic comedies, except the romance is unconnected to the comedy.

All characters in the scenes I’ve read act unlike humans, or animals, or even robots. Even when they’re dead, they fail to act like dead people. Exhibit 1: Plum and her sidekick are trailing a truck on the highway, following a truck. A corpse suddenly falls off of the truck and manages (being an athletic yet insubstantial corpse) to hit their windshield, then bounce off, without damaging it.

Are they startled? Do they stop the car to find out who it is? Do they phone the police? No; they crack a joke, laugh, and keep driving. They aren’t humans; they’re Evanovichoids.

In the first novel, Plum doesn’t so much solve the crime as flail about stupidly and somehow not get herself killed until the crime solves itself. She “solves crimes” by incompetence, amazing luck, and being rescued by sexy men. For this, Evanovich gets  called “one of the best and most inventive writers of “Strong Woman” mysteries.” (By herself, apparently.) I do not have the patience to review these books further without exploding into a fireball of indignant rage at their commercial success.

 

Mma Precious Ramotswe is the detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998-2015). She’s a woman who was educated in Mochudi, the 10th largest city in Botswana, then moved to a very small village, where she decided to set up a detective agency (which is seen as a strange thing for a woman to do). She believes she values Botswana’s traditional ways more than the modern white ways, yet her independence, modern upbringing, and dislike of marriage bring her repeatedly into conflict with the village’s strongly patriarchal and family-oriented attitudes. She feels more than the usual amount of sympathy for the victims of wrong-doing, and this seems to be what drives her to solve a case once she has gotten into it. The novels are in third-person interior with head-hopping. If you’re gonna read just one detective novel, I’d suggest one of these.

 

Adrian Monk is the consulting detective in the TV series Monk (2002-2009), whose obsessive-compulsive behavior causes him to be unable to hold down a job or function in society, but also makes him aware of tiny details that help him solve cases. Much of the humor of the series is that crimes that are impossible for most people to solve are easy for Monk, yet everyday tasks that most people consider trivial are impossible for Monk.

 

House, a TV series from 2004 to 2012, stars Dr. House as a sociopathic but brilliant surgeon who is basically an even less-lovable Sherlock Holmes.

 

Dexter is the forensic expert / detective / serial killer star of eight novels (2004-2015) and a TV series (2006-2013). His father taught him to use his uncontrollable homicidal urges for good, by killing very bad people. He must solve crimes faster than the police to find enough bad people to kill.

 

There’s a mystery book club at my town’s library, which is composed entirely of retired women, who read nothing but mysteries about cooking, tea, sewing, and cats. It turns out each of these (cooking, tea, sewing, cats) is now a recognized sub-sub-genre of a huge new sub-genre of mysteries called “cozy mysteries”. Mostmysteries published today may be cozy mysteries. They were apparently spawned by Murder, She Wrote. The sleuth is a woman who is not a detective but has a friend or husband who is, or is at least a cop. The town isn’t corrupt and the murders aren’t violent. She solves cases by talking to everyone in town, then putting together pieces of information.

I haven’t read very many mysteries, so please add your own summaries of mystery series or detectives in the comments if you can, before we go to part 3 (Conclusions)!

A Mystery is About the Detective

Why was it so natural to organize famous mysteries by detective? Why do mysteries always have just one or two detectives? Why don’t we see great mysteries in which a team or a town cooperates to solve a mystery, like on CSI, or Scooby Doo?

If mysteries are whodunits, why are the detectives in great mysteries so eccentric and so finely-detailed?

Because the central narrative of the mystery isn’t about the mystery. It’s about the detective.

Let’s look at the commonalities among our detectives.  I’ll enumerate my major summaries of the data with capital letters, and my main conclusions with numbers.

A. The most notable trait of a detective in a mystery is not intelligence. It’s that the detective is a misfit.

Usually either the detective laughs at or scorns the follies of the world (Dupin, Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, The Great Brain, Dr. Who, House), or the world laughs at the detective (Father Brown, Poirot, Clouseau, Ramotswe, Monk). The detective is superior to the others in the story (Dupin, Holmes, Father Brown, Marlowe, Great Brain, Dr. Who, House), even while the clients or criminals consider themselves superior to the detective (Holmes, Father Brown, Poirot, Marlowe, Columbo, Monk, Ramotswe).

The directionality of who laughs at whom might not matter. The point is that the detective is a stranger in a strange land who sees its inhabitants more clearly and objectively than they see themselves. Yet, despite this–or because of it–he can’t establish normal emotional connections with them. He is single, and has only one close friend, or none at all.

The detective often seems driven to action to delay some terrible ennui, or feels his isolation from society painful, and the reader is asked whether the detective’s uniqueness is a blessing or a curse (Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, Daneel Olivaw, The Great Brain, Monk, House).

Detectives are Misfits

Auguste Dupin: Exiled from the aristocracy, lives in seclusion, only comes out at night, sees humans as a source of amusement. Single.

Sherlock Holmes: Prefers anonymity, scorns emotions, emotionally crippled, dangerously depressed and bored with humanity. Single, misogynistic.

Father Brown: A deliberate misfit, he dismisses the world’s values and represents Catholic values in contrast to it. Single and celibate.

Hercules Poirot: An oddball foreigner who does not care whether people like him. Single.

Sam Spade: An almost nihilistic mercenary whose crucial strength turns out to be his cold, unemotional self-interest. Single.

Philip Marlowe: The one virtuous man in the valley of filth. The one man all women want, and the one man who won’t have any of them. Neurotically misogynistic.

R. Daneel Olivaw: Literally inhuman. Single. Also a misfit among robots, due to his android appearance.

Dr. Who: Literally an alien. Single, except for whatever he’s got going with River. I haven’t kept up.

Jacques Clouseau: Lives in his own fantasy world. Single.

The Great Brain: Verges on sociopathic; unable to make friends.

Inspector Morse: Single and unhappy about it, private, and sullen, but not neurotically so.

Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee: Living between and mediating between the Indian and the American, the religious and the secular, the rich and the poor. Joe: Married for one book, widowed for eleven. Jim: Single and dating for 11 books, married for one.

Mma Precious Ramotswe: A fiercely independent woman trying to do a “man’s job” and refusing (for several novels) marriage offers; a city person in a small African village; a traditionalist who isn’t traditional. Single; later marries.

Adrian Monk: Freakishly weird; unable to cope with even simple social interactions. Widowed.

Dr. House: A sociopath with a live-in prostitute.

Dexter: A homicidal psychopath. Single; dates. Should be faking his feelings, but the show never had the nerve to portray psychopathology honestly.

B. Detectives claim to use logic, but their deductions are more like magic or luck.

Magically logical, intuitive, or lucky detectives include Dupin, Holmes, Marlowe, Dr. Who, Clouseau, Morse, and Stephanie Plum.

C. The detective stands outside or above the law and conventional morality.

He may consider his own justice (Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Dr. Who), or his tradition of justice (Father Brown, Philip Marlowe), superior to conventional morality or the law. He may solve crimes for entertainment or revenge that other people would solve out of moral outrage or patriotism (Dupin). He may be a part-time criminal, con-man, or otherwise sometimes commit crimes himself (Sam Spade, The Great Brain, House, Dexter). He may not be recognized as a person under the law (Daneel Olivaw). If there is a criminal mastermind, the detective will have more in common with that mastermind than with other people (Sherlock & Moriarty, Auguste Dupin & D___, Dr. Who and his two great enemies, The Master and Dr. Who).

D. A detective story is seldom written from the first-person or third-person interior point of view of the detective, and is often written from the first-person point of view of the detective’s companion. (Dupin, Holmes, The Great Brain, Nero Wolfe)

The Watson allows the detective to conceal his suspicions from the reader until it’s time for a dramatic revelation. It was pointed out to me that he doesn’t only preserve the mystery; he also preserves the mystery of the detective’s character.

Coming soon:  The Sub-Genres of Mystery, and Conclusions!

P.S.– Instead of complaining that I left out your favorite detective, write your own summary!

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 1: Core narratives of genres

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Mysteries. Everybody thinks they know what they are. I’m beginning to think maybe no one does.

Scholastic’s genre chart says:

Purpose: To engage in and enjoy solving a puzzle. Explore moral satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) at resolution. Consider human condition and how to solve or avoid human problems.

study.com says:

The purpose of a mystery novel is to solve a puzzle and to create a feeling of resolution with the audience.

education.com says:

The plot usually begins with action, intrigue, or suspense to hook the reader. Then, through a series of clues, the protagonist eventually solves the mystery, sometimes placing himself or herself in jeopardy by facing real or perceived danger. All information in the plot (clues) could be important in solving the case, yet in some cases, the author presents misleading information (a red herring) to challenge the reader and the detective. With foreshadowing often used to heighten the suspense, there usually will be several motives for the crime, lots of plot twists, and plenty of alibis that must be investigated. The solution to the crime must come from known information, not a surprise villain introduced in the last chapter of the book; however, the clues must be cleverly planted so that the mystery is not solved too easily or too soon

PBS says:

The formula Conan Doyle helped establish for the classic English mystery usually involves several predictable elements: a “closed setting” such as an isolated house or a train; a corpse; a small circle of people who are all suspects; and an investigating detective with extraordinary reasoning powers. As each character in the setting begins to suspect the others and the suspense mounts, it comes to light that nearly all had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Clues accumulate, and are often revealed to the reader through a narrator like Watson, who is a loyal companion to the brilliant detective. The detective grasps the solution to the crime long before anyone else, and explains it all to the “Watson” at the end.

These state the obvious, but fail to explain the true appeal or source of emotional power of mysteries.

I’ve read three books on fiction writing this year alone that used Sherlock Holmes as an example of a shallow character, including Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. It seemed outrageous to me that, given the entire universe of commercial fiction to choose from, not one but three writers would independently single out Sherlock Holmes as an especially shallow and uninteresting character.

I think they must not have read many Sherlock Holmes stories. I imagine they thought something like this:

Genre fiction does not have interesting characters.

Mystery is the simplest genre, and so should require the simplest characters.

Sherlock Holmes is the best-known fictional detective.

Therefore, Sherlock Holmes is the simplest well-known fictional character.

Sherlock would not approve.

Sherlock Holmes is the original source of fan-fiction. People are still obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.And it takes only a passing familiarity with either the original stories, or with the fan-fiction, to see that what fascinates people with Sherlock Holmes stories is Sherlock Holmes.

I thought for a long time that this accusation of simplicity was merely unjust to Sherlock Holmes. Then I remembered Monk, television’s obsessive-compulsive detective. He was another exception. And Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton’s soft-spoken detective. In fact, almost every detective I knew was an exception!

What are Genres?

What are genres? Why is there a genre called Western in the bookstore, when the world’s output of Westerns today is incredibly small?

I think that every genre originates around a way of looking at the world, expressed through a central narrative. If I use that as a definition of genre, a lot of things become genres that we currently think of as styles, like Medieval painting, romantic poetry, and Nazi propaganda posters.

Once a genre is established, it mutates and splinters into sub-genres. It gets subverted, meaning its message is reversed. It gets hijacked, its subjects and tropes used as a host to camouflage content from other narratives. (For example, John Keats wrote poems with some romantic values and styles, but neo-classical tropes, characters, and metaphysics.  Star Wars, and all other space opera, is fantasy masquerading as science fiction.  I could call Gormenghast an existential tragedy masquerading as a fantasy.)  A genre’s narrative gets hollowed out and its shell re-used by hack writers who copy all the trappings of a genre, or by clever writers who create something with an entirely different feeling (Murder, She Wrote).

I see these as some of the core worldviews and narratives of some existing genres:

Christian fantasy: The world is fundamentally just. Virtue will be rewarded in the end, even when it defies logic. To overcome evil, a hero must face a conflict between virtue ethics and consequentialist ethics, in which it is obvious that acting virtuously is stupid, illogical, suicidal, and will give victory to the villain. He must then act virtuously anyway, and through some “deeper magic” (C.S. Lewis’ term), this stupid virtuous act will prove to be critical to his victory. (Examples: Aslan letting the Witch kill him in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Sam and Frodo letting Gollum live in Lord of the Rings; Luke switching off his targeting computer in Star Wars.)  The social function of fantasy is to dissuade people from doing their own reasoning about ethics.  This is perfectly reasonable, since half of all people are below average, and half of all Americans voted for that guy you hate.

(I want to be clear about why I chose the term “Christian fantasy”. By this I don’t mean just fantasy written by Christians, but the entire tradition derived from them, including writers who aren’t Christian. This tradition probably starts with George MacDonald, and continues with GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, & Star Wars. Early 20th-century high fantasy simpliciter focused more on a sense of wonder, and usually approached ethics through the frightening amorality of its other-worldly creatures.Mythago Wood and Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell are more in that tradition.)

Inversion (Black Company, Game of Thrones): The world ought to be just, yet is not, and the virtuous suffer more than the unvirtuous.

Classic Horror: According to Stephen King, horror is Republican. The central narrative is that evil in the world comes from bad people who’ve been corrupted, and the way to fight evil is to identify those who are impure or corrupted (e.g., vampires, zombies), and kill them. The central narrative is that a town is invaded by an outside evil which can appear like ordinary townsfolk (a vampire, a werewolf, alien body-snatchers), and which must be sniffed out and killed to purify and save the town.

Inversion (Heart of Darkness): Evil comes from good people with good intentions in bad circumstances.

Existential horror (Lovecraft, Lord of the Flies, Sartre, Kafka): Horror is the state of nature, or human nature; “normality” is an illusory construct.

Economic horror: “Civilization” is any social and physical infrastructure that allows good to predominate over evil.

Romance (Harlequin-style): A good man is a bad man who loves a good woman. The central narrative begins when a young woman accidentally meets a man who is slightly older than her, and very successful. She is repulsed by his self-absorbed brooding and his tense paranoia, which makes him seem often on the verge of violence. She antagonizes him in some way. But they’re physically attracted to each other, and meet again, often forced to cooperate by circumstances. She earns his grudging respect, and then his love, which tames his wild ways.

Science fiction: The world fundamentally makes sense. Everything can always be understood. Problems may still be caused by selfishness, but also by misunderstandings and inadequate information. They are never, however, intrinsic, unavoidable, or insoluble as in existential horror, nor due to external circumstances which knowledge alone cannot resolve as in economic horror.

Inversion (“Frankenstein” (the short story, not the movie), Michael Crichton): Science is spiritually arrogant and inherently dangerous.

Western: The world is a violent place that cannot be ruled by law, society, or authority. Government is inherently corrupt. Only lone virtuous violent heroes, unconstrained and uncorrupted by social structures, can cleanse society of its parasites.

Subversion (High Noon, The Gunfighter): Society doesn’t deserve to be saved.

Subversion (The Searchers, Unforgiven): Good guys are just bad guys with good luck and good press.

Mysteries and westerns seem similar. Both conventionally star a lone, eccentric hero who solves problems no one else can, through violence in westerns and logic in mysteries. The main difference is that westerns are drenched in testosterone and self-righteousness, and have happy endings. Mysteries include 2 western-like varieties: the genteel detective stories with happy endings, and the hard-boiled PI stories with violence, testosterone, either self-loathing or self-righteousness, and cynical endings.  It seems to me that westerns and mysteries together cover all of some coherent subset of possible fictions.

64% of western readers are men, while 70% of U.S. mystery readers are women. I won’t assume mysteries are just westerns for nerds, but I suspect most readers of PI mysteries are men (especially given Raymond Chandler’s vicious misogynism), and that there is a close link between westerns and hard-boiled detective novels.

(Notice that the core narrative of every genre is a dysfunctional, sometimes psychotic ideology. I wonder why that is? Are genres a type of cult?)

But what are the core narratives for mysteries? Let’s start by looking at famous mysteries and fictional detectives. Grab your pipe and your deerstalker hat—the game is afoot!

Continued in part 2, “Famous fictional detectives”. (I will hyperlink that sentence once it’s posted.)

Review: The Clockwork Muse, by Colin Martindale 1990

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The Clockwork Muse: The predictability of artistic change

Colin Martindale, Harper Collins, 1990 (on Amazon)

You know how I always gripe that nobody does literary theory anymore? This is real artistic theory. Martindale studied thousands of poems, paintings, musical compositions, and a few pieces of fiction, using tests with human subjects and with computers. He came up with interesting questions, and tried to form hypotheses, conduct experiments to test them, and evaluate them using sound statistical methods.

I say “tried” because, unfortunately, he didn’t understand the principle of conservation of evidence, and didn’t understand statistics very well. But he raised interesting questions, answered some of them, and showed how to answer more of them. His work is remarkable for almost successfully taking a scientific approach to art.

The extent to which literary theorists ignored him is also remarkable. But Martindale was a professor of psychology, and published most of his results in psychology or computer science journals. I don’t know whether this was by choice, or because literary journals wouldn’t take them. He published quite a few in Poetics. I don’t think Poetics is a mainstream literary journal, since its guidelines request papers in sociology, psychology, media and communication studies, and economics.

The Good

Martindale did a lot of experiments, mostly in support of his central thesis (see under “The Ugly Details”):

– Artists are always trying to make their work more strange or surprising.

– They can make their work more surprising either by using more “primordial content” (basically randomness), or by creating a new style.

– New styles therefore appear at a regular rate over time, when the content presented in the previous style has become as random as it can be.

– This accounts for almost all stylistic change, throughout all of history, across all art forms.

If his analyses had been correct, he would have an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of this (somewhat repugnant) thesis. As it is, it’s hard to say how much evidence is left when you throw out all the bad statistics, optimistic curve-gazing, and post-hoc rationalization, but I think it’s significantly more than zero.

The irony is that other aesthetic theorists had no way of knowing how bad Martindale’s use of statistics was. They knew even less about statistics. They ignored him correctly, but unjustifiably. Or perhaps this incident justifies their ignoring scientific incursions into literature, and explains the hostility between C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” (the sciences and the humanities): Anyone from a scientific discipline can rush into a humanity and terrorize its inhabitants, brandishing graphs and chanting p-values. If our hapless “humanitarians” admit that science works, they’ll be helpless against him, because they won’t be able to tell whether his science is good or bad. (Let us suppose, in the name of democracy, that the same holds for incursions from the humanities into the sciences.)

Chapter 7, “Cross-National, Cross-Genre, and Cross-Media Synchrony”, section 2 on cross-media styles: This experiment showed that the terms “baroque”, “romantic”, and “neoclassical” mean something other than just “what people did during an arbitrarily-bounded time period”. Martindale said this is now an unpopular belief.

Martindale doesn’t get into any of this, but I’ll explain why I think post-modernists are suspicious of the idea that “baroque” by itself means something other than an arbitrary, socially-agreed-on time period. It’s important. Well, if you care about philosophy or art theory.

A lexeme is a word or set of words whose semantic meaning is not clearly composed of the semantic meanings of its parts. “Run” can be a lexeme, but when it’s in “run up a bill”, that whole phrase is the lexeme, because “running up a bill” doesn’t involve anybody running, or any movement up, and you can’t “run up a credit” or “run up a reputation”.

Post-modernists believe that the meaning of any lexeme doesn’t ultimately reside in properties of the thing or event the lexeme refers to, but in the position of the lexeme in a giant graph describing the relationships between all the lexemes of the language. Call that belief S (for “Structuralism”). For example, we might say that the meaning of the term “love” was that two people who were in the relationship “love” had mutual intentions towards each other with positive emotional valences (wishing each other good health, respect, satisfying work, wealth, etc.), while “hate” referred to a relationship between people who mutually held intentions with negative valence towards each other (wishing each other harm, humiliation, and financial ruin).

A post-modernist additionally says meaning is indeterminate. That means that if we met an alien species which used the terms “mikto” and “klaanbart” to refer to relationships between people who held mutual intentions of the same valence, we would have no way of ever knowing which meant “love” and which meant “hate”, because we couldn’t feel the valences of their emotions, and might misinterpret their facial emotions and all other indicators in a systematically wrong way. To be more precise, the post-modernist would say that we can’t be wrong in this fashion, because “love”, “hate”, “mikto”, and “klaanbart” have no meaning other than enabling you to predict that if Jerry “loves” Sally he is more likely to give her chocolates than scrapings from the bottom of his shoe, and if Freemulo miktos Gromblat, ze is more likely to frondle zim than to blammo zim. (This sort of argument comes from Quine.) The argument fails in this case if we believe that pain is a universal evolved perception of negative valence to prevent organisms from harming themselves. We then expect to find either “mikto” or “klaanbart” associated much more often with actions that cause harm, and we can call that one “hate”.

If you try to enumerate the set of relationships baroque music is in, the instantiations of “baroque music” are all instances of music, and not instances of painting, literature, or architecture. If the true “meaning” of “baroque music” were found at such a high level of abstraction that it also applied to instances of music, painting, and literature, that would imply a degree of coherence and orderliness to reality that is at odds with post-modern semiotics. So post-modernists are likely to treat “baroque music” as a lexeme, and say that “baroque music” “means”, mainly, the set of relationships between the people using the term, the music, the instruments used, the musicians, the composers, and so on, and probably has little to do with “baroque architecture”.

For a more logical explanation:

The belief S was posited by Saussure as an alternative to the belief that the meanings of words are “grounded” in reality, which I’ll denote by G. Philosophers see S and G as mutually exclusive, and as covering all possible cases: S ⇔ not(G). (There’s no reason to believe either of these things, however. In fact it’s generally impossible to try to list the (verbal) relationships between words without running into relationships that imply facts about the entities that are grounded in reality. We might, for instance, find that baroque music was usually commissioned by the Church or by extremely wealthy patrons, and so was played in churches or very large private residences, which had large dimensions and so had long reverberation times, and this led to the use of low-pitched instruments and slow tempos. Trying to list the “structure” of relationships that define “baroque music” has led to a quantifiable, measurable property of the music itself, which grounds its meaning in reality.)

Let D (for “Decomposability”) denote the belief that words are usually lexemes, and so “baroque” in “baroque music” probably has the same meaning as “baroque” in “baroque architecture”, even though there are no instances of art that are both baroque music and baroque architecture. There’s no logical necessity to D => G or G => D. The term “baroque music” could be a lexeme whether or not its meaning is grounded in reality, and even if “baroque music” is defined structurally, it could be that “baroque” has its own structural definition. But philosophers appear to assume thatDG, probably because “folk metaphysics” assumes both D and G. It does at least seem that G weakly implies D, because given G, you could follow the folk-linguistics model of coming up with words to describe real things, and then putting them together to describe combinations of things and relationships between them.

So, given the false assumptions Snot(G) and D => G, the post-modern commitment to S implies not(G), which implies not(D), which suggests that “baroque” doesn’t mean anything on its own.

Martindale showed people who didn’t know much about art pictures of paintings, sculpture, and architecture, and played them recordings of music. When he asked them to put them together into groups, in any way they chose, they put the baroque music with the baroque painting, the baroque sculpture, and the baroque architecture, and so on with classical and romantic, more than you’d expect by chance.

The rub is that I don’t fully trust that Martindale knew how to know what you’d expect by chance, because he said subjects created an average of 9 groups (p. 253), then used math assuming they had created 3 groups (p. 254). But the error, if there is any, is in the direction of making his results stronger than his analysis indicates. The musical data chosen is peculiar, excluding Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner from the romantic, but their inclusion would only have made his results stronger.

Chapter 8, “Art and Society”, the only chapter in which he adjusts for multiple hypothesis testing, presents some good data indicating that prosperity for the working class correlates with collective thought, cultural references, and a de-emphasis on nature; conservatism correlates with concrete words and references to culture, while liberalism correlates with thought, emotion, and action. The work is interesting, but cast into doubt by the inconsistency between the British and American data.

In Chapter 9, “The Artist and the Work of Art”, discussing the common theme of a hero’s descent into an underworld, he pioneers the use of word frequency counts to disclose the theme of a story.

We can use coherence of trends [in word usage] to decipher what a narrative is about: that is, if a narrative is about overcoming evil, the trend in evaluative connotation should be stronger than the trend in primordial content. If a narrative is about alteration in consciousness, the reverse should be the case. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, shows a clear trend in primordial content but no trend at all in the use of good versus bad words: it must be about alteration in consciousness rather than good versus evil. This conclusions conforms with what a Tibetan Buddhist would probably tell you. The descent into Hell in book I of Homer’s Odyssey is more about good and evil than about alteration in consciousness, though it seems to be about both. In this case, the trend indicates that Hell is a better place than earth, and is consistent with pagan conceptions of the afterlife. … Moby Dick [has trends in primordial content, but not in good/bad word frequencies, so it] doesn’t have much to do with ethics but does seem to symbolize alteration in consciousness…. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is an exception: it has no trends at all in either evaluation or primordial content. The story is about something else. (p. 329)

We can use some simple equations to delineate the plots of such narratives…. They can help unlock the hidden or symbolic meaning of a narrative. Narratives have more than one meaning. We do not need to leave it to the whimsy of the reader to decide which interpretation is most important. We can examine the coherence or orderliness of trends in the usage of different types of words to make an objective decision. Book VI of the Aeneid and Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ are both about alteration of consciousness and about confronting and overcoming evil. (p. 339)

I think he overstates the strength of conclusions based on word counts, but I admire his vision. He also looks at Dante’s Divine Comedy and other major works. I haven’t seen anyone use word frequency analysis to investigate the themes of different books, or of the different parts of different books. I want to start testing this idea myself.

The Bad

He presents his theory as being about the evolution of music, but didn’t understand what evolution is. When he says “evolution”, he means its opposite: genetic drift in the absence of selection pressure. He says this is essential: “Evolution” only occurs when art proceeds without any interference from society. He calls selective pressure from society “non-evolutionary pressure” (p. 169). He assumes that whatever aesthetics is, it is not anything that real people like or want; their preferences can only contaminate aesthetic evolution. That’s not just saying artistic quality or popularity isn’t objective; it’s saying, from an “evolutionary” standpoint, that it’s bad. (Again, though, this is a popular position among aesthetic theorists.) He seems to have forgotten that he theorized that arousal potential (AP; see “Ugly details” below) was important only by arguing that it increases hedonic value = aesthetic fitness.

He ought to spend more time explaining what “primordial content” (PC) is, since he spends the entire book measuring it. It comes from psychoanalysis and indicates regression into… something. The subconscious? The collective? The pre-human? His attempted explication (p. 49), equating primordial thought with noticing similarities, and conceptual thought with making distinctions, is just a repetition of a common prejudice against “analytic” science that we have inherited from the Middle Ages and the romantic poets, of scientific thought as only dividing and never synthesizing. It has no real bearing on whatever it is that his construct measures.

So the theoretical underpinnings of his research are shaky. Fortunately he has lots of data. His interpretation of it, though, is usually statistically flawed. On p. 166-167 he describes computing a correlation using 150 samples, and says it results in “a marginally significant correlation of .14 with time…. If we [group datapoints together into 15 groups and use their means], the correlation is much higher–.66–and clearly significant.” That shouldn’t happen, and if it does, you shouldn’t use it. Allowing the experimenter to choose a cluster size that gives him “significance” is cheating. There are problems with many of his claims of significance, particularly the ones that claim periodic oscillations are significant [5]. He tells us that his theory works with Hamlet, Cymbeline, andThe Great Railway Bazaar (p. 318), but not how many books it didn’t work with. This concealment of his selection process reduces much of his quantitative data to anecdotes.


[5] My guess is that what he means when he says an eyeballed oscillation is significant is that he tried a lot of different polynomials, and eventually found one simple polynomial to fit the main curve, and one higher-degree recurrence relation that fits the oscillation after the first one is subtracted from the data, such that the fit to the oscillation explained {enough of the variance left over after the fit to the main curve} to achieve significance on a t-test. However, this doesn’t account for the freedom he had in choosing the type of equation and the parameters for it to fit his data.


The most-common problem is that he would do some experiment rating people or works of art on, say, 20 different dimensions, most of which he didn’t specify in this book, and nearly all of which, when revealed, are synonyms for either “primordial content” or “arousal potential” (AP). Then he does data fishing to find the two of the ten million or so possible small subsets of those 20 which have the highest correlation with PC and AP, and if one of those ten million choices correlates better than would happen one time in 20 by chance, he calls it significant.

If you look on page 188, you’ll find an experiment with Italian paintings in 20-year periods from 1330-1729. He had subjects rate painters along 24 dimensions, and then do factor analysis. Then he informs us that two of the resulting 5 dimensions corresponded to primordial content and arousal potential. This is better than cherry-picking the subsets that work best for him, but it’s still picking 2 out of 5. (We’d really like to know what the other factors were, and their relative importance, because that would suggest other influences on artistic change, but he doesn’t tell us what they were.) When he tells us which dimensions correlated with arousal potential (active, complex, tense, disorderly) and which correlated with primordial content (not photographic, not representative of reality, otherworldly, and unnatural), it becomes clear that most of the first set were designed to measure arousal potential, and the second set are all synonyms for primordial content. So the experiment didn’t validate his two dimensions; it just asked people to rate paintings along them, then (surprise) pulled his planted measurements out of the factor analysis.

He’s guilty of cherry-picking data. On p.178 you’ll find a chart of primordial content in pop music lyrics. He states that “there was a significant increase in primordial content from 1952-53 to 1958-59.” But if you start at 1953 instead of 1952, it becomes a decrease; even more so if you end at 1960 or 1961.

He had no conception of degrees of freedom. The section on cross-national synchrony in Chapter 7 is outrageous: He fit equations to explain how trends in one art in one country are influenced by trends in other arts in that country and other countries. But studying the equations on page 242, we realize that each of his fits takes 17 parameters! And in most cases he constructs these to fit fewer than 17 datapoints! I don’t know why they don’t fit exactly, or how he found his supposedly optimal solutions.

His quest for periodicity used tests that would find periodicity in random walks. Every time he plots a bunch of points and says that the oscillations around a curve are statistically significant, count the number of times that a segment goes through one point before re-crossing the central curve, and the number of times it goes through 2 or more points. If those numbers are roughly equal, it indicates that the oscillation around the central curve is a random walk, and is not statistically significant. (You can prove this using the binomial theorem.) Out of figures 7.5, 9.1, 9.2, 9.4, 9.20, and 9.21, only figures 9.1 and 9.21 pass this simple test. He’s generally guilty of optimistic eyeballing of data. He analyzes Dante’s Inferno and finds that “the main trend takes the shape of an M with an extra up-flourish at the end” (p. 323) Looking at figure 9.18, it’s hard to imagine how any realistic data could look less like his description of it.

The book is full of post-hoc rationalization. (That is, he never predicted a test’s outcome; he found the outcome, then justified it, often with some accommodating exceptions). For example, his study of American painters (p. 193-198) finds a single dip-rise in primordial content from 1800 to 1920, and so instead of admitting that he didn’t find dips and rises for the different styles during that time, he designates that entire 120-year period as “American style”. By never stating up front what he expects to find, he always interprets his result either as having proven his hypothesis (when they are consistent with it) or having proven something peculiar about the data (when they are not).

Sometimes he claims to have proven both at the same time. On p. 191, he reports finding results for his Italian paintings experiment that match the time periods for the styles late gothic, renaissance-mannerist, baroque, and rococo. But what’s “renaissance-mannerist”? It’s a mashing together of two periods because the data doesn’t come out as it should if they’re two separate periods. “If one accepts the idea that primordial content rises once a style is in effect, the present results support the idea that mannerism is the final stage of renaissance style rather than a separate style” (p. 193). Okay, but you can either assume A (mannerism is the final stage of renaissance style) and use it to prove B (that primordial content dips then rises within a style), or you can assume B and use it to prove A. You can’t assume both A and B in order to prove B and A simultaneously!

The Ugly Details

Primordial Content

Martindale also thought he’d found the principal component of art, starting from theory rather than from data or observation. This principal component was “primordial content” (PC, p. 57-59), which seems not to mean content that’s primordial = primal (e.g., sex, hunger, pleasure, terror), but content that’s dream-like, hallucinatory, unreal, nonsensical, chaotic, incoherent [1]. Martindale doesn’t get much more specific than that. He justifies this by saying that Nietzsche’s Apollo / Dionysius, Jung’s eros / logos, McKellar’s A / R (?), Berlyne’s autistic / directed, Werner’s dedifferentiated / differentiated (?), and Wundt’s associationistic / intellectual dichotomies, all mean the same thing. “Thought or consciousness varies along one main axis, as is obvious to anyone who studies the topic.” (p. 57)

Not quite. Those are all dichotomies with logic on one side, but they have one of two very different things on the other side: either sensuality, or associationism / dream-logic [2]. I don’t think those things (Dionysian abandon, and drug-induced hallucinations) have anything in common. The former is very agentive; the second is entirely passive. The former leads to Lord Byron, Wagner, the Moulin Rouge, and heavy metal; the latter (I would say, based partly on my own limited experience), to Celtic knotwork, Bach, Salvador Dali, Carlos Castaneda, and electronic / trance music. It became obvious as I read on that Martindale was measuring dream-like content, not sensuousness.

Also, because those other dichotomies oppose logic to something, they’re about processes of thought, while Martindale’s “primordial content” is static. It’s something you can see in a picture, like dark shadows or bat wings, or words you can count in a poem, like “rock”, “flame”, or “kiss”. And he doesn’t oppose primordial content to logic; he opposes it to… less primordial content. That’s not actually a dichotomy; it’s just a category.

But that’s okay. It doesn’t really matter how he came up with the category if he can state clearly what’s in it, and gets strong results from it. He does that [3].


[1] My guess is he was thinking of Freud’s “primary process thought”, and used “primal” in its obsolete sense of “primary”, even though Freud’s “primary process” is neither primal nor primary.

[2] If there is a historic linking of these two kinds of dichotomies, it’s probably through the yin-yang. Women were historically stereotyped as being (a) sensual and (b) illogical. So if your main dichotomy is male / female, and “female” = sensual and illogical, then of course Apollo / Dionysius and directed / autistic mean the same thing.

[3] He built something called the Regressive Imagery Dictionary that’s a big list of PC words, among other things.


I mislead by calling PC the principal component of art. If you had a principal component, you’d explain variation in art in terms of variation of that component. Martindale’s explanation isn’t that simple. It’s complicated and not very compelling. (Don’t worry. Things gets better once he starts experimenting.)

Arousal Potential

“Arousal” is a very general, very vague concept from psychology that’s used to measure the strength of an animal’s response to stimuli. It can mean the number of steps an animal takes per minute, how much time it spends awake, its blood pressure, sexual arousal, or pretty much anything else an experimenter can measure that seems more active than passive.

Like Willie van Peer, Martindale begins by describing the Wundt curve (p. 42):

This curve shows that people get the most enjoyment (“hedonic value”) out of things that produce one particular amount of “arousal”. Play music too quietly, and it’s not very arousing. Play it too loud, and it’s painful. Same thing for other senses.

Also like van Peer, Martindale forgets the shape of the curve immediately after presenting it. He assumes for the rest of the book that artists always seek to increase arousal, although looking at the Wundt curve would suggest instead that they always seek to keep it at its optimal value. He uses the term “arousal potential” (AP), because he’s talking about a property of works of art, not a measured response to them.

Habituation

He doesn’t forget about the curve entirely. He dismisses it by talking about habituation (p. 45). Habituation is a very general behavior, found in humans, mice, snails, and even planaria. It means that an organism responds strongly to (is aroused by) a stimuli the first time, but its response grows weaker with time. So a given type of art should arouse the same person less and less the more they’re exposed to it. This, of course, is why, after reading science fiction books for a few years, people will get tired of them and switch to romance or mystery novels, and why old people can’t stand to listen to the music or re-watch the movies that were popular when they were young, but continually seek out the newest and latest. So this is why artistic styles must change: They produce less arousal over time, and people grow tired of them. The main problem is thus always to produce more arousal, to get back to optimal AP.

Except, wait, humans don’t act that way. Habituation is routinely used in theories of art, but it doesn’t match human behavior at all. Humans do exactly the opposite: They imprint on what they read or listened to as a teenager and generally seek out more of the same for the rest of their lives.

Also, if music entered the classical style around 1750 because people had become habituated to baroque, why don’t we just switch back to baroque now? The idea that we, in the 21st century, know fugues better than Bach did, is ridiculous. The habituation explanation for changing artistic styles requires Lamarckian inheritance of habituation. Martindale takes up this objection, which has been made before, and rejects it with an argument on page 49 that is, frankly, too nonsensical to summarize.

Pure Aesthetics: Content Doesn’t Matter

Martindale began by assuming that artistic change is internally driven by the quest for increasing AP. The only way to increase AP, he believes, is either to increase the primordial content (PC) of art, or to change to a new style. This is so obvious to Martindale that he doesn’t explain why. I think I’ve figured out why: Martindale adhered to a “pure aesthetics” theory of art.

It is not what Gibbon said—it is not meaning—that makes The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a work of literature. It is how he said what he had to say that makes it literature… In other words, the meaning of a text is not really relevant to literature. (p. 15)

He never considers the possibility that the content of a poem, or a story, or a picture, can be artistically significant. He says the point of all art is its style (p. 71). If someone likes a work of art, any part of that liking that can be explained in terms of, say, their personal experience or morals, must not be aesthetics (p. 169). (Indeed, being likable or not likable is generally not thought by theorists to be properly part of aesthetics–rather odd, considering aesthetics is defined as the study of what people like.)

I would like to be able to say that Art, to him, is whatever is left over after you understand it. The aesthetic value of a piece would then be literally the soul of its appeal, in that it’s a hypothesized essence that can contain only whatever you don’t yet understand. That would mean he was chasing a ghost.

That’s a horrible thing to say, but I can’t be even that generous, because he says what he considers to be the soul of art: Surprise. When he talks about French poetry, it becomes apparent what he thinks art is. Like Apollinaire, he prefers poetry that makes no sense to poetry that does, because poetry that makes no sense is surprising, while poetry that makes sense, isn’t (p. 82-86). It seems that “art” is, to him, approximately synonymous with “shock”. (Unfortunately, I think this may also be a common view now in aesthetic theory.)

For the most part, this doesn’t matter, since he’s working with data rather than armchair philosophizing. His poor understanding of how art operates only becomes a burden when coupled with his weakness for rationalizing away results. (In the section on short stories, he explains away some unexpected results using a very crude model of what a story is; e.g., p. 172, 175, 313.)

But it’s his unspoken justification for assuming that there’s a very simple dynamic underlying all of art, so that taste, artistic merit, or external factors. He doesn’t feel the need to justify his expectation that artistic appeal can be measured by a single number (AP), since he already believes, from his own taste in art, that it is composed of only one factor (surprise), which means about the same thing as “arousal potential”.

Artistic Change is Scalloped

PC, Martindale says, goes down and then up within an artistic style. The more PC a work of art has, the more AP it has. But PC is hard to generate. The artist has to regress (perhaps by becoming alcoholic, acting like a spoiled brat, and/or moving to the Village). So artists generate just as much PC as they need to out-do the artist before them. (A better explanation would be that artists generate just enough additional PC to compensate for the diminution of AP below its optimal level due to habituation, but Martindale has long since forgotten that AP has an optimal level.)

When artists invent a new style, they can slack off on the regression and not generate so much PC, because the new style, and incremental changes to it, provide enough AP to exceed the AP of the previous style. (Similarly, a better explanation would be that they must include less PC, to avoid producing art with too much AP.)

Once the new style has completely replaced the old and has been completely developed, PC must increase to keep increasing AP. Eventually an artist’s workdegenerates progresses to complete incoherence, or his liver gives out, and he can only increase AP by switching to another new style.

So you expect a plot of PC over time to go up and down, and each local minimum of the graph should be the midpoint of one artistic style. And this is what we see, sort of, in this plot on page 231 of PC in European music from 1500 to 1900:

Here we see the main problem with Martindale’s work: It involves a lot of staring at graphs and wishful thinking. Yes, there are curves going up and down. But how could there not be? Are these curves any different than we’d see if we plotted a random number from a normal distribution for each point?

If a point goes on a random walk, at each step it has a .5 chance of changing direction. So if you cut a random-walk’s graph into pieces at every local maximum or minimum, half of the pieces should have 2 points, ¼ should have 3 points, ⅛ should have 4 points, and so on. If the walk isn’t random, but instead you plot points from a normal distribution, then there should be fewer long runs; reversion to the mean should be more common. Pieces with 2 and 3 points should be more common, and pieces of 4 and 5 should be less common. I’m too lazy and stupid to figure it out, so I wrote a program to brute-force it. Let’s check:

          Pieces  2     3     4     5

Italy:        15   11   3     1     0

France:    10    4    3     2     1

Britain:     12    5    6     1     0

Germany: 13    5    7     0    0

_____________________________

Total:       50   25  19     4     1

RWalk:     50  25 12.5  6.2   3

Normal:   50   31  14     4     1

“RWalk” are the numbers we’d see in a random walk. “Normal” are the most-likely numbers we’d see if the plots were from a random number generator with a normal distribution. I’m not impressed.

And, yes, we see that the labels for the periods B1, B2, etc., seem to come at the beginning of a decline in PC. But the declines didn’t come where those labels were; Martindale put the labels where he saw the declines. I know this because they’re in a different position for each graph (France, Britain, Germany). The standard division is as follows: Baroque 1600-1750; Classical 1750-1800; Romantic 1800-1900 [4].

Wikipedia divides Baroque music into Early, High, and Late. Martindale has only Early and Late Baroque. Hmm. On the German graph, which is the most-important one for this period of music [6], the labels B1 and B2 appear after points 4 and 8, which would locate them at the years 1570 and 1650. Interpolating between his points, Martindale locates the start of the Early Baroque around 1555, and the end of the Late Baroque around 1695. His entire “Baroque” is shifted 50 years too early. It would be more accurate to call the dip labelled “C” on his graph (1700-1760) “Late Baroque” instead of “Classical”. And if you check the other graphs, they’re even worse: he has the Baroque in France as 1520 to 1680!


[4] Wikipedia approaches it differently; it gives overlapping periods of 1580-1760, 1730-1820, 1780-1910, and 1890-1975. Averaging the endpoints gives the same results.


His graph begins the “Early Romantic” in 1760, 40 years too soon, and ends the “Late Romantic” in 1880. Wikipedia lists a single Romantic era. Throughout the book, Martindale divides recognized eras into as many styles as his graphs seem to say they have, rather than stating up-front how many different styles he expects to find. So, again, what would the data have had to look like for Martindale to say it didn’t confirm his theory? Pretty strange, I think.

Implications

Suppose Martindale’s thesis about artistic change were correct. What would that mean?

Well, it would at least mean that all of the essays and manifestos by all artists of all time were meaningless twaddle. Artists creating new styles are sometimes quite vocal about why they’re doing it, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters, realist novelists, existentialist playwrights, and modernist poets. When they’re not, critics will often jump into the gap and explicate their work for them. All of those explanations are incompatible with Martindale’s. He says that a new style is good if, and only if, it is strange. No amount of theory matters. The theories all offer only false justifications for new strange things. At best, they’re rationalizations artists must make to themselves to produce something new and strange.

It also leaves no role for quality, content, or even skill. I’d like “arousal potential” to include these, but Martindale has been explicit throughout that it does not–it only includes depth of regression (primordial content), and degree of surprise. He maintains this even when it’s patently absurd, as on page 313, when he says, “A writer must … either increase depth of regression or change styles in order to increase incongruity, complexity, and the other devices that constitute arousal potential … in an individual work of literature.” In other words, action, plot, suspense, surprising events, engaging characters, and even steamy sex are all incapable of increasing arousal potential, and so have little or no bearing on the artistic fitness of a book. Logically, I would conclude from this that the best thing I could do to my stories to make them more popular would be to use bad grammar, or no grammar at all, to increase their incongruity and “complexity”.

Taken as an absolute, his thesis is simply wrong–there is more to art than incongruity. But if even a quarter of his tests held up under appropriate statistical techniques, it would indicate that the judgements of posterity, on who were great artists and what was great art, have very little to do with skill, quality, or anything other than novelty. It would mean that we don’t know how to art. I’ll have more to say about this after I review Pitirim Sorokin’sSocial & Cultural Dynamics.

Even if Martindale’s thesis is entirely wrong, it’s still valuable as an insight into the horrible implications of Ezra Pound’s “make it new!” Martindale’s book drives home, page after page, graph after relentless graph, a totalistic vision of art as lust for novelty. That Martindale can be so conversant with these many types of art, and value them only for their incongruity, proves that humans can theorize themselves into a numbness to art. Or, worse, that there are people who have no other aesthetics. (This would explain Axe Cop and a lot of Random fics.) That this vision of art is so compatible with 20th century ideas about art is a warning sign about the latter.

Conclusion

I like Martindale’s approach very much. He gathered a lot of data, framed a lot of hypotheses, and did a lot of tests, in many different art forms, covering the past 700 years. He just screwed up almost all of his analyses. His analysis is plagued by a failure to account for multiple hypothesis testing, a crippling failure to account for degrees of freedom, confusion of statistical significance with significance, and post-hoc rationalization. So most of his conclusions are at best suggestive, and at worst bogus.

But his experiments could have been analyzed correctly. He showed us many creative ways to experiment quantitatively on art. He just didn’t get the logic and math right.

And he did several important experiments correctly, providing strong evidence for some interesting, contentious, and broadly-applicable theories about art. But if you haven’t got a strong background in math, you’ll never be able to tell which of his experiments are the pearls among the rubbish.

The history of “show, don’t tell”

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I’ve collected instances of the advice “show, don’t tell” from across time.  Here they are, chronologically.  I’ve blogged a couple of them before.

The Wikipedia page on “Show, don’t tell” lists some more recent ones.  (If you read that page, be aware that while Hemingway was a “show, don’t tell” writer, “iceberg theory” is a claim about depth of backstory, not about “show, don’t tell”.)


China, 551 – 479 BC, Confucius

Confucius asked his students their ambitions. The first to answer said that he wanted to help weak countries get stronger. The second said he wanted his people to live a well-off life. The third said he wanted to be a master of ceremonies.

The last student said, “In Spring, having put on my spring clothes, I would like to bathe in the Qihe River with a group of adults and children and, after bathing walk back together, singing as the wind blows our hair dry. This is my ideal, teacher.”

Confucius made no comment on the first three grand ambitions but commended the last. The sage could see from the carefree scene the student described his social ideal and political ambition – of people living and working happily in a peaceful and harmonious social environment.

                — retold in “Confucianism and Chinese Art”


Greece, 350 BC, Aristotle

Aristotle said something that sounds, in retrospect, like “show, don’t tell”:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… in the form of action, not of narrative. … Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.  Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.  Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions.  Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.  Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.

                — Aristotle (350 BC), Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher.  From Part 6.

But while he was emphasizing the importance of action, he was contrasting men’s actions with (and judging it more important to drama than) their character.  So on second thought, it sounds like he was saying something different.

But on third thought, character can be revealed:

1. by description:  Scrooge was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!

2. by the character’s spoken declarations about ethics:  “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

3. by another character’s description of the character:  “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!”

4. by the character’s speech acts:  “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?”

5. or by action:  At the ominous word ‘liberality’’, Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

1, 2, and 3 are “telling”.  4 and 5 are “showing”.

In dialogue, ancient theater used character revelation types #2 and #3 almost exclusively.  #4 is a more modern technique that requires the playwright to be more aware of multiple perspectives, and to let different characters state different ethical views–which Victor Schlovsky (I think; I’ve mislaid his book) said Greek playwrights didn’t even do until Euripides.  #1 is not available in drama at all, so Aristotle had seen mainly #2, #3, and #5.

Now, what did Aristotle mean by “character”?

If you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents….  Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character.

                — Aristotle, Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher.  From Part 6.

Adding this to the context that Aristotle is contrasting “character” with “action”, it seems that by “character,” Aristotle meant what the character is or says; by “action”, what he does.  So in Aristotle’s context, in which only #2, 3, and 5 are available, “action [#5] is more important than character [#1-4]” is indistinguishable from “show [#4-5], don’t tell [#1-3]”.


Spain, late 12th century, Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd (Averroes)

Poetry should not employ the weapons of rhetoric or persuasion.  It should simply imitate, and it should do so with such vivid liveliness that the object imitated appears to be present before us.  If the poet discards this methods for straightforward reasoning, he sins against his art.

                — Umberto Eco (1959), Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.  Yale University Press 1986.  Translation of “Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale” from Momemti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959.  Summarizing Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, p. 310-44 [name of book not given!], who was citing Averroes, the 12th-century Islamic scholar known to the West (through Aquinas) as “the Commentator” on “the Philosopher” (Aristotle).


Russia, 1886, Anton Chekov

Many websites attribute this great quote to Chekov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

quoteinvestigator.com tried to track this quote down.  The oldest instance of it they found was in a 2002 book,The Quotable Book Lover.  The closest thing they could find to it that Chekhov wrote was this letter he wrote to his brother Alexander in May of 1886:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.

                — Anton Chekhov, The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Noonday Press (New York, 1959).  “Introduction”, p. 14.


America, 1927, E. M. Forster, with a contrary opinion

“CHARACTER,” says Aristotle, “gives us qualities, but it is in actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse.”  We have already decided that Aristotle is wrong and now we must face the consequences of disagreeing with him.  “All human happiness and misery,” says Aristotle, “take the form of action.”  We know better. We believe that happiness and misery exist in the secret life, which each of us leads privately and to which (in his characters) the novelist has access….

There is, however, no occasion to be hard on Aristotle. He had read few novels and no modern ones… and when he wrote the words quoted above he had in view the drama, where no doubt they hold true….

The speciality of the novel is that the writer can talk about his characters as well as through them or can arrange for us to listen when they talk to them­selves. He has access to self-communings, and from that level he can descend even deeper and peer into the subconscious. A man does not talk to himself quite truly—not even to himself; the happiness or misery that he secretly feels proceeds from causes that he cannot quite explain, because as soon as he raises them to the level of the explicable they lose their native quality.  The novelist has a real pull here.  He can show the subconscious short-circuiting straight into action (the dramatist can do this too); he can also show [tell] it in its relation to soliloquy.  He commands all the secret life, and he must not be robbed of this privilege. “How did the writer know that?” it is sometimes said.  “What’s his standpoint?  He is not being consistent, he’s shifting his point of view from the limited to the omniscient, and now he’s edging back again.”  Questions like these have too much the atmosphere of the law courts about them. All that matters to the reader is whether the shifting of attitude and the secret life are convincing, whether it is πιθανον [“likely”, says Google translate] in fact, and with his favourite word ring­ing in his ears Aristotle may retire.

                — E. M. Forster (1927).  Aspects of the Novel. Harcourt (Orlando, Florida, 1955),  p. 83-84.


America, 1947, Cleanth Brooks

Having in mind the scheme proposed, one could say that a poem does not state ideas but rather tests ideas. Or, to put the matter in other terms, a poem does not deal primarily with ideas and events but rather with the way in which a human being may come to terms with ideas and events. All poems, therefore, including the most objective poems, turn out on careful inspection to be poems really “about” man himself. A poem, then, to sum up, is to be judged not by the truth or falsity as such, of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by its character as drama – by its coherence, sensitivity, depth, richness, and tough-mindedness.

                — Cleanth Brooks (1947), The Well Wrought Urn. Harcourt & Brace (Orlando, Florida, 1975).  Appendix 2, “Problem of Belief and Problem of Cognition”, p. 256.


America, 1979, Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren

Warning:  When they talk about describing a character, they use “directly describing” to mean “summarizing” (telling), and “indirect” to mean “indirectly describing”, by which they mean “indirectly summarizing”.  That in turn means “indirectly not directly depicting”, or “directly depicting”, which means “showing”.  When they talk about dialogue, they reverse the terms: by “direct discourse” they mean writing out everything the characters mean, or “showing”; by “indirect discourse” they meaning summarizing what they said, or “telling”.  I’ve inserted [showing] and [telling] to clarify.

How shall the author present his character? Directly, with a summary of his traits and characteristics [telling], or indirectly (that is, through dialogue and action [showing])?  The very nature of fiction suggests that the second method is its characteristic means, yet direct presentation is constantly used in fiction, often effectively.  Much depends upon the underlying purpose of the story and much depends upon matters of scope and scale.  If the author made every presentation of character indirectly, insisting that each character gradually unfold himself through natural talk and gesture and action, the procedure might become intolerably boring.  “The Necklace” indicates how direct presentation—and even summary presentation—can be properly and effectively used.  (Look back at the first three paragraphs of this story on page 66.)  But when he comes to the significant scenes of the story, the author of “The Necklace” discards summary in favor of dramatic presentation.

The danger of direct presentation [telling] is that it tends to forfeit the vividness of drama and the reader’s imaginative participation. Direct [telling], descriptive presentation works best, therefore, with rather flat and typical characters, or as a means to get rapidly over more perfunctory materials.  When direct presentation of character becomes also direct comment on a character, the author may find himself “telling” us what to feel and think rather than “rendering” a scene for our imaginative participation.  In “The Furnished Room,” for example, O. Henry tends to “editorialize” on the hero’s motives and beliefs, and constant plucking at the reader’s sleeve and nudging him to sympathize with the hero’s plight may become so irritating that the whole scene seems falsified.  Yet in D. H. Lawrence’s “Tickets, Please,” we shall see that direct [telling] commentary–and even explicit interpretation of the characters’ motives–can on occasion be effectively used by an author.

An author’s selection of modes of character presentation will depend upon a number of things. His decision on when to summarize traits or events [tell], on when to describe directly [tell], and on when to allow the character to express his feelings through dialogue and action [show], will depend upon the general end of the story and upon the way in which the action of the story is to be developed…

Indirect discourse [telling], like [“direct”] character summary and description [telling], is a quicker way of getting over the ground, and in fiction has its very important uses.  Notice, for example, in “War” that the husband’s explanation of why his wife is to be pitied is indirect discourse [telling]: “And he felt it his duty to explain… that the poor woman was to be pitied, for the war was taking away her only son.” But the speeches of the old man who argues for the sublimity of sacrificing one’s son for one’s country are given as direct discourse [showing]. The importance of the old man’s speeches to the story, the need for dramatic vividness, the very pace of the story–all call for direct discourse.

                — Understanding Fiction by Brooks & Warren, 3rd edition (1979), from the intro to chapter 3, “What Character Reveals”. (Not present in the 2nd edition.)

Writing: Subtlety

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The biggest single thing I’ve learned from public book review sites, such as goodreads.com, is probably how subtle not to be.  Before, when the only feedback I got from my stories was in writers’ groups, I thought I was pretty good at being subtle, yet still getting my point across.  The other writers understood what I’d written most of the time.

Let me restate that.  When people who’d spent years writing and analyzing stories, and were familiar with my style and way of thinking, had an entire week to study and make comments on a short story of mine which I’d usually already talked over with them before writing it, they were able to understand it slightly more than half of the time.

That’s not as good as it sounded at first.

Subtlety became a thing in the 20th century.  Before that, authors would write in the omniscient point of view (POV), and tell the reader everything everyone was thinking, in long sentences full of clarifying adjectives and adverbs, like Jane Austen.  There was little room for doubt about what the characters were thinking.

Then around 1880, Henry James popularized the 3rd-person limited POV, and readers were cut off from the minds of protagonists.  This was perhaps necessary after Freud, when characters don’t always know why they do what they do, and might respond to the connotations of a particular word or phrase, or to implications not made logically, but by association.  It makes it possible to show protagonists who don’t realize that they’re ridiculous.  “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (the story, not the movies), the narrator had to keep interrupting and explaining how Walter’s fantasies made him feel, and how his wife’s micro-management made him feel, and why the sound pocketa-pocketa-pocketa signified masculine mechanical or scientific competence to him, and then explain that actually Walter felt differently deep inside about all of it but wasn’t letting himself admit that, though he was dimly aware of how silly he looked to others…

Subtlety means writing down enough cues that the reader who knows how people work can figure out what’s really going on, even if it’s long and complicated and not really logical, and even if none of the people in the story figure it out.

But subtlety is a trade-off between story power and popularity.  More subtlety, even when done right, makes a story more powerful for a smaller number of readers, and weak or forgettable to a larger number of readers.

I was shocked when I started reading reviews from the populous that readers so often failed to read my mind.  I used to play the blame game, trying to decide whose fault each misunderstanding was, mine or theirs.  But eventually I realized that, while I do want to understand why things weren’t clear, it’s always my fault.  It’s my fault if a subtle point was ambiguous, but it’s still my fault even if it would be perfectly clear to a careful reader, because I knew when I wrote it that readers aren’t careful all the time.

Using subtlety is a strategic decision to lose some readers in order to have some extra effect on those who remain.  It’s a choice I make, not a random reader failure that I have no control over.

The typical famous author isn’t even in a writing group.  She usually doesn’t even read reviews of her stories.  She has an editor who spends a year corresponding over details in each book.  She probably thinks she’s doing well if her famous editor, who’s probably analyzed books for 40 years and has spent an entire year thinking about this one, understands it half the time.  Without feedback from real readers in the wild, professional authors vastly overestimate how easy it is to understand them.  So they’re much too subtle.  They write beautiful stories that, sometimes, nobody understands.

 

“The Chrysanthemums”:  Too Subtle

Sometime in high school or college, I read “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1937.  I seem to recall my teacher praising the story’s subtlety.  I thought that was the way to write.

You might want to read the story right now, through this link.  It’s a good story, and short.  I can wait.

You didn’t read it, did you?

Okay, I’ll summarize:  Elisa is stuck at home on the farm, out in nowhere, by herself, forever.  Her husband Henry is a good guy, treats her well, but he has workers to supervise, men to do business with, while Elisa has nobody to talk to all day.  She raises chrysanthemums, which as far as we know are the one thing in her life that’s hers, and that she does well.

A tinker comes by looking for work.  Elisa says she hasn’t got any for him, and waits for him to leave. Instead, he asks her about her chrysanthemums.  She talks, and warms to him.  He takes her seriously, which nobody else has that we’ve seen.  She ends up giving him some chrysanthemum sprouts in a pot, with instructions on how to take care of them.

Now that they’re friendly, Elisa has a spot of work for him after all.  He mends a couple of useless pots, she pays him 50 cents, and he drives his wagon off down the road.  Then Henry comes home to take her out for dinner in his roadster.

The story ends like this.  No point spoiler-blotting it, because I’m gonna talk about it in detail after.

The little roadster bounced along on the dirt road by the river, raising the birds and driving the rabbits into the brush. Two cranes flapped heavily over the willow-line and dropped into the river-bed.

Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.

She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she explained. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.”

The roadster turned a bend and she saw the caravan ahead. She swung full around toward her husband so she could not see the little covered wagon and the mismatched team as the car passed them.

In a moment it was over. The thing was done. She did not look back. She said loudly, to be heard above the motor, “It will be good, tonight, a good dinner.”

“Now you’re changed again,” Henry complained. He took one hand from the wheel and patted her knee. “I ought to take you in to dinner oftener. It would be good for both of us. We get so heavy out on the ranch.”

“Henry,” she asked, “could we have wine at dinner?”

“Sure we could. Say! That will be fine.”

She was silent for a while; then she said, “Henry, at those prize fights, do the men hurt each other very much?”

“Sometimes a little, not often. Why?”

“Well, I’ve read how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests. I’ve read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood.”

He looked around at her. “What’s the matter, Elisa? I didn’t know you read things like that.” He brought the car to a stop, then turned to the right over the Salinas River bridge.

“Do any women ever go to the fights?” she asked.

“Oh, sure, some. What’s the matter, Elisa? Do you want to go? I don’t think you’d like it, but I’ll take you if you really want to go.”

She relaxed limply in the seat. “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.” Her face was turned away from him. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.”

She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.

Now, I love “The Chrysanthemums”.

But how many of you feel like you understood “The Chrysanthemums”?

First there’s that stuff at the end about “the fights”.  That calls back to this part from the start of the story:

“You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”

Her eyes sharpened. “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters’ hands that knew how to do it.”

“Well, it sure works with flowers,” he said.

“Henry, who were those men you were talking to?”

“Why, sure, that’s what I came to tell you. They were from the Western Meat Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too.”

“Good,” she said. “Good for you.”

“And I thought,” he continued, “I thought how it’s Saturday afternoon, and we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture show—to celebrate, you see.”

“Good,” she repeated. “Oh, yes. That will be good.”

Henry put on his joking tone. “There’s fights tonight. How’d you like to go to the fights?”

“Oh, no,” she said breathlessly. “No, I wouldn’t like fights.”

“Just fooling, Elisa. We’ll go to a movie.”

Then, at the end, she brings up the fights, as if she’s thinking about going, thinking maybe she’s strong like a man.  But his answer frightens her, and she gives up on being that strong, forever.  I didn’t figure that out.  That’s what this essay says.  I was just puzzled.

This essay says that when Henry admired her flowers, it made her feel a little manly or powerful for a moment, but then he offered to take her out for dinner, and made a joke about how different she was from men, both emphasizing her girliness.  That sounds consistent with the rest of the story.  The problem is that he suggested she could work in the orchard instead of just with flowers, and she liked the idea, but didn’t do anything about it.  She changed the subject.  She let it drop.

Or maybe he let it drop.  If she thought that he wasn’t being serious, that would make all the pieces of the story fit together, and the ending would make sense.  But if he was serious and she let it drop, which was how I read it, then it wrecks the story.  It makes her isolation with her flowers, and her not being taken seriously, self-imposed.

A lot of essays claim that Henry didn’t understand Elisa, her pride in her flowers, her desire for independence, and/or her need to be taken sexually.  That would make sense, too, if it were in the story, but I don’t see it.  He admires her flowers (perhaps symbolizing fertility); he admires how nice she looks, and how strong she looks; he takes her out to town—he specifically addresses each of the insecurities the critics say she has: lack of fertility, not enough femininity, too much femininity, loneliness.  He appreciates out loud every aspect of her that’s at stake.  The only one who could be at fault for him not understanding or appreciate her better is Steinbeck, for not giving him time to say more.

Let’s break it down.  Here’s two interpretations of some things Henry says and does:

“You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”

Favorable:  Henry compliments Elisa on her competence, and invites her to join the working men, a sign of masculine power.

Unfavorable:  Henry demeans Elisa’s chrysanthemums, and symbolically, her fertility and femininity, by saying apples are more important.

“And I thought,” he continued, “I thought how it’s Saturday afternoon, and we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture show—to celebrate, you see.”

Favorable:  Henry respects and desires Elisa’s feminine side, and also sees that she’s lonely for other people.

Unfavorable:  Henry sees Elisa only as a silly woman who desires only pleasure and escape from reality.

After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, pencilled her eyebrows and rouged her lips. …

Henry came banging out of the door, shoving his tie inside his vest as he came. Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight. Henry stopped short and looked at her. “Why—why, Elisa. You look so nice!”

“Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by ‘nice’?”

Henry blundered on. “I don’t know. I mean you look different, strong and happy.”

“I am strong? Yes, strong. What do you mean ‘strong’?”

He looked bewildered. “You’re playing some kind of a game,” he said helplessly. “It’s a kind of a play. You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.”

For a second she lost her rigidity. “Henry! Don’t talk like that. You didn’t know what you said.” She grew complete again. “I’m strong,” she boasted. “I never knew before how strong.”

Favorable:  Elisa wants to look nice.  Henry says she looks nice, complimenting her feminine side, but also that she looks strong, meaning masculine power.

Unfavorable:  Henry says she looks nice, denying her masculine power, and that she looks strong, denying her feminine side.

The critics make Henry’s admiration fit their narrative only by always making the unfavorable interpretation:  criticizing him for not admiring her masculinity when he admires her feminine qualities, and for not recognizing her femininity when he admires her masculine qualities.  He can’t win.  I don’t doubt that the critics are right about Steinbeck’s intent, but it doesn’t work.  If Steinbeck had been less subtle, he would’ve noticed he was sending conflicting signals.  Having her feel insecure both for not being feminine enough, and for being too feminine, can’t work on a first reading.  You have to read the story iteratively, doing energy minimization over all your interpretations until you converge on a set of interpretations of story elements that all fit together.

It’s plausible.  A real woman might feel insecure about being too feminine and not feminine enough at the same time.  And she might interpret everything her husband says in the worst way possible.  That’s why reality isn’t art.  Reality is confused and ambiguous.  Art can sometimes be ambiguous, but not if one possible interpretation makes a satisfying story and another does not.  In that case the unsatisfying interpretation is what we scientists call “wrong”.

Exercise for the reader:  Supposing all of the above unfavorable interpretations, why does Elisa ask for wine, and then say, “It will be enough if we can have wine.  It will be plenty.”

But how about that dark speck?

How many of you realized what it was?  ‘Coz if you didn’t, the story wouldn’t make any sense at all.  Steinbeck probably didn’t even realize he was being subtle there.

“No Place for You, my Love”:  WAY Too Subtle

Eudora Welty wrote a story called “No Place for You, my Love”, published in 1955.  That same year she wrote an article for the Virginia Quarterly Review on how she wrote it.  The story and her article are both reprinted in the 3rd edition of Understanding Fiction, the book I keep telling you to buy.

The story is about a man and a woman, strangers to each other, who meet at a luncheon among friends in New Orleans.  They leave together and drive south, possibly planning a fling.  They don’t seem to know themselves what they’re doing.  We find out gradually, across 5000 words, that they are both married; that he is from Syracuse; that she is from Toledo; that they are both almost-thinking about having an affair.  They say and see many things.  We never learn their names, or if they learn each other’s names.  Then they come to the end of the road, and turn around to go home.  At 6000 words, he stops the car and kisses her once.  Then they continue.  At the end of the journey, after 7000 words, when it becomes clear that they’re not going to have sex, two sentences fall out of the sky, perhaps from some gothic fantasy in a nearby chapter of the book:

Something that must have been with them all along suddenly, then, was not. In a moment, tall as panic, it rose, cried like a human, and dropped back.

Not one word of context before or after illuminates these words.  It’s a mysterious, sudden injection of personification and mysticism into an otherwise realistic story. It was obviously meant to have some meaning, but none that I could find.

It was meant to have meaning.  A whole lot of meaning.  It was the point of the whole story.  The entire 7000-word journey was an accumulation of minor details and stray thoughts that were all supposed to hint that their relationship was fleeting and meaningless, yet somehow significant to them both—a relationship that would destroy them if they consummated it, and unsex them if they did not, because—

—well, I don’t know.  Here, let Eudora Welty explain it:

The cry that rose up at the story’s end was, I hope unmistakably, the cry of a fading relationship—personal, individual, psychic—admitted in order to be denied, a cry that the characters were first able (and prone) to listen to, and then able in part to ignore. The cry was authentic to my story and so I didn’t care if it did seem a little odd: the end of a journey can set up a cry, the shallowest provocation to sympathy and loves does hate to give up the ghost. A relationship of the most fleeting kind has the power inherent to loom like a genie—to become vocative at the last, as it has already become present and taken up room; as it has spread out as a destination however makeshift; as it has, more faintly, more sparsely, glimmered and rushed by in the dark and dust outside.

Okay, that was way too goddamn subtle.

Seriously—they go on a road trip, encounter a shoeshine boy and a family walking down the highway, cross a river on a ferry, meet shrimp truckers, an alligator, drive through a cemetery, see a priest in his underwear, join a party in a beer shack, almost get into a fight—I’m skimming here; lots of stuff happens, and the only purpose of it all was to show that this man and woman were on an adventure together and thinking about screwing, then decided not to and felt relieved but also a little sad about it.

That paragraph of strained, metaphoric explanation she wrote was a point the reader had to understand from those two sentences to make sense of the story. Even though it took her an entire paragraph and was barely comprehensible when she tried to explain it plainly, she felt that those two sentences made it “unmistakably” clear in the story.

If she’d left those sentences out, maybe somebody would’ve sort of grokked the whole experience emotionally.  But with those two sentences from outer space screaming “LOOK AT ME!  I’m important!”, even the reader who would have gotten it is going to sit there wondering what was with them all along that cried like a human and dropped back when it found out he was going to drop her off at her hotel.

That’s a perfect example of what not to do.

My advice is, Try not to be subtle about anything critical to your story.  It’s probably okay if the reader doesn’t catch that Julia’s fear of dogs is a symbol for her discomfort with men, or that she has cats to replace the children she never had.  It’s not okay if the story is about how her discomfort with men has led to her childlessness, and those are the only clues given that she’s uncomfortable with men or that she cares about being childless.

In “The Chrysanthemums”, the reader has to understand that the tinker threw out the flowers; she has to understand each problem Elisa is struggling with (powerlessness?  loneliness?  not being taken seriously?  not being one of the guys?  loss of fertility or sexual potency?); she has to match up each of Henry’s lines, and the wine, and the fights, to the correct insecurity, to understand why Henry’s kindness and admiration makes things worse rather than better, and to understand what and why Elisa gives up in the end.  Miss any one of those, and the story makes no sense.

And Eudora Welty was on crack.  I doubt any reader ever understood that story.

Everything is more subtle than you think it is.  If you wonder whether something is too subtle, it’s too subtle.  And every time you’re subtle, some readers will miss it.  Even if you do it well.  Even if they’re smart.  It’s a numbers game.  Every critical point not spelled out is a roll of the dice, and even the best reader’s out of the game if it comes up snake eyes.

This post took 8 hours to write.