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


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. says:

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


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.


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.


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.


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”


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. 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


The biggest single thing I’ve learned from public book review sites, such as, 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.

Writing: Kill thy darlings


“Kill your darlings,” Stephen King Hemingway Faulkner Arthur Quiller-Couch said to young authors, in his 1914 lecture “On Style”:

Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’  [Emphasis not mine.]

I found it goes back a little further than that. In 1759, Edward Young published a letter to Samuel Richardson, an extremely popular British novelist of the 18th century, in “Conjectures on Original Composition” (excerpted in Critical Theory Since Plato, 3rd edition, p. 329). It said:

Wit, indeed, however brilliant, should not be permitted to gaze self-enamored on its useless charms, in that fountain of fame (if so I may call the press), if beauty is all that it has to boast; but, like the first Brutus [1], it should sacrifice its most darling offspring to the sacred interests of virtue, and real service of mankind.

[1]  Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, who put his sons to death for participating in a political conspiracy

Review: Critical Theory Since Plato



To gather data for a future post on the “principal component of literature”, I’m skipping through Hazard Adams’ Critical Theory Since Plato, a 1271-page collection of the most-famous essays on Western literature from Plato up to 1988. It also includes texts not about literature that influenced literary theory, like excerpts from Locke, Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Ferdinand de Saussure, Walter Benjamin, and Heidegger. This is a great way of finding parts of those texts about art without having to plow through, say, Kant’s entire Critique of Judgement.

I have the 2nd edition, not the 3rd. The third edition is 300 pages longer, and costs about 10 times as much.

You need to know that, until 1800, when people meant “literature” they said “poetry”. They didn’t have a concept of “prose literature.” Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485 seems to be the first Western story thought of as “literature” that wasn’t a poem, and Don Quixote in 1605 may have been the second. According to Google n-grams, the word “literature” didn’t even exist before 1750 [0].

The book is pretty cool, but frequently horrifying. Literature is again and again made slave to power, religion, or ideology.

The Ancients (390 BC – 260 AD)

The Greeks and Romans start by saying poetry must be a tool for moral instruction. Plato says it’s corrupt and should be banned [1]; Aristotle says it’s okay if it “delights and instructs.” This phrase echoes throughout the collection, down into the 19th century, yet few say out loud its more sinister implications:

1. Poetry’s purpose is to delight in order to instruct. Poetry that merely delights isn’t halfway successful; it’s degenerate and should be burned.

2. “Moral instruction” does not mean to make people think. Stories that question conventional morality are degenerate and should be burned [2].

(The first writer in the volume to say that it’s okay to just enjoy a story is Joseph Addison in 1712, who justifies this by saying that people are so evil that it’s good to allow them any pleasure that isn’t actively evil, just to keep them out of trouble.)

Plato said, more specifically, that literature is an imitation of reality, and reality is an imitation of the Forms.  (The Platonic Forms.) A person thus does better to observe reality than to read poetry, and better still to study philosophy and contemplate the Forms directly.

Aristotle and the Romans thought that the purpose of literary theory was to help writers to write good poetry, just as the purpose of theories of engineering is to enable engineers to build things that work.

What a concept!

Aristotle’s Poetics is the must-read from this section. I don’t agree with everything he says, but as far as I know, he’s the only person before the 20th century who analyzed fiction structurally, asking how all its parts fit together to convey a message or effect. Others look at different pieces independently, but never synthesize them [6]. He approaches the task in the right way.

The Medievalists and the Renaissance (400 AD – 1700)

It’s conventional to put the cut between Renaissance and Enlightenment closer to 1600, but I just don’t feel it here. The critics in the 17th century seem more like the guys in the 16th century than like those in the 18th. The literature was very different (Shakespeare, Cervantes, opera), but the critics were still judging them by Aristotle and the Bible while trying not to get executed for heresy. (Perhaps art leads, and philosophy follows?)

The 1300 years of Christian piety from 400 to 1700 A.D. are probably the bleakest part of the book, and the second most full of worthless essays (St. Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Boccaccio, Bacon, Henry Reynolds, Boileau-Despreaux). Some still give advice on how to write, but it takes a backseat to theology, moralizing, and mysticism, and the analysis of poetry often becomes instead the classification of authors into the virtuous and the villainous. I get the sense that independent thought was anathema to Europe during this time, and a need for some authority to worship and adore, whether God, Homer, Aristotle, or Shakespeare, recurs through the 19th century. The degree of praise a man of this time heaped on his chosen idols sometimes verged on psychotic, like Pope’s praise for Homer in his preface to the Iliad (not in this volume), yet was no guarantee that he perceived his most obvious qualities (as shown by Pope’s abominable translation of Homer’s Iliad).

A lot of the discussion on how to write was arguments over how closely to observe Aristotle’s Three Unities of action, time, and place. The fact that Aristotle never even said anything about unity of place tells you something about how useful this discussion was. Shakespeare eventually convinced everybody that the unities of time and place were useless by writing great plays that ignored them.

The emphasis on morality lingers on through the 18th century. It’s impossible to tell when it’s sincere and when it’s forced, which complicates my attempt to associate each writer’s views with the properties of his or her art. Boileau-Despreaux reminds his reader of a local poet who had recently been hanged for a poem that was judged impious.

Just as Pope’s adoration of Homer didn’t help him read Homer, the people who demand morality from literature always seem blind to morality–as the act of hanging a poet in Jesus’ name suggests. They often praise the Iliad, a poem that glorifies rape and murder, for its virtue. Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded, was considered indecent by Britain’s upper class, not because its heroine was “rewarded” by getting to marry (rather than be raped by) the evil man who imprisoned and abused her, but because shewasn’t good enough for him, being born to a lower class. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles was considered outrageous in 1890 not because its heroine, Tess, was raped, not because this led to her meeting a horrible end, but because Hardy implied that she didn’t deserve to be punished for being raped.

(Moral literature is surprisingly rapey.)

A common approach to art theory during this period, and on through the 18th century, was to respond to Plato by saying that art could approximate the Forms even better than direct observation of reality could, if the artist were careful to depict idealized people, lacking any distinctive personalities, having idealized emotions, rather than real people with real emotions. You can see this in the essays by Philip Sydney and Francis Bacon, and also Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. This is what Johnson means (in 1765) when he praises Shakespeare because “in the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.” Characters were not supposed to have depth. Depth meant individuality, and individuality was merely the way in which a particular person fell short of the Form.

This was… a terrible idea, which led to nearly 2000 years of bad literature. You know how lovers in old romances (I mean, really old romances) are smitten with a crippling love at first sight, based on the transcendent beauty of the beloved? Like in Chaucer’s Troilus and Crisyde, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? That wasn’t lazy writing. That was deliberate. That was the accepted theoretically correct way to portray the highest form of love. Anything else was degenerate.

But then again, men of these times seem not to have had a concept of romantic love. This sounds hard to believe, especially since they spent their whole lives writing about it. But there are a couple of essays that try to analyze romantic love, and they seem to be talking about lust, and one uses the words interchangeably. When they write of love and its proper portrayal, trying to enumerate the possible kinds of love, all they can come up with is lust and this mystical Platonic pure-spirit hogwash. Some of these guys knew Greek, so they must have heard of pragma, the love of old married couples. But they don’t think to mention it.

I’ve read nearly all of this section, and the only essay I recommend is John Locke’s “An essay concerning human understanding” (1690). It demolishes Plato’s essences, and is one of the best rational investigations into how words work in all philosophy. It’s especially stunning because it doesn’t rely on any technology or scientific discoveries. It seems Aristotle could have written this, and saved us from 2000 years of nonsense. An interesting question is, why didn’t he, or someone else during the next 2000 years?

The Enlightenment and Modernity (1700 – 1950)

These two and a half centuries seem to me to fit together, and to contrast with the pious 18th century before them, and the angry late 20th century after them. It stands out to me as the time period during which critics could think clearly. This is the brightest part of the book, and the longest. I’ve read very little of it, but most of what I’ve read, I’ve liked. People are back to talking about writing techniques and the purpose of stories. Plus, they’re talking about novels! Also language, and literary movements.

And often, they’re… how do I say this… not stupid. Bouncing back and forth between the 17th and 19th centuries, I’m struck by the contrast: The 17th-century writers have an amazing command of the language. Some twist their sentences in flourishes like Bacon; some have only the grandeur of precision and clarity. And yet, though each sentence is constructed with great care, their train of thought usually runs into the ground, in accidental assumptions, unjustified assertions, appeals to authority, overconfidence, dismissals of evidence or of alternative hypotheses, or wishful thinking. Alternately, they have nothing to say but trite common sense. It’s as if constructing beautiful sentences used up all their mental powers. The 19th-century writers may muddle along in ugly run-on sentences, but they often have something to say.

If I’d read more 17th-century poetry, maybe I could draw a parallel here…

Locke’s 1690 essay, which I talked about above, is a watermark. I look before it and see fearful piety, reverence for the ancients, high style, and less reasoning than rationalizations for pre-drawn conclusions. I look after it and see free and diverse opinions, degenerate style, and clear thought. It seems to me that freedom of speech and a loss of reverence was the crucial change. Strangely, this made people able to observe and think where they could not before, even along lines that were acceptable under the old rules, such as Lessing’s 1766 analysis of Homer.

It’s worth noting that the monarchs were “right” in suppressing thought, for by 1800 most of them had been overthrown.

Also, a woman! Until Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 “A vindication of the rights of woman”, and Madame de Stael’s 1800 “Literature in its relations to social institutions”, it’s all by men, about men, for men. There are more women as you get towards the end of the book, but most write only about how literary criticism oppresses women.

I’ve read only a few of these entries. You might like Alexander Pope’s poem about poetry. It’s kind of fun, and a little useful. Lessing’s “Laocoon” (1766) is the first to look closely at Homer’s writing style and pick out his techniques. Kant’s excerpt from Critique of Judgement is required reading if you want to argue with philosophers about aesthetics. Emile Zola’s essay is very interesting but about 20 times as long as it should be. Anatole France’s is, by contrast, wonderfully compact; a few paragraphs, each sentence loaded with meaning. Mallarme’s interview is entertaining, if a little irritating. He messes up my theory: he’s an idealist, yet also an individualist. (Literary idealism, which means the belief that literature should be about idealized people, and written in an idealized style, is usually found in the service of a state or a religion, and advises unity and censorship.)

In the 20th century, the articles by De Saussure, Hulme, Eliot, Wimsatt & Beardsley, and Brooks are probably the must-reads.

Post-Modernity (1950 – 1988)

In the 1950s there’s a sudden plunge into ideology and sloppy armchair epistemology [3]. Aristotle’s original idea, that literary criticism was to help writers write, is completely lost. There’s nothing more about writing techniques or the purpose of story.

Instead, literature is used as a one-sided battleground for ideological wars, where victims seek proof of their oppression. There are no conservative voices in this part of the book, as if conservatives were all dead and gone by 1960. Maybe that’s just what got published in the late 20th century.

Other than liberal ideology, literature becomes anthropology and philosophy. Instead of the theory of how to write stories about society, criticism becomes the discipline of how to read between the lines and see what the author has unwillingly confessed about society. Instead of using philosophy to ask what stories are worth telling, now it is philosophy using literature as data. Literary interpretation is attempted not in order to interpret anything, but to observe the process of interpretation and draw philosophical conclusions. No longer can an English major read the essays; they use more and more specialized vocabulary drawn from semiotics and post-modern philosophy.

The Christian era’s need for heroes to worship is mirrored by the late 20th century’s need for heroes to tear down. Instead of praising something, every essay seems to be complaining about something, or claiming to have debunked, dissolved, or deconstructed something. All of this is probably important. None of it is useful to me as a writer.

Nor is much of the philosophy very good. Literary theory and philosophy since the 1930s have both turned on the study of language, yet few in either field thought to study language. By “study” I mean either count data, perform experiments, or read the works of those who counted data or performed experiments. Noam Chomsky developed his influential theory of a universal grammar a decade after Claude Shannon developed the communication theory needed to debunk Chomsky’s key argument [4]. Eleanor Rosch experimentally debunked the entire semiotic tradition only a few years after Jacques Derrida’s tremendously influential essays [5], but to this day no one in literature or philosophy has noticed.

That cultivated ignorance of science is, throughout this collection, the dog that doesn’t bark in the night. The selected essays show the close historical relationship between literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and ideology. By the mid 20th century you couldn’t even call them separate fields. Yet it shows almost no connections between literary criticism and science, except when it’s pseudo-science (like Marx, Saussure, Freud, and Lacan), or science-bashing (like Kuhn). Many literary theorists use testable ideas, yet no one tests them. Even such a basic endeavor as finding experimentally, say, what fraction of people or what kind of people actually like Homer, is never attempted. It seems literary theorists deliberately avoid quantitative thought.

The sole exception I’ve found is Emile Zola’s 1880 essay, “The experimental novel.” The title is accidentally ironic; this was before what we call experimental novels. Zola meant the naturalistic novel, the novel which depicts ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, which is considered an invention of 19th-century French writers. He said that philosophy and poetry are the muses to science, asking questions that they don’t have the tools to solve, and so giving science direction and inspiration to press onward and actually solve them. “The philosophers [are] musicians often gifted with genius, whose music encourages the [scientists] while they work and inspires the sacred fire of their great discoveries. But the philosophers, left to themselves, will sing forever and never discover a single truth.” Zola says that naturalistic novels can now fulfil that role. A classic poem uses as its material only the phenomena of human nature: anger, greed, love. Homer says Diomedes is brave, but if you ask him why, he can only say it is because of his noble ancestry. A naturalistic novel posits a hypothesis about why someone is brave, and works it out scene by scene.

This is pretty close to my own view of the “purpose” of literature. When we read, we are “conducting experiments,” exploring things that might happen, and asking ourselves what we might do in someone else’s shoes. Some of the pleasure we get from reading is pleasure from vicarious gratification, but some, I suspect, is the pleasure we get from learning.

There was good work in literary theory during this time period; it just isn’t included. This was when “empirical criticism” developed. Willie van Peer and Colin Martindale independently developed a scientific literary theory which constructs and tests hypotheses about literature. I should probably post about their work. van Peer gained a lot of followers. Their work is interesting, but hampered because none of them seem to be writers. They often ask what a writer would say were the wrong questions. Martindale’s favorite thesis was that art was driven by the search for novelty, and that this led to predictable, cyclic stylistic change. He gathered a lot of data, but his analysis is marred by his unfamiliarity with information theory and statistics. He uses baroque ad-hoc metrics when what he really wants is just to measure entropy, and he seems unable to compute confidence intervals or adjust for degrees of freedom correctly. Once he fit an equation with 6 degrees of freedom to 10 data points, and was pleased that it explained 71% of the variance.

In closing, I give you semi-random quotes from the book’s closing essays. Maybe they will inspire you as you write your next story.

Because we are never not in a situation, we are never not in the act of interpreting. Because we are never not in the act of interpreting, there is no possibility of reaching a level of meaning beyond or below interpretation. But in every situation some or other meaning will appear to us to be uninterpreted because it is isomorphic with the interpretive structure the situation (and therefore our perception) already has.

Stanley Fish, 1978

Despite Ricouer’s simplified idealization, and far from being a type of conversation between equals, the discursive situation is more usually like the unequal relation between colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed. Some of the great modernists, Proust and Joyce prominent among them, had an acute understanding of this asymmetry; their representations of the discursive situation always show it in this power-political light.

Edward Said, 1983

If we are conscious of the provisional nature of the aesthetic dream that the poem nurtures, we also look for the poem’s own self-consciousness about its tentative spatializing powers. Its fiction, and our awareness of it, contain the twin elements of symbol and antisymbol, of words that fuse together even while, like words generally, they must fall apart in differentiation. Even further, the poem, together with our apprehension of it, combines its transformation of time into myth with its resignation to the countermetaphor of time as mere historicity.

Murray Krieger, 1981

[0] I’ve looked at the samples from the 17th century, but they all turned out to be collections of 17th-century stories published in the 18th century, when books didn’t include their own publishing dates. Google’s computers scanned them for the publishing date and picked up the dates of the stories in them.

[1] Not really, but that’s what everybody remembers him as saying.

[2] It doesn’t even mean stories that support conventional morality if you think about them. Dangerous Liasons, an 18th-century French libertine novel, is about two wicked people whose wicked schemes lead them to bad ends. It was universally condemned as wicked. Presumably figuring out that you’re not supposed to imitate the wicked people was considered too difficult for readers. Stories are supposed to have a clear, black-and-white morality, in which good people do good things and win a reward.

[3]  Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

[4] Chomsky said grammars of human languages take more information to specify than humans can glean from the language they hear in the time it takes them to learn the language. Shannon showed how to measure the information content in a grammar. Measure it, and it turns out Chomsky is very wrong.

[5] Semiotics is based on a logical theory of categories, in which linguistic “signifiers” (words) mediate between “signs” (not signs, but concepts; blame Saussure) and things in the world. It assumes that people can think only in words, and so words correspond exactly to concepts, and so you lose no information by examining only words without asking about mental representations. This means words must mean the same thing in every context. Yet words have different implications in different contexts. Saussure interpreted this as showing that meaning is not present within the words, nor associated with words, but is something mystic and non-decomposable, brought to life by a body of words in the way that a soul is brought to life by the body of a man (my interpretation).

Wittgenstein and Derrida showed that words have different meanings in different contexts, and argued, more or less, that this meant they had no fixed meaning at all. Rosch’s study of categories, especially color terms, shows that categories have a lot of internal structure, and that the whole “a thought is a mental representation of a sentence, and a concept is a pointer to a word” theory is wrong.

[6] I may write a blog about analysis and synthesis. This is a distinction made often in philosophy. People say that Aristotle and scientists are “analysts” who break things down into their components, while Plato and mystics are “synthesizers” who combine things together into unified wholes. The distinction is often made in order to dismiss science as reductionist and say, “Yeah, sure, you guys can break things down into pieces, but you need a poet / a philosopher / God to put them back together.”

This is stupid. Look at the Poetics, and you can see that what Aristotle does is first analysis, breaking poetry down into its parts, and then synthesis, showing how the parts come together into a unity greater than the sum of its parts. That’s synthesis. What Plato, Hegel, and the other people who are called synthesizers do is make shit up. They aren’t doing synthesis because they never isolated any parts to combine.

Here’s the table of contents of the 3rd edition:

Plato.  Ion.  From “Republic.” From “Phaedrus.” From “Sophist.”From “Philebus.” From “Cratylus.”

Aristotle.  From “Metaphysics.” Poetics.  From “Rhetoric.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero.  From “Brutus.”

Horace.  Art of poetry.

Strabo.  From “Geography.”

Publius Cornelius Tacitus.  From “A dialogue on oratory.”

Pseudo-longinus.  On the sublime.

Plutarch.  From “How the young man should study poetry.”

Flavius Philostratus.  From “Lives of the sophists.”

Plotinus.  From “Enneads.”

Saint Augustine.  From “On Christian doctrine.”

Anicus Manlius Severinus Boethius.  From “Consolation of philosophy.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas.  From “Summa theologica.”

Dante Alighieri.  From “The banquet.” From “Letter to can grande della scala.”

Giovanni Boccaccio.  From “Life of Dante.” From “Genealogy of the gentile gods.”

Giralomo Fracastoro.  Naugarius.

Julius Caesar Scaliger.  From “Poetics.”

Lodovico Castelvetro.  From “The poetics of Aristotle translated and explained.”

Sir Philip Sidney.  Apology for poetry.

Giordano Bruno.  From “The cause, the principle, and the one.”

Giacopo Mazzoni.  From “On the defense of the comedy of Dante.”

George Puttenham.  From “The arte of English poesie.”

Torquato Tasso.  From “Discourses on the heroic poem.”

Sir Francis Bacon.  From “Novum organum.”

From “The advancement of learning.” From “The wisdom of the ancients.”

Pierre Corneille.  Of the three unities of action, time, and place.

John Dryden.  An essay of dramatic poesie.

Nicolas Boileau-despreaux.  The art of poetry.

John Locke.  From “An essay concerning human understanding.”

Alexander Pope.  Essay on criticism.

Joseph Addison.  From “On the pleasures of the imagination.”

Giambattista Vico.  From “The new science.”

David Hume.  Of the standard of taste.  Of tragedy.

Edmund Burke.  From “A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful.”

Edward Young.  From “Conjectures on original composition.”

Samuel Johnson.  Rambler 4.  From “Rassalas.” From “Preface to Shakespeare.”

Henry Home, Lord Kames.  From “Elements of criticism.”

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.  From “Laocoon.”

Denis Diderot.  From “The paradox of acting.”

Sir Joshua Reynolds.  From “Discourses on art.”

Immanuel Kant.  From “Critique of judgment.”

Mary Wollstonecraft.  From “A vindication of the rights of woman.”

William Blake.  From “The marriage of heaven and hell.” From “Letter to thomas butts.”

From “Annotations to Reynolds’ discourses.” From “A vision of the last judgment.”

Friedrich Schiller.  From “Letters on the aesthetic education of man.”

Friedrich Schlegel.  From “Critical fragments (lyceum fragments).”

From “Athenaeum fragments.” On incomprehensibility.

William Wordsworth.  Preface to the second edition of lyrical ballads.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  From “Shakespeare’s judgment equal to his genius.” From “The principles of genial criticism.”

From “Biographia literaria.” From “”essays on method” in the friend.”

From “The statesman’s manual.” From “On the constitution of church and state.”

Wilhelm Von Humboldt.  From “The eighteenth century.” From “Essay on aesthetics.”

From “Catium and Hellas.” From “Introduction to general linguistics.”

From “Announcement of an essay on the language and nation of the basque.”

From “On comparative linguistics.”

From “On the national characteristics of languages.”

From “Basic characteristics of linguistic types.”

From “On the episode from the mahabharata known as the bhagavad-gita ii.”

From “On the differences in human linguistic structure.”

John Keats.  From “Letter to benjamin bailey.” From “Letter to george and thomas keats.”

From “Letter to john taylor.” Letter to richard woodhouse.

Thomas Love Peacock.  The four ages of poetry.

Percy Bysshe Shelley.  A defense of poetry.

Arthur Schopenhauer.  From “The world as will and idea (representation).”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  From “The philosophy of fine art.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson.  From “The american scholar.” The poet.

Edgar Allan Poe.  From “The poetic principle.”

Matthew Arnold.  Preface to the 1853 edition of poems.

The function of criticism at the present time.  From “The study of poetry.”

Charles Baudelaire.  From “The salon of 1859.”

Karl Marx & friedrich engels.  From “The communist manifesto.” From “The German ideology.”

From “A contribution to the critique of political economy.”

Walter Pater.  From “Studies in the history of the renaissance.” Introduction: the modern era.

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine.  From “History of English literature.”

Charles Sanders Peirce.  On a new list of categories.

From “Lessons from the history of philosophy.” The first rule of reason.

From “Training in reasoning.” From “What pragmatism is.”

Walt Whitman.  From “Democratic vistas.”

Friedrich Nietzsche.  From “The birth of tragedy from the spirit of music.”

From “Truth and falsity in an ultramoral sense.”

Emile Zola.  From “The experimental novel.”

Oscar Wilde.  The decay of lying.

Stephane Mallarme.  The evolution of literature.

The book: a spiritual instrument.  Mystery in literature.

Gottlob Frege.  Sense and meaning.

Sigmund Freud.  Letter to Wilhelm Fleiss.  From “Archaic and infantile features in dreams.”

From “Development of the libido and sexual organization.”

Leo Tolstoy.  From “What is art?”

Edmund Husserl.  From “Logical investigations.”

Ferdinand De Saussure.  From “Course in general linguistics.”

Viktor Shklovsky.  Art as technique.

T.  S.  Eliot.  Tradition and the individual talent.  The frontiers of criticism.

Bertrand Russell.  Descriptions.

Paul Valery.  From “Leonardo and the philosophers.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein.  From “Tractatus logico-philosophicus.”

From “Philosophical investigations.”

C. K. Ogden & I. A. Richards.  Thoughts, words, and things.

I. A. Richards. From “Principles of literary criticism.”

From “Science and poetry.” Four Kinds of Meaning.

Leon Trotsky.  The formalist school of poetry and marxism.

Boris Eichenbaum.  The theory of the “formal method.”

Virginia Woolf.  From “A room of one’s own.”

William Empson.  From “Seven types of ambiguity.”

Mikhail M. Bakhtin.  Epic and novel: toward a methodology for the study of the novel.

V.  N.  Volosinov.  Verbal interaction.

Antonio Gramsci.  From “Prison notebooks.”

John Crowe Ransom.  Poetry: a note in ontology.

R.  P.  Blackmur.  A critic’s job of work.

Rudolf Carnap.  The elimination of metaphysics through logical analysis of language.

Empiricism, semantics and ontology.

Jacques Lacan.  The mirror stage.

Walter Benjamin.  Theses on the philosophy of history.

Max Horkheimer.  The social function of philosophy.

William Carlos Williams.  Against the weather: a portrait of the artist.

Kenneth Burke.  Literature as equipment for living.  Four master tropes.

Ernst Cassirer.  From “An essay on man.”

W.  K.  Wimsatt AND monroe c.  Beardsley.  The intentional fallacy.

Cleanth Brooks.  The heresy of paraphrase.  Irony as a principle of structure.

Martin Heidegger.  From “Letter on humanism.”

Ronald S.  Crane.  The critical monism of Cleanth Brooks.

From “The languages of criticism and the structure of poetry.”

M.  H.  Abrams.  Orientation of critical theories.

Theodor Adorno.  Cultural criticism and society.  From “Negative dialectics.”

Claude Levi-strauss.  The structural study of myth.

Roman Jakobson.  The metaphoric and metonymic poles.

Georg Lukacs.  The ideology of modernism.

Northrop Frye.  From “Anatomy of criticism.”

Noam Chomsky.  From “Review of verbal behavior.” From “Aspects of the theory of syntax.”

Jean-Paul Sartre.  Marxism and existentialism.

Frantz Fanon.  On national culture.

Jacques Derrida.  Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences.

Meaning and representation.  From “Of grammatology.”

Hans Robert Jauss.  Literary history as a challenge to literary theory.

Roland Barthes.  The death of the author.

Michel Foucault.  What is an author? truth and power.

Thomas S.  Kuhn.  From “The structure of scientific revolutions: postscript, 1969.”

Louis Althusser.  From “Ideology and ideological state apparatus.”

Paul de Man.  Criticism and crisis.  The resistance to theory.

Clifford Geertz.  Thick description: toward an interpretive theory of culture.

Laura Mulvey.  Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.

Mary Louise Pratt.  From “Toward a speech act theory of literary discourse.”

Raymond Williams.  From “Marxism and literature.”

Edward W. Said.  From “Orientalism.”

Annette Kolodny.  Dancing through the minefield: some observations on the theory, practice, and politics of a feminist literary criticism.

Stanley Fish.  Is there a text in this class?

Pierre Bourdieu.  The production and reproduction of legitimate language.

Identity and representation: elements for a critical reflection on the idea of a region.

Jean Francois Lyotard.  Answering the question: what is postmodernism?

Benedict Anderson.  From “Imagined communities.”

Jurgen Habermas.  From “The philosophical discourse of modernity.”

Gilles Deleuze & felix guattari.  Rhizome.

James Clifford.  On ethnographic authority.

Richard Rorty.  The contingency of language.

Eve Sedgwick.  From “The epistemology of the closet.”

Philipe Lacoue-labarthe.  The truth of the political and the fiction of the political.

Stephen Greenblatt.  Resonance and wonder.

Judith Butler.  Imitation and gender insubordination.

John Guillory.  From “Cultural capital: the problem of literary canon formation.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Teaching for the times.

Slavoj Zizek.  From “The ticklish subject: the absent center of political ontology.”

Ernesto Laclau.  Subject of politics, politics of the subject.

Peter Beagle: The Line Between


A quick review of his 2006 book of short stories, The Line Between:


Some of his thoughts about fantasy.  Worth reading.  “What’s important to me here, as a writer, is that I’ve grounded the single fantastic element of the tail in the most realistic atmosphere I could manage… Possessed cat or no, mystery or no, magic or no, the rent still has to be paid…  My wizards are mostly out there in the rain, trying to light a fire, never mind summoning a genie.”

Gordon, the Self-Made Cat

This may be my favorite story in this book, and the only straight-out comedy other than the fables.  It’s really a fable extended to be more funny than moralizing.  Gordon is a mouse who decides it’s better to be a cat.  So he goes to cat school, and gradually wins over the cats there to accept him as one of them with his dedication and skill.  Then, disaster strikes.

Two Hearts

I’m sure the title is some kind of double-meaning, but I can only figure out the literal one:  The gryphon terrorizing a village has two hearts.  King Lir, now old, goes to fight it.  It’s a sequel to The Last Unicorn, so why bother describing it more?  You must read it anyway!

(You have read The Last Unicorn, right?  If you haven’t you really should.)

Four Fables

Spotty.  These are short-short comedies.  Even as short as they are, some are a little too long.  “The fable of the moth” and “The fable of the octopus” are the only ones that count as fables, in the sense of having something worthwhile to say.  They are beautiful, subtle, and interesting; but aren’t really of any consequence as (I don’t think) they are not funny enough.

El Regalo

This is a first-person story – in fact, all the stories in this book are first-person except “Gordon” and the fables, which is odd because in the introduction Beagle speaks of writing in the first-person as if it’s something he seldom does – told from the point of view of the older sister of a little boy who discovers he’s a witch.  You think she’s a Watson, but she isn’t.  I don’t know why I like this story so much – perhaps because it nails the older sister-younger brother dynamic.  Weird witchy stuff happens, but it’s a story about a sister and her brother, who happens to be a witch, not a story about a witch, who has a sister.


This is the only story I didn’t read, because it begins with a little boy being pursued by inhuman, nightmarish assassins.  I should trust Beagle and read it, but I just don’t want to read about a child being hunted by assassins.

Salt Wine

The story itself – the plot, I mean – doesn’t deliver a lot.  I appreciated this one mostly for its ability to get into the head of this genuine-feeling 19th-century old salt.  Beagle’s mastery of obscure and obsolete 19th-century nautical slang is impressive.  He must have done a lot of research for this short story.

Mr. Sigerson

A Sherlock Holmes story.  I used it as one of the models for the style in one of my own short stories.  It is a beautiful Holmes story, better than the originals stylistically and in its portrayal of Holmes and of the odd orchestra conductor who dislikes him and yet has much in common with him.  It would be perfect, but is ruined as a mystery, because it has only two scenes that are crucial to the plot, the first establishing the mystery, and the second resolving it – and the second scene directly contradicts everything in the first scene, not in a subtle way but in a gigantic “Oops, did I forget to replace that chapter with the new draft?” way.  So read it, but don’t bother trying to solve the mystery; you can’t.

A Dance for Emilia

This one was of course brilliantly written, but was too sentimental for me.  A man who longed to be a dancer but could not, because he just wasn’t physically gifted enough, dies and comes back as his cat, and discovers among other things that as a cat he can dance with inhuman grace.  Sweet, but, my God, the length!  Beagle stretches this sweet idea out over 38 pages.  It’s a testament to his skill that he can almost do it.  Almost.

Method Writing


There are 2 school of acting in English-speaking films: the American way, or method acting, and British acting.  As the Guardian says,

This difference is encapsulated in the classic confrontation on Marathon Man where Dustin Hoffman was delaying proceedings by searching for his character’s motivation. His scene-mate was Sir Laurence Olivier – tired, perhaps, and exhausted by theorizing. At one point he whispered to Hoffman, “Just pretend.”

(Or, alternately, “Try acting.”  That’s an interesting link, BTW, for different reasons–it says that Americans assume that people who speak intelligently are evil.  I’ve always assumed it’s because people who aren’t evil probably aren’t very intelligent).

The method actor works from the inside out, trying to understand the character’s motivation first, so he can discover how the character walks, talks, and drinks his coffee.  The British actor works from the outside in, trying to find a combination of clothing, mannerisms, and speech patterns that fit the lines and each other.  A famous British actor (I can’t remember who, and neither can Google) told the story of how a character fell into place once he found the right hat for him, and told actors to “let the hat do the work!”  A joke about the Star Wars prequels is that the British actors were so much better than the American actors because the Americans were trying to discover characters that weren’t there.

Not coincidentally, these are the main two ways of creating characters on the page.  Google quickly shows somebody else already thought of this and is trying to make a buck off it:  Dick Bentley teaches a course at the U of Mass and by mail on “Method Writing”.

“The method”, imagining a character’s past, her emotions and motivations, corresponds to what writers are usually told to do.  The key point of both method acting and good character writing is the same:  Each character, in each scene, must know what he or she wants.

But method acting adds more:  the method actor is supposed to intentionally use pieces of his past to create the character.  He tries to create the emotions in himself that the character feels by remembering similar things that happened to him.  I confess I don’t do this intentionally, though I might accidentally.

My first reaction is that for writers, “method writing” is right, and the British approach is wrong.

Here a Scottish acting coach gives 10 reasons why he hates method acting.  Most of his reasons sound like laziness to me, and his arguments against “the method” only prove that it is the correct way to create characters:

3. Unnecessary Focus on EmotionActing is not emotion. Acting is action. The incorrect focus on emotion comes through an embarrassingly arrogant view of Stanislavski’s work that was developed by Lee Strasberg and called The Method.  We do not have control over our emotions. We have less control over them when we’re under the kind of stress that actors feel on stage. If we could control them, we’d be robots and no longer need therapy, counseling or Prozac! You can fake emotion (badly) and you can force out some tears, but that’s not much of a basis for acting. Truly great acting moves the audience, not the actor.

Wow, this is such bad advice for writers.  I believe your writing should move you first of all.  A story is ready for writing when thinking about it would make me cry a little.  Theoretically.  If I did that sort of thing.

(It’s also wrong.  Acting is not emotion?  That’s defining the problem away.  But it’s a physiological fact that appearing like someone appears when they have strong emotions sometimes requires having those emotions, because some facial movements aren’t under conscious control.  We do not have control over our emotions?  Not if we refuse to try to have control over our emotions, no.)

It’s true, though, that making the motions associated with an emotion can create that emotion in you.  So maybe you can start with the cliched actions of a movie hero or villain, and get from there to emotions.  Maybe.

I don’t think so, though.  Actions are always cliched.  Every action has been done a million times before.  Actions are generic, and give rise to generic emotions.  Good character motivations are not generic.  I don’t think there’s any way to pile up enough actions and mannerisms and odd bits of clothing to generate a distinctive character.  Maybe for an actor, who (though you wouldn’t know it to listen to them) already has a character complete on the page before him.

6. PsychosisThe Method’s ill-educated and misguided approach to tinkering around in the mind of the actor is frightening. Stanislavski gave all of that up in favour of an approach focusing on ‘action’. Your own psychological state is not the playground of an acting teacher; you don’t know what a potentially explosive minefield of unresolved issues that you are poking around in. Messing with that stuff isn’t brave, it’s stupid.

In other words, he says, Don’t go poking around inside your own head; you might stir something up.  Which I think is the main point of writing.

7.  Self-IndulgenceWhen you’re a Method-actor, you do ‘research’. You go off and learn to fire guns so that you know how a soldier feels, you learn Swahili so that you can say three lines in the film, you talk to real prostitutes about their craft to play Prostitute Number 3 or interview real criminals to play ‘Second Crook from the End.’ It’s an excuse to do something fun and call it work, but:

None of this will help you play the scene. I’ll say it again, NONE OF THIS WILL HELP YOU PLAY THE SCENE.

That’s stupid.  If you’ve never spoken to a real prostitute or a real criminal, you shouldn’t play one on television.

But I think this is a disagreement about what storytelling is rather than about how to act.  If the only point of storytelling is to entertain, regardless of whether you’re telling truths or lies, then, sure, why bother portraying reality accurately?

He gives us one point to ponder.  Point 9, the method takes you out of the scene:  Pausing to recall your own similar experiences, besides slowing you down, may lead you back to the exact circumstances of your past rather than toward the things that belong in your story.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t pause to recall your own past while writing.  I don’t, not often.

Brooks & Warren on Showing & Telling


I think I’m going to post part of the introduction to each chapter of Understanding Fiction by Brooks & Warren, 3rd edition (1979), to summarize their main ideas about fiction.  This one is a digression, so you get it out of order.  In the intro to chapter 3, “What Character Reveals”, they talk about showing versus telling while talking about characters.

(BTW, this intro to chapter 3 is completely new in the third edition (5 pages, vs. 1 in the 1st ed.)  They revised everything in the 3rd edition, even the discussions of the same stories, although those generally make the same points.)

        Warning:  They use the term “indirect” to mean “showing” and “direct” to mean “telling” when they talk about describing a character, and “direct” to mean “showing” and “indirect” to mean “telling” when they talk about dialogue. It makes some sense, since they use “indirectly describing” as a double-negative. They mean “indirectly summarizing”, which means “indirectly not directly depicting”, or “directly depicting”.

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 is that it tends to forfeit the vividness of drama and the reader’s imaginative participation. Direct, 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 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, on when to describe directly, and on when to allow the character to express his feelings through dialogue and action, 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, 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: “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. 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.

John Updike’s 6 Rules for Reviewing


From the introduction to “Picked Up Pieces,” his second collection of assorted prose, and much later blogged on Critical Mass:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.