Interstellar burst

So as predicted, life is just as busy now as it was pre2lim. But I’ve been doing some fun stuff: more soccer, and hopefully ultimate this weekend; seeing the Waybacks, Super Furry Animals, and Grandaddy; making crazy corndogs to celebrate Jenny’s birthday; getting into my research project; updating bits and pieces of NewsDog and participating in some good discussions on it; using many semicolons.

One of the coolest things about Radiohead is that their B-sides are as good as their album tracks. Unfortunately I haven’t really warmed up to the new album very much yet (it’s still only “good”, not “great”) so I’m listening to old stuff in preparation for the concert. Must… stop… living… in… past.

The concert last night was at the Fillmore, so I had about an hour getting there and back in need of something with which to occupy myself. So I grabbed a book on my bookshelf that a) I hadn’t read yet and b) I could fit into my pocket during the show. That turned out to by Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, graciously gifted to me by Marianne before she left. I read most of it last night and finished it up just now. The book is exquisitely written; despite its hyperbolic excesses, it always managed to veer away from the maudlin and into the profound in a very charming way. A sample quote:

[Virginia’s niece has laid a dead thrush to rest earlier in the day.] The body of the thrush is still there (odd, how the neighborhood cats and dogs are not interested), tiny even for a bird, so utterly unalive, here in the dark, like a lost glove, this little empty handful of death. Virginia stands over it. It’s rubbish now; it has shed the beauty of the afternoon just as Virginia has shed her tea-table wonder over cups and coats; just as the day is shedding its warmth. In the morning Leonard will scoop bird and grass and roses up with a shovel, and throw them all out. She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing. Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest.

(Interestingly, no doubt intentionally, the style of writing seems to be very similar to Virginia Woolf’s.) Turns out the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999.

… That got me thinking. It seems to me that there are two basic components to fiction: the telling of the tale, and the tale itself. In The Hours, the telling is wondrous and enchanting; it’s like you’re enraptured by the virtuosity of the musician rather than the piece he’s playing. The tale, though, is predictable and, let’s face it, not nearly as moving as Cunningham might have liked.

And critics love this stuff. Critics of art in its various incarnations (literature, music, etc.) have always been obsessed with style, with virtuosity. (Argh, I was going to start babbling about this topic but I realized that I really need to get back to work. Doh.) Briefly: I think the tale is undervalued and underappreciated by critics. This is why Schoenberg is held in high esteem (neat tricks, terrible content) while Andrew Lloyd Webber is pretty universally disdained (no tricks, great songs). This is why The Hours is treasured, Faulkner is treasured, but when Stephen King is given the National Book Award, Yale scholar and all-around jackass Harold Bloom cries out to the New York Times, “[King] is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That [the committee] could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.” (No doubt Bloom is very bitter that, although he’s been nominated for the Award several times, he’s never won, I don’t think.)

Stephen King, it turns out, writes incredible stories. His writing is rarely exquisite or profound by itself, but his tales are haunting and terrifically memorable.

[In fact, his fantasy series, The Dark Tower is already one of my top four best fantasy series, even though he’s only written four of the seven books. (The other three series are Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams, The Lord of the Rings, and The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.) And he’s up against some pretty stiff competition: I’ve read hundreds of fantasy books in my day (any suggestion though, btw?).]

I wonder why critics hate a good tale. There’s as much of an art to constructing a story as there is to telling it. Hmm, my views on this subject parallel those I have for music: I think a good song must generally have good music, and lyrics are secondary; many critics feel the opposite. (Read any serious music review; lyrics are quoted and analyzed but the music itself hardly gets a mention!)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Interstellar burst

  1. snafuuu says:

    I don’t really have anything more to say than the fact that The Hours is my favorite book ever. Still haven’t seen the movie, though. Also, John Corwin has a girlfriend? And she’s not Asian??

  2. jennnnnnny says:

    This comment is longer than my last 5 livejournal entries combined

    It seems to me that good photography often makes one look at ordinary things in a different way. But if a photograph captures something extraordinary, it doesn’t have to be well-composed or aesthetically pleasing to be outstanding. A photographer only has to be lucky to capture something extraordinary on film. But he has to be skilled to make ordinary things appear extraordinary. Maybe it actually IS the same way with stories. Not that you only have to be lucky to come up with a good one, but an exciting story-line in anybody’s hands will be an exciting story-line. And maybe exciting stories ARE hard to come up with, but maybe not. Isn’t there some saying about every story having already been told before?

    Besides, if critics liked the same thing the public did (a good sell), then we wouldn’t need them around to tell us what we should like and why (and thus they’d be out of a job).

    I guess my point is that most people would be willing to read an exciting story, but fewer people would be willing to read a story that’s not exciting. And some of those stories are still really good in other ways. And only someone who can make the story beautiful anyway will be able to get the good-nes of the story through. And that’s why we need critics: to tell us something we don’t already know, like which of what nobody’s really reading is actually good.

    actually i just thought of ernest hemingway, who is a notable exception to your theory.

    • aj says:

      Re: call it

      I like the photography analogy… I think maybe the difference with fiction though is that the author is the creator of the world in addition to the photographer, as you point out — he has to make up the exciting story-line as well as the narrative that tells it.

      Yeah I’ve heard that saying about every story being told before and I never bought it :)… might as well say that every sentiment has been expressed before and just take out all of literature in one fell swoop.

      Since there’s a lot more books published than I’ve read, I’d be happy with critics who sifted through the mire and exposed the ones that were good stories and/or well-told. I’m still not sure why they should prefer the latter over the former!

      You’re definitely right about Hemingway. Also, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain. (And in modern music, the Beatles.)

      • jwscoleman says:

        Re: call it

        If you’re really interested in these issues (How is art judged? How should it be judged?) you -have- to read Lewis’ AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM, one of my favorite books of all time. Short, entertaining and ridiculously insightful.

        Anyway, I’m just going to follow Lewis in agreeing with jennnny that most of the time tale and telling are so intertwined that you really cannot separate them. And that’s okay. There are some stories, though, which really belong in a separate (though not necessarily better)category. These are myths. The myth-test is if you can read a synopsis of the book and still see the inherent power. Just try it. Though it doesn’t work for most fiction, it works for Sophocles, it works for Tolkien, it works for King. These authors have created myths so powerful that they don’t even need to be told particularly well to move you.

        PS. Hemingway does not fit solidly in this category. Some of his tales are good, some aren’t but his telling is what made him famous, his “muscular style.”

        • aj says:

          Re: call it

          I like that idea of myths. I see no reason to separate them, though (why call them “myths” and not just “really good stories”?), as the critics do.

        • jennnnnnny says:

          Re: call it

          In the study of folklore, a myth is defined as a story about something that occurred in the distant past and explains something about the present, so perhaps “legend” would be a better word for what you describe.

          I can’t help thinking that your “myth-test” theory is related to the archetypes that Joseph Campbell talks about. The archetypal hero, according to Campbell in I think Hero of a Thousand Faces, “has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one’s visions, ideas, and inspirations… are eloquent, not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn. The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man — perfected, unspecific, universal man — he has been reborn.” The stories that you call myths are then, I think, what Campbell would call archetypal. They are powerful regardless of how they might be embellished because they tap into what Campbell would call the eternal.

          Campbell is really cool, but I think any time one hears about Jungian archetypes, one has to consider the possibility that archetypes are cultural and not truly pan-human.

          With literature, we might be able to think of the story as the eternal (archetypal) part, and the way it’s told — the embellishment — as cultural. Or maybe not. Maybe that itself is a culturally biased assessment, since in many Native American traditions, stories are told and understood by natives in terms of little things that happen, details within the story, and not in terms of the overarching plot. Maybe we can say that within the field of western literature, the story is the eternal (again, archetypal) part and the embellishment is more (locally) cultural.

          If stories are supposed to be eternal, then we should all understand them and there’s certainly no need for critics to tell us about them. But people who study literature are students of culture, and they can tell us more about the cultural aspects of literature: the embellishments.

          I’m not sure how this theory would carry over to music.

  3. Anonymous says:

    AJ, this is John Chin. How are you? Email me if you have some time. I just wanted to offer my two cents on a few things–

    I think Thomas Mann wrote that form and content are, in music, one and the same–this seems right to me, so I respectfully disagree with the Schoenberg analogy (I do agree that he more or less sucks). Bringing lyrics into the picture muddles things

    I also believe these days that form and content in literature are (close to?) the same thing. Every sentence is a certain arrangement of certain words, but the selection of words and the arrangement of them *together* relate thoughts. Defining literary form as sentence structure I think is very unsatisfactory, but defining it as the way a story is told also seems to me so–I would say about the case of Virginia Woolf examining the consciousness of her characters while not much “actually happens” that the characters’ consciousnesses are the story. Basically what I’m positing is that no story exists outside the telling of it. I may not be expressing myself very clearly now, though

    • aj says:

      Hi John!

      I see what you’re saying, and definitely grant you that the telling is in some ways the story (how could it not be, really?) — which is why I still very much enjoyed The Hours.

      (In re-reading my entry, I noticed that I seemed to take a harsh stance against the literature itself. I meant to question the critics, not the stories, which are wonderful in themselves.)

      Anyway, though, I guess my point is that the telling need not be sophisticated, just meaningful or moving.

      Of course the inevitable music analogy springs to mind (since I hardly know anything about literature…)
      so Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition for piano, right? And then Ravel did a brilliant job orchestrating it into the piece we know now. But no one would deny that the heart of the piece is still in the rudimentary piano parts (perhaps it’s what James would call a “myth”)… and naturally the piece is credited to Mussorgsky — even though he didn’t do the final telling.

      Okay that aside didn’t really have a point. I guess that I imagine that the way writers write, and composers compose, is that they envision a story underneath, and their telling tries to expose it.

    • awu says:

      I’m not sure I agree that form and content are “(close to?) the same thing”.

      Sure, we can reduce it all to verbal combinatorics, but that’s not a useful reduction.

      I think that a writer who cares about form must struggle to find new ways of saying the same things, whereas a writer who cares less about novelty of form may not put as much effort into searching for novel combinations of words.

      Perhaps you are just saying that one can not simply orthogonalize what one is saying and how one says it, but I think that this is a useful distinction, one that a text miner, for example, could formalize and measure in terms of simple conditional probabilities.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think I agree with most of what you’re saying.

        But I would say that a writer who has found a new way of saying the same thing is no longer saying exactly the same thing. It’s probably useful to make a distinction between content and form–we intuitively understand the different between a “master stylist” and “master storyteller.” But the master storyteller’s units are the same as the master stylist’s, and meaning only exists insofar as words do–the storyteller has to write his words down on paper just like everybody else, and for all writers, the THOUGHT (or stream of thought)–and maybe what I really mean to posit is that the “whole” thought (as erected in a hypothetical reader’s mind) *is* the content–depends on everything on the page

        John Chin

  4. jwscoleman says:


    I actually think that music reviews focus on lyrics for the opposite reason that book reviews focus on style. Everybody understands the lyrics, they’re very accessible, and music reviews are written to a popular audience. Book reviews, on the other hand, are much more pretentious and so reviewers tend to focus on the more esoteric topic, style.

    And basically I would agree with John that the contrast between music and lyrics is not comparable to the contrast between tale and telling. Actually, the tale-telling contrast exists both in the lyrics and in the music, I would say.

    • aj says:

      Re: Music

      Haha, actually I’m not sure that’s what John meant in his comment. And anyway, that’s definitely not what I meant in my post — I said my views are “parallel”. And the parallel part is that critics seem to favor one aspect of the art much more heavily than other aspects. I didn’t mean to draw any relationships between the different art forms themselves.

      (I do agree with you about the music critics, however. Also, not only is it easier to understand the lyrics, it’s also much easier to write about them. And I’m not sure how much music these so-called critics know, anyway :)

  5. judytuna says:

    in the tradition of long comments:

    1. WHAT? I LOVE ANDREW LLOYD WEBER!!! I GREW UP ON HIM!!!! *worshipful*

    2. having rapturously (uh, rapturefully? rapturily? rapturingitisiliously? velociraptor? ah, i looked it up and it is rapturously. i ought not to second-guess myself. it also gave me “nitrogen narcosis” aka “rapture of the deep” which is “a state of euphoria and exhilaration that occurs when nitrogen in normal air enters the bloodstream at approximately seven times atmospheric pressure (as in deep-water diving).” fascinating.) um. let my try this again.

    2. The Story. ah. having rapturously completed michael chabon’s novel about kavalier and clay, i got a book of short stories edited by him (). in the introduction, he hates on the ubiquitousness of what he calls “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” and the fact that “genre” stories–plotted stories, like stephen king’s–are currently hated on by everybody else:
    About six months ago, I was going on in this vein to Mr. Eggers… Emboldened by the fact that he had not completely succumbed to unconsciousness, I went on to say that it was my greatest dream in life (other than hearing Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” performed by a mariachi orchestra) someday to publish a magazine of my own, one that would revive the lost genres of short fiction, a tradition I saw as one of great writers writing great short stories. I would publish works both by “non-genre” writers who, like me, found themselves chafing under the strictures of the Ban, and by recognized masters of the genre novel who, fifty years ago, would have regularly worked and published in the short story form but who now have no wide or ready market for shorter work…..

    3. obviously, the most important part of the above quote is about the mariachi orchestra. he also mentions “the Last Master of the Plotted Short Story, Stephen King.”

    4. i don’t follow what you are saying about songs and the music/lyric dichotomy. if i’m using “dichotomy” right. but i’m not second-guessing myself. i would think that the lyrics would correspond to literature’s story, and music with style.

    • judytuna says:

      Re: in the tradition of long comments: is supposed to go between those lonely, empty parens in 2.

    • aj says:

      Re: in the tradition of long comments:

      Hey, I love ALW too! — in fact, Cats is my favorite musical ever. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a “good” music critic who likes him. This was part of the motivation for my rant :).

      And I’m glad to see that some authors are recognizing these limitations, too.

      4. Oh I just meant that most “respectable” reviews of modern music tend to emphasize the lyrics rather than the music. I guess the critics are trying to put their English Lit degrees to good work :)

    • awu says:

      Re: in the tradition of long comments:

      McKee calls the first type of story the antiplot and the second kind of story the archplot.

      There is still a large market for archplots, unless you’re specifically talking about the academy and high-brow fiction…

      If you love storytelling, I’m sure you’d enjoy reading McKee’s Story (which focuses on screenwriting, but still).