Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why Language Matters & Chick-Lit Doesn't

I read an easy-to-read "small" poet-published poem in Boot Camp this morning and posted a reply. It's OK but if this was a story it would be TMAWIA (1). It's one totally accessible, instant, obvious observation and question. I mean how long does it make us think? We have it and have forgotten it in five seconds.

But then I realised that there are many stories where something like this happens. (It's slightly longer-timed in the story but that's a word-count thing more than anything else.)

They get in, get out, and barely create dust. A week later you cannot remember the plot, theme, character, but more importantly, the emotions, the weight, the smell have disappeared.

But my reaction to the poem is whispering something to me, something like my "napalm" idea but not quite the same.

This: when you want to convey into the reader a certain set of emotions, it is not only the semantic content you have to think about, but the musicality, tone, pace, pacing etc. Part of the reader is hypnotised.

Some musics stick, get under, start to burn, some just bounce off.

Worse (and this is only a partly-formed idea right now) some use a cheap trick to get, not under the skin at all, but into some cheap hotel in the head where all the responses are well-known and we are too lazy to walk out in the rain, get wet, risk getting mugged, because across the street is a place that's alive-alive-alive and the Devil drops in on Thursdays.

What I will say next, may or may not be connected to my thoughts above (but that's the point really, should all connections always be the perfectly crisp, neatly-packaged ones that don't unhinge us?)

Yesterday, scouring second-hand bookshops for biographical stuff on T S Eliot (and when I quote him I might be able to show how some lines go straight up under the ribs) I picked up, for a throw-away pound, the stories of Sean O'Faolain. In the foreword to his collection he says:

"I must, if only in my defence, tell the reader of this volume that it opens with three stories from my first collection, Midsummer Night Madness and that although I have chosen them because I like them very much they contain things that make me smile today – and yet I have been unwilling to rewrite them. I should like to explain why.

They belong to a period, my twenties. They are very "romantic" as their weighted style shows. I should have to change my nature if I were to [rewrite and] change the style, which is full of romantic words, such as dawn, dew, onwards, youth, world, adamant or dusk; of metaphors and abstractions; of personalisations and sensations which belong to the author rather than to the characters.

They also contain many of those romantic words "and" and "but", which are words that are part of the attempt to carry on and expand the effect after the sense has been given. Writers who put down the essential thing, without any cocoon about it, do not need those "ands" and "buts". The thing is given and there it lies; whereas the writer who luxuriates goes on with the echoes of his first image or idea.

His emotions and thoughts dilate, the style dilates with them, and in the end he is trying to write a kind of verbal music to convey feelings that the mere sense of the words cannot give. He is chasing the inexpressible. He is interested mainly in his own devouring daemon. He is, as I was in my twenties, drowned in himself.

French writers, on the other hand, often spoil their stories by adding too much analysis in their obsessive pursuit of clarity at all costs.

Hemingway is the real man. He writes short sentences because with his genius for seizing on the essential he can also seize on the simple image to convey what he wants to say. If we sometimes think that he is saying something obvious that may well be because only a man of genius can see and say what, once he has seen and said it, we flatter him by thinking of as obvious."


I'm not sure if I needed to drift into discussing Hemingway but it seemed polite to allow Mr O'Faolain to finish his page! From here on I'm on unsteady ground, trying to write an article while at the same time, trying, for myself, to articulate what I'm feeling. I'm well aware that I could write the article, "discover" and then edit it to death until it actually looks like I'm expert and always was. In fact I was expert before I was born.

This is a complex thing. It's to do with many things and they are not all concrete; language, pace, pacing, the removal of the author, obliqueness, appeal to memory and myth, allusion, language again, tone, voice, the colour of words, rhythm (as emphases, rise and fall, musicality, tone) all these things can combine to direct the story "underneath and inside."

We have all heard the person who cannot tell a joke well. It's not the joke, it's the way yer tell 'em. So we know the delivery is part of the meaning.

A good poet is a good poet, a great slam-poet is a performer. Many poets and writers cannot read their own work well, some are brilliant speakers and enrich the poem beyond what we can see on the page. I think it was Eliot who on hearing Auden read a poem said to fully understand, to completely feel you needed to be Irish, speak as an Irishman, know and feel Ireland's history. I've probably made that up, but I don't care.

If I write, "Married and not even pregnant, there's posh for you!" that is so Welsh I can see red shirts at The Arms Park, miners clopping home along black streets, wives with arms folded standing in doorways. For all I know that might have originated in London's East End, or in Newcastle or might have been invented on the stage, but my reality is I hear it from my mother's mouth and the voice, the lilt, the wry commentary opens up all my Welshness, the different sensibilities of a South Walian and alters my experience.

This is even wilder, crazier, when I remind myself my mother was Irish!

I think most writers understand the nature of the woman's magazine story, the "womag" story. As an email correspondent wrote; "They are trilling, shallow, meaningless. They avoid the uncomfortable core of human existence and even when "an issue" is raised it is dealt with in a blink of an eye, simplistic, no ripples, no complexity, no doubt."
Now look at the phrasings of some womag stories.

Things were different for Jimmy at Grandma and Grandpa's house.

It all started when a job came up at the local school.

I finally found a recipe I could understand.

She was worried that he wasn't settling in to school as he should.

"This looks like a nice little pub," said Fred.

What is missing here? Why do we instantly know that the piece will be lightweight, that nothing will hurt? Note how the words are from the first 300-400 words of the average vocabulary, the phrases are simplistic and/or clichés, nothing remotely surprises or challenges. Nothing gets "fired off by connection" here, there's no sense of place, no colour in the expression. It's ersatz, terribly bland.

Could this ever get under the skin and move someone? Ummmm…

We just know the moment we look at lines like these that nothing of importance could ever follow. It's mindless. Trivial.

I'm trying to explore the idea that when we watch TV, or see a film, or read a book, or read a short-story or a poem we either open up in a real, slightly-dangerous, exposed way (inside us there are many mansions) or we simply deal with the piece like that cheap hotel. We know all the tricks, every push-button, chuck it here, oh right, got that.
The cheap hotel has been tarted up lately. Next to the womag ballroom, and The Mills & Boon Lounge there's the chick-lit bar. What matters here in the land of no challenges, the place where the biggest surprise you'll get is that oh-so-recognisable twist at the end is that everything is safe and you will never have to think.

Clichés and stereotypes, stock characters, stock scenes, obvious dilemmas stand in the doorway of the cheap hotel.  You don't even need to go all the way in! At least there's Horlicks and Seroxat, pillows.

Am I wickedly cruel to include chick-lit with womag? After all there's no questioning the writers show more skill and greater variety. Yeah, maybe. I could vomit reading some womag stuff and the best of chick-lit isn't that bad. We rarely get "scared Johnny" on his first day at school who turns out to be the headmaster!
To be fair my correspondent did say Chick-Lit was Layer 2, but she also said: Sex and Shopping and nothing else. It's mechanical, obvious and the clichés are door-to-door.

But I'm not here to give you that. The content is not really my point (well it is but we are talking about delivery.) Again it's the mechanical nature, the fact that you can cut and paste language from different authors and it's seamless, almost impossible to spot. Though I'll admit this fiction at its worse is better than womag (and at its rare best shouldn't be lumped in the chick-lit bucket at all) the vast majority of it still abounds with stock phrasing and the language never surprises. It's de-languaged to the point of banality, triviality. Even if there is a decent story somewhere in there, the story stands alone, set aside from the delivery. The delivery is THE STANDARD delivery for "all chick-lit. The language doesn't matter.

We get more of the obvious lines, lines that do almost nothing, lines that are "chat" writing, stuff we hear in the office. "She beamed." "You're a love."  "While I washed the dishes." "She raised her eyebrows but said nothing." "Dave went to the back door for a cigarette." "I've had ironing up to my eyeballs." "I ached to phone him."

Are there "OK" stories? Sometimes. But everything, or almost everything is so superficial. "Upset" is throwing myself on the bed and beating the pillow and screaming bastard. And of course it's just upset, not grieving or suicidal, or frightened, or really worried. Do you think she's already read the last few pages and she knows Prince Harry is there?

My problem with all this sort of fiction is its glibness, its triviality, its quick-fix nature (but that's not the point) and the fact that the language also gives off the boy-band, girl-band, washing-up advert level of language. There's no variety, no charm, no individualism in the diction. The next word is always the obvious word and probably a cliché.

In poetry too we start out with (though I shouldn't say "poetry") the verses inside birthday cards and then the glib dum-dee-dum awful rhymed stuff we see in certain quarters. We can dismiss that but above this level there are published poems such as the one that triggered this article where they're "OK" but are simplistic, relying on a neat closing couplet (the equivalent of a twist-ending) say, a neat expression for loneliness but the journey there is nothing more than thinking, OK, but your point is? And then we get the point and go, Oh, yeah, I suppose…

But if I read Eliot:

Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon

I feel things, all the foggy things ever, all the smoky things, all my Decembers, everything. Something here reaches into me straight away.

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

Sure I see the obvious, remember dads and Granddads on Barry Island beach, blokes with knotted hankies on their heads (do they still do that now?) and all those Barry or Porthcawl outings, sand and fish and chips, but I also feel, the ache of some old bloke, just feeling it, savouring the experience of age.

The difference is these lines are three-dimensional, they can contain as many meaning as we want them to.

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways

Same thing. I love the language, the difference, the surprise in the words but what they illustrate isn't singular, it sets off thoughts, links, memories

It isn't "cheap-and-cheerful" writing I despise, it's its homogeneity, the way "writers" prostitute themselves, fall into line, go with the flow and take out every last vestige of originality of thought just to be published.

This is from a novel-in-progress called The Bella Archipelago. The guys have invented a writing machine:

Maybe this gets close to what I see as the problem.

We were half-way through our second tumbler when I asked Jeremy what could imarita do with other texts. Could it work on stuff already in print? How would it deal with his namesake's work, for instance?
   "What d'you have?" Jeremy said, so I leaned over, closed my eyes, did a lucky dip off my bookcase, and came up with Germinal.
   "Try Zola," I said. "I'll read it out to you."
   Jeremy grinned and began typing.

On a pitch-black, starless night, a solitary man was trudging along the main road from Marchiennes to Monstsou, ten kilometres of cobblestones running straight as a die across the bare plain between fields of beet. He could not even make out the black ground in front of him, and it was only the feel of the march wind blowing in great gusts like a storm at sea, but icy cold from sweeping over miles of marshes and bare earth, that gave him a sensation of limitless, flat horizons. There was not a single tree to darken the sky, and the cobbled high road ran on with the straightness of a jetty through the swirling sea of black shadows.

Good old Emil! I'd forgotten the miserable bugger. At the end of that first paragraph I thought maybe I'd read him again.
         "What setting?" Jeremy asked.
         "What's the range?" I asked back.
         "You can have straight-through, no changes, and there are twenty down-grades from there. The first ten take us down to zero, then we have minus settings."
         "Try five," I said.
         Push. Brzzt, phmmmm.

It was pitch-black as the man walked alone along the road to Monstsou, The icy wind blew across the beet fields and the stranger bowed his head low towards the cobblestones at his feet.

I could live with that. It wasn't Zola any more, but not criminal.
         "Try two?"
         Brzzt, phmmmm.
It was a dark and stormy night.
         "Minus two?"

There he was out in the dark and miles from town. He couldn't see his hand in front of his face! Oh boy, he'd done it this time!

      "Minus Five?"

It was dark and windy as Johnny walked to town. "Oh, what a fool I was!" he thought ruefully. He should have listened to Jenny. "Look before you leap, John Watkins!" she had warned him forebodingly.

For now I'll have to rest my case, But I'm only warming up.

[1] Too Much About What It's About

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