Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Edmund Wilson

The Borges Test

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on June 21, 2017.

In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

His later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader—and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes the same amount of time to read as it would for someone to tell us the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2018 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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The function of the magician has characteristics in common with those of the criminal, of the actor, and of the priest…and he enjoys certain special advantages impossible for those professions. Unlike the criminal, he has nothing to fear from the police; unlike the actor, he can always have the stage to himself; unlike the priest, he need not trouble about questions of faith in connection with the mysteries at which he presides. This is perhaps one of the reasons that magicians, though sometimes rather egotistic, usually appear to be happy in their work.

Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials

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July 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

The minor key

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“What keeps science fiction a minor genre, for all the brilliance of its authors and apparent pertinence of its concerns?” The critic who asked this question was none other than John Updike, in his New Yorker review of David G. Hartwell’s anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which was published at the end of the eighties. Updike immediately responded to his own question with his usual assurance:

The short answer is that each science-fiction story is so busy inventing its environment that little energy is left to be invested in the human subtleties. Ordinarily, “mainstream” fiction snatches what it needs from the contemporary environment and concentrates upon surprising us with details of behavior; science fiction tends to reverse the priorities…It rarely penetrates and involves us the way the quest realistic fiction can…”The writer,” Edmund Wilson wrote, “must always find expressions for something which has never yet been exposed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered.” Those rhapsodies, for instance, which Proust delivered upon the then-fresh inventions of the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane point up the larger relativities and magical connections of his great novel, as well as show the new century breaking upon a fin-de-siècle sensibility. The modest increments of fictional “news,” of phenomena whose presentation is unprecedented, have the cumulative weight of true science—a nudging, inching fidelity to human change ultimately far more impressive and momentous than the great glittering leaps of science fiction.

I’ll concede that Updike’s underlying point here is basically correct, and that a lot of science fiction has to spend so much time establishing the premise and the background that it has to shortchange or underplay other important qualities along the way. (At its highest level, this is less a reflection of the author’s limitations than a courtesy to the reader. It’s hard to innovate along every parameter at once, so complex works of speculative fiction as different as Gravity’s Rainbow and Inception need to strategically simplify wherever they can.) But there’s also a hidden fallacy in Updike’s description of science fiction as “a minor genre.” What, exactly, would a “major” genre look like? It’s hard to come up with a definitive list, but if we’re going to limit ourselves to a conception of genre that encompasses science fiction and not, say, modernist realism, we’d probably include fantasy, horror, western, romance, erotica, adventure, mystery, suspense, and historical fiction. When we ask ourselves whether Updike would be likely to consider any of these genres “major,” it’s pretty clear that the answer is no. Every genre, by definition, is minor, at least to many literary critics, which not only renders the distinction meaningless, but raises a host of other questions. If we honestly ask what keeps all genres—although not individual authors—in the minor category, there seem to be three possibilities. Either genre fiction fails to attract or keep major talent; it suffers from various systemic problems of the kind that Updike identified for science fiction; or there’s some other quirk in the way we think about fiction that relegates these genres to a secondary status, regardless of the quality of specific works or writers.

And while all three of these factors may play a role, it’s the third one that seems most plausible. (After all, when you average out the quality of all “literary fiction,” from Updike, Bellow, and Roth down to the work put out by the small presses and magazines, it seems fairly clear that Sturgeon’s Law applies here as much as anywhere else, and ninety percent of everything is crud. And modernist realism, like every category coherent enough to earn its own label, has plenty of clichés of its own.) In particular, if a genre writer is deemed good enough, his or her reward is to be elevated out of it entirely. You clearly see this with such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, who was plucked out of that category to complete more effectively with Proust, Joyce, and Kafka—the last of whom was arguably also a genre writer who was forcibly promoted to the next level. It means that the genre as a whole can never win. Its best writers are promptly confiscated, freeing up critics to speculate about why it remains “minor.” As Daniel Handler noted in an interview several years ago:

I believe that children’s literature is a genre. I resisted the idea that children’s literature is just anything that children are reading. And I certainly resisted the idea that certain books should get promoted out of children’s literature just because adults are reading them. That idea is enraging too. That’s what happens to any genre, right? First you say, “Margaret Atwood isn’t really a science fiction writer.” Then you say, “There really aren’t any good science fiction writers.” That’s because you promoted them all!

And this pattern isn’t a new one. It’s revealing that Updike quoted Edmund Wilson, who in his essays “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” dismissed the entire mystery genre as minor or worse. Yet when it came to defending his fondness for one author in particular, he fell back on a familiar trick:

I will now confess, in my turn, that, since my first looking into this subject last fall, I have myself become addicted, in spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes, which I had gone back to, not having looked at it since childhood, in order to see how it compared with Conan Doyle’s latest imitators. I propose, however, to justify my pleasure in rereading Sherlock Holmes on grounds entirely different from those on which the consumers of the current product ordinarily defend their taste. My contention is that Sherlock Holmes is literature on a humble but not ignoble level, whereas the mystery writers most in vogue now are not. The old stories are literature, not because of the conjuring tricks and the puzzles, not because of the lively melodrama, which they have in common with many other detective stories, but by virtue of imagination and style. These are fairy-tales, as Conan Doyle intimated in his preface to his last collection, and they are among the most amusing of fairy-tales and not among the least distinguished.

Strip away the specifics, and the outlines of the argument are clear. Sherlock Holmes is good, and mysteries are bad, so Sherlock Holmes must be something other than mystery fiction. It’s maddening, but from the point of view of a working critic, it makes perfect sense. You get to hold onto the works that you like, while keeping the rest of the genre safely minor—and then you can read yourself happily to sleep.

The Borges Test

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In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

The dark and indefinite shore

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Abraham Lincoln with his son, Tad

The dreams and premonitions of Lincoln are also a part of this drama, to which they contribute an element of imagery and tragic foreshadowing that one finds sometimes in the lives of poets—Dante’s visions or Byron’s last poem—but that one does not expect to encounter in the life of a political figure: Lincoln’s recurrent dream of a ship on its steady way to some dark and indefinite shore, which seems to prophesy that the war would be going well, since it had always been followed by a victory; his ominous hallucination, after the election of 1860, when, lying exhausted on a sofa, he saw in a mirror on the wall a double reflection of his face, with one image paler than the other, which his wife had taken as a sign that he would be elected to a second term but that he would not live to complete it…On his way back to Washington from his visit to Richmond just after the city’s surrender, he read to his companions on the boat the scene from Macbeth that contains the lines:

                                  Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

The night before Lincoln was murdered, he dreamed again of the ship approaching its dark destination. He had foreseen and accepted his doom; he knew it was part of the drama. He had in some sense imagined this drama himself—had even prefigured Booth and the aspect he would wear for Booth when the latter would leap down from the Presidential box crying, “Sic semper tyrannis!” Had he not once told Herndon that Brutus was created to murder Caesar and Caesar to be murdered by Brutus? And in that speech made so long before to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, he had issued his equivocal warning against the ambitious leader, describing this figure with a fire that seemed to derive as much from admiration as apprehension—that leader who would certainly rise among them and “seek the gratification of [his] ruling passion,” that “towering genius” who would “burn for distinction, and, if possible…have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.” It was as if he had not only foreseen the drama but had even seen all around it with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various points of view that the world must take toward its protagonist. In the poem that Lincoln lived, Booth had been prepared for, too, and the tragic conclusion was necessary to justify all the rest.

Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2017 at 8:19 am

The myth of the public novelist

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sontag

Novelists, by nature, are neurotic types, and never more so than when they’re justifying the pursuit to which they’ve devoted their lives. Looking around at the issues that beset us—social and racial inequality, poverty, terrorism, institutionalized sexism, and much more, all arrayed like a tapestry of woe beneath the gloomy specter of climate change—it’s easy to regard writing novels as an activity of spectacular uselessness. When we do try to rationalize it, we have a few stock answers at our disposal. The art of fiction, we say, is largely the art of empathy, or of training ourselves and our readers to take an interest in the lives of others, and even if the novel has rarely, if ever, changed the course of history, it encourages a habit of thinking outside ourselves that teaches us how to walk in another person’s shoes. (In theory, anyway. But you could also argue that it provides the illusion of empathy, a way of exercising or discharging our emotions that lets us off the hook when it comes to putting those impulses to work in the real world.) And it also turns us into skeptical, even agonistic generalists, capable of grasping complex systems of cause and effect, even if in practice we spend most of our time tackling excruciatingly specific problems of narrative, which often feels like constructing a cathedral out of toothpicks.

Deep down, though, I suspect that a lot of novelists nurture a secret hope. One day, we’ll break through with a major novel or work of nonfiction that will establish us in the sphere of public intellectuals. Glossy magazines and talk shows will solicit our opinions, whatever they are, and our voices will be heard on a range of subjects simply because everything we say is deemed to be interesting. Writing a decent novel, which is undeniably one of the most challenging projects a human being can undertake, is assumed to qualify us to think about other subjects. (Literary novelists, like chess players, have a way of seeing themselves as more intellectually fit than others, as Charles Colton said of mathematicians: “He will be in argument what the ancient Romans were in the field: to them the day of battle was a day of comparative recreation because they were ever accustomed to exercise with arms much heavier than they fought.”) And it can’t be an accident that so many of our most versatile intellectuals—Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre—either started in the novel or devoted a fair amount of attention to it. Thinking hard about reality and about problems of fiction feels like the same skill set directed into two different streams, and an accomplished writer should be able to switch effortlessly between one and the other.

Edmund Wilson

A glance at recent rankings of public intellectuals suggests that this ambition, to put it mildly, is misplaced. The most widely distributed list of this kind, published annually by Foreign Policy, includes just a handful of novelists or imaginative writers: Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, the late Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Gao Xingjian, and maybe Michael Ignatieff, an author better known these days as the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The most recent Prospect Magazine list adds a few more names to the pile: Hilary Mantel, Michel Houellebecq, Marilynne Robinson, and Arundhati Roy, who appears to be returning to fiction after a lengthy sojourn in more political fields. For the most part, though, these lists are composed largely of academics, scientists, economists, and businessmen. You could attribute this partially to the decline of the novel as the central art form of our culture: these days, if an entertainer wanders into a position of punditry, he’s likely to look more like Russell Brand. But there’s also a real sense in which a good novelist might be less equipped than average to deal with the complicated problems of public life. Writing is so solitary, so focused on points of craft that have no application anywhere else, that it turns a serious novelist into a machine who can speak credibly on issues of fiction alone—and maybe not even then. And an ability with words only makes it easier to be convincingly wrong.

Yet the illusion persists. And it’s a useful one, at least to the extent that it allows intelligent people to stick with writing when they might have found a more acceptable outlet for their ambitions. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which writing novels wasn’t seen as a worthwhile pursuit for raw talent. If I’m honest, though, I also find that part of the reason I’m so annoyed with Jonathan Franzen’s attempt to inject himself into the climate change debate is that he’s one of the few authors who actually got the platform that every writer wants. There isn’t a novelist alive who doesn’t secretly wish that The New Yorker would give him space to speak out on whatever he perceives to be the central issue of our time. And Franzen squandered his chance on an argument that even his editors must have known was insupportable. Yet I have a hunch that most novelists would have responded in the same way. Along with being inherently neurotic, writers are often misguided, even perverse, in their social and political stances: they spend so much time willing themselves into the minds of others that they turn into creatures who aren’t like anyone else. Franzen is part of a proud tradition, stretching back through Mailer and Sontag and beyond, of novelists backing themselves into weird, indefensible positions. Writers aren’t reasonable; if they were, they wouldn’t try to be writers. And it’s good to keep this in mind whenever a writer—including this one—tries to give you advice.

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2015 at 9:38 am

Quote of the Day

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Edmund Wilson

To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity.

Edmund Wilson

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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