From Criteria to Credo

In a new article at American Prospect, Benjamin Markovits has suggested that we can clearly articulate “What makes fiction good.” Daniel Green, upon reading the article, complained that Markovits made “not one mention… of the writer’s use of language. It’s all about various gradations of story. If a work of fiction isn’t first of all its style, what the writer can do with words, it’s literally nothing but a plot.” Finally, in response, Emmett Stinson argued against using language alone as the sole criterion for literary merit:

[T]here are great writers (even within a literary tradition that prizes style over plot) who are bad or inconsistent stylists. … Style is not an “element” [of literature]. Visual narratives, spoken narratives, and written narratives are not the same. There are great writers who are bad or inconsistent stylists… especially in genres outside the literary. … Writing can do many things beyond rhetorical mastery (style). Fiction can be deeply affective or ideational without rhetorical complexity. Science fiction is arguably conceptually more complex than much lit fic, though stylistically less masterful. Many options for greatness… [and no need for] a subordination of all categories to “the writer’s language effects,” which strikes me as an attenuation of the possibilities for literature — just as a narrow focus on only narrative forms is.

Now, with Philip K. Dick being floated as an exemplar of a “great” writer who is also a terrible stylist, I’ve waded in with some rough thoughts of my own. It seems to me that there has been, in this discussion, a conflation of “rhetorical complexity” with “stylistic mastery.” In this view of things, “simplicity” isn’t sufficient for the development of a “masterful” style, which lends itself to the idea that Karl Ove Knausgaard, for example, is not a great stylist. But always in these sorts of discussions I’m reminded of, and predisposed towards, Susan Sontag’s definition of “style” as ultimately “the principle of decision in a work of art” — the principle from which rhetorical as well as narrative decisions flow, and around which they cohere. So stylistic mastery in Sontag’s sense doesn’t have much to do with rhetorical complexity, but with finding or forging rhetorical structures that are appropriate to the myriad other decisions that go into a work of literary art, eg. choice of subject. Knausgaard is a rough stylist, no doubt, but the rough style is an essential rhetorical component of a broader decision-making apparatus — true to the strategies and origins of his larger artistic project. Philip K. Dick, on the other hand… ugh.

I’d have to say that whatever conceptual sophistication one might find in Dick, it’s fundamentally a construct of his narrative skills, and since narrative is a transferable quality among various artforms (literature, cinema, television, dance, etc., etc.) Dick’s conceptual sophistication doesn’t really have much to do with literature, and doesn’t depend on literature for its being. It could be, can be, and has been translated/adapted faithfully — and bettered! — in other artforms. Which raises the crucial question of why Dick chose literature as his preferred artform (other than convenience or expedience, not having to deal with film studios or beg for large budgets) and what it is about his artistic manoeuvres in literature that recommends his work for greatness. To be honest, I don’t think there are any, but that’s an argument about Dick, not about genre. Lots of science fiction writers do absolutely use style (in the “principle of decision” sense) to distinguish their work: Samuel R. Delany above all, but also Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Russell Hoban. All of those writers seem to me to achieve their considerable conceptual sophistication through an application of rhetorical mastery (not “complexity”) to an appropriate narrative, wherein the genre freedoms of science fiction allow language to be stretched in ways that straight-up literary realism doesn’t.

Anyway, I argued as much on Twitter, more or less verbatim to the above, and then the discussion took a tricky turn into more existential territory. Emmett Stinson took issue with my views on Philip K. Dick and the viewpoint from which I read him:

I couldn’t disagree more about dick. He’s great and writing is absolutely intrinsic to what he does. There is style in SF for sure, but the emphases are completely different. To me the above assesses SF from a lit perspective, which is essentially what I am objecting to. 🙂 I mean that you’re applying an unsympathetic criteria to the work–much in the way that readers of realist novels apply unsympathetic criteria to experimental novels. i.e. the repeated assertion that Dick is “just” a storyteller, reminds me of Tennyson as just a rhymester.

Which is probably fair enough. But as I reflected on this back-and-forth reconciliation of how notions of “style” fit into criteria for literary evaluation, as applied to genre literature, I found my thoughts becoming more and more esoteric. Rather than zeroing in on Philip K. Dick and his merits or lack thereof, I tried to put my finger on why exactly I favour the above criteria for an evaluation of merit. Starting with Dick, then moving away from him, then returning to science fiction in general, I tried to dig right down to the bottom of it all.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’m entirely unsympathetic to Dick. On the contrary, I’ve spent a lot of time with his work, and the tradition he’s writing in, and I Ido think he’s great — one of The Greats — on a conceptual and narrative level. Moreover, I don’t think there’s anything reductive about that view; I don’t think I’m dismissing Dick as “just” a storyteller. I mean only to point out that, in the scheme of relative merits, there’s more distinction to the conceptual and narrative elements of his work than to his style. By “distinction” I mean, here, that his work stands out from the work of his peers, on conceptual and narrative grounds rather than stylistic grounds — which, as I recall, was pretty much the case that was made by his supporters for including him in the Library of America.

But then — and here’s where my thoughts turn esoteric — when I reflect on my experience of reading Dick, the hours and hours of attention I gave his work, it’s true that I feel a loss of time. I mean I feel it viscerally, in my body, much like the days of time I lost in 2009 when I was stuck in Gatwick airport due to snowfall. If I don’t quite feel the same degree of lost time, I do feel a low-level experience of the same edgy, fraught quality. I look back on my time reading Dick and I think that whatever conceptual and narrative stimulation I got from it didn’t justify the moment-by-moment slog of sitting there, in my body, paying attention to his sentences. I remember a certain restlessness, a sense that I could’ve been spending my time in a better way; I remember that even though what I “got” from Dick was great — relative to his peers — it didn’t warrant what I went through to get it, as a lived experience of time. I felt like I could’ve “got” his distinctions faster, easier, more lucidly if he’d chosen a different literary form (philosophy?) or made his work shorter, more pointed, less padded out with his stylistic tics.

I realise that in saying all this I’ve strayed from aesthetics into more existential terrain: ie., I only have one life. My time is running out, so it is increasingly precious. I want to spend it wisely, to maximise the gains from whatever I invest it in. (Philip K. Dick didn’t “pay off.”) But I think there’s a strong connection between these existential facts and the question of form in considerations of art, and therefore the question of style.

The first decision a writer makes is to write, which closes off other decisions with regard to alternative artistic possibilities: making a film, composing a song, and so on. In the act of the creation of literature, those opportunities are forfeited, lost.

The second decision a writer of literature makes is to write literature, even genre literature, which closes off more alternatives: writing a letter, a review, a monograph, an instruction manual. Again, more opportunities forfeited.

Meanwhile, the first decision a reader makes is to read, rather than — and to the temporary exclusion of — watching a film, listening to a song, etc. But if what I’m reading doesn’t reward my investment of time in the act of reading, then why exactly am I reading it? Wouldn’t I be spending my time better if I turned my attention to other works of art in other forms? Wouldn’t I be getting more from my investment if the work I’m reading had taken a different form — a form better suited to what makes the work distinct? And if a work of literature isn’t maximising its use of features that are particular to its artform, then why, aside from expedience, is it a work of literature instead of a film, a song, or whatever? Why did the writer decide to use the artform of literature rather than the available alternatives?

Obviously, by putting this into words I’m saying these things and it sounds like an intellectual argument. But in the first instance, this comes to me as a lived, embodied sensation, like an itch or an ache, or a hunger: the sensation, when reading, that the rewards (the distinguishing features) of the work don’t justify the moment-by-moment demands of the act of reading, that my diminishing time could be better spent otherwise and elsewhere, and that, at the coalface of my encounter with the work of literature — the words on the page, the sentences; the “style” in the conventional sense — the rewards aren’t sufficient either to pay off instantly or to promise future gains.

Again, this really isn’t now an argument about genre. Genre is not much more than a signifier of narrative content and conventions (crime, sci-fi, fantasy, whatever) and doesn’t speak to the stylistic or structural distinctions of a work. As regards genre, I’m pretty catholic, which is why I’d say that Delany, LeGuin, et al are simultaneously genre writers and masters of literary art. One does not preclude or exclude the other. And I also don’t think there’s any literary snobbery in play, which I take from the idea of not being sympathetic to the work.

Yeah, I know, I know: I have a lot to do with literature day-to-day. But most of my reading diet consists of news, popular history, and superhero comics. I love them all, but these types of writing have other features to warrant the investment of time — urgency, information, quick-hit thrills — so I can judge them to be as much “worth” my time as a great work of literary fiction, with different criteria applying to how their chosen form intersects with my experience of time — that is, my one and only life, as it is lived. When I read Philip K. Dick, however, I keep wanting to call him from the dead and ask him: “Why are you writing, man? Why did you write these things? Why didn’t you do something else, or do something different to your writing, to sharpen your distinctions?” This is, of course, just another way of asking why I should read him, word for word, instead of using my time to read someone else whose work better rewards the experience of reading — an experience that is, to my mind, not finally or totally, but is primarily an experience of style.

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