Lyricism as the Claw

Edinburgh-based Hannah Lees publishes an interesting Substack newsletter, restricting herself to just one topic of reflection and a handful of literary reviews per month. Last month, she had this to say about lyricism as the go-to mode for quote-unquote “literary” writing, including her own:

I know that when I reach for lyricism it is born of a search for precision, a seemingly generous or vulnerable decision to share the thoughts-in-progress rather than only the stark or elegant final product, but, more often than not, this lyricism is a foil for the absence of any standalone elegance. Such writing is not necessarily dishonest or lazy. Lacking precision, reaching for a truth or an interpretation with clumsily beautiful, hungrily iterative phrases does faithfully perform the foggy, trance-like experience of searching. For me, though, I am frustrated with myself when this style is my go-to. Lyricism reveals the way that my mind is operating more like the claw in the claw crane arcade game, descending, grasping, rising with something only barely in my grip, clapping as the cheap shiny toy that I never even wanted is delivered down the chute.

The drive to individualise via personal narratives and pseudo-vulnerable lyricism (less rough ‘n’ ready and more please see the labour apparent in my prose) is not an individual pathology but a wider phenomenon. Of course we find ways to insist on the existence and worth of our labour, of course we have a sales orientation when outside the core socio-economic unit of the family (which not many people can and no one should have to solely rely upon) is raw competition with very little support. We bend and contort in all sorts of asset-encouraging ways — not only on the level of writing as product but on the level of writer as producer; lyricism can sometimes act as an implied declaration of writerliness. Lyricism can be beautiful, but I want to know if it’s still how we want to write when market compulsions are removed. Maybe we do — I know I probably still would, at least some of the time. What can I say, the old tumbling awe might just persist.

Well, that hits home. I feel much the same. I feel, in fact, that Lees has just summed up the governing aesthetic, at the sentence level, of both Blood and Bone and At the Edge of the Solid World: these two paragraphs could stand as their shared epitaph.

Can I disagree with her at all? Hardly. I can really only qualify her comments. For one thing, I’m not sure how much any kind of market factors into my creative decisions; I write on the assumption that my work will never be published, which assumption is a force for liberation. More significantly, though, I might take her central problem as more of a fact of life. My mind operates like the claw in the claw crane arcade game, too, and I’m sure the same is true for everyone else. To the extent that “lyricism” is mimetic of its motions, the style is no-bullshit. That’s not something usually said of a style so syntactically ornate, so much a byword for pretentiousness, but there it is. My general feeling is that if a writer isn’t finding some stylistic expression for the grasping after ephemera that is life as I know it, then they’re selling snake oil and I’m not interested. This expression doesn’t have to be “lyrical” as such, in the middlebrow sense — I need it to be more overworked, more agglomerative, than the transparently lyrical prose of, say, Ian McEwan — but it does need to be perceptible for the work to be more than a commodity for me.

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