Friday, 24 April 2020

Repossession - Tessa Hadley's "Bad Dreams"

In Tessa Hadley's short story collection, Bad Dreams, several main characters explore a house already familiar to them: Marina to look after an old man whose big house she's been walking past since childhood (soon she's 'gone into every corner' of it); Claire to the house where she grew up (she waits for the rest of the family to go to bed before exploring); and a little girl who wakes from a nightmare about her book (wandering in her flat at night makes everything looks different).

A variation on the theme is when the house is unfamiliar and the owner's away. Sex is offered in these situations. In 'Experience' Laura, recovering from divorce, is house-sitting when she explores the owner's diary and attic - and the owner's married ex, Julian. In 'An abduction' Jane, 15, is given a lift to a house where she willingly loses her virginity to Daniel, then looks around the rooms alone.

In quests, heroes return home older and wiser after facing a challenge. These female protagonists, all in the throes of change, aren't seeking adulation, they just want to hold on to what they had - retracing their steps to their last known position, hoping to be found, the past part of their quest.

Alzheimer patients often say that they want to go home, even when that's where they are. All they want is a place where they feel safe, where everything's familiar. But what if it's changed in the meantime? It will need to be re-explored. A guide may be required, and that guide may help with the future as well as the past. Each of these females has access to an older or wiser female who knows more about the house than the protagonist - the old man's daughter, Wendy, pops in most days; Claire's sister Susan still lives there; the little girl's mother takes over the narrative later; Laura is phoned by the owner, Hana, about her ex; and student Fiona lives in the house where Jane has her adventure, lending Jane a swimsuit though Jane would swim for the boys without one.

Hadley admits to repeating themes. Are there repeated resolutions? Do all these protagonists in time-honoured fashion learn and change? Not obviously so. Marina in 'The Stain' seems unaffected, though she's scared by Wendy's son who doesn't let her out of a car until he's told her about the old man's unpleasant past. She turns down the house that the old man repeatedly offers. ‘I know what my father's like, once he fixes on something,’ Wendy says. Finally we read that Marina's husband knew how 'once Marina got an idea into her head there was no changing it'. Happy with life, she prefers to remain as she is.

Of Jane we're told that 'In a way, she never assimilated the experience disapproving of under-age sex, though to her therapist after her mid-fifties divorce her description of the 'real life' she feels she's missed out on sounds much like that wild night. She missed her chance to break free of her sheltered upbringing.

In the story 'Bad Dreams' the little girl has carefully upset the furniture. In the morning she stubbornly reads the book she's read many times before. Her mother's changed though - she thinks her moody husband upset things. She's 'exhilarated' by this insight into his childishness, 'she seemed to see the future with great clarity, looking forward through a long tunnel of antagonism.'

At the end of 'Flight' Claire 'felt a moment's stabbing sorrow for everything she'd lost and left behind. But she knew from past experience how to push that sorrow down and bury it'. Earlier she'd hidden a present for Susan in the most intimate of places - the bottom of her handbag. Claire later found it at the bottom of her own bag. How did it get there?

Laura's the only one who emerges with profit, claiming that 'after my evening with Julian I knew I came across as older and more experienced. People seemed to take me more seriously.'

So is a leap into the unknown better than a step back in the hope of taking two steps forward? Is it preferable to squat in somebody else's past rather than repossess one's own? After leaping into the unknown you can take what you want and run, leaving no mark - Laura changes nobody, and later in life Daniel doesn't even remember Jane, who had potentially the most life-changing incident. Claire arrives with the most baggage but takes it all away with her, changing nothing, letting the next generation enjoy the house without her.

If there is transformation in these stories, it's not often in the protagonist. When she resists change, there aren't always consequences. Hadley shows us that each house has many rooms, each family, happy or not, has its own dynamics, and each woman her own way of absorbing change.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Style and substance


Style's often the first thing you notice about a person or a book. Sometimes it's the only thing. But shouldn't content always be the priority? That's the issue we're going to investigate this evening. We'll look at what happens when you try to add or take away style. We'll look at some examples that experts love, and some they hate. We'll probably not agree with the experts or each other. After the break we'll assess how well style and content interact in some examples.

This is going to be a prose evening, but I'd like to start briefly with poetry. At its most simplistic, poets have a style vs content issue whenever they choose a word that fits the rhyme scheme rather than one that communicates best. But of course it goes deeper than that. Here's what a poet wrote in an introduction to one of his books where he was trying to focus on content -

"They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book ... will, no doubt, ... look round for poetry, and ... inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title"

i.e., he was worried that removing the style might make readers think that there's not much poetry left. The poet? Yes, Wordsworth. Coleridge didn't agree with his approach. The style/content debate is still raging in the poetry world. But what about prose? Does the same apply?

Many years after Wordsworth, in 1953, "Degree Zero" was published in which Roland Barthes praised the work of writers who "create a colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language". Barthes credits Albert Camus (in particular, "The Stranger") with the initiation of this "transparent form of speech". In England, George Orwell's writing is often proposed as a model of plain language.

Later still, in 2010, David Shields published "Reality Hunger" which suggested that literary conventions have become so ingrained that we've forgotten how contrived novels - even Camus' novels - are. "I don’t think the literary novel is dead," he wrote, "I think it’s undead." Like Shields, award winning Rachel Cusk believes that traditional fiction is broken; she seems to long for an alternative that is wholly without artifice, dispensing with every convention she can think of: plot, dialogue, interiority. But does it work?

Spoiler Alert - It all depends!

First let's see if we can write like George Orwell

Exercise 1 - Effective Writing

Here are Orwell's guidelines -

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Orwellise these -

  • she abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudible appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort but a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions.
  • I am too old to look good in a bikini and I have not, across the years, paid enough attention to looking good in a bikini for me to look good in a bikini. But, even when young, I never paid enough attention to looking good in a bikini
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
  • 'Get down!' said Bond sharply, and threw himself sideways off the bed as the big eye of a searchlight in one of the black windows blazed on, swerving up the street towards their block and their room. Then gunfire crashed and the bullets howled into their window, ripping the curtains, smashing the woodwork, thudding into the walls.
    Behind the roar and zing of the bullets, Bond heard the Opel race off down the street.

Notes: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen; Joanna Walsh; A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, "The Living Daylights" (Fleming) - all stylists. Do any have dominating features? Which were easiest to Orwellise? Does style ever get in the way of the action? What makes texts "difficult"? When Oprah Winfrey phoned Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter's sentences, Morrison's reply was "That, my dear, is called reading."

What is style?

In a sense, what you did in the previous exercise is cool the language down to degree zero, so what you removed was the style. What terms can we use to describe style? Can we break style down into its components? Here's one list of features -

  • Diction: the style of the author’s word choice
  • Sentence length/structure: the way words are arranged in a sentence
  • Tone: the mood of the story; the feeling or attitude a work creates
  • Narrator: the person telling the story and the point-of-view it is told in
  • Grammar and the use of punctuation
  • Creative devices like symbolism, allegory, metaphor, rhyme, and so on

Literary Stylistics is a more formal way to analyse style using more measurable features and longer words. It's like the Rhetoric they taught in Medieval Universities, but with more numbers. I'll test you on 2 terms - "Pronominalisation"?; "under-lexicalisation"? If you like numbers you might want to try MS Word's readability feature. You enable it by accessing the "File menu > Options > Proofing" tab, then under the “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word” heading, you’ll see a box that says “Show readability statistics”. LibreOffice used to have an extension which did the same thing and more. The Flesch reading-ease score (FRES) for the Austen fragment is 2.5 (reading age 30!). For the Fleming piece it's 72 (reading age 14). On the web I've put a little Python 3 program that gives basic statistics - see (but you'll need to be a programmer to use it)

In stylistics they've identified four purposes of style -

  • Embellishment - ornamental: "The man sat heavily, like a bean-bag being dropped"
  • Self-reference - focusing the reader's attention to the language: "You've grown. That gown you own looks good on you"
  • Representation - Re-enforces the content: "The sad man moaned"
  • Manner - Displaying an author's characteristic style, their choice between similar options: "For a fat man he could sure run fast" or "He could run fast despite his weight"

The Bond example above was short on Embellishment and Self-reference. It used Representation - short clauses, with crashing, howling, ripping and zinging.

Now that we know more about style let's look at some other examples -

Exercise 2 - What is style?

Use any of these these factors -

  • Diction: the style of the author’s word choice
  • Sentence length/structure: the way words are arranged in a sentence
  • Tone: the mood of the story; the feeling or attitude a work creates
  • Narrator: the person telling the story and the point-of-view it is told in
  • Grammar and the use of punctuation
  • Creative devices like symbolism, allegory, metaphor, rhyme, and so on

as a way to describe the styles used below. Is there anything that's mere embellishment, or words that draw attention to themselves?

  • Through the fence, between the curly flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming towards where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit.
  • One Christmas was so much like another, in those years, around the sea-town corner now, and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six; or whether the ice broke and the skating grocer vanished like a snowman through a white trap-door on that same Christmas Day that the mince-pies finished Uncle Arnold and we tobogganed down the seaward hill, all the afternoon, on the best tea-tray, and Mrs. Griffiths complained, and we threw a snowball at her niece, and my hands burned so, with the heat and the cold, when I held them in front of the fire, that I cried for twenty minutes and then had some jelly.

Notes: William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) (limited vocabulary, few transitives - show not tell); Dylan Thomas (Memories of Christmas (1945)). Compare/contrast. Which narrator do you like most?

What is good style? What is style good for?

Having done some measuring, let's now be more judgemental.

  • Invisible/Ostentatious - I read on the web that "The secret of good style is to say what you have to say as simply and directly as possible". I don't really believe that. I think Orwell's way of writing is a style that's good for some purposes but not others. It isn't "natural", it's just another convention - such a common one outside of literature that we barely notice how contrived it is. There are other models of naturalness - the "slice-of-life" anecdotes of Anton Chekhov or the intense "hyperrealism" of Raymond Carver for example. Some might say that folk tales and legends are more natural. After all, in Art, realism was a late arrival. Perhaps Orwell's is a sophisticated and limited style.
    Sometimes readers want the style to be invisible. They want to be immersed in the world of the story. Any reminder that the story's made of words destroys the illusion (like watching a film about the Bible and seeing a microphone boom dip into the frame).
    But there's something to be said for ostentatious style - at least you'll be noticed. In one writing guide I read that "Creating and refining your own unique style of writing is important, particularly in the modern Internet age, where a high content turnover means readers are constantly in pursuit of something original and clever."
  • Literary/Non-literary - Styles have pros and cons, literary style especially so. On the one hand stylish prose is considered to be "literary fiction" and in some quarters is considered worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance. On the other hand, audiences want a good read. Agents do too - Lizzy Kremer (Head of the Books department at David Higham Associates) in a festival programme wrote that her "taste is for totally credible, emotionally involving narrative where story and place take precedence over style."

Fortunately your unique style needn't be quirky or ostentatious. Let's investigate a quieter style -

Exercise 3 - James Salter

The much admired George Saunders wrote an obituary article admiring the style of James Salter. He liked the sentence "Lights were appearing in parts of distant houses". He said "I don't know why" adding that a lesser writer might just have said "Lights were appearing in distant houses".

He quoted the passage below as an exemplar of style, saying "Its beauties are many but they're irreducible. They have to do, yeah, with rhythm, with strategic omission, with the great sympathetic human heart present behind the writing ... How did he do it? I have no idea."

See if you can list these beauties in the categories Saunders suggested. Perhaps you might want to focus on one category - "rhythm", "strategic omission", or "sympathetic human heart".

Finally we emerge at the roaring iron galleries where meat is handled. It's like coming upon a factory in the darkness. The overhead lights are blazing. The smell of carnage is everywhere. The very metal reeks with an odor denser than flowers. On the side-walk there are wheelbarrows of slaughtered heads. We stare down at the dumb victims. There are scores of them. The mouths are pink, the nostrils still moist. Warm knives with the edge of a razor have flensed them while their eyes were still fluttering, the huge, eloquent eyes of young calves. The bloody arms of the workers sketch quickly. Wherever they move, the skin magically parts, the warm insides pour out. Everything is swiftly divided.

One way people view literature is that language is the barrier between the things in the author's head and the readers' understanding. Some people think that if that barrier can't be removed, at least it could be a transparent window (like Orwell's style, I suppose). That's one model of how things work. Paul Valery on the other hand thought that "If what has happened in the one person were communicated directly to the other, all art would collapse, all the effects of art would disappear" and I tend to agree.

Continuing that analogy, some writers (poets especially) seem to create stained glass windows so dense you can barely see anything through it. Stained glass windows are pretty in their own right, but in literature (well, prose anyway), readers often prefer clear glass. But how clear is that glass really?


We'll investigate another style now, this time a style many of us share even if we don't realise it - the literary style. What do I mean by that? I mean what happens to people and events when they're put into stories.

Exercise 4 - Literary Content

Last year I read Lisa Appignanesi's "The Good Woman". When I tried to guess what would happen next I realised I was guessing using my experience of reading novels, not my experience of living life. Novels are made up. Thrillers follow one set of conventions, Romantic fiction another. Each have expectations of style.

What things happen commonly in novels but rarely in reality? And vice-versa? This is an Open-ended exercise, maybe difficult, so work in pairs if you want. Not language quirks, just plot and character issues.

Notes - In real life: a character suddenly disappears, 2 characters with the same name, Checkhov's gun not used, Loose ends (Barthes' Reality Effect), boring phases. In Literature: Tidy plots, Tidy endings, Murder. Hayden White coined the word "emplotment" to describe how, even in non-fiction, we twist events into masterplots - "rags to riches", etc

These conventions are often recommended in writing guides. Writers use them because they work, they're reliable. But they are expendable. It's not just the events that are literalised, it's the language.

Exercise 5 - Literary Language

List language that's in literature but not in life.

Notes - (Dialog: "he retorted", no plans/pictures). If someone asks me what my holiday in Venice was like, the odds are I'd get out my phone and show them pictures rather than use words. Rather than describe his house and how someone talked, David Eggers included a stave and a floor-plan in his book

Earlier I suggested that

      substance -> stylewindow -> reader

I think it's often worse than that - there are two windows

      Reality -> literisingwindow -> Literature -> stylewindow -> Reader

My guess is that Barthes wanted to smash the stylewindow and Shields wants to smash the literisingwindow. But if you get rid of both style and literalising, will anyone be interested in reading what's left? We're back to Wordsworth's concerns. Let's see if we can exploit style rather than discard it.

Adding style

In the first exercise we tried to reduce style. Let's see what happens when we try to turn on the style.

Exercise 6 - Mixed metaphor danger

When writers try to be more stylish they sometimes add loads of similes and metaphors, perhaps relying more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words. Here's the start of "The Half-Skinned Steer" by Annie Proulx -

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.

B. R. Myers says "Like so much modern prose, this demands to be read quickly, with just enough attention to register the bold use of words. Slow down, and things fall apart."

Do you agree with that judgement? Are the examples below any better?

  • "a brassy light slaps the leaves awake" - C.G. Menon
  • "The verandah gate opens and a bearded fleet of uncles and uncles-by-marriage begin to steam up like full-bellied sailing ships" - C.G. Menon
  • "Market women trudged across it with baskets balanced on their heads and worries nailed to their feet, while schoolboys skimmed back and forth in ragged clumps like swallows" - C.G. Menon
  • "Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens." - Proulx
  • "An apron of sound lapped out of each dive." - Proulx
  • "The ice mass leaned as though to admire its reflection in the waves, leaned until the southern tower was at the angle of a pencil in a writing hand, the northern tower reared over it like a lover." - Proulx
  • "The children rushed at Quoyle, gripped him as a falling man clutches the window ledge, as a stream of electric particles arcs a gap and completes a circuit." - Proulx
  • "While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned." - McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

Notes - Of Proulx' extract, Myers wrote that she "seems to have intended a unified conceit, but unfurling, or spreading out, as of a flag or an umbrella, clashes disastrously with the images of thread that follow. (Maybe "unraveling" didn't sound fancy enough.) A life is unfurled, a hustler is wound tight, a year is spooled out, and still the metaphors continue, with kicked down - which might work in less crowded surroundings, though I doubt it - and hinge." Of McCarthy's, Myers wrote that "it's really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose".

Getting the balance right?

Some writers hope that readers will get so caught up with the action that they won't notice the lack of style (Jeffrey Archer?). Others write such elegant prose that it doesn't matter if nothing much happens (Proust? Julian Barnes?). But surely style and content can fuse successfully. Helen Lederer wrote this about Muriel Spark - "The author's attitude is all contained within the style, so the reader knows exactly what she's thinking without being told." Even if they don't fuse, they can cooperate - for example, the style can help emphasise aspects of the content.

Let's try to assess how well style and content interact.

Exercise 7 - Style and Content working together?

In ski jumping, diving etc there are marks for both what you do and how you do it. Let's suppose that there's a similar scheme for writing. Give each passage below a mark out of 5 for Content (is it informative?) and a mark out of 5 for Style (try to describe it). Then (and this is the tricky bit) give a total. If the style and content are amazing, enhancing each other, the total might be more than the sum of the parts. If the style detracts from content the total will be a lot less than the sum of the parts.

Whatif she be in flags or flitters, reekierags or sundyechosies, with a mint of mines or beggar a pinnyweight. Arrah, sure, we all love little Anny Ruiny, or, we mean to say, lovelittle Anna Rayiny, when unda her brella, mid piddle med puddle, she ninnygoes nannygoes nancing by.
Nor did the severity of the winters deter me. They would be hard, I knew; not casually hard, as the tedium of January in southern England is hard, with its mud and drizzle and skies like sodden newsprint, but a force in opposition, a way of being rather than a backdrop; and consequently their survival would confer the certainty of great courage, persistence and inner strength.
Stung by the crisp wind I feel the fish’s pain, I cannot breath. This time, this year, I don’t have that hand to hold. Usually I can use my paints to distract from this feeling but now they threaten me for all I am.
Varieties of warm colors fill my palette but none match the color of his eyes, the sound of his laughter, and the love in his voice. Warmth, comfort, security, I need it all.
Xarthic skies overhead cast dark shadows on the lonely creek bed. You are supposed to be here next to me. Zealous lover this clear air is not breathable without you.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind's eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.
Numa, the lion, crouched behind a thorn bush close beside the drinking pool where the river eddied just below the bend. There was a ford there and on either bank a well-worn trail, broadened far out at the river's brim, where, for countless centuries, the wild things of the jungle and of the plains beyond had come down to drink, the carnivora with bold and fearless majesty, the herbivora timorous, hesitating, fearful.
Abruptly, the manifest realization welled up within him, like cold black water surging up through a rift in river ice - Richard remembered when it was he had heard Gratch growl like that. The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood out like icy needles in his flesh.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?" - was that it? - "I prefer men to cauliflowers" - was that it?

Notes - (James Joyce); (Jessie Greengrass);(Danielle Hickin); (Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms, 4 sentences, 126 words. 1 three-syllable, 22 two-syllable. 4 commas. "the" 22 times, "and" 14 times); The opening of "The Girls of Slender Means", Muriel Spark; The opening of a Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs (distracting language?), Terry Goodkind, from "Blood of the Fold", Virginia Woolf

Practical tips

Very generally speaking, if you're describing action, words get in the way. But if you're describing thoughts and emotions, style and content are entangled. Style becomes meaningful.

If you want to keep most of the readers happy most of the time -

  • Don't keep switching styles (Rushdie does)
  • Use style "Representationally", supporting rather than displacing content.
  • Connect style to a character, so that style illuminates some aspect of their psychology. i.e. turn style into voice.

Following on from that latter point, if you look at the examples in the previous exercise you'll notice that the style's been added in various parts of the narrative structure.

  • A third-person omniscient voice - plain, Orwellian and unbiased - is a common backdrop to stories. If you want to add style you can keep that narrational voice and make the characters more interesting.
  • A popular alternative at the moment is the unreliable narrator, a distinctive voice (usually first person) of a character who's involved in the action. Their style - the way they say and see things - is a crucial aspect of the story. They may not tell the whole truth.
  • Less common is the anonymous narrator - a first or third person voice of someone who's never identified and isn't part of the plot, yet is opinionated and distinctive (the Dickens example?)
  • You could try multiple points-of-view (using different voices). Margaret Atwood used 3 narrators in "The Testaments". Some readers find such texts difficult.

In any case the style is likely to change during the course of a story. Even Bond has to take a break sometimes.

Mix'n'Match - going to extremes

If you're not convinced that style and content are inextricable bound together, maybe you can exploit their independence. In the first exercise, you managed to keep the content while changing the style, so maybe it's possible.

While Erasmus was in Cambridge in 1511 he started writing "Copia" a sort of style manual with examples of various styles. Raymond Queneau's 1947 work "Exercices de style" took the idea a step further, telling the same story in 99 ways. Joyce's "Ulysses" pastiches several styles as the plot progresses. It's probably not the recommended method for a best-seller.


Writing in a flashy style is risky - it might distract from the content and slow the action down.

Writing in a simple style carries risks too. It lacks individuality, and with no verbal fireworks or make-up to hide any flaws, mistakes become glaring. People might not consider the text literature at all.

Some kind of style is unavoidable though, and can be useful, especially if we're writing a first-person piece adopting a different persona - show not tell.

As I pointed out, a novel's "style" is partly literary convention, and partly your voice. Perhaps easiest is to keep your voice and throw away some conventions. I always like to leave audiences with some homework to do, so try this - get a list of rules of good style (many such lists are online - Orwell's will do) and choose just one rule to break. Break it in a big way. The results might be interesting. It hasn't done Rachel Cusk's career any harm.

See Also

Monday, 8 July 2019


I've noticed sestinas creeping back into poetry collections. Apparently it's a trend that's been going on for a while. Melanie Seddon points out that "It is commonly believed that the sestina first appeared in southern France in the twelfth century, conceived by troubadour poets as a flamboyant display of skill ... The reappearance of a restrictive twelfth century form that had all but disappeared from common usage during the preceding centuries seems puzzling and at best unlikely. ... The sestina, however, is not a villanelle or pantoum; it makes no demands on the poet in terms of meter or rhyme or foot. Its requirements border on the mathematical and its prescriptions are mainly syntactical."

Stephen Burt emphasises this latter point - "Unlike the ... sonnet the ...structure of the sestina corresponds to no prominent process in human conversation or in the logic of discursive prose ... they require neither expertise with inherited meter nor facility with rhyme". He suggests that "Most contemporary sestinas descend, not from Bishop or Justice, but from the putatively anti-academic writings of the New York School poets, especially Ashbery and Kenneth Kock" and that its revival is more to do with a sense of language's inadequacy - "Young poets now tend not to believe that the poetry they publish in books and journals can disclose organic preverbal truths, invigorate broad movements for social justice ... When these ethical spiritual, political, and historical ambitions fall away, what is left is entertainment and craft or, to put it in another way, technique and fun ... The sestina thus fits a poetics of diminished, regretful, comic, self-skepticism."

Melanie Seddon shares that opinion - "as the interests of poets became focused on that of language itself, on its limitations and inadequacy in closing the gap between the individual and the outside world, the concept of language as an artificially constructed system ultimately freed the poet to choose whichever form she or he so pleased".

In 2013, "The Incredible Sestinas Anthology" came out, edited by Daniel Nester, with sestinas by John Ashbery, David Lehman, Matt Madden and Patricia Smith, etc. In a review Ben Yagoda wrote

  • "The modern revival probably started with Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and W.H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé""
  • "As befits the postmodern world, there are quite a few self-conscious sestinas here: Dana Gioia’s “My Confessional Sestina” (which begins: “Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas/written by youngsters in poetry workshops")"

The Form

The sestina's traditionally used when meditating on a theme - not as repetitive as a villanelle, but sometimes as obsessive. There's a mood of fateful inevitability.

James Fenton in a Guardian article suggested that "it is not technically difficult to pull off. The awkwardness is in making it interesting. Two ways have been tried. One uses somewhat inconspicuous words, on which it is easy to improvise variations. ... The other approach takes very noticeable and characterful words, which tax the ingenuity of the poet, but which play to the distinctive strength of the form".

The repeated words are sometimes known as "teleutons". Marianne Shapiro in "Hieroglyph of Time" points out that "Sestina poets generally avoid using verbs or adjectives" for these words. Variety is introduced by

  • Using puns instead of repetition
  • Using a long word that ends with an end-word (e.g. "closing" used when the expected word is "sing")
  • Using a combination of the above two idea. James Merrill’s “Tomorrows” uses the numbers as his end words, varying so that for example “two” becomes “tu,” “Timbuctoo,” “to,” “into,” and “too.”
  • Using synonyms instead of repetition
  • Using anagrams instead of repetition - Jacques Jouet's Anagrammatic sestina (translated from French by Rachel Galvin) has end-words staple, spared, recaps, carets, ternes, and tinsel. "staple" for example reappears as petals, plates, as pelt, pastel, palest and pleats.
  • Repeating words at the start of lines rather than the end.
  • Using long lines to dilute the boredom induced by repetition.
  • Adjusting the strict end-word repetition pattern of 123456, 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531, (25)(43)(61).

The envoi, which is often epigramatic, is also known as the tornada. Sometimes in the envoi a significantly different word is substituted. There may be no envoi, or a one-line envoi. It's often suggested that poets should write the envoi first.

Modern Examples

Robert Hass in "A Little Book on Form" wrote that "For a form to which books on form give so much attention, there are remarkably few memorable poems in the English and American canon" (p.193). Many poets have tried, often only once.

Rather than assemble some classics, I've looked through books and magazines for examples, paying particular attention to relaxations of the rules. In general the deviations are minor, and the poems sag in the middle - sestinas often seem to me a stanza too long. The poems by Dom Bury, Marianne Morris, Meryl Pugh, and A.E. Stallings merit particular attention.

  • Patience Agbabi’s "Skins" ends with
    It’s past midnight. I’ll call a cab if you want me to.
    But your eyes know how to fit
    a condom like a second skin. Come on…
    (end-words - on, past, fit, eyes, to, skin using variations such as "hard-on", "passed", "Photofit", "ice", "tattoo", "ice")
  • Raymond Antrobus' "The Perseverance" ends slightly irregularly with
    I still hear popping in for a minute, see him disappear.
    We lose our fathers before we know it.
    I am still outside THE PERSEVERANCE, listening for the laughter
    (end-words - PERSEVERANCE, minute, before, father, disappear, laughter)
  • Dom Bury's The Opened Field won the 2018 National Poetry Competition, described by the judges as a "neutron star of a poem compressed inside the restraining machinery of a sestina ... The form is a perfect container for the interlinked themes". It ends with
    that what the land gives it must then learn
    to turn back into soil. One child, a name its task
    to steal. Five boys turn from an empty field.
    (end-words - task, turn, give, names, learn, field.)
  • Michael Donaghy's "Signifyin' Monkey" ends with
    It's easy. Look, he'd been her only trainer.
    Guard or no guard, he'd signed 'I'm lunch.'
    The blood! Of course they had to shoot the monkey.
    (end-words - lunch, guard, easy, train, sign, monkey)
  • Jonathan Edwards' "In John F. Kennedy International Airport" ends with
    'Our apologies again that Wales no longer exists.
    What an honour and surprise to serve you. Please, call me Lucille.
    Now I hope it's a pleasant flight, Mr First Minister, sir'
    (end-words - Lucille, surprised, sir, it, Wales, exists)
  • Josh Ekroy's "Guided Tour" ends with
    The English - do they like to take care of family?
    Shia is shamed, if they do not. Remove sandals,
    this Mosque wants it. Now we are one blood.
    (end-words - English, Shia, want, family, sandals, blood)
  • Janet Fisher's "A Life" ends with
    Caught, strip searched, head shaved, in a room without curtains.
    names, dates, on the tip of his tongue. Then they slammed the gate.
    And two people grieved a packet, the rest put it to one side.
    (end-words - shave, tongue, fate, curtains, packet, side, with variations like "certain", "pack it", etc)
  • John Foggin's "Falling apart" ends with
    It was stone enchanted him. Cold attitude, and snow.
    Cirrus had all his love. He forgot how soft was her skin.
    His fingers frosted white, he could never hold her, always let her fall.
    (end-words - love, nimbus, skin, letters, snow, fall, though "nimbus" becomes cloud and mists; letters becomes say)
  • Oli Hazzard's "Some Shadows" ends with
    squirming through the trees, impossibly light;
    And I turn to see that you, with a stuttering finger, still read
    The bill, through twitching lips that shadow words.
    (end-words - light, trees, mute, shadows, read, fingers. "mute" seems to have become "twitching lips" at the end)
  • Seamus Heaney's Two lorries ends with
    As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
    Then reappear from your lorry as my mother's
    Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.
    (end-words - ashes, lorry, coalman, mother, Magherafelt, load - though load become "lode", "lead", "payload", "explode")
  • Peter Howard's "The Fabric Torn" ends with
    Or could it be that what sails is your ghost?
    Do you know its intent? Under what sky?
    Will you next see the sun? Eating what dust?
    (end-words - dust, sails, sky, tent, ghost, sun)
  • Gwyneth Lewis' "Advice on Adultery" ends with
    Don't give up hope at the knowing looks.
    Get your own back, have a change of heart:
    Ignore the men, start sleeping with the wives.
    (end-words - wives, hope, heart, looks, back, men)
  • Kathryn Maris' "Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?" ends with
    you feel for me what you felt for her
    can't you say I'm better than that woman
    can't you get those books off the floor?
    (end-words - say, floor, feels, her, man, books)
  • Kim Moore's "How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping" ends with
    that I carry. It cools in my mouth in the dark
    and the moon sails on overhead. You ask
    about birds, but all I can talk of is stones.
    (end-words - stone, it, asked, moon, dark, birds)
  • Marianne Morris's "Little Song War" ends with
    Beneath the tomb of public opinion forms the crust of your pie.
    Your pie, i.e. a kind of having no allegiance to anything,
    whether black, white, this creep or that one, kettle or pot.
    (end-words - pie, pot, kettle, black, white, creep. These are all used in the final line. "black" is sometimes used a second time in a stanza instead of "kettle")
  • Togara Muzanenhamo's "Six Francs Seventy-five" ends with
    The deaf teller ran to me, tapped me on the shoulder as I thought of you,
    With no change to his eyes, he shook my hand and silently said with his lips,
    'It's your habit, and exactly six seventy-five'. I smiled and left he supermarket.
    (end-words - supermarket, teller, lips, change, you, five)
  • Ilse Pedler's "The Importance of Air" ends with
    In the morning, the stockman gives the order to hold the cow
    and before she can turn, the calf is gone. Her udder swells, heavy
    with milk but he’ll be back to take her to the parlour before long.
    (end-words - long, order, heavy, gone, cow, milk)
  • Meryl Pugh's "3rd Person Beautiful" ends with
    She is a beautiful girl. She is a beautiful
    girl. She is a beautiful girl. She
    is a beautiful girl. She is a beautiful girl.
    The repeated words are "She", "is", "a", "beautiful", "beautiful", "girl". In 4 places there are wrong words at the ends of lines. These are crossed out.
  • Carole Satyamurti's "The Silence of the Lions" ends with
    there's no space for rebellion. At the waste ground,
    countdown to performace. From room to room
    children draw lessons from the afternoon.
    (end-words - afternoon, space, room, performance, ground, draw)
  • Hannah Silva's "Hello my friend" ends with
    Hello my dear friend there is no subject no winning numbers
    I am keeping you connected and I am following you,
    I've told you the good news and now await your urgent respond.
    (end-words - urgent, friend, following, connected, subject, news. The final "respond" - rather than "response" is irregular)
  • Kathryn Simmonds' "Sunday at the Skin Launderette" ends with
    a skin or rain ripples the darkening streets as water pours
    though gutters, pounding pavements clean, making
    everything a sort of new, while the work goes on inside.
    (end-words - side, clean, work, making, pour, skin. "side" becomes "outside", "beside". "clean becomes "lean". "pour" becomes "poor", "paw", "pauses", "pore")
  • A. E. Stallings' Like, use only "Like" as an end-word. It ends with
    But as you like, my friend. Yes, we’re alike,
    How we pronounce, say, lichen, and dislike
    Cancer and war. So like this page. Click Like.
  • George Szirtes' "Cryogenic: The Big Freeze" ends with
    Here is the model. Who knows about later?
    Poems do what they can not to freeze up.
    It's language that survives. O K spells OK.
    (end-words - OK, model, up, can, later, there - "there" becoming "that" at the end)
  • Lewis Turco's Obsession ends with
    I died again last night, my father dreamed.
    (end-words - again, dreamed, night, died, father, last)
  • Heidi Williamson's Mobius Strip ends with
    Make a heap of loops at home and see
    how the joins make countless starts and ends.
    And think of ‘now’ as home. You can’t go back.
    (end-words - home, ends, loop, see, join, back)

See also

Friday, 31 May 2019

A guide to diversity/inclusion for writers and editors

As if writing (or editing a literary journal) weren't hard enough already, diversity studies and political correctness have revealed other responsibilities. This document attempts to get editors and writers up to speed on some of the basic issues, starting with gender and race.


Even in situations where objective comparisons can be made, bias can easily creep in, so it's no surprise that in literature, where judgement's subjective and justifications needn't be expressed, that some disappointing statistics emerge. VIDA produce a breakdown of M/F ratios (Editors, Reviewers, Writers) in some major literary publications. In their summary for 2017 they point out that "The New York Review of Books had the most pronounced gender disparity of 2017’s VIDA Count, with only 23.3% of published writers who are women. Previously, the London Review of Books had exhibited the worst gender disparity, at 21.9% in 2016, with comparable numbers in prior years (23% in 2015, 22% in 2014, 21% in 2013)."

The statistics for reviewers are striking too. In Dave Coates' report he writes "Though female/NB critics review more or less evenly across genders, male critics are twice as likely to review other men (30.7% of all reviews) than women (16.5%). This disparity rises to three times as likely at The Guardian (37.8% to 10.4%), four times at PN Review (47.8% to 11.4%) and five times at Modern Poetry in Translation (30.1% to 5.5%)".

For centuries females have used male (or gender-neutral) names to bypass bias, though even having entries anonymised didn't always help - the subject matter gives the game away. If women tend to write about domestic/women's issues rather than Big Issues (as defined by WASPs), the male editors might still prefer the entries written by males.

To some extent, it works both ways - I know a male writer of romantic fiction who uses a gender-neutral name.


The 2011 UK Census reported that in England and Wales, 80% of the population were white British. Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, other) 'groups' made up 6.8% of the population; black groups 3.4%; Chinese groups 0.7%, Arab groups 0.4% and other groups 0.6%. People identifying as BAME comprised 12.9% of the total UK population (4.9% in Ireland!)

Literary representation falls way behind these statistics. Dave Coates reports that "Only 9.1% of all poems published in the data set were written by poets of colour, 1,819 of the total 19,993. Of these, 502 were published in a single magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation; without MPT, the total drops to 7.01%.

There are recent signs of catching up. A Trinidad writer won 2018 BBC short story award. The 2018 BBC Young Writers' Award was for a story about a young African poacher which was inspired by the author's early life living in Africa. The Winner of the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize was Raymond Antrobus (deaf, had an alcoholic Jamaican father). The 2019 PBS Autumn Recommendations were Anthony Anaxagorou, Mary Jean Chan, Seni Seneviratne, Peter Sirr, Carmen Bugan, Dunya Mikhail and Manuel Forcano.

As with gender, the race statistics for reviewing are salutary. Dave Coates concludes that "i) poets of colour do not have access to a wide range of platforms for publication; ii) this exclusion is almost doubly true for critics of colour; iii) white male critics are the default at many publications, particularly those with male editors; iv) female/NB critics are asked to critique work by poets from a range of backgrounds in a way that men overwhelmingly are not."

Wendy Pratt, looking at the small press pamphlet publishing poetry world detected a "startling lack of diversity in the small press pamphlet publishing poetry world" suggesting that "it is in part because, as I’ve said, the arts are squeezed virtually to death and poetry is a niche market at the best of times. This means that less and less people are going into pamphlet publishing, which probably means that the same people have been running the same presses for a number of years, with no change to the dynamics."

The race ratios are very different in London (45% were White British) and amongst younger generations. If you live in London, you might expect much greater than 3% of poets to belong to black groups, but for the country as a whole, that ratio's about right.


Of late, the binary Male/Female and White/Black concepts have come to seem rather simplistic. Terminology has emerged - lots of it. Here's a selection.

  • BAME - Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic
  • LGBTQIA - Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and asexual populations and allies/alliances/associations.
  • cisgender (or cis) - describes individuals whose gender identity and expression line up with their birth-assigned sex.
  • POC - An acronym standing for “person of color.”
  • D/deaf - Deaf is deaf from birth; deaf refers to those who become deaf
  • Tokenism - the practice of recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual, disabililty, or racial equality.

People "identify as" belonging to a classification. Famously, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, identified as black. In their signatures, people may wish to point out how they'd like to be addressed - e.g. "Tim Love (he/him)".

Writing and identity politics

Perhaps as a reaction to Language poetry and theory (but most likely because of campaigns to get more people to write) identity poetry's on the rise. Rather than being a hidden presence in a poem, the poet can be the subject of the piece, involving self-expression, politics, and social analysis.

Such poetry isn't always popular. As Will Harris wrote on his blog, "Some people believe that the best writing ... should assume a “view from nowhere,” free of the constraints of identity, of background. The rise of identity politics is seen as having compromised the purer aesthetic criteria by which we once judged art, muddying the waters with moral and political concerns". The press pounces on special cases -

  • When Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Poetry in 2014, every newspaper report foregrounded his identity. Either he was a “Jamaican poet” or just a “Jamaican”. The assumption in such reports was that Miller had won for extra-literary reasons, because of his race. Riley makes the same insinuations more explicitly when he says that recent “big prize-winning results” have ignored “aesthetic criteria” (quoted from Harris's blog)
  • After submitting his poem “The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” forty times and each time receiving rejection, Michael Derrick Hudson, a 51 year old white poet, submitted his work under a new name: Yi-Fen Chou. Under Hudson’s new pen name, the poem was published by The Prairie Schooner and then later selected by the esteemed Native American writer Sherman Alexie for inclusion in the 2015 edition of the anthology Best of American Poetry.
  • The Nation magazine issued an apology for a poem it published by the poet Anders Carlson-Wee. Carlson-Wee is a white man who wrote the poem in so-called black vernacular. It is meant to be from the perspective of a homeless person begging for money. The poem caused a storm on social media, where it was labelled ‘ableist’ (he used the word ‘crippled’) and the poet was accused of donning ‘blackface’. The two poetry editors at the Nation who first accepted the poem for publication, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, completely backed away from the work and published an apology, which they posted above Carlson-Wee’s poem. They said they had made ‘a serious mistake’, were sorry ‘for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem’, and planned to ‘earn the trust back’ of their readers (from Candice Holdsworth's article)

It's become all too easy to offend. As I quote in my offensive poetry article, a comedian said that "Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin."

What literature can do to help

Create specialist sites, competitions and publications - MsLexia is for women writers. Wasafiri aimed to "provide much needed literary and critical coverage of writers from African, Caribbean, Asian and Black British backgrounds", though they welcome "contributions from poets, fiction writers, academics and critics from all cultural backgrounds". Peepal Tree Press publishes work by Caribbean and Black British writers.

Raise awareness by promulgating best practise, collecting and disseminating statistics - how many main characters in short-listed works use a wheelchair? How many poetry editors of the major presses are WASP oxbridgers?

Create targeted schemes - In her article about the Ledbury emerging poetry critics programme, Sarah Howe writes about a project aiming to influence reviewing culture.

Encourage outreach - Poetry Week can be used to get into new places - NHS, etc. A poetry element can be piggy-backed onto events - Sports week, ME week, etc.

Encourage more balanced judging panels - ensuring fair representation is notoriously difficult - there are so many minorities to consider. Jackie Kay, a black lesbian mother who was adopted, ticked several boxes, making some people suggest tokenism when she was in panels. She's a professor now.

Attach Conditions to grants - Journals might claim that they can only publish what they get, but how hard are they trying to reach out to other communities?

  • Under the Radar's submission page says "We actively encourage and welcome diverse submissions, and would love to see more poetry submitted to Nine Arches Press from women, BAME, disabled and LGBTQ poets and those traditionally under-represented in poetry publishing."
    I don't think this statement need discourage anyone from submitting.
  • The Selkie's submission page says it's "committed to working with marginalised and/or underrepresented voices and will only accept work by/concerned with: individuals identifying as women; people of colour; minorities in predominantly white nations; refugees and first-generation immigrants; LGBTQIA+; those living with mental illness, or physical or other disabilities; those persecuted for their political or religious beliefs; victims of violence, or domestic or sexual abuse; and those without access to higher education degrees, living below the poverty line, or who are/have been homeless or incarcerated."
    This statement sounds more restrictive, though the acceptance of "work by/concerned with ... individuals identifying as women" lets many people in.

Magazines haven't all decided to adapt in the way that the above ones have. In a 2019 Acumen editorial it said "I feel that [the Arts Council] are diverging from the path which Acumen wishes to follow. This is to accept all poems on merit and not be influenced by gender, ethnicity, religion, fame or anything other than the value of the poem".


Issues such as "the long poem" and rhyming poetry seem unfashionable nowadays, overtaken by more pressing, life-affirming issues. Some positive discrimination helps redress the balance, and literature's subjective judgements can be used in underrepresented voices' favour. Outreach may initially encourage people to write who've barely written before, and whose work may lack the traditional signs of poetry. As part of this naivety they may also expect immediate publication and have trouble accepting or understanding traditional criticism, especially if the content means a lot to them. It's this stage which might cause editors and tutors most stress, After a while these newer writers may adapt.

Meanwhile, the poetry world's changing, become more accommodating. Reliable statistics aren't easily obtained - growth sectors like Performance poetry or YouTube poetry can too easily be neglected. Even in more traditional sectors though there are some signs of progress -

  • David Coates notes that "Poetry by women and NB folk has also improved substantially since the start of the data set. In 2012 the figure was at 41.3%, rising steadily to 48.6% in 2017."
  • Sarah Howe notes that "In the past decade, publishing and mentorship schemes targeting BAME poets and writers, new profile-raising festivals and readings, national prize winners and judging panels, as well as crucial cultural debates around race, gender and ethnicity, have dramatically improved the diversity of British poetry."

See Also

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Offensive poetry

Summer 2017's "Poetry Review" has a feature on poetry that causes offense, with articles by Kathryn Maris (Transgression and transcendence: poetry and provocation), Vahni Capaldeo (Punishable bodies: poetry on the offensive) and David Wheatley. Poems by Tony Hoagland ("The Change", etc), Frederick Sedel, Craig Raine ("Gatwick"), Bobby Parker, Alan Jenkins ("Heritage"), Shivanee Ramlochan, and Catullus are mentioned.


  • There's Dave Coates' On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. The poet's written a response. In issue 40 of "The Dark Horse" Rob A MacKenzie has an essay about the Martinez incident that's well worth reading.

  • According to the NY Times, Anders Carlson-Wee (white) wrote a poem in the voice of a homeless person begging for handouts, offering advice on how to play on the moral self-regard of passers-by by playing up, or even inventing, hardship. His attempt at black vernacular didn't go down well. The poem was published in "The Nation" who later apologized for it.

Here I'll try to check-list some factors that affect the severity of such incidents and their aftermath.


Was the poet aware that offense might be caused?

  • Perhaps they didn't realise - Times change, cultures have different outlooks. An unintended audience may come across the text. Words go through fashion changes. "Queer" is one example. It may now be "claimed" by gays, but in the old days it was insulting. Even now it may still be used insultingly.
  • Perhaps they realised, wanting (gratuitously?) to cause offense. Art has a history of wanting to shock. In her article Maris writes "Provocation for its own sake can be tedious. For me, however, the most exclusionary and dangerous poem is a boring one, the one that gives up on any hope of engagement. Provocation, for all its perils, for all its potential for failure, is an indication, at the very least, that the poet desires to make a connection." It can be a plea for freedom for speech.
  • Perhaps they knew, but thought they'd covered themselves sufficiently. There are various ways that deliberately offensive material might be excused -
    • The offensive matter may be included in order to attack it - e.g. putting the words into a villainous or stupid character's mouth, or a character who gets their comeuppance in the end.
    • It's Art, so anything goes - as long as it's good art, as long as "it has enough technical and imaginative conviction to transcend its transgression" (Maris)
    • Realism - it's sometimes argued that because "it really happened", that "you can't pretend it doesn't happen", swearing, violence, etc should be depicted.
    • It's erotica not pornography
    • The author belongs to the group they're offending
    Readers may be right in not accepting these excuses. The first of these in particular can be abused.


  • Is the target an individual or a group? Generalised mockery is risky (not all Poles are plumbers, not all Essex girls are "Essex girls", etc). Generalising about (or making fun of) professions seems less serious - you're allowed to mock IT staff and top executives.
  • Does the piece make fun of others' views or of innate characteristics? If fun is made of a trait that someone has little control over (race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, skin-colour) it's worse than mocking their views on (say) Brexit.
  • Is the target "fair game"? Satire defends itself this way. One can make fun of Trump's hair but not a fellow poet's, or baldies in general. You're allowed to mock racists, homophobes, etc.
  • Is the target unconcerned? If only third-parties care, perhaps no offense has been caused
  • Is the target defenceless? Is there a right of reply?
  • Is the offense widely broadcast?
  • Who has exposed the offense, and why? - Is there a witch-hunt? Is there an attempt to gain publicity? Has someone been rummaging through through old poems (by TS Eliot say, or Ted Hughes, or long forgotten juvenalia) until something's found? Is it cowardly of critics to condemn the words only of those who won't react by using sticks and stones. Surely there are far more influential, powerful people to criticise.


  • Is an apology enough? It wasn't for Salman Rushdie.
  • Should the offender's writings be avoided? Can a bad person write good poetry, or at least poetry that others can learn from? Did Pound's views on Fascism make "On the Metro" a bad poem?
  • Should writers self-censure? It's safer not to write poetry that could offend but how easy is it to do? For example, any piece that involves an abortion can cause offense, even if the woman suffers afterwards. Who should control a writer's work? Where should respect/tolerance for others' opinions end?


Similar issues affect comedy. Making bad taste jokes about 9/11 on 9/12 wouldn't have been wise. Even now, only Jews (if that) can joke about the holocaust. Any joke about dying can upset someone who's just received bad news. A joke that Ellen Degeneres made about piggy backing Usian Bolt so she could run faster was chastised on social media for evoking the memory of slavery.

Some comedians feel they're being forced underground. A US TV documentary, 'Can We Take A Joke?', suggested that comedians could be at the forefront of a battle against a new assault on free speech. The press-notes point out that “While people have always found something to be offended by, their ability to organize a groundswell of opposition to — and public censure of — their offender has never been more powerful. Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin.

I think comedians are more politically correct nowadays - more confessional and self-denegrating than before (safer options, used by poets too), with fewer mother-in-law and drunk Glaswegian jokes. I don't think it's harmed the quality of the comedy. It may have caused self-harm to some comedians.


We have a greater awareness of how prejudices develop and how they're sustained by minor aggressions, etc. We're more aware of the variations in people's sensitivity to bullying.

But as pointed out above, it's also easier nowadays to record a clumsy off-air aside, to react loudly even to accidental transgressions, to spread opinions virally before there's been a chance to correct misunderstandings. We read with others around (hence the issue about NSFW - "Not safe for work" - material). If you're applying for Arts Council grants you need to say clean. In the editorial of "The Dark Horse", issue 40, Gerry Cambridge writes "Poetry ... seems increasingly an arena governed and to some degree imperilled by thought-police ... The atmosphere is one of nervy compliance to the dictated mores of outraged opinion".

Thanks to social media, etc, sub-cultures, each with different moral outlooks, are more likely to have access to each other's output and opinions, and have more ways to complain about it.

So perhaps poets need to be more cautious nowadays, not least when exchanging views at the bar after a reading. At the start of some news items, viewers/listeners are warned that some of them may find the details disturbing. Perhaps some books might include the same warnings. On the bright side, constraints can aid creativity.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Emergence and literature

I wrote this after reading "Mind and Emergence" by Philip Clayton (OUP, 2004). Though emergence may seem to have little to do with literature it ties in with some other articles I've written ("Ingarden and the Sense of Resolution", "Literary Depth", etc).

What is Emergence?

I read little philosophy. Partly this is because even if it's clearly written (and Clayton's book is) I struggle to understand it, but there are problems of motivation too. In places Clayton contrasts the scientist's and philosopher's approaches. My instincts are clearly scientific - to get more data, to produce testable hypotheses, to wonder what the point of the theorising is given that whatever the conclusion, the next step is to collect more data. Definitions are ok though. Early in the book it's suggested that there are at least 3 main features of emergence -

  • Physicalism - it begins with observables
  • Novelty - "when aggregates of material particles attain an appropriate level of organisational complexity, genuinely novel properties emerge in these complex systems"
  • Irreducibility - Emergent properties are irreducible to, and unpredictable from, the lower-level phenomena from which they emerge.

If the novel properties are too novel, there's a risk of Dualism being argued for - the two layers are so different that communication between them becomes problematic, a ghost in the machine. Evolution is important in the discussions - it explains how the emergent features we witness could have come about gradually. Examples are in fossil records and existing life-forms.

There are different types of emergence. In some disciplines over 20 distinct layers have been identified. A general theory might be difficult to produce. Complexity theory may help to explain some of the anti-entropy features. Simple rules may generate complex, emergent outcomes - "game of life" and gliders; ant behaviour, etc.


  • quantum world -> classical world
  • particles -> viscosity
  • quarks -> cells -> brains - >thought

I'd add Letters -> Words -> Characters/Narrative -> Plot -> Moral

Weak/Strong emergence

How "real" are these upper levels? Are they just a convenience, a shorthand to make explanations less tedious? Strong emergence is when "downward causation" appears, when something in a higher level seems to acquire an independent existence with control over its surroundings - including its constituent parts. "Person" is a candidate for being the result of strong emergence. If a person sees a tiger (or is injected with adrenaline) their heart-rate will rise and they'll experience fear. That sequence of events goes through the layers in a bottom-up direction - a person is a bundle of cells, so a change in the cells is likely to percolate up. However, if a person dreams about a tiger their adrenaline level might also rise as the result of downward control.

Defining the layers

When does more become different? It's not always clear. Each layer may be defined by the appropriate way of it being studied - physics is a basis for chemistry which in turn leads to biology; each defining a layer. Phenomena in a layer are described with reference to that layer, and explained by reference to the layer below. John Holland suggested that different sciences occur at jumps of roughly three orders of magnitude. The layers may not be clearly defined. For example, there's no clear living/non-living divide.

The dependence of a layer on the previous one can be of several types, part-whole being perhaps the simplest. To describe these dependencies network theory is replacing hierarchies. Within a layer there may be a Game-theory association between components. In a predator/prey relationship there may be an oscillating balance - even though the predator eats the prey, with fewer prey there'll be fewer predators. Take this dynamic element away and you fail to describe the system. A Game-theory association is irreducible.


But the way that higher levels are generated from lower ones might not be simple. Suppose you're looking at a flat hologram of a person's head. There's an illusion of depth. If you focus on the nose, you're looking though two little regions of the flat hologram (one for each of your eyes). That's where the information about the nose is. If you move your head sideways and look at the nose again, you're looking at it through two different regions, so information about the nose must be there too. Unlike a painting, the hologram's representation isn't in a 1-to-1 relationship with the represented object. Where is the nose? It's everywhere on the surface. If you remove part of the surface, the nose will still be there, degraded.

Fanciful though this concept sounds, it's a theory of the way the universe is (the Holographic principle), solving otherwise intractable problems. The 3D world we see might be a projection of a holographic surface.


From a bundle of cells and behaviours, how do you get a person? Is a person any more than a mix of habits, tendencies and memories bound in a particular body? Suppose they have a leg amputated? Are they any less a person? Suppose they have advanced Alzheimers? Suppose they become "a different person" after a stroke?

Apparently consciousness didn't exist until relatively recently. Is consciousness such a special feature though? Some computers pass the Turing test with some people. People can become very attached to a pet or even a temperamental car - memories become associated with it. Sometimes self-awareness is used as a test of advanced consciousness. That's less clear cut than it used to be - the mirror test has been called into question recently, and some people seem more aware of themselves and others than others are. Crows pass the test but not mountain gorillas - perhaps it's a feature that's more useful for community animals; perhaps it's less of a crowning glory than we thought - "In Edelman's treatment, the increasing complexity of dynamic feedback and feed-forward loops just is awareness" (p.119)

Can any system sufficiently complex to model itself be considered conscious? Not necessarily, though it's interesting to note that a simulation may well have structural similarities to the real thing. This world appears to be hierarchically structured - complex structures become units of higher structures.

Whether or not people exist, they're a useful concept. If asked why X killed Y, an answer involving quantum effects is less likely to be successful than one involving concepts like betrayal.

Belief in God could be a side-effect (an overshoot) of belief in self, God being as real or unreal as its substrate, people.


Texts have several layers - letters, words, objects/scenes/characters, plot, moral. Each layer needs the substrate (without letters, no words) but has properties that the substrate lacks (letters don't have meaning, words do; words don't have guilt, characters do). Thinking in terms of layers helps elucidate some issues -

  • Especially in avant-garde work, it can be difficult to go up to the next level - in Finnegan's Wake for example, the step from letters to words can be problematic.
  • These layers can become mixed especially in avant-garde works though also in comedy - in cartoons, Jerry rubs out Tom as if he's the cartoonist.
  • Sometimes layers are bypassed - "pure poetry" bypasses middle layers.
  • Sometimes lower layers show through - in acrostics for example, the letters matter even after they've been composed into words.

This looks like a typical setting for emergence, though I don't think the concept of layers does it full justice - there's too much two-way interaction between the layers. A network model is more appropriate.

Readers easily create people from words - its what they've spent their lives doing without realising it - which is why it's useful to break the process down. In literature though, the lowest level isn't that of letters. Beneath is the author, who can also show through, producing metafiction. People who dislike metafiction often say that they don't like how it destroys the illusion, how it prevents immersion, but how real are the characters anyway? Would they (the putative author included) pass the Turing test?

Holograms have been used as an analogy for how meaning can emerge from a surface. Removing a sentence from a text might reduce the amount of detail about a character, but the character survives. And a sentence may contain information regarding more than one character.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Quality versus Quantity

Some poets don't produce much. In 1988 Faber published Ian Hamilton's "Fifty Poems". This included just about all he'd previously had published, and six new poems. In the preface he wrote: "Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think". Amongst novelists, Harper Lee produced little. Their lack of volume didn't seem to hold their careers back.

In the "Bridport Prize anthology 2017" one poet's bio mentions a single success - being commended in the Ware poetry competition. For the author of the Flash winner the anthology appearance was their first published work. I suspect that however brilliant their Bridport pieces, these writers aren't going to break through unless they have worthwhile portfolios. For small-press writers I think quantity matters - it helps keep your name in circulation long enough for the right people to notice. The difference between a relatively well-known writer and an unknown one is not necessarily in the quality of their best pieces of work (an unknown's best piece may be superb) but in the quantity of good work produced.

Producing more will mean that your worst pieces will be worse than before, but can trying to write more lead to your best pieces suffering too? Perhaps. The easiest way to increase output is by lowering standards, by being less self-critical. If this policy is adopted uniformly, a writer's best work will suffer. But if self-criticism is reduced just long enough to release some new ideas, a return to harsh self-criticism afterwards can mould those ideas into something useful.

So there are grounds for believing that a writer's best work will be improved. In "Art & Fear", authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were given an A for producing fifty pounds of pots, whereas the others were judged on quality, needing to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. The best works came from the group being graded on quantity - "It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

I've often seen this experiment quoted. I'm unsure how generally true it is. Pots can't be re-edited - poems can. Photographers used to be encouraged to take many snaps, but now re-touching solves many problems. That said, just as you need the photos before you can use Photoshop, so you need first drafts before you can re-write, as Robert Lee Brewer points out. It's easier to improve a piece than start one from scratch. And you never know where a writing session will end up - you may sit down intending to write one poem and finish with a different one altogether. The important thing is to be in the right place when inspiration arrives.

So perhaps having more raw material helps. How can one write more? NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) are initiatives to help improve the amount produced by writers. Books like "52: Write a Poem a Week. Start Now. Keep Going" by Jo Bell can help too.