Tuesday, 5 April 2022

"Mrs Fox" by Sarah Hall - compromised genres

"The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" mixes genres though it's much more comedy than SF - Adams would do anything for a laugh. In other works the balance is more delicate. As an example I'll look at Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox" which won the 2013 National Short Story Award and has been frequently reprinted. We're introduced to a working, childless couple returning home in the evening - meal, bed and sex. After a day or so of morning sickness the wife, in the course of half a page, turns into a fox. He deals with the practical consequences. Later he regularly goes to see the partnerless fox with cubs in the wood. Will he have to let her go? The end.

The genre? I guess it's Magic realism. But how does the author stop the magic undercutting the realism, and the magic being reduced to mere realism or hallucination?

The realism aspect is hard to sustain, though the author tries. The author keeps the magic to half a page. Surprisingly, the man doesn't freak out (but then, nor does Kafka's metamorphed man). At first he tries to keep her as a pet. He tells neighbours and her workplace that she's left him. Fair enough, but there's no mention of curious friends or relatives - a gaping plot loop-hole.

The fairy tale element is strengthened by a lack of worldly detail. We never discover the man’s name or what jobs they did. However the fox acts more like a pet than a human. And there's no obvious happy ending or moral.

So neither genre is sound. Yet readers go along with the story. Many are moved by it. The advantage of the magical element is that the situation can be applied to any relationship where one partner changes (has mental problems or out-grows the relationship, or dies) and the other partner has to cope, has to decide how his love will adapt - will he let her go?

The narrative voice tries to steer readers away from disbelief of both the realistic and mythic elements. Actually this task is performed by two blended voices - one from his point-of-view (in whose context the realism seems plausible), and a detached, more mythic/meta viewpoint (which makes the magic seem appropriate). For example, before any magic, there's this -

Her pubic hair is harsh when it dries; it crackles against his palm, contrasts strangely with what's inside. A mystery he wants to solve every night. There are positions they favour, that feel and make them appear unusual to each other. The trick is to remain slightly detached. The trick is to be able to bite, to speak in a voice not your own.

We're told little about either of them - myth is diluted by too much unsymbolic detail. We're told that she had "some kind of mass removed, through an opened abdomen", that she has a job and leaves the house untidy. She was once unfaithful. After her transformation their cleaner lets herself in. He pushes her out with such urgency that she thinks he's crazy. In a realistic story, the man might indeed query his sanity (thus normalising the story). In a more intellectual meta-story he might think he's a character trapped in a fable. The author tries to anticipate both of these possible reader expectations using the protagonist's viewpoint. He locks the fox in the house and researches in the library, wondering whether he's mad.

He returns home with medical texts and a slender yellow volume from the twenties. There is little correlation to myth. He is no thwarted love. Most upsetting is the repetition of one aspect: an act of will.

So if myths are to be believed, she's not afflicted - she has chosen to become "other" to him. The "slender yellow volume" is likely to be "Lady into Fox", David Garnett's 1922 novella, whose plot points Hall knew.

Where do our sympathies lie, and do they change in the course of the story? He worries about her, and following the transformation the fox sits at the man's feet. When trapped inside the house, the fox doesn't scratch desperately to escape. He lets the fox go, tries to forgot. When he finds the fox, "He waits to hear his name, just his name, that he could be made un-mad by it". The fox leads him to her den. He stays a respectful distance away. At the end of the story

He has given up looking for meaning ... One day, Sophia might [...] enter the kitchen and sit at the table. I dreamt of the forest again, she will say ...
To watch her run into the edgelands, breasting the ferns and scorching the fields, to see her disappear into the void - no - how could life mean anything without his unbelonging wife?

He's still hoping that reality will reign, though the use of the eye-catching word "unbelonging" suggests that he now knows that she doesn't belong in his world. His lack of panic (which at first seemed unrealistic - a device forced upon the author to make the myth aspect viable) and his undemonstrative (albeit sincere) love may be the very factors that made her leave him. The conflict of genres elegantly replicates the difference between the two people.

Saturday, 25 December 2021

David Almond's "A kind of heaven" and "1982"

"A kind of heaven" and "1982", the stories that start and finish David Almond's story collection "A kind of heaven" (Iron Press, 1997), share many features -

  • The Point-of-View (PoV) is of a pre-pubescent boy, Tom (with a friend Askew), whose mother isn't well. The parents seem to love each other and the boy, though the whole family isn't often together. The boy has dreams.
  • There's a mentally scarred war veteran who the father has sympathies with.
  • The setting is in NE England by the sea, with coal gatherers on the beach. The boy goes with his father by bus to nearby Newcastle. On a bridge the mother yells to the boy "Race/Beat you to the other side!"
  • The father has been to Egypt and had promised the mother trips overseas
  • The cold war and the threat of war are backdrops.

There are significant differences too

A kind of heaven1982
3rd person1st person
The noisy showman veteran Harris, long known to the father, specialises in self-harmThe quiet, begging veteran, appeared only after the mother was hospitalised - representing rotting Nature?
The veteran fancies the motherThe veteran is thought to fancy the boy's friend
The boy and his father seek the veteran to help himThe boy and his friend seek the veteran wanting to get rid of him
The boy repeatedly visits the city with a parent. He sees crowdsThe boy repeatedly goes to the dunes with friends
The mother isn't visibly ill yetThe mother is in hospital
At the end he pricks himself with a needle, whispers "I feel nothing. I'm fine"Near the end he scares the veteran away and tells his father that mother will be fine
The boy ends in his room, aloneThe boy ends on the beach with a friend, being called away by his father

I don't think that the second story is sequel to the first. Perhaps the two stories should be read as if they're a single piece, one story informing the other.

Shared symbolism

Both stories mention sea (as an opportunity to escape) and stars (always there in the darkness). The two main symbols are -

  • The war veteran - In "A kind of Heaven" when his father sees the veteran, the father whispers "Jesus. Jesus Christ". In "1982" when the boy asks father who the stranger was, he says "Jesus Christ, Tom!". Here's an example of where having 2 stories helps - one "Jesus Christ" exclamation might be chance, but not 2. The veterans have taken on the burden of mankind's suffering maybe. In "1982" perhaps Askew is projecting his homosexuality onto the veteran, making him suffer.
  • The cold war - In "A kind of Heaven" the coldness matters. The boy's father suggests that the current friction is a "my bomb is bigger than your bomb" flare-up in a war that never ends. In "1982" the boy's friend Dan takes the threat of war seriously. There are tank-traps on the beach, but they won't keep the guided missiles out.

A kind of heaven

There are some first times -

  • It begins with "Why had he been so scared? She seemed well, ... the day he encountered Harris for the first time" (linking her health and the veteran)
  • Later, hearing his parents talk about their past, "for the first time Tom understood his isolation, his exclusion from them. The heaven they described was theirs, and could only be in memory, in the years between the war's end and his birth" (helping explain his private experiments with pain)

The boy is curious about pain. It's a connection between his mother and the veteran. He's experimented by getting his friend Askew to prick him in various places with a needle. He pricks himself. When he overhears his parents making love "He heard what sounded like her cry of pain"

The father has shown the boy a constellation called "The archer". It's usually known as Saggitarius. The boy shows it to her mother who says she can see it but he doesn't think she can - it takes time, though once you've seen it, it's easy to see again. It reappears at the end of the story - a random alignment that at any time might lurch into action - like war, like her illness.

At the end, in his bedroom that night he looks out - 'How long would it be until the stars dispersed, until the arrow was released? .... He whispered "When will it begin?"'. As he turns to be bed, the lost needle pricks him. 'Would her pain be similar to this ... What would happen when she could not calm it, when there was no peace? ... Would her fear be similar to this? ... "I feel nothing," he whispered'.

So impending pain/war is a theme, along with cold/warm - cold outside is contrasted with cosy warmth inside. He ends in denial, a loner.


There's a sex triangle that's absent from the other story - friend Askew dislikes "nancy boy" Dan, the boy's other friend. His plan to get rid of the veteran is to use Dan as sex bait then act as witness to get the veteran convicted. Once, on the beach, the boy said of Ashew that "I saw he was burning with desire". Later "Askew embraces the boy", saying "You're bloody beautiful". Later, Dan reassuringly puts his arms around the boy. Dan's worried about war. The boy's anxious about his mother's return from hospital. In one dream the boy helps his mother give birth to a baby - herself.

The beach is where there was another revelation - "We were on the beach together, my mother and I, when [her illness] first showed itself"

The father had carried a photo of his wife to Egypt. It got him through the fighting. The boy steals the photo from his mother's purse having saved it from the sea - it comforts him.

At the end, when offered the boy, the veteran "stared down at us, as if willing us to see the true depths of his exhaustion. Then he turned his face towards the empty sky, opened the red gash of his mouth, and truly like an animal began to howl". This relates to -

  • earlier, when the father had described politicians as "animals, howling for blood"
  • an early passage from "A kind of heaven" when the colours in the sky "made the emptiness above them bleed". In the next paragraph it's written that there's "No time since men were exhausted or made mad" by war.

I presume that the veteran never approached the boy.

As in the other story, impending war and his mother's illness are related themes. In this story, the boy's more pro-active, maybe older than the boy in the other story. He starts to dominate his father


In a book about Almond by Don Latham, "David Almond: Memory and Magic" it says that "Almond was born in 1951 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a former coal-mining town in northwest England. He had a large, extended, and very close-knit family growing up. ... When he was eight, his younger sister, Barbara, died. And when Almond was fifteen, his father died. In addition, his mother suffered from a progressive and debilitating form of arthritis.. There was a Roman Catholic influence to his upbringing too. Some of these autobiographical elements inform the stories.

Especially when symbolism is used, several questions can be asked of stories.

  • What/Who changes in the course of the story? Where is the crisis/resolution? - I guess one boy decides to stay inside - warm and alone. The other decides to go out to see friends, no longer walking with his father
  • Are there tell-tale sentences (signalled by a break in the PoV strategy) where the author tell us what the message is? - "The archer" seems rather contrived to me, and in "1982" the final description of the veteran sounds forced.
  • When do symbols meet? - both stories pile symbolism into the final paragraph or so, adding to the worries about the mother's illness.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Empathy and literature

Language and content

You want readers to care about your characters don’t you? You want them to feel what the characters feel. If getting readers to cry is your aim there are web pages to help you – see for example "How to make readers cry in six steps". According to Becca Puglisi

  • When readers start to care about the main character, they’re going to be invested in what happens to him. And they’re going to keep reading to make sure everything turns out okay.
  • When readers recognize the character’s emotional state as one they’ve experienced in the past, it creates a sense of shared experience.

She points out that “There are two facets of emotion in fiction: conveying what your character is feeling and evoking emotion in your reader.”. This distinction is worth bearing in mind - however clearly you describe a tragedy, readers might be unmoved. Robert Frost wrote, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader" which has some truth. Readers can easily feel manipulated rather than sad when they read tear-jerkers.

A piece of literature depends partly on the power of words and partly the impact of what those words transparently represent. Strong content might suffice to evoke emotion. When Wilfred Owen stated that "The poetry is in the pity" he was expecting readers to respond to the recounted experiences emotionally. Once there's emotion, empathy might develop.

Even when the genre (essay, whodunit, etc) foregrounds the content, some readers prefer to engage with represented people rather than words, I've just finished a detective novel - "The Dark Lake" by Sarah Bailey. Here are 2 goodreads comments about it -

  • Three stars because I did like the story but I probably don't like Gemma enough to want to read anymore about her
  • The female protagonist both broke my heart in ways and had me rooting for her

There's an expectation in more literary work that characters should at least contribute. My latest rejection slip from a literary magazine said "I don't care about these characters yet".

But characters aren't everything. There can be compensations. A review of "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton admired its ingenuity, then said "The price Turton pays for this is a loss of emotional engagement on the reader’s part. But as an intellectual thriller, the book can’t be faulted, and in the end, it’s the story that triumphs".

Textual factors influencing empathy

Several controllable factors in the text might affect who readers empathise with -

  • Point of view (PoV) - What PoV maximizes empathy? Maybe using the first person will have a greater impact. Perhaps readers identify with the only character they can see inside of. Sometimes readers find it difficult to identify with any specific character when the viewpoint's omniscient.
  • Tense - Which tense is best? Maybe the present is more immediate.
  • Style - Metafiction isn't going to entice readers in. Maybe diary entries will.
  • Shared experience - Will they identify with the characters most like them? The only morally sound character? Will women identify with women? Soldiers with soldiers? The identification needn't be complete. After all, "Watership Down" and "Bambi" move audiences. So does ET's demise. But not HAL's in 2001.
  • Leaving space - In a BBC Radio 3 podcast, Samantha Harvey (quoting George Saunders) suggested that authors should leave gaps in the text so that the reader can enter it, and these gaps should provide enough room for the reader to express themselves - e.g. judge a character, because the author hasn't supplied a judgement.

In light of the above factors is it pointless writing a judgemental, third-person piece in the past tense where your main character’s a gay red-headed paraplegic chessplayer from the Isle of Wight? Such questions can be answered experimentally, a fertile area of research. Papers like "The Relationship Between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components" report on some findings, and many experiments have been performed to see whether “I”, “you”, or “s/he” packs the biggest punch. Using EEG and fMRI, researchers have measured effects, sometimes using erotica. I think that the conclusion is that there might be an initial effect when using the 2nd person which is why PR people often use it - "1 in 4 people who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day die of cancer" is less effective than "Hey, do you smoke more than 20 a day? Come on, be honest. If your answer's yes you've a 1 on 4 chance of dying of cancer". Readers soon get used to this trick though. In novels, other factors matter at least as much.

Online and in books are many tips for writers who want readers to experience immersion, and some more theoretical pieces that also consider immersion in computer games and VR. Here are just a few books and links

The reader and the author

The particularities of both reader and author affect empathical reponses to works.

Readers are often aware that they're susceptable to certain pieces. A poetry review by Julia Webb included the comment "As someone who lost a brother first to mental illness and then to death, this pamphlet spoke to me personally". This awareness might make the reader doubt their judgement of the quality of the piece.

Sometimes it's easier to empathise with the author than a character. The phrase "based on a true story" still has an impact. A celebrity's true story has a greater impact still (see Jade Goody, etc). A poetry collection might encourage empathy with the author rather than any individual persona. Some poetry readers much prefer monographs to multi-author works, and start the book by reading the author bio.

Reading habits affecting empathy

A novel reader is going to spend hours of their lives with the characters in the novel. In "The First Rule of Creating Fictional Characters" it says "Imagine if you went to a party and all of the guests were either dislikeable or, worse, deadly dull. How long would it take you to make your excuses and get out of there? Five minutes? Well, it’s the same with reading a novel" and advises writers to "Make the Characters Likeable".

As Roger Cox in "The Scotsman" pointed out "One of the trickiest puzzles short story writers face is how to get readers to care about their characters. The first obstacle is the lack of incentive: if we know we’re going to be spending the entirety of a 300 or 400-page novel in somebody’s company, we don’t mind investing in them emotionally; if we’re only going to be spending 20 or 30 pages with them, however, we’re less inclined to make the effort of trying to tune in to their interior life. And then there’s the issue of space: over the course of a novel, an author can develop the bond between reader and protagonist incrementally as the chapters roll by. In a short story, by contrast, there is much less time to sketch in somebody’s personality quirks and show what motivates them – economy and discipline are key."

In "Why Women Read Fiction" Helen Taylor points out that "Female readers are [...] the main buyers of fiction, members of book clubs, attendees at literary festivals, and organisers of days out to fictional sites and writers' homes". Such readers might read novels to get to know the characters. The characters are like real people but without the complications - you can gossip about them without breaking confidences; they won't phone you distressed in the middle of the night. Novel series and soap operas offer familiar characters (old friends) and opportunities for vicarious experiences without readers needing to waste time learning a new scenario. People who read long, popular novels (especially novel series) love to lose themselves in the world of the book, detaching themselves from their surroundings.

Readers who can cope with short stories are rarer - they need to rapidly acquaint themselves with their new surroundings, knowing that their investment is short-term. Reading a multi-author story anthology is harder still, becoming a lost art for the boxed-set generation.

For poetry and Flash there's a similar the need for agile immersion. More often readers need to tune into something less palpable and enveloping - a tone, a voice, or a mood.

What character traits in readers correlate with rapid immersion? Perhaps -

  • Easy detachment from the world (daydreaming)
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Ability to rapidly deduce worlds, characters and situations from small clues

These are much the same traits that writers need, so it's no surprise that only short story writers read short stories - particularly anthologies.

Empathy as device

Some readers distrust immersion, looking out for the mechanics that the author's used to produce the effect. The above immersion traits may corelate with writers' traits but they're not traits that align closely with empathy - there's too much scope for detachment and switching loyalties.

Besides, empathy has its detractors. In "The banality of empathy" it says "Empathy is, in a word, selfish. In his bracing and persuasive 2016 book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom writes, “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now… Empathy is biased… It is shortsighted.”

Monday, 7 September 2020

Paying for literary success

This article looks at the different ways an author might get single poems or stories published, comparing the situation with the publication of medical articles. There's a trend towards the author paying, rather than the readers.

In the olden days, it was simple for writers. They

  • paid to enter competitions, either getting fame and money, or nothing.
  • submitted to magazines for free. If they pleased the gatekeepers, their work was published and they might have received a few pounds. It was read only by people who bought the magazine.

In the academic world there were periodicals, whose business model was like that of literary magazines, except that they were more expensive, especially for libraries who subscribed to them. Authors didn't get any money, but publication was important for career prospects.

In truth the situation was never that clear cut. When the web appeared, with the potential for free publishing and access, options became even more confusing.

In the olden days, literary journal editors might have been able to accept a good few percent of submissions (sent by post with an SSAE, so submission wasn't actually free). A typical small literary paper magazine might have had a few hundred subscribers. Contrast this with the situation nowadays where a free submission to a web mag might lead to a piece attracting a readership of thousands, many of them "liking" and commenting on the piece. Free access means that thousands of people might read a published poem. Free submission means that the number of submissions has rocketed up, so editors have much more work to do though income streams have shrunk.

Competitions have changed too. Nowadays organisers are much more likely to publish long/short-lists and maybe an associated anthology (e-book), so there's no longer a win/lose binary outcome - short-list appearances are good for acknowledgements pages. And some magazines are charging submitters. Various business models are available

  • A flat "reading fee". This might offset printing or web-space charges, labour costs, and Submittable charges (Submittable isn't free for magazines once submissions are too numerous).
  • A variable fee, depending on how much feedback you want, or how soon you want a reply. Some magazines that usually charge offer free submission during certain months, or until the Submittable limit's reached. Donations are invited.
  • Some magazines that charge for submission offer money for the successful authors - a mini-competition.

Examples include -

  • Into the void - free until submittable limit reached, tip-jar submission for $4.95 and a "Short Story Developmental Edit" for $49.95.
  • Storgy - £5 to submit fiction
  • The Poetry Review - £2 to submit poetry
  • Vestal review - $2 to submit, $25 on publication

Submission might be free for the unwaged. Paper magazines don't always give a free issue to successful submitters.

The Web's drastically affected the academic world too. The "reader-pays" model is hard to sustain as costs of publication rise - as reader numbers shrink, so does impact. Both pay-per-view and high institutional subscription rates reduces readership. Medical publications have the extra complications of Big Pharma influence, and the potentially life-saving significance of wide access to important results. Michaela Panter summarizes the options. Both subscription-based and open access journals may charge a reading fee (typically $50-125). Others charge successful authors "Article Publishing Charges" (APCs). For example, "PLoS Medicine" (Impact factor 10.5) charges $3,000 - it's an open access journal. Some journals only charge if the article needs to be open access ("The Lancet" for example charges $5,000 for this). Some funding bodies (e.g. CR-UK) insist that researchers who they support publish in an open access way. Consequently being a successful, responsible author can lead to heavy expenses.

Both in the literary and academic world, the situation's fluid. Authors are feeling their way through a maze of options. They want to be published quickly and for free in high impact journals that everyone can read, but they nearly always have to compromise. They also need to avoid scams - "predatory journals" publish most/all of what they receive and charge authors.

In the end someone has to pay for choosing/editing submissions, admin, publishing, etc. Small printed literary magazines run by a volunteer or two might survive for a while, but it's not sustainable. Charging for submissions might be the least bad option.

Of course one can bypass the gatekeepers. Any writer can put their work online, and academics can put their work on pre-print sites. But in the literary case, will readers find the work? And how will writers be assessed? Writers need a proven track record of publication. In the academic world the "impact factor" of journals is an indication of the importance of appearing in the journal. Poets and story-writers have a fair idea of which journals matter most.

I'm slowly changing with the times. I never used to pay reading fees. Nowadays I sometimes do - after all, I used to pay for stamps and SSAEs (note that some respectable publications still insist on postal submissions). And I'm much more likely to enter competitions if they publish long-lists and anthologies. There's no longer such a difference between submitting to magazines and entering competitions - both may charge, and both may lead to publication. The "impact factor" of journals is more fluid than hitherto - paper journals no longer have more credibility by default. Nor do free-submission magazines (indeed, charging for submission tends to lead to better submissions, on average, and editors have time to read the entries more carefully). Old paper magazines (like the poetry magazine "Envoi", over 50 years old) are disappearing without being replaced by online versions. I suspect the future will see more "reading fee" web magazines, but who knows.

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 http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/pythontextcheck.py (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 Moralis√©""
  • "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)
  • John Ashbery's "The Painter" ends with
    They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
    And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
    As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.
    (end-words - portrait, buildings, canvas, brush, subject, prayer)
  • Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina" ends with
    Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
    The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
    and the child draws another inscrutable house.
    (end-words - tears, almanac, grandmother, stove, child, house)
  • 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)
  • Jonathan Edwards' "One Fine Day" ends with a 4-line stanza, the first line ending the previous sestet.
    The mother of all headaches next day. On my way
    to the car, I saw Don get in his van shouted 'Alright there?,'
    but he had his hands-free in. Then he sped off for the motorway,
    clipping the kerb, blowing exhaust fumes all over our street
    (end-words - on, there, hand, way, lip, street)
  • 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)
  • Kona MacPhee's "IVF" ends with
    the blood that's thick with traitorous clots of hope;
    the quiet knack we've lost, of giving in;
    the empty room whose door we cannot close.
    (end-words - blood, hope, quiet, in, empty, close)
  • 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.
  • Peter Stewart Richards' "Zeno on Moebius Strip, the Social Paradox" ends with
    We must disclose, if only for the crack,
    there is no one, no thing, no need to hide
    on streets of indivisibility.
    The repeated words are disclose, crack, one, hide, streets, indivisibility, with indivisibility sometimes being replaced (by e.g. visibility)
  • 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.
  • Alan Sullivan's "Potala" from The Hudson Review ends with
    To learn the truth, we need not yearn for death
    or spurn our Earth, but choose instead of myth
    the steepest path, the least assuming faith.
    (end-words - truth death Earth myth path faith)
  • 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