Summer Is Icumen in!
Tyler Cowen Is a More Diligent Man than I Am

Now I Have an Irresistible Desire to Go Read "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"...

Gary Farber sends us to Samuel Delany, who reads:

Samuel R. Delany: About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words: Now let's atomize the correction process itself. A story begins:


What is the image thrown on your mind? Whatever it is, it is going to be changed many, many times before the tale is over. My own, unmodified, rather whimsical The is a grey­ish ellipsoid about four feet high that balances on the floor perhaps a yard away. Yours is no doubt different. But it is there, has a specific size, shape, color, and bears a particular relation to you. My a for example, differs from my the in that it is about the same shape and color—a bit paler, per­haps — but it is either much farther away, or much smaller and nearer. In either case, I am going to be either much less, or much more, interested in it than I am in The. Now we come to the second word in the story and the first correction:

The red

My four-foot ellipsoid just changed color. It is still about the same distance away. It has become more interest­ing. In fact, even at this point I feel vaguely that the in­creased interest may be outside the leeway I allowed for The. I feel a strain here that would be absent if the first two words had been A red … My eye goes on to the third word while my mind prepares for the second correction:

The red sun

My original The has now been replaced by a luminous disk. The color has lightened considerably. The disk is above me. An indistinct landscape has formed about me. And I am even more aware, now that the object has been placed at such a distance, of the tension between my own interest level in red sun and the ordinary attention I accord a the: for the in­tensity of interest is all that is left with me of the original image.

Less clearly, in terms of future corrections, is a feeling that in this landscape it is either dawn, sunset, or, if it is another time, smog of some sort must be hazing the air (… red sun …); but I hold all for the next correction:

The red sun is

A sudden sense of intimacy. I am being asked to pay even greater attention, in a way that was would not demand, as was in the form of the traditional historical narrative. but is…? There is a speaker here! That focus in attention I felt between the first two words is not my attention, but the at­tention of the speaker. It resolves into a tone of voice: “The red sun is …” And I listen to this voice, in the midst of this still vague landscape, registering its concerns for the red sun. Between the and red information was generated that between sun and is resolved into a meaningful correction in my vision.

This is my first aesthetic pleasure from the tale—a small one, as we have only progressed four words into the story. Never­theless, it becomes one drop in the total enjoyment to come from the telling. Watching and listening to my speaker, I proceed to the next corrections:

The red sun is high,

Noon and slightly overcast; this is merely a confirma­tion of something previously suspected, nowhere near as major a correction as the one before. It allows a slight sense of warmth into the landscape, and the light has been fixed at a specific point. I attempt to visualize that landscape more clearly, but no object, including the speaker, has been cleared enough to resolve. The comma tells me that a thought group is complete. In the pause it occurs to me that the redness of the sun may not be a clue to smog at all, but merely the speaker falling into literary-ism; for at best, the redness is a projection of his consciousness, which as yet I don't under­stand. And for a moment I notice that from where I'm stand­ing the sun indeed appears its customary, blind-white gold. Next correction

The red sun is high, the

In this strange landscape (lit by its somewhat untrust­worthily described sun) the speaker has turned his attention to another grey, four-foot ellipsoid, equidistant from himself and me. Again, it is too indistinct to take highlighting. But there have been two corrections with not much tension, and the reality of the speaker himself is beginning to slip. What will this become?

The red sun is high, the blue

The ellipsoid has changed hue. But the repetition in the syntatic arrangement of the description momentarily threatens to dissolve all reality, landscape, speaker, and sun, into a mannered listing of bucolica. The whole scene dims. And the final correction?

The red sun is high, the blue low.

Look! We are world and worlds away. The first sun is huge; and how accurate the description of its color turns out to have been. The repetition that predicted mannerism how fixes both big and little sun to the sky. The landscape crawls with long red shadows and stubby blue ones, joined by pur­ple triangles. Look at the speaker himself. Can you see him? You have seen his doubled shadow …

Though it ordinarily takes only a quarter of a second and is largely unconscious, this is the process.

When the corrections as we move from word to word produce a muddy picture, when unclear bits of information do not resolve to even greater clarity as we progress, we call the writer a poor stylist. As the story goes on, and the pic­tures become more complicated as they develop through time, if even greater anomalies appear as we continue correcting, we say he can't plot. But it is the same quality error com­mitted on a grosser level, even though a reader must be a third on three-quarters of the way through the book to spot one, while the first may glare out from the opening sentence.

In any commercial field of writing, like s-f, the argument of writers and editors who feel content can be opposed to style runs, at its most articular:

“Basically we are writing adventure fiction. We are writ­ing it very fast. We do not have time to be concerned about any but the grosser errors. More importantly, you are talking about subtleties too refined for the vast majority of our readers who are basically neither literary nor sophisticated.”

The internal contradictions here could make a book. Let me outline two.

The basis of any adventure novel, s-f or otherwise, what gives it its entertainment value—escape value if you will—what sets it apart from the psychological novel, what names it an adventure, is the intensity with which the real actions of the story impinge on the protagonist's conscious­ness. The simplest way to generate that sense of adventure is to increase the intensity with which the real actions im­pinge on the reader's. And fictional intensity is almost en­tirely the province of those refinements of which I have been speaking.

The story of an infant's first toddle across the kitchen floor will be an adventure if the writer can generate the infantile wonder at new muscles, new efforts, obstacles, and detours. I would like to read such a story.

We have all read, many too many times, the heroic attempts of John Smith to save the lives of seven orphans in the face of fire, flood, and avalanche.

I am sure it was an adventure of Smith.

For the reader it was dull as dull could be.

"The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" by Roger Zelazny has been described as “…all speed and adventure…” by Theodore Sturgeon, and indeed it is one of the most exciting adventure tales s-f has produced. Let me change one word in every grammatical unit of every sentence, replacing it with a word that “…means more or less the same thing …” and i can diminish the excite­ment by half and expunge every trace of wit. Let me change one word and add one word, and I can make it so dull as to be practically unreadable. Yet a paragraph by paragraph synopsis of the “content” will be the same.

An experience I find painful (though it happens with increasing frequency) occurs when I must listen to a literate person who has just become enchanted by some hacked-out space-boiler begin to rhapsodise about the way the blunt, imprecise, leaden language reflects the hairy-chested hero's alienation from reality. He usually goes on to explain how th “…s-f content…” itself reflects our whole society's divorce from the real. The experience is painful because he is right as far as he goes. Badly-written adventure fic­tion is our true anti-literature. Its protagonists are our real anti-heroes. They move through un-real worlds amidst all sorts of noise and manage to preceive nothing meaningful or meaningfully.

Author's intention or no, that is what badly written s-f is about. But anyone who reads or writes s-f seriously knows that its particular excellence is in another area altogether: in all the brouhaha clinging about these unreal worlds, chords are sounded in total sympathy with the real.

“ … You are talking about subtleties too refined for the vast majority of our readers who are basically neither literary nor sophisticated.”

This part of the argument always throws me back to an incident from the summer I taught a remedial English class at my Neighborhood Community Center. The voluntary nature of the class automatically restricted enrollment to people who wanted to learn; still, I had sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who had never had any formal education in either Span­ish or English continually joining my lessons. Regardless, after a student had been in the class six months, I would throw him a full five hundred and fifty page novel to read: Dmitri Merezhkovsky's The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. The book is full of Renaissance history, as well as sword play, magic, and dissertation on art and science. It is an ex­tremely literary novel with several levels of interpretation. It was a favorite of Sigmund Freud (Rilke, in a letter, found it loathesome) and inspired him to write his own Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality. My students loved it, and with it, lost a good deal of their fear of Literature and Long Books.

Shortly before I had to leave the class, Leonardo ap­peared in paperback, translated by Hubert Trench. Till then it had only been available in a Modern Library edition translated by Bernard Gilbert Gurney. To save my last two students a trip to the Barnes and Nobel basement, as well as a dollar fifty, I suggested they buy the paperback. Two days later one had struggled through forty pages and the other had given up after ten. Both through the book dull, had no idea what it was about, and begged me for something shorter and more exciting.

Bewildered, I bought a copy of the Trench translation myself that afternoon. I do not have either book at hand as I write, so I'm sure a comparison with the actual texts will prove me an exaggerator. But I recall one description of a little house in Florence:

Gurney: “Grey smoke rose and curled from the slate chimney.”

Trench: “Billows of smoke, grey and gloomy, ele­vated and contorted up from the slates of the chimney.”

By the same process that differentiated the four ex­amples of putting books on a desk, these two sentences do not refer to the same smoke, chimney, house, time of day; nor do any of the other houses within sight remain the same; nor do any possible inhabitants. One sentence has nine words, the other fifteen. But atomize both as a series of corrected images and you will find the mental energy expended on the latter is greater by a factor of six or seven! And over seven­eights of it leaves that uncomfortable feeling of loose-end­edness, unutilized and unresolved. Sadly, it is the less skilled, less sophisticated reader who is most injured by bad writing. Bad prose requires more of your mental energy to correct your image word to word, and the corrections them­selves are less rewarding. That is what makes it bad. The sophisticated, literary reader may give the words the benefit of the doubt and question whether a seeming clumsiness is more fruitfully interpreted as an intentional ambiguity...