If you cannot learn to love real art at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. – William Morris
I’ve had a theme in my head for some time now. It escapes editing and goes off down the rabbit hole. Because it is ill-defined. Excess? (yes, to me) Sloppy? (not always) Lazy? (lots of toil involved in some cases) Self-serving? (difficult to say). Style? (close, but…) Wanking? (depends on sloppy or lazy)
What I’m trying to get to is superfluous content, author agendas (preaching), and the middle of the road. By MOR I mean clichés, weak language, lack of logic. Which brings me to Lester Dent. If you don’t know Lester Dent there are numerous websites dedicated to the man who prototyped the superhero, much as Morris did for fantasy. Dent’s “Doc Savage” was better looking and more charismatic than all the 007s, had more toys than Batman or M dreamed of. Without Doc Savage Stan Lee would have had no one to put in multicolored spandex. Dent’s take on pulp construction is short and explicit. It should be studied for no other reason than the discovery of truth in short noir-ish fiction formatting. To the point –
Dent told a funny story about setting, and fooling editors (and readers). If you want a story set in an exotic locale, foreign land or someplace you’ve never been you had to sell it. The editors were fearful of misrepresentation and exposure of the author as a phony. Dent’s example was Egypt. To con an editor into believing you’d been to Egypt, or were an amatuer Egyptologist, throw in a local character saying something in Egyptian. Use the old ploy of having another character translate it, or the main character translate it himself. “Yes, Afkhan, I know it’s a tree.” It also helps to find some pictures of the area to recreate, if only briefly. I would suppose along the lines of the distance between two pyramids a character had to cover without being shot. Palm trees or whatever, a crazy colorful bazar (Indiana Jones). A little of that and the editor signed off on Egypt. Note – a little. Just enough to sell it, not a full-blown travelogue for Egypt (or wherever).
I mention this because I have read some books lately that are more travelogue than story. I enjoyed Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand save for the scheduled injections of rural Sussex that rivaled the output of the Romantics. She said in an interview that those parts of the book were a romanticized paean to her homeland. At least she owned it. And she could have pushed a real modern race/bigotry agenda in the book. Instead she made it a classic shot of Jane Austen-ish satire of manners with a touch of romantic fairy tale for the 21st century. Good for her. But I still flipped through the many pages of pastoral mist on England’s green and pleasant getting to the story. I should add I learned a couple of things about backstory insertion and character exposure tricks from that book.
Another glaring example is James Lee Burke. The man has sold a gazillion books. I picked up his Creole Belle at the library to see why. After maybe forty pages I have a couple of story, a lot of opinions about New Orleans, way too damn many descriptions of plant life. Characters can’t step out of a door without witnessing a half page laundry list of flora and bugs and snakes and the various states of the water – black in the shade, green with algae, glistening from a streetlamp and rain drumming in various quantities on every surface imaginable. I shouldn’t have had to get out my iPad and Googled botanical pictorial lookups to refresh my memory on caladiums and rhododendrons and fifteen other types of plants on the patio of an office building we’ll never go back to. Everything is described in massive detail. Substance rehab, stinky trailers, all a reason to go off for a page or more on philosophy and agenda and the evils of the world, the nasty yanks and the brave confederates. Some with not so transparent preaching ascribed to them. Do we really need all that shit to find out where Creole Belle went?
Tony Hillerman can put you on a rutted road in the New Mexico desert without all that. Robert Parker can put you on a corner in Boston, all you need. He can even wax good versus evil. You know Spenser and Hawk are hard guys without constantly being reminded of it. Yet Burke throws it in every couple of pages. Maybe because his big tough guys talk, on occasion, like teenage girls. “Isn’t that neat?” Like a couple of tough guys I read about trapped by gunfire saying, “What shall we do?” That wasn’t Burke, but he gets close. By page 40 we have been reminded 5 or 6 times the detective’s sidekick’s secretary is an ex nun. And the only dialect is Cajun Creole, from Creoles or Blacks. Everyone else reads exactly the same. Even the lady detective we’ve been reminded 4 times makes people uncomfortable because she’s a lesbian. You think we got the nun and the lesbian by now?
When people write like that, I wonder what they’re selling. Simonson admitted it. She also admitted to no liking the weather, the food and warm beer. All things she left out of her postcard from Sussex. All things Burke overdoses on. Minutiae. I find myself wanting to shake the book to get the crap out of it and get to the story. How much description do we need? How much clutter, how much crap?
The William Morris quote was taken out of context to sound elitist. I did that on purpose. It is offered below as contextual. Had I used it all up front it would have obviated the need for this post. That is, if you get it.
Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement: a sanded floor and whitewashed walls, and the green trees, and flowery meads, and living waters outside; or a grimy palace amid the smoke with a regiment of housemaids always working to smear the dirt together so that it may be unnoticed; which, think you, is the most refined, the most fit for a gentleman of those two dwellings?
So I say, if you cannot learn to love real art; at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. It is not because the wretched thing is so ugly and silly and useless that I ask you to cast it from you; it is much more because these are but the outward symbols of the poison that lies within them; look through them and see all that has gone to their fashioning, and you will see how vain labour, and sorrow, and disgrace have been their companions from the first — and all this for trifles that no man really needs! – William Morris, speech in London 1880
Two Updates –
1 – Someone asked me where I got the trite rant from – Here you go.
2 – If you wondered, which I doubt, what I did to fix my own perfect sounding but illogical line in Octopus! you may go see the whacked version.
If you’d like to know William Morris The William Morris Society is a good place to start. He is considered by many, including Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as their greatest influence on fantasy, utopia/dystopia and faerie stuff. Be advised do not go into that Morris lightly because a lot of it is in honest to God Olde and Middle English which is a lot harder to read than the pidgeon/pirate talk we have today. Plus it’s like really long. His speeches, though, rock. A consummate, if reluctant, rhetorician.