Category Archive 'James Joyce'

11 Apr 2017

Style is Often Crap

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Tom Simon takes a pretty successful poke at Annie Proulx in the course of a lengthy attack on pretentious literary modernism. Yay, Papa Hemingway! Boo! Jimmy Joyce!

This mania for stylistic weirdness, enforced by the blocking troops of Modernist criticism, led in the end to a situation where even quite ordinary newspaper reviewers would shout praise for the ‘experimental’ brilliance of bad prose rather than admit to the nudity of the reigning monarch. One of the reigning monarchs of the nineties was Annie Proulx, who was extravagantly lauded for the following sentence in Accordion Crimes. A woman has just had her arms chopped off by sheet metal, and this is how Proulx describes it:

    She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.

Every story is a conversation between writer and reader, even though the writer is effectively deaf and seldom hears what the reader is saying. Here is a rough transcript of the conversation as it transpires in the passage above:—

    Proulx. My character is stunned. Absolutely gobsmacked. Don’t I do a wonderful job of telling you how gobsmacked she is? She’s not just amazed, she’s rooted.

    Reader. I don’t think that’s how people react to having their arms chopped off.

    P. Now if I were one of these hack commercial writers, I’d talk about her. But see how cleverly I do everything by indirection! See how poetic I am! The barn is built of clapboards, you see—

    R. I don’t care about the clapboards. This woman is bleeding to death!

    P. And you can see the wood grain because the paint has all been worn off, but I wouldn’t put it that way, oh no, I’m a Writer, I am. So I said to myself, what’s a better action verb to use in this place? Why, chewed, of course! But that’s not poetic enough for me, because I’m a Special Snowflake, I am. So I changed it to jawed instead. Isn’t that original? Aren’t I clever? Look at meeee!

    R. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. It doesn’t mean chew; it means to natter on endlessly, just like you’re doing now. Now will you stifle it and get on with the story?

    P. Now I describe the swallows, and they’re so ironic, because they’re unconcerned, don’t you see? And they’re just carrying on about their business, darting out of sight and coming back—

    R. All this while that poor woman’s arms are flying through the air? They must be miles away by now.

    P. That’s not my point. My point is that they’re catching insects, don’t you see, and the insects are like moustaches! Isn’t that clever? Only a Writer could have come up with that simile! Look at meee!!

    R. I think you’re mistaking me for someone who cares.

    P. And then I describe the rest of the scene, and I’m just as clever about that, and the windows don’t just make reflections, they make swirled blue reflections, because I’m a Writer, I am, and look at me being all impressionist!

    R. I think I’m going to skip on a bit.

    P. Spoilsport! All right, I’ll get in a bit about my character, since you seem so anxious for me to be all boring and nasty and commercial and stick to the silly old point. What do you think I am, the six o’clock news? So her blood is spurting, no, that’s too ordinary, leaping from her stumped arms—

    R. You mean from the stumps of her arms. ‘Stumped’ means something completely different. It has to do with not having a clue, hint, hint.

    P. I’m a Writer, I am, and you can tell because I don’t let myself be limited by your silly old bourgeois rules. Her stumped arms, I said, and I’m sticking to it. And then she hears the wet thuds of her forearms—

    R. Ewwww.

    P. —against the barn, and then the sheet metal hits, and it’s not just the sound of it hitting, it’s the bright sound, because only a Writer would use something as nifty as synaesthesia to put her point across. See? I know about synaesthesia! I’m smart! Look at me! LOOK AT MEEEEEE!!!!

    R. If you don’t get on with the story, I’m going to say the Eight Deadly Words.

    P. (momentarily taken aback) Which are?

    R. ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ I mean, if you’re going to stand there jawing (see, I used the word correctly) about swallows and moustaches and swirly blue windows, while the woman you have just mutilated is bleeding her life away — well, if you care as little as that about your own characters, I don’t see why I should give a damn. You haven’t even noticed that she’s in pain!

    P. (angrily) This isn’t about her. This is about me! Me, meee, wonderful ME!! Damn you, why aren’t you looking at ME!!!

Of course this conversation is ruthlessly suppressed in the New York Times review by Walter Kendrick, who singled out that very sentence, in all its scarlet and purple excess, as ‘brilliant prose’. B. R. Myers was kinder to Proulx, if only in the interest of brevity:

    The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand rooted long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.

The sad truth, I am afraid, is that self-consciously ‘literary’ writers do not write to be read; they write to impress the critics, and if their ambitions are particularly lofty, to have their books made required reading for hapless English majors. Then the English majors, or a depressingly large percentage of them, buy into the pernicious notion that this self-regarding drivel really is ‘brilliant prose’ — and, still more, that brilliancy of prose is the primary and sufficient purpose of literature — and the whole sorry swindle is perpetuated for another generation.

Proulx’s star has more or less fallen since Myers launched his attack, but the sentence cult goes on.

RTWT

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

09 Sep 2014

110 Years Ago

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James_Joyce_Tower_01
The Martello Tower is now a museum.

Today in Literature:

On this day in 1904, twenty-two-year-old James Joyce moved into the Martello Tower in Sandycove, outside Dublin, with his friend Oliver St. John Gogarty. Joyce only stayed with Gogarty for a week — there were disagreements, and in October Joyce and Nora Barnacle left for Europe — but their relationship and the Tower setting would become the opening chapter of Ulysses. The Sandycove Martello Tower was one of many built by the British army a century earlier as a defense system against a Napoleonic invasion — thus Stephen Dedalus (Joyce) is able to joke that Buck Mulligan (Gogarty) pays his rent to “the secretary of state for war.”

james-joyce

17 Jun 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011: A Few Good Links

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Via Theo.

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Supposed Christian group that won headlines attacking Paul Ryan’s budget funded by the very secular-minded George Soros.

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Jim DeMint: Your tax dollars at work: $2 million grant to build a “culinary amphitheater,” wine tasting room, and gift shop in Richland, Washington. That makes sense, with the federal deficit where it is, everyone needs a drink.

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Cedar Falls, Iowa wants keys to residents’ homes. It’s for their safety.

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Kayleigh via Jose Guardia: Keynesianism is the equivalent of pouring your can of soda into a glass and trying to claim that, because the soda is now in the glass, you have more soda than if you had not poured it into the glass.

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Michelle Malkin: Woe is Weiner: No skillz to pay the billz. But don’t worry, he has a job offer with a higher salary. And he has a pension.

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Leopold Bloom resigns
after erotic letters leak.

16 Jun 2011

Bloomsday

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The events of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses took place in Dublin on June 16, 1904.

Marcella Riordan performs Mollie Bloom’s soliloquy.


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