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Begging the Question

Posted by on January 9, 2014

We call a story good because of what is written, not who wrote it.  But sometimes people invert the relationship—i.e., we believe a story must be good because a particular name is attached to it.

In “A Legend in His Own Mind” (The New Yorker, Dec. 22 & 29, 1997, pp. 54-65), John Walsh reports an exchange between editor Mike Petty and novelist James Thackara: “Once, Petty recalls, he queried a piece of dialogue. ‘Look,’ I said.  ‘You can’t say this.  It’s bad dialogue.  It’s bad art.’  Thackara said, ‘Faulkner could do that,’ and I said, ‘But, James, you’re not Faulkner.'”

So Thackara wasn’t Faulkner, but who was Faulkner?  How did Faulkner know he was Faulkner—i.e., how did he know it was acceptable for him to do the things Petty called bad dialogue and bad art?—and how did others recognize his Faulkner-hood?  And when Faulkner did whatever it was Petty was accusing Thackara of doing, how did readers know to call it good, and how do they know to call it bad when done by Thackara?

Elmore Leonard has written: “Never open a book with weather […] There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez […] you can do all the weather reporting you want”—”Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful”—”Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood.”

If some unknown writer does have Tom Wolfe’s knack for playing with exclaimers but isn’t named Tom Wolfe, how will anyone be able to recognize it?  Is there some method for identifying writers with the knack, other than seeing if his name is Tom Wolfe?  Could a single piece of exclaimer-dense prose be judged good if the byline reads Tom Wolfe and bad if it reads something else?  Does anyone want to conduct a Pepsi Challenge on him—excerpts of Wolfe’s writing are read anonymously along with a handful of imitations, and the judges must identify which have knack and which are knackless?  Is there any doubt that any piece of prose written in the Tom Wolfe style, regardless of whether the writer has Tom Wolfe’s knack or not, will be called a “bad Tom Wolfe imitation”?  To be a Tom Wolfe imitation is perforce to be a bad imitation.  That a writer has a knack (or talent, skill, etc.) is inferred from his success, and cannot be known prior to that success.

Robert Silverberg is especially fond of this.  In an anthology he edited and introduced (Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder, 1987), he commits the following five instances:

“Why can’t somebody give an old plot a new twist?  Heinlein took this plot and did it.  Trouble is, we’re not all Heinlein” (p. 14).

Is the trouble that our name isn’t Heinlein, or that we can’t do the things Heinlein could do?  The former is unarguable, but the latter remains to be seen.  The claim that one does poorly the things Heinlein did well must be justified by an analysis of one’s attempts to do them, not of one’s birth certificate.

Quoting with approval from scholar of ancient Greek literature H.D.F. Kitto: “Although Aeschylus was a young man when he wrote the Supplices, he was already Aeschylus, and we may suppose that he built the play as he felt it” (p. 28).

He may have already been Aeschylus, but who was Aeschylus?  The only real answer is that Aeschylus was an organism who demonstrated some particular repertoire of behavior; he was not a demigod who could do no wrong.  No doubt it was the same organism whom people called Aeschylus who wrote the Supplices (aka The Suppliants) as wrote his later, more obviously good works, but the relevance is dubious.  That a person at one point in life wrote some good plays is being used as evidence that his plays from another point in life are also good, but when stated plainly the connection is tenuous.  There may be some slightly increased probability that a writer who produced one good work may produce another, but not much, and in any case that other work must still be evaluated on its own.  We may indeed suppose Aeschylus built the play as he felt it, but how did he feel it?  The question of whether he built The Suppliants well or poorly is not answered by pointing to other well-built plays he wrote elsewhen.

“The interior monolog [sic][is] a tricky and cumbersome approach.  […] Kuttner gets away with it mainly because this story is very short, and because he’s Henry Kuttner” (p. 146).

If Silverberg were to offer advice on how to use interior monologue, he would apparently say, A) keep it short, and B) be Henry Kuttner.  That’s two criteria—meet them both and you’re at liberty to write interior monologues; otherwise it’s no dice.  But, because at the time of Silverberg’s writing Kuttner had been dead for 28 years, and as of this writing he’s even deader, his advice about interior monologues really amounts to: “Don’t write them.”  But the question still isn’t answered—how does Kuttner get away with it?  Other than keeping it short, Silverberg doesn’t say.

“Linebarger’s unique tone and method, though easy enough to copy, loses all vitality and power when employed by other hands” (p. 219).

So his unique tone and methods are easy to copy, but when copied they lose all “vitality and power.”  Okay, but what do they actually lose?  What feature of the writing is actually different when employed by other hands?  If you look at a page of Linebarger, you won’t see “vitality and power”—you’ll see words, sentences, and paragraphs.  “Vitality and power” are not things that are in a story, but effects of a story in a reader.  Linebarger worked with the same materials as everyone else—same language, words, rules of grammar, etc.—using them to achieve certain effects, yet somehow (Silverberg would have us believe) no one else can achieve the same effects, even though his tone and methods are “easy enough to copy.”  If “other hands” fail to achieve the same effects, it can only be because their writing did not contain the same features, but what are those features?

And finally this one, which gives the game away: “When he came to Sophocles, that paragon of playwrights, Kitto faced the problem of a couple of plays that do not seem at all Sophoclean in their construction: Ajax and The Trachinian Women.  But once in, starting from the assumption that Sophocles was a great artist and knew what he was doing, Kitto provides stunning illumination”  (p. 29).

That Sophocles was a great artist is what an analysis of his work must prove.  Kitto “begs the question,” i.e., takes as a given that which needs to be proven.  The conclusion he aims at proving, he includes among his premises.  N.B. my claim is not that Sophocles was a bad artist, or Cordwainer Smith’s tone is felicitously employed by other writers, or Thackara wrote good dialogue.  It is that the contrary statements must be proven rather than assumed on the basis of reputations (formed how?).  We don’t know Oedipus is a good story (if, indeed, it is) because Sophocles wrote it; rather, we call Sophocles a good writer (if, indeed, we do) because he wrote Oedipus.

The lesson, I guess, is don’t do things unless you’re good at them, but how does one know whether one is good at them?  Given that those Leonard quotes come from a list of advice he was bestowing on the peons, the value of these caveats is hard to determine.  Are we to imagine Atwood perusing Leonard’s list, tensing up when she reads, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things…” but then sighing with relief as she finishes the sentence?  “Oh, describing places and things in great detail is acceptable for people named Margaret Atwood,” she might think, “and, fortunately, I am.”  Of all the people who might read Leonard’s advice, no more than an infinitesimally small minority can actually be Margaret Atwood, Barry Lopez, and Tom Wolfe, so one might ask, for whom are these caveats meant, when Atwood, Lopez, and Wolfe don’t need them and no one else can use them?  “Advice” is presumably meant to clear up the confusion of those to whom it is offered, but this advice, rather, creates more confusion.  It was precisely to answer the question, “How should I write?” that Leonard aimed at providing some criteria by which good writing can be told from bad writing, and he appears to have done so but actually hasn’t, because everything that might potentially be a criterion is vitiated by exceptions that leaving hanging the most important questions—How do Atwood’s descriptions succeed?  What features are present in hers and lacking in others?  How are Tom Wolfe’s exclamation marks made palatable?  What features of Lopez’s writing about snow keep readers reading?  If one wanted to say that it was qualities of those people’s writing that caused their success, one would have to show that no other writing, published or submitted, had the same qualities.  Also if those qualities pre-existed the success said to be their result, why in so many cases were so few people able to see them?  If one truly analyzed Atwood’s detailed descriptions, and were able to find the principles governing them and apply them faithfully in one’s own work, either one could produce detailed descriptions that were as acceptable as hers, or, if not, one would be forced to conclude that Leonard’s advice, and all thinking of this type in general (i.e., theories of a precise correspondence between skill and success in letters), is fucked up and bullshit.

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