Saturday, August 15, 2015

Do We Really Want to Strip the World of Poetry?

“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.”

If you had to identify Douglas Adams’ writing style, this sentence would sum it up. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most popular science-fiction novels, obviously a comedy, that tells the story about a normal guy dealing with alien bureaucrats, a depressed robot, and a master computer as P.C. as it gets.

Is this poetry? Well, in my personal definition—which yes, I retain the right to have—it does. It’s “distracting,” focusing on word choice over function with an unexpected twist, and in some ways breaks the standard rules of writing. You are supposed to be thinking of hovering when really you’re thinking of the way bricks plop to the Earth. At best, you’re imagining the Vogon spaceships as square, red granity rocks.

And let’s face it, the simile really isn’t necessary. We know what hovering looks like. You could say, “The ships hung in the sky,” and it would more accurately and succinctly sum up the intended visual. Hitchhiker’s Guide breaks all the rules about being short sweet and to the point, focusing on story and imagery over prose.

Yet, without it, it would just be another book. It is the lines exactly like this that make it unique, make it enjoyable, and make it more than just another “average guy gets swept up in atypical speculative fiction conflict.”

Poetry—writing that does not fixate on being ignorable—is prevalent throughout the ages. Rhyme schemes were used to help memorization pre-Guttenberg. Our greatest writers all wrote with a high minded, superfluous way up until the turn of the century.

While Shakespeare’s language was closer to the dialect of people of his actual time, it was still over the top. Unless you believe nobility went around rhyming when they went to exit a room. He made up words, toyed with phrasing and commonly accepted definitions, and wrote beautiful, lyrical words that focused on sound and being clever—often puns—over conveying plot. Not that he doesn’t do that thoroughly.

Even Hemingway—a man known for his simplicity—was poetic despite expectation. His succinct and repetitive style was so much about clarity and minimalism that it could never be confused for conversation—people don’t talk that way. Hemingway’s voice is unique to him and his writing, easily detectable. I argue adamantly that his short stories make me think about word choice far more than most writers. That’s what makes it poetry.

These were just ordinary hoppers, but all a sooty black in color. Nick had wondered about them as he walked, without really thinking about them. Now, as he watched the black hopper that was nibbling at the wool of his sock with its fourway lip, he realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land. He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the grasshoppers were all black now.

We think of simplicity of prose as being the opposite of poetry, but become so succinct and it exhibits an unearthly, thought-out quality just as much as using any pretentious words do.

There’s an attitude I call the Hemingway Push, based on people citing him as the epitome of simplistic writing. Though I argue that Hemingway does not focus on story over prose, but rather voice and atmosphere over story, many people consider him the example of non-pretentious writing and what we should all aim towards. (Even though, ironically, Hemingway's style came from his hatred and refusal of writing rules, and the opinions often attributed to him came from Elmore Leonard.) Since the 1930’s when literature took a turn from highbrow expectations to entertainment for the public, writing has been pressed to be less and less dense, more accessible to the everyday person. Arthur Miller started writing about the everyman, Hemingway used only the most basic words, pulp fiction began its course, and all of the sudden the great turn-a-phrase of Austen, Dickens, and many of our classic novelists changed to being about clarity and being straightforward.

Which is great. I have definitely picked up books I considered to only be mental chewing gum. Dense, challenging reads are—obviously—exhausting, and it’s not uncommon for me to want to focus on story over prose. But it’s not uncommon for me to get sick of being talked down to, to want something with more meat on it, to appreciate a good sarcastic quip, a new perspective on an interesting aspect. I’m a skimmer. Unexpected phrasing will force me to stop and think. People notice originality and a good, witty line. Language evolves when people are willing to question their definition and connotations. We develop new clichés and new jokes by writer’s desire to do something novel?

So why is it that, no matter what you write, critics will constantly tell you to dumb down your work? Why do writers tell you it’s about “function not form,” or “I understood it. I just don’t think anyone else will.” Even if you haven’t experienced this yet, I guarantee you will. It’s filtrates all our “rules” and advice:

“Don’t use a big word when a small one will do.”

“Only use said.”

“Avoid detailed descriptions.”

“If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it out.”

“Story over prose.”

“Kill your darlings.”

The common word is that certain past trends are no longer applicable. You can’t write like Jane Austen anymore because people won’t accept it. You can’t have a third person omniscient because people aren’t used to it. The shorter, the simpler, the more story oriented, the better. You don’t want readers going meta.

It’s such an integral part of writing advice that you have to ask yourself, is it true? Is poetry dead? Are we supposed to only write non-distracting literature?

I argue there are too many books in the world for every author to try and have the same ignorable voice. I argue that witty, distracting, and lyrical prose can be enjoyable, especially refreshing when you have every author writing like a Hemingway wannabe.

So, why is it so prevalent?

For starters, I recognize the beginning author’s propensity to overwrite. (Believe me, I know.) Writing is about relearning how to speak with several usual handicaps taken away and a few more added (lack of body language and tone of voice).

In writing, you don’t have to worry about breath or conserve your listener’s time. The duration it takes me to choose what I say does not affect the duration it takes to hear me. This is both a benefit and a handicap. I can’t control the speed in which you read by controlling the speed in which I speak, but it allows me to choose the words I really mean, to converse in the way I really want to without having to shove it into a certain time constraint or lose my breath. So when we first start writing, we will have longer sentences and a higher vocabulary than what we’re naturally used to speaking. I say that this, in itself, is only a bad thing for the sheer commonality of it. Add in the fact that most of our heroes are famous for their unique voice, and you have every new writer trying to find theirs in a quick, obvious manner. It’s not that poetry is wrong, it’s that amateurs tend to error on “writing well” over story. It’s not that we shouldn’t have interesting prose ever, but that too many people are inclined on focusing on it first.

The saying goes, “learn the rules to learn to break them,” because no one believes a masterpiece will come from following them. The idea is to establish your experience by meeting certain expectations, so when you defy them, it looks more like an act of choice than ignorance.

Professionalism and creativity contradict each other, professionalism following often arbitrary standards (like wearing a suit to work) for the sake of due diligence. You just want obvious proof that you are willing to put in the work and have been doing this for a while. That obvious proof is usually superficial and has the singular point of saying, “Look, I know what I’m doing!” Creativity, however, is about defying expectation and doing it for a real purpose and not superficial ones.

When examining it this way, there’s actually a clear indication on which expectations will make you look professional and artistic at the same time, and which won’t: perceived motivation.

Overwriting is more about showing off than anything else. If the readers see the main purpose of the style to shock them by the writer’s immense talent, they get turned off, especially if it’s not actually that unique.

They say kill your darlings, and it’s a saying which many people interpret differently (I recently read an article where the writer believed it meant literally killing your characters.) When I hear it, I sometimes feel like it’s pressuring to get rid of anything you like, which makes a little bit of sense if we believe that showing off is the problem of turn-a-phrase. It’s not uncommon for the thing we’re absolutely in love with to read like we’re trying too hard. But I would argue that it’s important to be willing to kill your darlings, and not to cut witty lines because they might possibly be pretentious, even if they aren’t “necessary.”

“Call me Ishmael.” Do we really need to know the name of the protagonist upfront? Is that really the most important or interesting piece of information about this book or the character?

“Speak prose, man!” The humor in someone telling Shakespeare this is completely meta. It takes a modern cliché, replaces it with a term that references a form of literature, not oral conversation, and makes a joke that really is only funny to audience members living 400 years in the future. Yet, it is the only line that made me enjoy Shakespeare in Love, and the line that the producer admits to convincing him to pick up the script.

“As you can see, I have memorized this utterly useless piece of information long enough to pass a test question. I now intend to forget it forever. You’ve taught me nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system. Congratulations.” Not exactly the vocabulary or even the thought pattern of a five-year-old. Yet Calvin and Hobbes is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic strips of all time, next only to Peanuts, which also features children speaking with an ideology and language beyond their age’s scope.

The second, and very important reason, that people keep pushing the “story over prose” ideology, is that the pervasive way lessons of journals gets confused with creative writing. Though we could say it’s not so much true today (not with Fox news and all), journalism is supposed to be devoid of personality and opinion. Good journalism is supposed to convey facts and nothing else.

If you look at the original sources of most pieces of quotable writing advice, they often come from journalists or straight from lessons in journalism.

Of course, I think this is difficult and a fiction author who wants to and is capable of writing this way will often be writing something I want to read (depending on the subject matter). I’m not saying we shouldn’t.

But at the same time, I don’t argue that it is a naturally superior method to tackling literature, that literature needs to be diverse, that if complex prose worked once it then simplicity is nothing more than a trend. Complexity can work again, and writers need to take risks and push boundaries.

The fact is, many dateless writers get famous for their wit in prose and metaphors. It’s allegedly less common today—if we look at the modern writers (post 1980s) whose popularity seems to stick and work is not considered fluff, it does tend to be people with great story ideas and not particularly noticeable word choice. (J.K. Rowling, Stephen King.) But it’s also important to note that critically successful works are less discussed mainstream, and many writers who are successful for poetry often didn’t have their genius acknowledged for years, many times until after death. That includes Shakespeare, Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Jack Kerouac struggled with his stream-of-consciousness style and people finding him too “weird.”

How many times do we reject new authors because we think they’re trying too hard? We don’t consider their weirdness as innovative, but showing off? Only then they die, lose a bit of their relatability, and become dehumanized martyrs? The moment someone stops being a peer but a man of the past, we change our perception of why he does something, and therefore are more willing to accept it.

To me, it feels that forbidding poetry in fiction is a lie pushed on the unwashed masses to keep us in our place. “You aren’t Jack Kerouac,” they say, “so you aren’t allowed to break the rules in the way he did.”

As an unpublished, non-reputable writer, you must acknowledge your place and not try to push boundaries. If you do write in a complex, poetic manner, you must be trying too hard. It doesn’t matter if your using you’re natural vocabulary, if your methods are affective, if your voice is unique, because you are who you are, I’m going to assume you’re not being genuine, that your motives are selfish, and that you will never be successful.

Sure, being able to write a great story that prose never distracts from is probably your most dependable method of success. But we as writers need to question, is that really what we want? Do we really want every book to be story based without a lick of witty word choice? Would it be such a bad thing to have a wide diversity of novels with great lyricism? Is it really ideal for everyone to write like Hemingway, only use said, and restrict themselves to short sentences?

Maybe, instead of focusing on tactics, we should consider results. We should encourage diversity and be critical about why we think something is a mistake. Instead of forbidding all big words, ask ourselves what the real problem with a complex phrase is. Boring is never acceptable. Being a show off never works. But big words and compounded sentences don’t automatically make for boring or pretentious, and we, as authors, should be more willing to take risks and criticize each choice on an individual, specific basis.