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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

On the pitfalls of stylistic uniformity, Part I

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/01/09 at 08:01 AM

I should begin by thanking my drive-by insult-smith for reminding me what I’d written about Gene Wolfe four years back, because it should’ve been the foundation of the Updike post.  In that earlier post, I claimed Wolfe suffered from

something that needs a better name (or an agglutinative one) than “brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome.” What I mean is a stylist who employs the same breathtaking style in every single thing he or she writes.  Some would accuse David Foster Wallace of being one such stylist.  But his novels, shorts and essays are focalized through a variety of characters.  Because each of his characters speak with a unique voice, his overall style remains heterogeneous despite his penchant for footnotes and sentences of Faulknerian length and complexity.  (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men works as a perfect litmus test: no one “interviewee” sounds like any of the others or, for that matter, Hal from Infinite Jest.)

Gene Wolfe, however, suffers mightily from brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome.  It doesn’t influence my impression of any one, two or three of his novels, but once some critical point has been passed the cumulative effect of his prose stylings falters before the law of diminishing returns.  [Consider] The Fifth Head of Cerberus.  It begins when Severian—I’m kidding.  Severian isn’t in this collection.  But he could be if you judged by narrative voice alone.

Here’s our own Adam Roberts, responding to that point in 2005:

I was very struck by [Scott’s] original point about stylistic monotony. It’s not that Wolfe is a bad writer, but that he is a writer incapable of changing (or perhaps disinclined to change) his writing style. There is a flatness to reading long stretches of Wolfe; and I don’t just mean late Wolfe, the Long Sun and Short Sun books where he falls lazily back on endlessly elaboration couched in the form of dialogue. The whole corpus: it’s all so stylistically monologic.

Some writers develop a laziness born of talent: once they’ve mastered their idiom, they elaborate on their strengths instead of confronting their weaknesses.  Here’s Adam responding to a very similar stylist today:

That’s where his genius was—his extraordinary, fluent, particularised style; the way he evoked the specificity of detail.  But one of the things that follows from this is that his larger artistic project stands or falls on whether we consider the details adequate to the business of representing experience.  Updike’s whole corpus is a way of answering this question with: they are; indeed, there’s really nothing more than the details.  His stuff is overwritten, but in the way the Ode: to Autumn is overwritten.  Of course you may feel that a writer needs something more than the details; that s/he needs a panoramic ability, or at least a larger vision.  But I’m not so sure.  Which is to say; I wonder if, when we look back on the second half of the twentieth century, we won’t find ourselves saying: that was the age in which people became queerly obsessed with details and minutiae, and the larger patterns faded from public consciousness.  If so, then Updike captured the spirit of the age better than almost anyone.

I think Adam’s correct: Updike’s precision limited the kinds of narratives he could tell to the kind of narratives he told.  If an author aims to catalog the lives of a particular class of people without sounding like An American Tragedy-era Dreiser, aping Updike is the way to go.

Before this becomes a general tussle about whether form governs content or content dictates form, I’ll say that self-conscious stylists like Updike don’t make for good generalizations.  The argument here should be whether Updike, consciously or otherwise, selected his subjects because they complemented his style; or whether his style dictated who he could write about.

The almost unbearable flatness of his female characters leads me to believe the latter.  His precision depends upon an intimacy a person can only have with him- or herself.  Had he been more self-conscious about the phrasing of the words he put in other people’s mouths, his narrators wouldn’t have spoken so similarly.  Had he been more self-conscious about the tenor of the thoughts he stuffed in other people’s heads, his narrators wouldn’t have been dogged by the same fears to the same ends.  Put differently: Updike worked to refine the voice he knew he had, and why not?

It was a magnificent tool for telling the stories it led him to believe he wanted to tell.

(Part II to follow.)


I am of the opinion that someone should comment on this post.

By John Emerson on 02/02/09 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think comments should be forthcoming from more than one person.

By Adam Roberts on 02/02/09 at 01:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wholeheartedly agree.

By Steven Augustine on 02/02/09 at 04:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All the aesthetes were too busy watching the Super Bowl, I suppose.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/02/09 at 04:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Should I repeat my Updike thingie a third time? It’s sort of boring in here, and eerily quiet. Maybe the savages are readying an attack.

By John Emerson on 02/02/09 at 07:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m dubious of the whole idea of voice as ventriloquism.  I don’t like the idea that a great writer writes from the voice of some lived experience.

Coming from the world of poetry, I like the classical over the romantic.  I like how Pope constructed a language, not a voice, a critical perspective (formal and ideational) and not some local viewpoint. 

I hate how a deeply flawed novel like *Huck Finn* is privileged—largely because of its “voice”—over a strong novel like *Uncle Tom’s Cabin*.

Even among the realists and naturalists, I like those who maintain a style rather than a voice.  I like Joyce in *Dubliners* and Chekhov in every damn story he wrote.  I like how Faulkner convinces us we’re hearing some “Southern voice” when in reality we confront some version of the same style in each of the major works. 

Great actors used to have styles.  Now they have voices—mimicked voices mastered from close study of recordings and videos.  Blanchett’s Dylan; Whitaker’s Idi Amin; Hoffman’s Capote: amazing performances, but more mimicry than acting. 

I also can get into polyphonic works, but not when the many voices are mapped simply one-to-one on to different characters.  Language poetry is multivocal but without the mimicry.  Same goes for Shakespeare and the Joyce of *Ulysses* (’tho there’s a bit of mimicry there).  I love how Eugenides, in *The Virgin Suicide*, pushes voice over into style, finding a new version of the Greek chorus in his plural, teenage speakers.  I like how Poe’s stories couldn’t come from any mouth and yet grab the attention of little kids (who know what it means to be transported by a great storyteller and know it means more than puppetry). 

I haven’t read enough Updike except to say that what I did read didn’t make me want to keep reading.

By on 02/03/09 at 12:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hate how a deeply flawed novel like *Huck Finn* is privileged—largely because of its “voice”—over a strong novel like *Uncle Tom’s Cabin*.

You and Jane Smiley should talk.

For me, Huck Finn is the better novel not exactly because of voice--though I do think it’s remarkable--but because of insight into character, which I don’t see at all in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The different voices help Twain achieve that insight, but they’re not essential to it.

That may be the wrong argument to start here, but I guess there was a desire for comments, so.

By tomemos on 02/03/09 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We’re getting off subject here, but I’d just say that this is exactly why I find evaluative criticism ultimately useless.  *Huck Finn* does character differently than *Uncle Tom’s Cabin*, but I can see value in both approaches to character.  Twain, of course, only does *one* character well: Huck.  The others are pretty shallow foils of Huck.  Whereas I don’t think Stowe is trying to do character; she’s going for large social interactions.  We have two different, but expert, novels.  Only Stowe succeeds on her own terms, while Twain fails deeply on his (as evidenced by his inability to find a plot for his character—the Tom Sawyer nonsense ruins the novel).

And when I think about it, I’m not sure Twain is all that insightful about character in the novel; much of the depth is a function of the voice.

By on 02/04/09 at 01:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Evaluative criticism is not truth-functional, but not useless.

Succeeding on your own terms can’t be enough. If, as I understand, UTC is a sentimental, moralistic, reasonably well-made novel that quite properly opposes slavery but not much more than that, no one’s interested any more except historians. It may be that my thumbnail description is unfair, but it seems to me that to say that would be evaluative and would require some additional information to be persuasive (though still without being truth-functional).

If you read HF as an anti-slavery novel I might agree that it’s inferior to UTC. It’s also a buddy novel, a road book, a sardonic outside look at a certain phase of civilization, etc. I can see that female / urban / black / queer readers might find it less interesting, or annoying.

By John Emerson on 02/05/09 at 09:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Updike has served me as bete noire for most of my life, but I agree with your post. As I’ve said before, most readers greatly overestimate the extent to which writers can choose what or how they write. They can try harder or try differently, but any career with a shape gains that shape by the doer’s limitations.

That said, I don’t have to think that someone’s limitations are “their fault” in the sense of a premeditated crime to be able to think of them as faults. As reader, I’m not putting anyone on trial: I’m deciding whose company I prefer.

By Ray Davis on 02/09/09 at 11:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As examples of trying harder, Peace and There Are Doors are my favorite Gene Wolfe novels thanks to the enticing tension between their Severian style and their John-Crowley-esque (or even John-Collier-esque) heroes. At this point, I’m convinced that nothing much lies behind their veil of mystery, but hey, “Made ja look!” (Wolfe’s attempts to try female POV, on the other hand....)

And yeah, Huckleberry Finn is all voice (and Roughing It and Pudd’nhead Wilson are still my favorite Twains), but the voice wasn’t quite Twain’s usual one and it popped out with some pretty interesting things.

Updike took it easy, which was his prerogative and his good life, but I might have respected him more if he’d ventured onto the rugged career path of the professional pornographer. It would let him exercise his talents while forcing him to stretch his imagination and experiences a bit more. The kid coulda been another Marco Vassi! Instead, he stuck to the Cheever-and-a-blow-job main road.

I guess he could’ve been a pretty good comics critic, too.

By Ray Davis on 02/09/09 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Although I haven’t read his whole oeuvre, I have to disagree with you on Gene Wolfe.  While The Wizard Knight series contains some similarities to The Book of the New Sun in terms of having monologue style, the use of vocabulary, tone, etc. are much different.  He does seem to grow and experiment as a writer.  Indeed, his An Evil Guest is probably too far stylistically off the beaten track for him to be considered really strong.

By on 03/03/09 at 10:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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