Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Talking Pathetic Fallacy Blues
Something that takes up again the theme of popular music, and something posted earlier: Paul Rodriguez, commenting on Rohan’s post about lit crit on or about the spherical public, made a distinction that caught my attention, between “criticism of style” and “criticism of content.” Now I might have misunderstood what was meant, but it brought me back to my travails in grad school, in particular suffering through some courses I thought were overly inflected toward cultural studies. The problem, I thought, was that we were reading books solely for the interestingness of their content and not for the interestingness of their style, for what they were talking about, not for how they said it. For example, if one took how Iola Leroy was written and made it about some Philadelphia lawyer’s family of the same period, the book would be utterly unreadable.
This kind of feeling helped me feel sorrier for myself, which is very important for some graduate students. But some time later, I got to thinking more, and things got more complicated. The specific object that complicated things was John LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. After completing my fourth reading of the book, this time with the express intent of evaluating whether or not it was a good book, that is, one that couldn’t be pigeon-holed as genre fiction, and finding that it was really that good, it suddenly occurred to me that my judgment was compromised because I really liked the content of the book. I liked a whole lot what the book was talking about, spies skulking about Europe, cerebral emotionally disaffected males, etc. etc. So who was I to talk down someone else’s reading for content? & I could list off other examples, such as Raymond Chandler & the Los Angeles of the 30’s he conjures. Heck, even Ulysses interests me for its content, the sense it gives of exposing hundreds of hidden details in the life of the city.
So it would seem difficult to extricate style and content. A more recent case exposes the problem yet again, Nick Tosche’s Where the Dead Voices Gather.
For example, the title alone is a grabber. It’s got “dead” in it (cue the Annie Hall joke, “all the books on death and dying are yours”), and it’s got “voices” in it, and as hackneyed a theme as it might be, the very idea of voice beguiles me as much as the hackneyed theme of desire beguiles others. Especially when those voices are dead! Two great tastes that taste great together!
The author was another attraction, in part for nostalgic content, harking back to my late 70’s/early 80’s subscription to Rolling Stone, (which BTW was my first intensive engagement with criticism and critics, getting pissed off at them dissing albums I loved, trying to figure out what their problem was, figuring out that they were just trying to show off how clever they were), but also in part for having read another of his book’s, Dino, which made Dean Martin seem a fascinating character, something I’d never have thought was possible.
But it was the content of Dead Voices Gather that attracted me most of all. The book records Tosche’s over twenty year pursuit of a marginal figure in the history of popular music, Emmett Miller, the last of the blackface minstrel men. I knew Miller’s version of “Lovesick Blues” from the Okeh Western Swing compilation, which I bought as a double LP back in 1982 on the recommendation of a review in Rolling Stone. Few know of Miller’s version, but many know of the more famous version that is an almost perfect copy of Miller’s. That would be Hank Williams’, his first #1 single & biggest hit. This image, the “dead” song hidden behind the living one, from which the living song draws life, is emblematic for the book.
Miller was born in 1900 and grew up wanting to be a star in the minstrel shows. He was blessed enough to get his wish, but cursed enough to hit the big time at the exact moment the minstrel shows were just about giving up the ghost. This is only the most obvious way Miller is a liminal figure. Miller’s limited recording career, mostly from the mid- to late twenties, fall within the great nexus of “old time music,” as codified in the Anthology of American Folk Music, that vital slush-pot of low-fi pop that would later differentiate into folk, rhythm & blues, country, etc. And perhaps most importantly, as the last figure in minstrelsy, Miller represents a gateway between contemporary pop music and the minstrel tradition.
Blackface minstrelsy is of course the great scene of originary violence in popular culture in these here United States. The title of Eric Lott’s remarkable Love and Theft (a title so nifty Bob Dylan kiped it) gestures toward the inherent contradictions in minstrelsy’s appropriations, the mixture of fascination and repulsion between whites and blacks. Great hatefulness and great music, together.
As for who stole from whom, Tosches says the ultimate origins are indeterminable, and he traces repeated transfers from black to white and white to black that all began in the mixed race ghettos of 1830’s New York. (For a more recent version of the same phenomenon, Lott claims Mick Jagger is just blackface without the cork, a claim Tosches might not disagree with. But when I found out that Tina Turner was the person he copied, it opened a whole new gender cross-over aspect.)
Blackface minstrelsy is of course also a great topoi in American Studies, the cultural studies discipline par excellence. For those of you who enjoy a nice theory bash, Tosches provides. Lott gets mentioned in passing, seemingly with an approving grunt, but the late Michael Rogin’s Black Face, White Noise elicits convulsive spluttering. He even plays the hoary old mental masturbation trope. (Is there a point of convergence between anti-theory clichés anti-blogging clichés?)
But so far I’ve only been talking about content. Where is that style discussion I promised? As far as the sentences go, they’re fairly conversational, there’s a liberal sprinkling of New Journalism first person in places, and a good amount of crude language (but with so many n-bombs in the very names of the songs discussed, crude language is the least of it).
But the more striking feature of the book’s style is in the shape of its argument. Or rather the lack thereof. The book meanders. No. “Meanders” makes it sound slow and smooth. The book is manically digressive. For one thing, there are no chapters. Every so many pages there are some extra spaces between paragraphs, but there are no markers for the overall structure, and there isn’t a good sense of how the thought in the sections is shaped either. The book wanders.
In this wandering there is a (deliberate) tang of desperation, of drug-fueled scrambling through stacks and stacks of notes. In part this is a result of the paucity of information on his main subject. Emmett Miller was a flash in the pan in an era before the big media publicity machine got going. There are fairly few facts available to fill the book’s 350 pages. So the stories of related personalities, such as Jimmie Rodgers, Eddie Lang, Bob Wills, might have been a necessary expedient to meet the page count. So too the list after list of the different artists who recorded the different songs (with label and release date included). So too the lists of every show played by each of the minstrel troupes Miller was in. And so on und so weiter.
But it’s also obviously an attempt to put the reader into a state. The book’s miasmic form means to produce a miasma within its reader. In part this is Tosches trying to reproduce his own monomania, the obsession that forced him to put down more promising book projects in the pursuit of Emmett Miller, the last of the “nigger singers.” In part I believe the book is also trying to put the readers into Emmett Miller, trying to transport them back to the era, performing time travel through the derangement of the attention.
Of course such an approach isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Cue some disgruntled Amazon reviewers:
Tosches self-consciously wields this ‘excursus’ fixation as a kind of tic that he challenges the reader to either get used to or put the book down. Okay—I ‘get it.’ He wants to paint a picture and share his love of the lore in the meantime. But the occasional breathless parenthesis is one thing; 300 pages of almost unadulterated aimless, self-indulgent cross-referencing is another
I almost put the book down several times myself. But here’s my point (took me long enough to get to it): I didn’t put it down because I too am fascinated by the subject. For the sake of the content, I put up with an off-setting style.
Speaking of “excursus,” that was quite a long blog post to arrive at a pretty banal point. Oh well. By way of closure, let me ask: does anyone ever read something for the style alone? I would never say that style isn’t important. For example, I don’t read any detective fiction other than Chandler or Hammett. But I’m afraid the snootiness of my grad school days had a bit of hypocrisy to it.
I read the short story Ping by Beckett to anybody that would listen to it for years as an undergraduate...also the first two pages of Finnegan’s Wake. There are some poets that come to mind to, most tritely ee cummings whose lesser poems only have style going for them, but what a style.
But I was snooty too, so what do I know?
It seems to me at some point style, especially if diction is a part of style, is the only reason we choose read anything. Certain passions can keep us slogging through a mediocre or annoying style but I think that’s a matter of personal or professional interest rather than pure “choice.” When it comes to enjoying what we’re reading, I think style is king. I’ll read just about anything if it’s written interestingly enough.
I also know I’ve put down several books on subjects I enjoy because the style made it not worth the effort. So there’s that.
I like this post. It’s something I’ve thought long and hard about. And I all I really concluded is that I like some books for their style, and some for their content, and some for both. I can’t agree with Jim that style is the only reason we read something, though, like him, I’ve disliked books because of style (the most recent example is Barry Unsworth’s The Ruby in Her Navel).
Poetry to me must have great style; novels are a different creature. When I was an undergraduate I couldn’t stand Dreiser because I hated his style. Now I’m fascinated by his works. Same with Iris Murdoch—when I was younger, I found her style to flat, too pedestrian, but I find much more value in her now. I’m close to taking the opposite position of Jim’s—style alone has a cotton candy appeal; what makes a novel worthwhile are other concerns. That’s not my position, exactly, but I’ve started leaning in that direction.
As with the “intellect and emotion” dichotomy, I usually seem incapable of separating the two. When I write or say something that “sounds wrong,” fixing the medium often leads to a change in the message. When I read or hear or view something clunky that “seems interesting,” I tend to point to clunkiness as a virtue. Now sometimes I’ll read or watch something all the way through that seems to call out for revision—but, again, the revision process seems likely to modify multiple dimensions.
Nik Tosches often seems to me to interfere with his goals by excessive self-consciousness. (Which may be why my favorite of his overheated books concerns an overheated subject.) But aren’t those lookit-me aspects still “content” in some sense, just a matter that doesn’t fit well enough with his other matters? Sometimes what people call “style” seems like a euphemism for “content we leave out when we describe the parts we remember.” Your mention of Ulysses is a great example of what I mean: is Joyce’s detail-mania a hyperrealistic style that distances the book’s plot and characters, or does all that crosshatching convey an “object” in its own right?
I suppose I deserve any ire I may have caused to rise in Trent. I fired my comment off too fast after staying up too late watching the primary result roll in.
To clarify what I said by means of emphasis, I meant to say that style is the only reason we choose to read something. Most everything else is the result of hobbyism or professional interest. But I think Trent is right. Sometimes keen insight or well-thought-through analysis or mature handling of an important subject is a reason distinct from style to choose to read something. Dreiser is a great example. So is Updike...and...because of who I am...so is Henry James. I’m not a fan of his style, but his stories are achingly good, too good to not read.
As for reading something only for style: perhaps Thomas Browne’s Garden of Cyrus? Much of this book is simply gibberish to me—litanies of obsolete vernacular English plant names; but I love it anyway, because it is absolutely musical.
I hardly think that style and content can exist separately; but they can exercise separate appeal. When I was commenting on the piece about Addison I had in mind a particular comparison between Addison’s Pleasures of Imagination—a perspicuous style saying nothing new—and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria—almost unreadable in places, but as full of insights as an explorer’s report.
The compartmental (or departmental) separation of the criticism of style and content, I think, injures both. Criticism of style alone gives us a star chamber of unappealable style guides, which simply shut out large portions of the resources of our subtle language from everyday use. Criticism of content alone forces the critic to treat all books as examples of something—never as individual phenomena—and thus always makes criticism the means of some non-literary motive.
In practice these can’t be done separately; some elements of each creep into the other; but these elements, being unconscious, are inept.
The point is that we seem to lack a kind of criticism which consciously examines both style and content at once—except in extreme cases, where style becomes content, as in Joyce, or content becomes style, as in Borges. (Shakespeare criticism is not so much an exception as its own world.)
What I want is not some kind of bicaptate hybrid of theory and line-editing; nor a Shakespeareaning of all criticism; nor a revival of moralistic forms of criticism, such as Rohan’s post suggested (though perhaps something continuous with that tradition). What I want, I think, is for critics to approach choices of style—rules broken, rules kept by choice, and rules purpose-made—as at least as important as which language, literary form, or literary tradition the work is written in. Sometimes that would mean appraising the style as a tactic; but more often I think it would mean investigation of a writer’s style—in preference to background or biography—as the best mark and evidence of the way the writer thinks.
I see no ire! I hear no ire! It’s all fine here.
Ray’s comment on Ulysses reminded me of how some extreme styles can actually work in a realistic way. Because of course transparent styles require a quite limited conception of what content can be put into the story.
& the mention of Thomas Browne is quite excellent. He really could be a limit case.
Lawrence, sorry to go off on a tangent, but would John Berryman have known about Emmett Miller? I’m thinking of Mr. Bones, of course? Perhaps all I’m asking is whether Berryman’s blackface character is generic or specific. If Miller was indeed the last of such entertainers, he might conceivably be a model for Berryman’s character.
I have no idea, though it would be a good line of inquiry. From what I understand, all blackface minstrelsy was a matter of generic characters, so I think any source for Berryman would be both generic & specific. (Keep in mind I am no expert in these things.)
Ack! No ire! Sorry if I gave that impression.
Anyway, I agree with those who point out that the content/style distinction is problematic, but it can still be useful. We seem to all know what we mean by making the distinction. I appreciate those artists in which style and content serve each other—Calvino comes to mind. Works such as Unsworth’s _The Ruby in her Navel_ I dislike not because the style is bad, but because it is unmodulated—we get the same flourishes in a climatic scene as we do in more mundane ones. I like excess but in moderation ;) I like Lessing, though her style is often criticized, because I think she makes her style serve her purpose—and because she has a large stylistic range. I’ve only read two Cormac McCarthy novels, but so far I’m not a huge fan because I haven’t seen much stylistic variation.
I seem to be making Jim’s point. Hmmmm.
This is one of those counter-counter-intuitive moments when it may just be best to step back and accept the long-lasting commonplace that style and content are two different although fuzzily defined things, and that people may want to read a work for either or both. Delany, I think, tried to claim that all content is style at least within the context of SF, and I didn’t find that very convincing.
But that brings up a question that people here may be able to answer. When, historically, did we get our current ideas of “style” and “content”? What did people map these concepts into before that? Or did they come along with the beginning of literature as such?
Speaking of literature as such, I can’t help but pause on the following sentence: “After completing my fourth reading of the book, this time with the express intent of evaluating whether or not it was a good book, that is, one that couldn’t be pigeon-holed as genre fiction [...]”. Somehow, that sentence makes me feel that part of your graduate education has served you poorly. I mean, yes, of course Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is genre fiction. That doesn’t mean that it needn’t have literary quality, as opposed to being part of the genre called “literary”.
The essay in which Delany claims that ‘Put in opposition to “style,” there is no such thing as “content”’ is online here:
I meant the “ire” comment playfully. No worries.
Thanks for turning up the link, iain; I re-read the essay. But it just reminds me of what I find frustrating about both Delany’s SF and his criticism. Delany brings up the obvious facts that written stories are composed of words, and that subtle differences in word choice can drastically change the story. Fine so far. Then he labels this “style”, and says that therefore everything is style. Well.... no. You could just as meaningfully or meaninglessly say that subtle differences in word choice are changes in content, and that therefore everything is content.
Getting back to a phrases of Lawrence’s: “it suddenly occurred to me that my judgment was compromised because I really liked the content of the book. I liked a whole lot what the book was talking about, spies skulking about Europe, cerebral emotionally disaffected males, etc. etc.”
That’s a lot of what content is about, in the hands of a skilled writer: creating a locus in the mind of the reader. Sure, a skilled writer will use style to do it—a skilled writer will always write with style, though, so that’s not saying much—but at the end of reading the story, the reader’s mind is full of a sort of location, in this case a place where cerebral emotionally disaffected spies skulk about Europe. The style has, at that point, done its job and dropped away; the image is in the reader’s mind and will stay there even though they no longer are reading the author’s stylish words and no longer recall what they were. If the author is especially good, this place takes on a life of its own; it is now possible to write stories about cerebral emotionally disaffected spies skulking about Europe is a different style, even a poorly chosen style, after the subgenre has been created.
a good book, that is, one that couldn’t be pigeon-holed as genre fiction
What in the world?
Speaking of “excursus,” that was quite a long blog post to arrive at a pretty banal point. Oh well. By way of closure, let me ask: does anyone ever read something for the style alone?
I doubt it. Even the Garden of Cyrus case. What would it mean? Even someone reading (this is the real limit case) something like Doug Nufer’s Never Again is, presumably, paying attention to the content—it’s only because the story does have a determinate shape that what Nufer’s doing is impressive and interesting (I actually think the style into which he’s forced is worth reading, too). If what you mean is simply, do people read things with a primary interest in the way the writer writes, then surely the answer is yes, all the time, but also, if that’s the question, who cares? You still have to attend to the content on pain of not being able to tell what the style is.
Mr. Puchalsky brings up the interesting questions of style and memory, and the origin of style.
I find that style does not drop away in my memory at all: to the contrary, when I try to remember a quotation I have made no strict effort to memorize, it usually comes to me in a caricature or near-parody of the author’s style.
This distinction of style and content goes back to the Greek rhetoricians and sophists—say, the opponents of Gorgias, who thought he sacrificed content for style. But it might be useful to look back further, to poetry. If poetry is the extreme of style, then style predates literature—as the means by which, before writing, content was given a predictable, checkable form, and made memorable. Thus, in a way, writing is an alternative to style, and style in literature is redundant: a help to memorization being used where memorization is not necessary. If so, then it is possible for writing to be without style, as in reference works intended only to relieve the memory.
Style in literature, then, could be thought of as a way to affect and direct the memory; and we could characterize as style whatever the writer does that by affecting memory regulates the flow of the reader’s experience.
Interesting notions. Of course we know that orally composed poetry contains certain features which seem designed to aid the bard’s memory—stock epithets, chiasmus, etc. What do we do with with Greek lyric poets, such as Simonides, Pindar, etc.? There seems to be a written aesthetic here very different from the orally composed epics. However, given that many of the features of all sorts of poetry involve a regularity of one form or another, I can see how you can make your case.
But what do we do with free verse? Or prose? I have vivid scenes from Moby Dick in my head quite divorced form the words used to create the scenes. For that matter, I have clear images in my head of Agamemnon confronting Achilles in his tent, but I can’t recite many of the lines. (Here’s a thought: I suspect that many, like myself, have a zillion scenes in their heads that they are not quite certain they saw in a movie or read in a book.) The oral features in The Iliad which may have served to help the bard remember or create or recreate the lines he needs do not seem necessary for the audience to remember narrative or to experience emotion. What effect does style have on an audience that is not concerned with memorizing long chucks? That’s the interesting question, I think. Style conveys grandeur, and heroism, and loss, and nostalgia, and everything else. It carries tone. Style can also work in contrast with content, so to speak, as when very dramatic scenes are described in flat language and by some alchemy given great power. Reducing style to a memory aid loses all this.
We could simply by fiat define style as that which aids in remembering specific language, but then we would have to come up with another term to replace what we all now understand as style.
To reduce style to a memory aid would be to go too far. But we could still say that style works by affecting the memory. In this sense, even where style didn’t enforce particular wordings, it would still act on the memory so as to produce unity of effect in longer works. We could then distinguish between style as memory aid; style directing the memory prospectively (creating suspense, anticipation, uncertainty, mood, &c.); style directing the memory retrospectively (repetitions, motifs, echoes of syntax); and style simply driving home certain sections or scenes as microcosms of the whole. Style then would be the means by which the writer overcomes the linearity of the experience of reading: literary perspective, as it were, using a 2-dimensional experience to create a 3-dimensional experience in the mind.
Paul, yes, but isn’t what you say true of ... everything? If my child draws a frog, it evokes memories of real frogs, plastic frogs, other frog drawings. If boy meets girl in a novel or film, doesn’t that in itself suggest possibility? A non-linear experience? Practically everything we experience in the world projects backwards and/or forwards; that’s why we treasure being lost in the moment.
Can anyone write a sentence in comprehensible English that doesn’t echo, particularly since English depends on word order? Here’s an example that may illustrate my problem with emphasizing style’s effect on memory. In one section of Adam Roberts’ _Polystom_, he cleverly riffs off Browning’s “My Last Duchess” through using similar phrases and giving his protagonist similar attitudes to the Duke’s. Is it “style” to use phrases that evoke Browning’s? I’d rather say that Robert’s style, there, showed itself in how he delicately skirted the poem, that if he too overwhelmingly evoked Browning it would have lost much of its charming effect. His style allowed the passage to work well even for a reader unfamiliar with Browning. I guess my point is, that which most effectively evokes or projects or sticks in our minds may not be the best stylistic choice. Otherwise, we’d have to concede that those zillions of advertising jingles floating in our heads are examples of good style instead of being annoying jingles. My other point is, since everything we experience projects forward and/or backwards and/or reminds us of something else, why single out style when what we’re really talking about is a feature of human consciousness?
I hate to say this—but how are jingles not good style? Jingles use perfectly good stylistic techniques: they annoy because of what they are for, not what they are. Is any building prettier than the Taj Mahal? Is anything more obnoxious than the Taj Mahal on the side of a tin can?
Certainly, everything potentially affects the memory; but it’s not style until it’s controlled (which does sometimes mean omission or abstention). The non-linearity here isn’t richness of allusion or association: it’s a kind of structure. I don’t mean something like hypertext, where though the structure of the medium is non-linear the structure of the experience is still a straight line of click-throughs. I mean a kind of unity by simultaneity in the mind—the parts of the work not just fitting together melodiously, but overlapping in the mind to make harmonies. If I can return to painting: all lines lead the eye somewhere; but perspective only emerges when the artist defines a vanishing point. Now, the artist is using a feature of human consciousness, the tendency to follow lines. Is it less art for that?
To help my child memorize state capitals, I invent mnemonics, such as “Do a double dare in Dover, Delaware.” They are very effective, and I apologize to anyone who now has that one stuck in his head forever. I certainly see your point. I suppose I would have a real problem with your approach only if it were used to make qualitative judgments or if it were considered the primary criteria for stylistic effectiveness.
Like all of us who don’t live in caves, I have thousands of advertising jingles in my head. Some I like, most I don’t, but for the most part whether I remember them doesn’t seem to have much to do with whether they pleased me or their purpose. For example, I find the “Real Men of Genius” campaign for Budweiser quite funny, but I know I don’t like Bud—and given the choice of drinking Bud or no beer at all I always choose the latter. So I’m not certain it’s correct to say we like or dislike jingles according to their purpose or according to how well they stick in our memories.
We may appreciate a particular writer’s style for its subtlety and another for its richness. We may like a writer’s matter-of-fact style because it sets in relief what he is writing about. An analysis of the structural use of memory would have much to say about each of these styles, but would it help us determine the effectiveness of these styles according to their various purposes? We may have a fundamental difference in how we look at style. Earlier you suggested that style in literature may be redundant, since its purpose is to aid the memory and we are now in a time of writing (which, of course, echoes Socrates’ worry that writing is dangerous because we no longer have to keep everything in our heads.) Following that line of thinking, you suggested that a reference work may have no style at all. I can’t agree with that because I see a flat, relatively neutral/objective article as the result of a stylistic choice. For one thing, it helps convey authority by its lack of various devices such as imagery and metaphor. What it loses by this approach it makes up for in other ways that may have little to do with how well it resonants with memory. An approach that focuses on style’s working on the memory might conclude that some reference articles lack style, but I think that’s only because we have elevated one characteristic of style above all others.
I should say that I have only been working out this view in the comments here. Though it strikes me as a useful way to look at the origin and workings of style, I cannot consider it a complete account.
As for jingles, I would more accurately say resent than dislike. They are someone’s attempt to subvert my reasoning, exercise power over me. Now that I think of it, however, I find that I have no particular feelings about old jingles for defunct products; some I am even fond of.
I do hold that it is possible for some writing to be without style. Much bureaucratic writing is done using systems of exemplars and set phrases which reduce the role of the writer to nothing more than fitting words into prepared slots. The resemblance of the product to something humanly written written is deceptive; most of the language is only present in the same role as lines in a table. But certainly some reference works have style—the 1911 Britannica or Johnson’s Dictionary come to mind as extremes.