You Chose the Wrong Degree

The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you  happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermés should naturally attend to her appearance first and foremost; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility  that could lead to professional development – besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.

From Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. Translated from the French by Lorin Stein.

The Peripheries of Love

Demolition for the Village View Apartments hadn’t quite finished: July dawns you could still wander the small streets (shortly to be replaced by concrete paths between scrubby lawns and red-brick buildings) and, among the devastated acres, catch sight, in the muggy morning, of fires here and there beside one or another still-standing tenement wall. Off beyond the Jacob Riis Houses with their green sliver of park, the East River’s sluggish oils nudged the city’s granite embankments or bumped the pilings beneath the Williamsburg bridge: girder, cable, and concrete rose from among the delis and cuchifrito stands, the furniture and fabric stores, the movie marquees on Delancey Street to span the night waters – where cars and subways and after-dark cruisers took their delicate amble above the blue-black current banked with lights – before striking deep into Brooklyn’s glittering flank, above the Navy yard.

In the summer of 1961 no one had yet named it the East Village: it was still the Lower East Side.

The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany

This just struck me as such a marvelous piece of writing, from Chip Delany’s memoir/bildungsroman about growing up black and gay in New York. It’s reminded me of my secret fascination with a city I’ve only ever seen from an hour stopover in Newark Liberty. I’m aware now that my New York doesn’t exist any more, and indeed it probably never did – but Delany’s prose is undergoing serious reconstruction work on the New York of my mind.

Can literature be said to have an architecture, or a topography? Or does it merely undertake work on the architecture of our minds, laying foundations of someone else’s dreams and shoring up old memories of things that never happened to us? I look at the paragraph above and think it looks so fine and complex, with its bold parentheses, subtle hyphens and italicised Puerto Rican delicacies, a melting pot of perfect punctuation even as the meaning the words convey peculates through my consciousness, rewriting streets and scribbling out buildings.

In Defence of the Selfie

Ever since the Oxford English Dictionary announced that “selfie” was their Word of the Year 2013, there’s been quite a strident and cynical backlash. Some seem adamant that the rise of the selfie, social media’s apparently negative shorthand for pretty much any self-portrait photography, is indicative of a youth culture defined by vanity and solipsism. Grace Dent in the Independent was particularly hysterical, passionately longing for an era when individuals were controlled by their shame and public ridicule was waiting around the corner for those that weren’t:

In 1993, if you went to Woolworths three times a week to sit in the Foto-Me booth snapping pictures of yourself pulling “The Fonz is Cool” poses, your ego would have been the stuff of local legend. Now, a  selfie-a-day is unremarkable. I sat in a bar recently while one friend took a dozen separate pictures of themselves in the toilet as “it was such amazing light”. We take selfies without irony, sans shame, posting the results online as bait in the great murky cyber-sea. We fish never-endingly for compliments, comments… indeed any feedback at all. Maybe just a Facebook like? A little Instagram regram and a new surge of followers. Anything – please God, anything – which indicates we were bathing, remotely, momentarily in another human being’s gaze.

I couldn’t, in truth, find a professional article behind Dent’s bleating strawmen, fragmented sentences and repetitive sarcastic uses of hashtags, but there must have been one for it to find its way past an Independent editor and subsequently all over my Facebook feed. Let’s therefore assume this isn’t actually more indicative of the hideous decline of journalism and more charitably say this suggests that the backlash against the selfie has moved beyond the usual two or three dry comments per each one uploaded to Facebook and has entered the English zeitgeist good and proper.

It’s good to see people so fired up and passionate about something so important, something so close to the bone of early 21st century social identity. There was a worry that this generation would waste their focus on relatively trivial subjects like the emancipation of Palestine or growing financial inequality on a global scale, but it looks like things are back on track as we stand up to the ubiquitous Instagram imposition, the frivolous Facebook encroachment that is the selfie. Already, crack squadrons of vigilant paladins are scouring their friends’ “mobile pictures” folders for anything that looks remotely like it was taken with a smart phone’s reverse camera, and woe betide those who haven’t got the memo and decide to create a new display picture instead of scrolling through thousands of mates’ pub snaps to find one suitable for their boss to see.

I must admit, I won’t be among them, however. I hold my hands up here: I am one of the hyper-shallow, self-obsessed, narcissistic, empty-headed young sociopaths who have, in the past, taken photos of themselves. Worse, I’ve then uploaded them onto social media. Yes, I am that worst kind of vapid, egomaniacal, attention-seeking, compliment-craving, exhibitionist braggart, the selfie-taker. Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair:

This one was taken after I'd shaved, and needed a byline photo for an interview I was conducting. It was never actually used, but still. Note well the black and white filter hiding any cutaneous imperfections, the idealised tilt of the head, the carefully stage-managed pose and stare. Absolutely disgusting.
This one was taken because I needed a byline photo for an interview I was conducting. It was never actually used, but still. Note well the black and white filter hiding any cutaneous imperfections, the idealised tilt of the head, the carefully stage-managed pose and faux-meaningful stare. Absolutely disgusting.
This was taken as a self-deprecating joke to accompany my return to playing football in the evenings despite being clearly out of shape and sporting facial hair that didn't exactly imply a conviction to the sport. No excuse: this self-consciously 'zany' facial expression is a common feature of the selfie.
This was taken as a self-deprecating joke to accompany my return to playing football in the evenings despite being clearly out of shape and sporting facial hair that didn’t exactly imply a conviction to the sport. No excuse: this self-consciously ‘zany’ facial expression is a common feature of the selfie.
Perhaps the most revolting example of the lot, this was an "after" shot of a new haircut I was trying out after my more hirsuite appearances in the past. I sincerely hope nobody was fooled by the comedic contrast between this and the "before" photo, in which I strongly resembled a werewolf, into thinking this was anything other than conceited vainglory.
Perhaps the most revolting example of the lot, this was an “after” shot of a new haircut I was trying out after my more hirsuite appearances in the past. I sincerely hope nobody was fooled by the comedic contrast between this and the “before” photo, in which I strongly resembled a werewolf, into thinking this was anything other than conceited vainglory by an increasingly aristocratic mentality.

They are merely three examples – there are at least two more around the internet. Looking over these selfies, I’m led to consider why I took them.

For as long as I can remember, I have had self image problems. Not for any good reason, looking at it objectively. When I was a child, I suffered terribly from sinusitis, resulting in a perpetual runny nose I would try to cover up as often as possible. As this faded in my teens, it was replaced by chronic acne, the scars of which I still carry on my body. I had a gap in my teeth that meant I didn’t show them when I smiled until I was about 18, and a permanent stain on one incisor I was neurotic enough to have removed as late as last year. Through this period, I’ve been sporadically self conscious about my weight, my messy hair, a surgical scar that means my bottom lip protrudes more than it otherwise would, my jawline’s lack of definition, the fact one of my nostrils is wider than the other and several other things that have meant my reflection and I don’t always get along well.

So what, right? Well… right. My experience of self-image problems aren’t particularly special. I’m convinced I’m in the majority when it comes to not looking like one would like to look. So, the first obvious point to make is: yes, it is probably nice to receive some mark of acceptance from one’s peers, even if it is a Facebook like. Dent, and others, are aghast that anyone might crave that kind of social confirmation, even a little bit, but I don’t actually find it particularly shocking. It must be said, though, that there’s actually something else going on, something bigger that’s at stake.

There’s a part in The Matrix when Morpheus shows Neo the inside of the computer simulation for the first time. The script reads:

Is it really so hard to believe? Your clothes are different. The plugs in your arms and head are gone. Your hair has changed. Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.

"Also, have you seen my new iPhone camera?"
“Also, have you seen my new iPhone camera?”

This part has always seemed bogus to me, and by conversations I’ve had with others, I’m not alone. The filmmakers, obviously restricted by the medium, can only show us Keanu Reeves in a jacket and jeans, and with an unexceptional haircut. If only it were true that our self images were that normal, basic and unchanging. The “residual self image”, quite simply, does not exist with that degree of consistency. It’s in a constant state of flux.

More so when something alters in our life, from a haircut (see above) to a break up. The Dents of this world want to see the common Instagram image of the girl two days after finishing with her boyfriend as being some kind of desperate public plea for attention and sympathy, as well as validation that she will be able to find a replacement. More likely, the validation that is desired is twofold: 1.) that she is not as ugly as the break-up has made her feel internally, and 2.) on a subconscious level, that she is still recognisably the same person as she was three days ago.

The quite wonderful and epoch-shaping photographer, Nan Goldin, certainly sees it this way, commenting on one of several of her pictures that would now be classified as selfies (emphasis mine):

My work has been about making a record of my life that no one can revise. I photograph myself in times of trouble or change in order to find the ground to stand on in the change. I was coming out of a melancholic phase. This was taken when I was traveling extensively, on the road from hotel to hotel. You get displaced, and then taking self-portraits becomes a way of hanging on to yourself.

A particularly devastating example of one of Goldin’s portraits is her “Nan one month after being battered”, an artistic capturing of her domestic abuse.

"Nan one month after being battered", 1984  © Nan Goldin
“Nan one month after being battered”, 1984
© Nan Goldin

In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (p.8), she speaks frankly about the events leading up to this photo:

For a number of years I was deeply involved with a man. We were well suited emotionally and the relationship became very interdependent. Jealousy was used to inspire passion. His concept of relationships was rooted in … romantic idealism … I craved the dependency, the adoration, the satisfaction, the security, but sometimes I felt claustrophobic. We were addicted to the amount of love the relationship supplied … Things between us started to break down, but neither of us could make the break. The desire was constantly reinspired at the same time that the dissatisfaction became undeniable. Our sexual obsession remained one of the hooks. One night, he battered me severely, almost blinding me.

This photograph is, obviously, completely different than the smiling Facebook display pic taken in someone’s living room, and it would be completely wrong to compare them directly. But the emotion behind her taking the photo is consistent with Goldin’s more general rationale for her self portraits, which is identical to the reason for most selfies. They aren’t a desire for simple public gratification so much as a necessity for the individual to ground one’s own self, to do away with Cartesian distinction, within the social context that defines us as much as anything else does.

This is nothing new. If you could map the emotional path of Van Gogh, you’d find a tumultuous road indeed: it’s speculated that he suffered from bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. And the road would have selfies as milestones. Those keen to cling to the fantasy of the selfie as generational, and the sole preserve of talentless egotists, please look away now:

Oil on pasteboard, 41 x 32 cm Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Oil on pasteboard, 41 x 32 cm
oil on canvas 51 × 45 cm (20.1 × 17.7 in)
Oil on canvas, 51 × 45 cm
Oil on canvas, 62 × 52 cm
Oil on canvas, 62 × 52 cm

There are thirty-four more Van Gogh selfies extant. This is relatively restrained next to Edvard Munch, who crafted 190 selfies over the course of his life, in which he frequently sees himself mistreated by women or other forces beyond his control. Frida Kahlo made fifty-five selfies, including this famous one, but there are far more nightmarish and frightening examples where she tries to depict as best she can both her mental and physical anguish – Kahlo spent many years bedridden and alone. We might also here spare mentions for Rembrandt, Dürer, Picasso, Rubens, Schiele, Brueghel the Elder, Van Dyck, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet, Whistler, Toulouse-Latrec, Gauguin, Renoir, da Vinci and Goya, irrepressible selfie-ists all. Schiele, by the way, would also paint himself masturbating or otherwise pleasuring himself, presumably as a forerunner to the satisfaction-seeking nature of the modern selfie:

Pencil and watercolour on paper, 47 × 31 cm
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 47 × 31 cm
Far from being demonstrative of shamelessness and arrogance, the selfie, like the self-portrait of old, seems almost overwhelmingly motivated by self-doubt, nervousness and even a sense of ontological ungrounding. Because your average Instagram user does not have the artistic talent of the ladies or gentlemen named, should that necessarily de-legitimise their own emotions, their own burning necessity to stand in on themselves in times of change and halt the flux, if only for a moment?
Actually not a selfie. Probably.
Actually not a selfie. Probably.
“The only people shallow enough to take selfies,” says the imperiously monikered IvyLeague, a participant in the comment thread below Dent’s crusading piece, “are unlikely to appeal to anyone above the age of 16 or with an IQ above 80.” It is with a little regret that I resign myself, then, to the ranks of the sub-literate, borderline-retarded cretins such as Rembrandt and Goya. It’s a tough cross to bear, but bear it I must, consoling myself with the poetry of that other brain-dead selfie-taker, Rimbaud:
I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.

Checking in

For anyone who has followed my last few posts, it may come as no surprise to know that I’m working again. As a writer, that is – trying to take advantage of a crippling injury that has left me sadly unable to get to my office and argue with clients from the totalitarian perspective of a hideous corporate egregore all day.

The new novel is actually not that new at all – it’s a reworking of a discovered manuscript I wrote about five years ago. The reason for the reworking is simple: it’s fucking terrible.

Nice cover, though.
Nice cover, though.

Here are some problems I had with the original.

– Quentin Quark, transhumanist pulp hero and… CEO of a real company people are meant to take seriously

I deliberately chose the name “Quentin Quark” wanting it to sound ridiculous. The idea for the novel was to pin what I thought were interesting post-human ideas and philosophy on the framework of a Lester Dent-esque pulp story, setting up a contrast between content and context. Fine.

However, in the story, I don’t think I got the balance right. Because people take him seriously, calling him “Quentin” or “Dr. Quark”, the tone never really hitting that farcical attitude the name warranted.

Enter Javon Cray, the real life person for whom Quentin Quark is one of several pseudonyms, a corporate logo, a fictional superhero he plays to push his futurist ideas into the public sphere. It makes sense to me that a multi-disciplined scientist, in the vein of other pulp superheroes like Doc Savage or Reed Richards, should be able to handle multiple identities, too – dissociative identity disorder as a lifestyle choice, as I believe The Invisibles puts it.

King Addrisi of Alexandria, an African city state on the Baraka River

This was my attempt to set up some kind of Doctor Doom-esque villain who ran his own country, but sounds more like an evil Black Panther (the superhero, not the civil rights group. Casual racism aside, any villain who talks like this is pretty much not salvageable:

Leaving without this?” Addrisi’s voice said. Quentin looked up, and there was his enemy, standing on a balcony above, naked but for he disc in his hand. “The Gaia Program. The future of the world contained on this tiny circle. Like a mandala. It’s almost mythic, isn’t it?”

Addrisi leapt from the balcony and fell the ten feet to the floor, landing with a grace that belied his bulk.

What are you thinking, Quentin? What are you thinking in that incredible mind of yours? Do you not realise the significance of our struggle? The location, our shared skin colour. It was here, in the heart of Africa, that mankind took its first steps. Here we first developed societal order. Here, you and I and my scientists fired our hadrons and restructured the standard model of physics!”

Actually, I was thinking of that naked wrestling scene in Women in Love,” Quentin said. “What happened to you, Addrisi? You always wanted power, but you never served the status quo.”

And when did you start serving chaos, instead of anarchy? Oh, yes, Quentin. I have spoken to your masters on the astral plane. Spoken with the gods you have been convening with. Kālī said…”

So, out with Addrisi and in with Isaac “Jericho” Blake, a rogue American technologist designated by the UN as a “science terrorist”. Without giving too much away, he’s essentially an evil Steve Jobs. Well – more evil, I mean.

The terrifying computer program trying to take over the world… Monday!

No, that’s not when it plans to do it: that’s it’s name. I had intended for it to be a corruption of Spiritus Mundi, the “Spirit of the World” from Yeats’ The Second Coming – at the time I was reading a lot of Yeats, including his esoteric automatic writings contained in A Vision. Yeats’ concept of Spiritus Mundi was a kind of informational singularity, a space where the totality of human information and experience was recorded. Monday, an emergent artificial consciousness thinking itself to be a technological singularity, thus named itself.

Unfortunately, as much as we dread it all weekend, Monday is not really very scary. I’ve reworked this almost entirely in the redraft, but kept the Spiritus Mundi connection: the threat is now known as Zphy-Rah-Tus (A.K.A. Zphyratos… Zphyritus… Spiritus… geddit?), a mass of data that’s gone insane and demands we worship it.

Incidentally, the weirdest thing about this was, as soon as I started to re-work the emergent network consciousness concept I came up with four years ago, this popped up on io9: A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious. This is the problem with writing science fiction at the start of the 21st century: your ideas reach a sell-by date very quickly.

The writing itself was neither pulpy nor serious

Developing a voice is important; this is why I’ve been delving into texts where writers write about their craft recently. The Robert Louis Stevenson essay was especially helpful, as Stevenson is someone who attained the sort of balance I’m trying to get between a popular sense of adventure and a respect for the value of good prose, structure and so forth. Michael Moorcock, whose Jerry Cornelius books were the main inspiration behind Quentin Quark when I started it five years ago, strongly advises to science fiction and fantasy writers who are starting out that they

A) Stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

B) Find an author you admire (Moorcock’s was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

I’m not going quite that far, but I am certainly picking a lot up from my perusals of The Master of Ballantrae, for instance. It seems fitting to me that Conrad admired Stevenson as I admire Moorcock – not that I’m implicitly comparing myself to those three esteemed gentlemen of letters, of course.

Aside from Stevenson, my other two consultants are How Fiction Works by James Wood and Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa. I hope to write more about both at a later date, but already they’ve been immensely helpful, especially in tandem with Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Llosa’s own The Feast of the Goat.

Both Wood and Llosa look to Flaubert as an almost Platonic example of how to construct a narrative (I really want to get hold of Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy, his book analysing Madame Bovary). Wood asserts that Flaubert is none other than the inventor of the modern novelistic voice; “There really is,” he says, “a before Flaubert and an after him.” Reading his predecessors like Fielding, Defoe and even fellow realist Balzac, one will still encounter an essayistic narrator who thinks nothing of digressing with his own opinions and observations. After Flaubert, from Tolstoy to Christopher Isherwood to Ian bloody McEwan, these observations are either dressed up in the everyday or concealed by an ambiguous eye. By an ambiguous eye, I mean that we as readers can’t be exactly sure if it’s the character’s or the author’s.

Being shown these elements of fiction writing that we otherwise take for granted is both gratifying and hugely helpful – far more useful, I’ve found, than any number of How To Write Fiction-esque guides. As Moorcock rightly says, you learn from the masters, and Wood is adept at showing you their brushstrokes.

A few other quick notes, perhaps to expand upon later:

  1. Far from the conventional view that a first person narrative is reliable whilst a third person narrative is omniscient and objective, Wood posits that the first person narrative is, at least, reliably unreliable – in contrast to the third person, which presents itself as reliable but in fact carefully selects the details it shows you and the thoughts it reveals.
  2. Rare examples of an unreliably unreliable first person narrator include Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Italo Svevo’s Zeno.
  3. Wood has led me to Henry James’ mastery of narration, just as William H. Gass’s The Sentence Seeks its Form led me to his genius of rhythm and sentence structure.
  4. Death is often accompanied by the trivial: Falstaff babbling of green fields, Joachim feeling the blanket with his hand in The Magic Mountain. We don’t plan for death, as Proust rightly notes.

A better poetry guide than mine: Dr. Johnson on Prosody


It is common for those that deliver the grammar of modern languages, to omit the Prosody. So that of the Italians is neglected by Buomattei; that of the French by Desmarais; aad that of the English by Wallis, Cooper, and even by Jonson, though a poet. But as the laws of metre are included in the idea of grammar, I have thought proper to insert them.

PROSODY comprises orthoepy, or the rules of pronunciation; and orthometry, or the laws of versification.

Pronunciation is just, when every letter has its proper sound, and every syllable has its proper accent, or, which in English versification is the same, its proper quantity.

The sounds of the letters have been already explained; and rules for the accent or quantity are not easily to be given, being subject to innumerable exceptions. Such, however, as I have read or formed, I shall here propose.

1. Of dissyllables, formed by affixing a termination, the former syllable is commonly accented, as chíldish, kíngdom, áctest, ácted, tóilsome, lóver, scóffer, faírer, fóremost, zéalous, fúlness, gódly, meékly, ártist.

2. Dissyllables formed by prefixing a syllable to the radical word, have commonly the accent on the latter; as to begét, to beseém, to bestów.

3. Of dissyllables, which are at once nouns and verbs, the verb has commonly the accent on the latter, and the noun on the former syllable; as, to descánt, a déscant; to cemént, a cément; to contráct, a cóntract.

This rule has many exceptions. Though verbs seldom have their accent on the former, yet nouns often have it on the latter syllable; as delíght, perfúme.

4. All dissyllables ending in y, as cránny; in our, as lábour, fávour; in ow, as wíllow, wállow, except allów; in le, as báttle, bíble; in ish, as bánish; in ck, as cámbrick, cássock; in ter, as to bátter; in age, as coúrage, in en, as fásten; in et, as quíet; accent the former syllable.

5. Dissyllable nouns in er, as cánker, bútter, have the accent on the former syllable.

6. Dissyllable verbs terminating in a consonant and e final, as compríse, escápe; or having a diphthong in the last syllable, as appéase, revéal; or ending in two consonants, as atténd; have the accent on the latter syllable.

7. Dissyllable nouns having a diphthong in the latter syllable, have commonly their accent on the latter syllable, as appláuse; except words in ain, cértain, moúntain.

8. Trissyllables formed by adding a termination, or prefixing a syllable, retain the accent of the radical word; as, lóveliness, ténderness, contémner, wágonner, phýsical, bespátter, cómmenting, comménding, assúrance.

9. Trissyllables ending in ous, as grácious, árduous; in al, as cápital; in ion, as méntion; accent the first.

10. Trissyllables ending in ce, ent, and ate, accent the first syllable, as cóuntenance, cóntinence, ármament, ímminent, élegant, própagate, except they be derived from words having the accent on the last, as connívance, acquáintance; or the middle syllable hath a vowel before two consonants, as promúlgate.

11. Trissyllables ending in y, as éntity, spécify, líberty, víctory, súbsidy, commonly accent the first syllable.

12. Trissyllables in re or le accent the [34] first syllable, as légible, théatre, except discíple, and some words which have a position, as exámple, epístle.

13. Trissyllables in ude commonly accent the first syllable, as plénitude.

14. Trissyllables ending in ator or atour, as creátour; or having in the middle syllable a diphthong, as endeávour; or a vowel before two consonants, as doméstick; accent the middle syllable.

15. Trissyllables that have their accent on the last syllable are commonly French, as acquiésce, repartée, magazíne, or words formed by prefixing one or two syllables to an acute syllable, as immatúre, overchárge.

16. Polysyllables, or words of more than three syllables, follow the accent of the words from which they are derived, as árrogating, cóntinency, incóntinently, comméndable, commúnicableness. We should therefore say dispútable, indispútable; rather than dísputable, indísputable; and advertísement, rather than advértisement.

17. Words in ion have the accent upon the antepenult, as salvátion, perturbátion, concóction; words in atour or ator on the penult, as dedicátor.

18. Words ending in le commonly have the accent on the first syllable, as ámicable, unless the second syllable have a vowel before two consonants, as combústible.

19. Words ending in ous have the accents on the antepenult, as uxórious, volúptuous.

20. Words ending in ty have their accent on the antepenult, as pusillanímity, actívity.

These rules are not advanced as complete or infallible, but proposed as useful. Almost every rule of every language has its exceptions; and in English, as in other tongues, much must be learned by example and authority. Perhaps more and better rules may be given that have escaped my observation.

VERSIFICATION is the arrangement of a certain number of syllables according to certain laws.

The feet of our verses are either iambick, as alóft, creáte; or trochaick, as hóly, lófty.

Our iambick measure comprises verses

Of four syllables,

Most good, most fair,
Or things as rare,
To call you’s lost;
For all the cost
Words can bestow,
So poorly show
Upon your praise,
That all the ways
Sense hath, come short.           Drayton.

With ravish’d ears
The monarch hears.           Dryden.

Of six,

This while we are abroad,
Shall we not touch our lyre?
Shall we not sing an ode?
Or shall that holy fire,
In us that strongly glow’d,
In this cold air expire?

Though in the utmost peak,
A while we do remain,
Amongst the mountains bleak,
Expos’d to sleet and rain,
No sport our hours shall break,
To exercise our vein.

What though bright Phœbus’ beams
Refresh the southern ground,
And though the princely Thames
With beauteous nymphs abound,
And by old Camber’s streams
Be many wonders found:

Yet many rivers clear
Here glide in silver swathes,
And what of all most dear,
Buxton’s delicious baths,
Strong ale and noble chear,
T’ asswage breem winters scathes.

In places far or near,
Or famous, or obscure,
Where wholsom is the air,
Or where the most impure,
All times, and every where,
The muse is still in ure.           Drayton.

Of eight, which is the usual measure for short poems,

And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown, and mossy cell,
Where I may sit, and nightly spell
Of ev’ry star the sky doth shew,
And ev’ry herb that sips the dew.           Milton.

Of ten, which is the common measure of heroick and tragick poetry,

Full in the midst of this created space,
Betwixt heav’n, earth, and skies, there stands a place
Confining on all three; with triple bound;
Whence all things, though remote, are view’d around,
And thither bring their undulating sound.
The palace of loud Fame, her seat of pow’r,
Plac’d on the summit of a lofty tow’r;
A thousand winding entries long and wide
Receive of fresh reports a flowing tide.
A thousand crannies in the walls are made;
Nor gate nor bars exclude the busy trade.
Tis built of brass, the better to diffuse
The spreading sounds, and multiply the news;
Where echoes in repeated echoes play:
A mart for ever full; and open night and day.
Nor silence is within, nor voice express,
But a deaf noise of sounds that never cease;
Confus’d and chiding, like the hollow roar
Of tides, receding from th’ insulted shore;
Or like the broken thunder heard from far,
When Jove to distance drives the rolling war.
The courts are fill’d with a tumultuous din,
Of crouds, or issuing forth, or ent’ring in:
A thorough-fare of news; where some devise
Things never heard, some mingle truth with lies:
The troubled air with empty sounds they beat,
Intent to hear, and eager to repeat.                Dryden.

In all these measures the accents are to be placed on even syllables; and every line considered by itself is more harmonious, as this rule is more strictly observed. The variations necessary to pleasure belong to the art of poetry, not the rules of grammar.

Our trochaick measures are

Of three syllables,

Here we may
Think and pray,
Before death
Stops our breath:
Other joys
Are but toys.           Walton’s Angler.

Of five,

In the days of old,
Stories plainly told,
Lovers felt annoy.           Old Ballad.

Of seven,

Fairest piece of well form’d earth,
Urge not thus your haughty birth.           Waller.

In these measures the accent is to be placed on the odd syllables.

These are the measures which are now in use, and above the rest those of seven, eight, and ten syllables. Our ancient poets wrote verses sometimes of twelve syllables, as Drayton’s Polyolbion.

Of all the Cambrian shires their heads that bear so high,
And farth’st survey their soils with an ambitious eye,
Mervinia for her hills, as for their matchless crouds,
The nearest that are said to kiss the wand’ring clouds,
Especial audience craves, offended with the throng,
That she of all the rest neglected was so long;
Alledging for herself, when, through the Saxons’ pride,
The godlike race of Brute to Severn’s setting side
Were cruelly inforc’d, her mountains did relieve
Those whom devouring war else every where did grieve.
And when all Wales beside (by fortune or by might)
Unto her ancient foe resign’d her ancient right,
A constant maiden still she only did remain,
The last her genuine laws which stoutly did retain.
And as each one is prais’d for her peculiar things;
So only she is rich, in mountains, meres and springs,
And holds herself as great in her superfluous waste,
As others by their towns, and fruitful tillage grac’d.

And of fourteen, as Chapman’s Homer.

And as the mind of such a man, that hath a long way gone,
And either knoweth not his way, or else would let alone,
His purpos’d journey, is distract.

The measures of twelve and fourteen syllables were often mingled by our old poets, sometimes in alternate lines, and sometimes in alternate couplets.

The verse of twelve syllables, called an Alexandrine, is now only used to diversify heroick lines.

Waller was smooth, but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestick march, and energy divine.           Pope.

The pause in the Alexandrine must be at the sixth syllable.

The verse of fourteen syllables is now broken into a soft lyrick measure of verses, consisting alternately of eight syllables and six.

She to receive thy radiant name,
Selects a whiter space.           Fenton.

When all shall praise, and ev’ry lay
Devote a wreath to thee,
That day, for come it will, that day
Shall I lament to see.           Lewis to Pope.

Beneath this tomb an infant lies
To earth whose body lent,
Hereafter shall more glorious rise,
But not more innocent.
When the Archangel’s trump shall blow,
And souls to bodies join,
What crowds shall wish their lives below
Had been as short as thine!           Wesley.

We have another measure very quick and lively, and therefore much used in songs, which may be called the anapestick, in which the accent rests upon every third syllable.

May I góvern my pássions with ábsolute swáy,
And grow wíser and bétter as lífe wears awáy.           Dr. Pope.

In this measure a syllable is often retrenched from the first foot, as

Diógenes súrly and próud.           Dr. Pope.

When présent, we lóve, and when ábsent agrée,
I thínk not of Íris, nor Íris of me.           Dryden.

These measures are varied by many combinations, and sometimes by double endings, either with or without rhyme, as in the heroick measure.

‘Tis the divinity that stirs within us,
‘Tis heaven itself that points out an hereafter,
And intimates eternity to man.           Addison.

So in that of eight syllables,

They neither added nor confounded,
They neither wanted nor abounded.           Prior.

In that of seven,

For resistance I could fear none,
But with twenty ships had done,
What thou, brave and happy Vernon,
Hast atchiev’d with six alone.           Glover.

In that of six,

‘Twas when the seas were roaring,
With hollow blasts of wind,
A damsel lay deploring,
All on a rock reclin’d.           Gay.

In the anapestick,

When terrible tempests assail us.
And mountainous billows affright,
Nor power nor wealth can avail us,
But skilful industry steers right.           Ballad.

To these measures and their laws, may be reduced every species of English verse.

Our versification admits of few licences, except a synalœpha, or elision of e in the before a vowel, as th’ eternal; and more rarely of o in to, as t’ accept; and a synaresis, by which two short vowels coalesce into one syllable, as question, special; or a word is contracted by the expulsion of a short vowel before a liquid, as av’rice, temp’rance.

Thus have I collected rules and examples, by which the English language may be learned, if the reader be already acquainted with grammatical terms, or taught by a master to those that are more ignorant. To have written a grammar for such as are not yet initiated in the schools, would have been tedious, and perhaps at last ineffectual.

(From Samuel Johnson’s A Grammar of the English Tongue.)

The Substance of Style

Perusing some of his essays, I’ve been lately thinking how unfortunate it is that Robert Louis Stevenson’s stock as a writer fell so dramatically sometime after World War I; once a literary sensation, he went from a world-renowned author to a rough and ready reputation as a scribbler of what were barely more than pulp adventure stories.

It’s nevertheless my view that he should be taken as seriously as Conrad (whom he greatly inspired) as a purveyor of English language prose. The reason I suspect he isn’t is because, whilst Conrad was admired by the Modernists, Stevenson wasn’t: Virginia Woolf wrote of Stevenson that he was “no critical artist” and guilty of “self-conscious […] sentimentality […and] quaintness.” Even prior to that, Leonard Bast in E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) is shown to have embarrassingly immature taste by enthusing (as I am about to do) over Stevenson’s essays. It seems strange now that there was once a time when the critics of Stevenson, like George Moore, were not only rare but based their attacks on Stevenson’s essentially being too great a stylist, and thus straying too far from the realist movement. It was in those days that Rudyard Kipling found in Stevenson’s work “the most delicate inlay-work in black and white”, and Oscar Wilde called him the “delightful master of delicate and fanciful prose.”

Fortunately, there has been some upturn in the man’s critical fortunes, thanks at least to three of my favourite writers in Graham Greene, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, all of whom praised his fiction to varying degrees. (Greene seemed merely to like him, whereas Borges flat out worshipped the man.) He was, in addition, a fine critic and engaging essayist, and I have included below his essay on style because it elucidates much I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to articulate in the past.

It’s a rare thing to find literary criticism that engages with prose; far more popular subjects are the “themes” or perceived politics. Upon studying literature, an undergraduate is far more likely to encounter feminist or post-structuralist analytical models than commentary upon Milton’s economy of vowel/consonant interplay, say, or even the rhythm of Shakespeare’s blank verse between the metrics. It wasn’t until last year, when I read William H. Gass on Henry James, Charles Dickens and William Gaddis (stylistic essays collected in the rather excellent Temple of Texts, available from Dalkey Archive Press), that I had even thought about the use of, for example, alliteration by a novelist; and this is after years of both formal and casual immersion in literature and criticism. Actually hearing Gass reading his 1995 novel The Tunnel on audiobook was similarly formative in this regard, and knowing this is a writer who agonises over his sentences made it easier to understand why he took over 20 years to finish writing that particular book.

Let me be clear that I’m not of the Harold Bloom mindset, attempting to rescue literature from the “school of resentment”. Literature is like a diamond with many facets, that one needs a full drawer of looking glasses to properly appreciate. It’s no bad thing to excavate meaning with a Marxian trowel or to run a feminist needle pick along its contours; one can in this manner learn much about the concealed preconceptions of the society and artist, and reciprocally employ the text to illustrate Marxism and feminism to a student afterwards. Little, however, information about the aesthetics of the piece is gained with those particular tools – imposing a framework from without can only bring forth so much from within.

The formidable Northrop Frye, in his theory of modes (An Anatomy of Criticism, a book nobody serious about literary criticism can avoid) put these popular schools to one side to engage with the text on its own terms. What resulted was a pattern-spotting exercise hoping to unveil the formula great works follow. It is more this sort of from-the-inside-out approach rather than a top-down imposition I would advocate to be applied on the specific level of sentence construction and prose rhythm, though Frye’s subject was a more general overview of literary “genres” or “modes”, from the epic to the romance, on the basis of whether the protagonist is superior or inferior to us in “kind” or “degree”.

A brief diversion on this. In her essay Historical Genres/Theoretical Genres, which addresses Tzvetan Todorov’s commentary on Frye’s Anatomy and Stanislaw Lem’s critique of Todorov, Christine Brooke-Rose provides Frye’s classifications in the form of a table:


She notes the table is incomplete as more combinations are possible than are addressed by Frye, further evidence that Frye was a more excellent critic than he was a theorist. Perhaps this distinction is explanation why Marxism and feminism, say, still seem predominant: it is they who still reign supreme on the level of theory, and our non-ideological interests are less antagonistic reclamation than equally protagonistic operations on the level of criticism. The attempted apotheosis of Frye’s criticism to the Olympus of theory is unsuccessful because it has transferred from “mere” observation into hagiography of another framework. It’s all well and good to discover that Oedipus is high mimetic tragedy as opposed to the romantic tragedy of Beowulf, but a problem may arise when shoehorning Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon into a low mimetic comedy category in order to illustrate the theory: we have gone from descriptive to prescriptive without utilising any viable judgement of quality, a judgement that Frye is unwilling to and uninterested in making.

There are at least as many approaches to quality as there are to thematic recognition or genre qualification. The critic James Wood is said to frequently take a conservative, moralist approach, chastising Flaubert for his emotional distance from the cruelty he portrays. Book reviewers often laud or criticise a work on the basis of plot, which is roughly as useful as judging a coat by its coathanger. A judgment on “character development” in works that are not for instance bildungsroman or kunstlerroman, i.e. where that is not the focus, is likewise unappealing. The quality of style, whilst not the only consistently credible discernment of value one could make, is perhaps the most universal arbiter between good and great works. It’s prescription without imposition, leaving agenda at the door.

The first element of style Stevenson identifies is the choice of words. He compares words to building blocks, and notes that it is these that are the most immediately noticeable element, “this form of merit is without doubt the most sensible and seizing”. This is then analogous to noticing the architect has chosen to use marble and mosaic in the interior of Westminster Cathedral, and judging the quality of the marble and ordered composition of the mosaic, before one deduces the Neo-Byzantine design ethic.

A good choice and ordering of words is not in itself good writing – according to Stevenson, Cicero’s superiority to Tacitus and Voltaire’s to Montaigne cannot be thus explained – but it is certainly a component. Here Stevenson in part anticipates the famous dispute between Faulkner and Hemingway, a story that is more often than not presented as the retort of the wise and grounded Hemingway putting the “poor” highfalutin Faulkner, who thought “big emotions come from big words”, in his place. This anti-intellectual strain is also to be found in Orwell’s popular insistence that a writer “never use a long word where a short one will do”. Stevenson would recognise that this is missing the point – the length or size of the word is not as important as the word’s “harmonious” sound (Stevenson on a few occasions mentions an internal “ear” as being key) in the context of the words around it.

Though it’s nothing than the other side of the same coin as Orwell and Hemingway, I do have some sympathy with Will Self’s argument that using obscure words can rescue a text from banality and being sent to a dictionary, as Faulkner said Hemingway’s readers never were, is not necessarily a bad thing – surely a strong vocabulary is better than a weak one? However, it’s not hard to infer from that same article that Self apparently believes lexical decisions are all that separate Joyce, Nabokov and Woolf from the middlebrow, and a less kind reviewer might look to this lack of understanding for explanation as to why Self will never reach that level of the stylists he clearly aspires to.

Contra Orwell, I would also say that in philosophical writing an obfuscatory tone is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps this is because of my preference for continental and poststructural thinkers over the members of Anglo-Saxon, analytical schools who would recoil in horror at the Sokal-tempting language of a Derridean. But complex ideas deserve to be treated with complexity – that one cannot render deconstruction easily into immediately accessible English isn’t a weakness of the idea or its conveyor, and might actually be part of the point. And if one does misread, this in itself can be fertile soil for one’s own ideas.

The next section, which Stevenson entitles “the Web”, begins with an interesting commentary on the arts that may no longer ring exactly true. Essentially, Stevenson identifies a diegetic/mimetic divide (if I may be allowed to stretch the definition of diegesis a moment), with architecture, music and dance on one side and sculpture, painting and acting on the other. The diegetic set are the thing-in-itself, whereas the mimetic are instances of art imitating life. Since Stevenson was writing, the rise of abstraction has meant that sculpture and painting have been able to cross into the non-mimetic realm, joining literature, opera, ballet and, now, film as transaxial arts that can belong to either category. It could be said that some sonic experimentation by guitarists like Steve Vai, who can make their instruments sound like pigs or cats, has meant that music has shown the potential to be mimetic; though whether this is musicianship or onanism I will leave to the discerning judgement of the reader.

None of this is really relevant to Stevenson’s point – he simply includes it as a preface to what these disparate arts nevertheless have in common: a unifying pattern. The Web, if you like. Like Frye’s identification of modes, Stevenson’s identification of the Web is an exercise in pattern recognition – just not on a cross-textual basis. Literature is, with music, one of the two “temporal arts”, composed of sounds and pauses in time. Therefore, these sounds and pauses cannot, according to Stevenson, be fragmentary in the manner of verbal communication but must be woven into a coherent structure.

Of course, a lot has happened in literature and music since Stevenson died in 1894, before the effects of chromaticism had begun to be felt in the music of Schoenberg and the Viennese School. What followed was works characterised by atonality and dissonance, and later the avant garde, free jazz and electronic movements in which discord is more notable than harmony.

Does this mean we would have to reverse Stevenson’s criteria to judge Webern, Stockhausen, John Cage, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Captain Beefheart and Throbbing Gristle as the virtuosos they deserve to be known as? Whilst these artists lack an explicate pattern, all play to an implicate structure. Braxton’s non-compositional material is characterised as improvisational; however, if Braxton’s playing was, as it probably seems to the untrained ear, pure improvisation, it would indeed be analogous to everyday speech, Stevenson’s communication in the “business of life”, made in “broken words”, “carried on with substantives alone” and therefore “not what we call literature” (or, in this case, music). Of course, Braxton is not making it up as he goes along, but varying, deconstructing and playing against the themes of his predecessors, in the way that Schoenberg began by riffing (for want of a better word) on Wagner and the Romantics.

Even Braxton’s later music, which sounds like this:

cannot be dismissed. For whilst it lacks a pattern, it is not a random primordial soup in the way of everyday conversation: having rejected traditional Western forms, Braxton now builds towards new possible forms, saying of his Ghost Trance Music that it is part of “a process that is both composition and improvisation, a form of meditation that establishes ritual and symbolic connections (which) go beyond time parameters and become a state of being in the same way as the trance musics of ancient West Africa and Persia.” Convergent evolutionary parallels might be found in the Sufi devotional chanting of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or in the music of the Far East where, like Miles Davis or Morton Feldman, you play the notes that aren’t there.

The reason I include this is to remind us that just because something does not fit our tried and tested models and frameworks does not mean it lacks pattern. There is still a Web, just not a Web we would immediately recognise and easily contexualise within our cultural dialectic. Braxton in form might be seen as analogous to a science fiction writer in content, extrapolating beyond our temporal plane to see where our current technologies might take us. Within this analogy, Throbbing Gristle and other industrial musicians are alternate history scribes: like Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle asked what would have happened had the Axis powers won the Second World War and Poul Anderson speculates on a contemporary reality where Rome lost the Punic Wars in Delenda Est, Throbbing Gristle attempted to project a world where blues was not at the root of popular music. Just because form and style is harder to recognise than content and theme does not make experimentation in one less valid than the other. Is it different, and difficult? Yes. Is it inferior, and wrong? No.

Our literary equivalents are likewise some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Queneau, like Schoenberg always conscious of the rules even as he made up and rigidly adhered to his own, attempted to reconcile the improvisational manner of French speech with the stifling formality of it’s written grammar. Céline, like Queneau, used ellipses often, and thus his prose seems more characterised by dissonance than unity but nevertheless still clearly by rhythm. Burroughs, a fan of Céline, attempted to escape the temporal conventions of prose that Stevenson mentions by using the cut-up technique, evading what he saw as the “tyranny” of language and narrative to, like Braxton, allow “subliminal hints of the future to seep through” (according to Alan Moore, an idea upon which I have written before).

An aside: David Foster Wallace, a good writer who doesn’t quite merit inclusion alongside these titans, also experimented with breaking up prose, using footnotes rather than ellipses or cut-up.

Joyce went further than Braxton – rather than speculating or ruminating, he went ahead and crafted his own language. What’s extraordinary is there is still a great music to Finnegans Wake when read aloud – unlike Céline or Burroughs, it could not be said to be consciously atonal. Joyce was reputably a majestic singer as a young boy, which reminds us that language is born not in the mouth but in the lungs and throat, and that internal ear Stevenson speaks of must be employed to decipher its depths. Plato thought the written word an aberrant mutation of the spoken, whereas Derrida would have said the spoken into the written was natural state of change in the manner of a seed becoming a tree. It is in Joyce and other “musical” writers that we see there is no distinct and permanent divide between the two but a constant interplay. The phenomenon of reading literature in one’s head and never out loud is a relatively recent one, which may well have forced this artificial barrier that stops us from “hearing” the sonorous nature of great prose, or even from describing prose as “sonorous” at all.

Finally, there is Beckett; our Feldman, only better; the concave to Joyce’s convex; the returner of style to the corruption of the soil.

Would Stevenson have recognised these prose divergences from the Web as legitimate? Certainly he was able to sense the legitimacy of Whitman, who just as sure diverged from metre in his verse. In a different essay, Stevenson said that Leaves of Grass, “tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and, having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues […] New truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions.” Stevenson was, of course, addressing the morality of Leaves of Grass rather than its scansion, but he would be equally correct if speaking of prosody that seems to break the rules but actually pushes the boundaries beyond our immediate conceptions.

On sentence construction, Stevenson further defines the Web as a balance between pattern and logic, between fabric and argument. In order for the pattern to be strong, the argument must have some of the following criteria: brevity, charm, clearness. The weave of the pattern, though, should have a “knot”. It’s not entirely clear what Stevenson means by “knot”, though he uses it several times throughout the essay, and he gives no examples. I’m tempted to suspect it would be to the prose sentence what the caesura is to the verse line, but it’s more likely that Stevenson imagines the knot to be a word rather than a pause. Perhaps it is a hint of atonality within the sentence, a moment of dissonance – a clause that begins with “or” or “though”. Following the knot, Stevenson calls for suspension before solution, in the manner of a Petrarchan sonnet that poses a problem in the octave before resolving it in the sestet.

Let’s have a look at one of Stevenson’s own sentences, chosen at random (such is my confidence in Stevenson’s economy of language) from Kidnapped:

“She was still holding together; but whether or not they had yet launched the boat, I was too far off and too low down to see.”

The start of the second phrase here would surely be the knot, the rest of the phrase (up to “boat”) the suspension, before the sentence finally clears its meaning.

The sentence also holds up to the alliterative interplay Stevenson recommends later in the essay. There’s three pacing “s” sounds in the first three words, two “h” sounds in the next two, and “holding” is straddled by two equally spaced “t”s. There’s an almost discernibly prosodic structure to the middle of the sentence, too: the words that end in “t” – “but”, “not”, “yet” and “boat” – provide a baseline (please note this is asyllabic and anaccentual scansion):

but | whether  or | not they had | yet launched the | boat

One two three, one two three, one two three, one.

This segues into the end of the sentence, where the “t”s are still important but the pattern is built around “too far off” and “too low down”:

I was | too far off | and | too low down | to see

One two, one two three, one, one two three, one two. The pattern now has a syllabic and perfect symmetry.

If this seems contrived and unlikely, it’s testament to how the sentence flows in perfectly natural progression. “There is nothing more disenchanting,” says Stevenson, “to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.” Let’s see if we can redraw the sentence in bad prose, or at least prose that is dull and flat, and still maintain meaning and grammar.

“I couldn’t really tell if the boat had been launched because I wasn’t close enough and not very high up, but at least it wasn’t in bits yet.”

This is, of course, artificially constructed for a purpose, but the point remains that so too is the original. Comparison between them should emphasise how the “ear” can immediately discern between inspired and uninspired writing, even in a relatively uninteresting sentence that only conveys a surface meaning. The breakdown provides us with why this is, and how it is accomplished.

It has long been my contention that an ear for prose is best prepared by an ear for verse, and Stevenson as a critic is unusually well equipped for this purpose, able to discern amphibrachys and amphimacers as easily as iambs and trochees. So, too, should be the stylist, and I would always recommend a training in verse for the writer who wishes to master good wordsmithing. I concur, however, with Stevenson when he recommends prose be rhythmical but not metrical. You will notice that the sentence quoted above can not be broken down into metre, and you’d be hard-pressed to find many sentences in Stevenson that can. A single instance of metrically scansioned English is acceptable, but another immediately succeeding promotes “an instant impression of poverty, flatness, and disenchantment”; further, it’s the responsibility of the prose writer to expand his scale – he is “condemned” to venture beyond the safe confines of verse! In a 21st century culture where even most “poets” couldn’t tell you the difference between a pentameter and a perambulator, it’s refreshing to read suggestion that the novelist might hide in prosody, fearful of the potential foisted upon him by prose. It points the way to a knowledge paradigm we should reclaim for the sake of taking pride in our art.

I don’t feel I’ve exhausted Stevenson’s essay, but I hope I’ve been able to use it to explicate some of the quintessences of craft. Whilst it’s true that style isn’t everything to literature, no more than brushstrokes are to painting or notes are to music, it is nevertheless as close to fundamental as either. Good prose is to a novel what good musicianship is to a song, but for whatever reason less and less focus seems to be placed upon it. Could this explain why none of our English playwrights seem as grand as Marlowe or Jonson? Why our poets cannot compete with Milton or Spencer? Why our essayists pale in comparison to Thomas Browne and our critics are shadows of Johnson and Hazlitt?

We complain regularly that contemporary art is all concept and no craft – could it be contended English literature suffers the same affliction? So dissatisfied are we with work being produced in our mother tongue that all major literary events these days seem to be translations, from Bolano last decade to Krasznahorkai this, and because we can’t read them in their original language we can only hope to divine scraps about their style through the translator’s glass.

This is an inevitable symptom of Weltliteratur without polyglotism; the solution, though, is not to be found in learning Spanish and Hungarian but to expand our style on our language’s own terms. Stevenson, who could speak French, notes that whilst more effort was being put into English prose in his time, French prose was still superior. Contemporaneous to Stevenson’s essay were mainly  his fellow genre writers like H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, few of whom possessed his talent. The acknowledged master Henry James, American-born as Mark Twain, would not consider himself British until long after Stevenson’s death, whilst the admired Anthony Trollope and George Eliot had recently passed away. This left the humourist Jerome K. Jerome and Thomas Hardy flying the Union flag, whilst under Le Tricolore worked Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and, of course, still the peerless figure of Flaubert. (Stevenson might also have had on his mind Dumas; though he died in 1870 and cannot exactly be called a living contemporary, Dumas and especially the character of D’Artagnan left a larger and more lasting impression on Stevenson than anyone outside of Shakespeare.)

It is unfair, then, to say of our island’s prose that it is any less a force on the world stage than it was in the 1880s and 90s. Nor am I advocating that we try to imitate the authors from time’s past – we already see that in popular middle class authors like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. I concur with Gabriel Josipovici in Whatever Happened to Modernism? when he says:

“No composer would dream of writing like Tchaikovsky today, except in an ironic manner; no painter today would dream of painting like Sargent, except in an ironic manner; yet novelists writing in English seemed to want to write like the Victorians and the Edwardians.”

An awareness of style, I hope I have shown in this essay, should go hand in hand with experimentation and pushing the novel forwards.

There is, in fairness, a wealth of good literature in the language being produced worldwide that wasn’t there in the late 19th century, from the former Commonwealth and beyond. Should we, however, be complacent where the chairman of the Booker judges can confidently proclaim Hilary Mantel, a solid but unspectacular stylist, “the greatest modern English prose writer”? True or not, Peter Stothard’s comment should precipitate a call to arms among those of us feeling the draught of discontent.