April 9th, 2006

bear by san

cliches, and why they are good.

No, really, sometimes they are. Not often. And not used scattershot. But if one wishes to get something across to an audience quickly and efficiently, one well-placed well-chosen cliche can save a metric butt-ton of exposition.

For example, say one needed a device that stops time. It doesn't matter to the plot what the device is; just that it stops time. There's no misdirection; the reader is meant to know as soon as it shows up what it does. It's not meant to have any cool value; it just needs to perform this one specific plot-related function.

If one just caves to cliche and makes it a pocket watch, already, think of all the paper one could save. (bad guy pulls watch out of pocket; clicks stem; time stops. no explanation needed. yay! trees saved!)

...of course, 95% of the time, after one presents this clever justification to one's self, one will realize that one was, in fact, just justifying laziness.

But the other 5% of the time, it works really well. ;-)
bear by san

(no subject)

I am holed up on the couch with tea, willing my cold to vanish most hastily. It will most likely be better by tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm getting a lot of reading done.

Book #37, Grace Tiffany, Will

Another Shakespearean fictional biography. There's definitely a mini-Renaissance of the damned things underway--to which, of course, I am doing my best to contribute.

This is not a bad book, and the writing, overall, is rather pleasing. I am in particular enamored of this paragraph, which I found rather well-done:

In the year 1600, eighteen died of the smallpox in Stratford, and twelve of consumption. Fifteen women perished in childbirth, and nineteen of both sexes were done in by typhus, scurvy, vomiting, or distraction. Twenty-four bled to death. One died of fright, and three from grief. The other forty-two lay down and did not get up anymore because they were tired. Of these last, John Shakespeare was one.

But I'm going to fuss at it, for a bunch of reasons, several of which are probably linked to the writer's irresistible urge to rewrite the prose of another.

Unfortunately, I felt that the characters were somewhat shallowly drawn and a bit one-note, and she's doing the whole somewhat predictable Emilia Lanyer/Henry Wriothesly thing, and... I dunno. In parts, it reads like historical fanfiction; I'm not sure I would have gotten the good of it, in other words, if I didn't know the story all ready and have that grounding and background. The writer is connecting the dots between well-known bits of speculation or (occasionally) historical fact, but the narrative doesn't strive for enough beyond that, and some bits are truly random. Such as the sort of occasionally-mentioned Elizabethan serial killer turning out to be Collapse ), although the subplot is handled entirely off stage, and I'm not sure what it's there for, other than... well, I'm not sure what it's there for.

Also, Shakespeare's confrontation with Bacon, in which Bacon keeps dozing off? Just odd.

I was actually less frustrated by anachronisms than I feared, although. No coach from London to Stratford in 1590. I'm willing to let the chronometer go, I guess; they were in use on the continent by 1500 or so. Also, Tiffany has the absolutely terrible habit of rabbiting on for about a page and a half about a character we've previously been introduced to, upon their reappearance, without telling us who she's talking about. Which distracts me from actually paying attention to the narrative, because I'm busy looking for the Distinguishing Characteristic that will tell me who this woman or that man might be. It's either meant to build tension or it's intended as reinforcement for the themes of malleable identity informing the book, but either way it was coy and it annoyed me.

Another thing. ...it just doesn't feel Elizabethan. It's very low-mud, for one thing. Also, I'm not sure I'm willing to buy Shakespeare as a republican, and a secret anti-monarchist. cryptoCatholic, you might get by me. But....

She did make me like Southampton, though, which is pretty impressive, as he's rather one of the villains of my book. And you get to disliking people, when you write them one way or another. But I liked this fellow, all sly wit and easy forgiveness. Her Jonson, Alleyn, and Kyd are more or less caricatures, however, and I kept thinking her Marlowe has promise, but, yanno, he doesn't last long.

There's also an issue of the conflicts in this book being muffled, sometimes gravely so. Which I do think is an actual flaw of the book, rather than the baggage I'm bringing to it. There's a lot of potential for drama in this story; and it's all underplayed. (for example, if you're going to go to the trouble of setting up a frustrated homoeroticism between Shakespeare and Southampton (some of the best scenes in the book are the internalizations here, BTW) and have Wriothesly-as-drag-queen (which I thought was just wonderful) I would suggest that it is a mistake to (a) not have Wriothesly using Will's affections later, just prior to the Essex revolt, and (b) to dismiss any relationship between Wriothesly and any purported dark ladies as just a big misunderstanding.)

In fact, a lot of the conflicts in this book are summarily executed by a sort of random forgiveness. And I wanted more, I think. More depth, more of a narrative and thematic thread binding the story together, more passion. The last line with its transformation is wonderful, but she never makes me believe that the transformation is necessary. I don't buy the alienation and obsession that would make it necessary; perhaps because I am told it frequently enough, but I don't feel it.

And that might be part of the problem with writing Artistically Tortured Will. History, what little we have, gives us a shrewd and reasonably well-adjusted individual. The antithesis of this romantic notion that great artists must be greatly troubled. Will Shakespeare seems to have been a hard-working fellow with an eye out for the main chance, who made a lot of money (not writing plays, but owning playhouses and making similar investments) and cheated a bit on his taxes. It's hard to reinvent him for the post-Byron tastes of a modern audience; we're better off with Marlowe or Jonson or Kyd. Oh, and by all accounts he was a pretty good actor, not the lousy one portrayed here.

I think this is the thing, actually, that truepenny was talking about with regard to the autodidact vs. the university wit over on glass_cats recently. Dr. Tiffany is a professor of Shakespeare, and her book, in fact, reads in one regard much like other Elizabethan novels I've read by academics. Not that they're bad, but... the characters interact like academics interact, not like writers interact. Which isn't a very specific critique, but it's something I've noticed. Also, they invariably dismiss Ned Alleyn as a pompous windbag and a bad actor, ignoring the fact that he was the theatrical draw of his age.

Gratuitous use of an intriguing Elizabethan color name noted in this work: "goose-turd green." No Dead Spaniard; perhaps the fad has passed. (Mine, FWIW, are Isabella and inciannomati) It's de rigeur; every author working in the 1500s must mention at least one odd color name.
bear by san

"The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska

was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska."

Book #38, Willa Cather, My Antonia

Now, this is writing. Listen:

Occasionally, one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time with his bites as he ate down toward them.

Fabulous reality. Right there.

And the characters, and the society, and the breath of the light over the land, and the way everything works together to make you believe in these people, in their time, in this passing instant of the world. And then, and then... there's the book's uncomplicated, unconscious vintage 1900 racism. Which just completely made me wince when I turned a corner and stumbled over it.

I can't blame the book for it. Not given when it was written. But it's a burr under the saddle-blanket, nonetheless.

It's not a burr that can ruin the book, which is breathtaking. Not only is it beautifully written and evocative, but it's got a kind of quiet truth hovering in it that encompasses the choices and the mistakes and the sacrifices that the characters make, and turns them all into reflections of one another.

Lovely thing.
  • Current Music
    (in my head) Emmylou Harris - My Antonia / Free Hot Lunch - I Hate To Wake Up Sober in Nebraska
  • Tags
phil ochs troubador

(no subject)

I met the loffliest pub cat today.

After twelve hours mostly on the couch, being a lap for poor neglected Abby and nursing my cold, I decided I needed exercise, fresh air, and something to eat besides cheese or apples. So I hiked down to the local pub, which is a bit over a mile away. The air was pleasantly raw; the sky was grey, variegated, translucent, the light through it like textured obsidian. Halfway there, it started to rain pinhead hail, not even hard enough to deserve the overhanging branches, heavy with wet flowers.

I ordered a cider and the steak and mushroom pie, and got enough food for three people. And gained the attention of Cocoa, a beautiful jet-black, elf-faced semi-longhair with the silkiest coat I have ever touched, sleek over a whipcord body. I love a country where I can have dinner in front of a coal fire, on a cracked leather sofa with a black cat sprawled along the arm.

Lovely cat.

I'd have tucked him under my jacket if I could have figured out how to get him home.
  • Current Music
    John Hiatt - River Knows Your Name
bear by san

(no subject)

Progress notes for 9 April 2006:

"War Stories"

New Words: 463
Total Words: 463
Pages: 3
Deadline: April 20th
Reason for stopping: Going to bed so I can get up tomorrow to go to Canterbury.
Stimulants: Guinness
Exercise: A little walking in London yesterday, a couple of miles today.
Mail: nomail
Today's words Word don't know:  n/a
Words I'm surprised Word do know: n/a
Mean Things: It's a Jenny story. What's not mean in it?
Tyop du jour: n/a
Darling du jour: That was after I quit dope, but before I started drinking.
Books in progress: None, but I need to pick something out for the train tomorrow.
Interesting tidbit of the day: n/a
Other writing-related work: n/a