August 3rd, 2007

bear by san

well i don't know if i'm wrong because she's only just gone

I figured out how to describe what I'm trying to do with my art this morning. In an email to another writer, I typed:

I don't write consolatory literature. I write absolutionary literature.

And then I paused and stared at what I had just written. And it clicked in my head as solidly as something somebody mentioned at Boskone, I think it was, that other people write comedies of manners, and New Englanders write comedies of ethics.

Because I do write comedies of ethics.

And the thing about absolution is you have to earn it.

And now that this moment of self-absorbtion has passed, back to reading this horribly written book, which I shall tell you all about a little later.
writing rengeek stratford man

we work, oh we work like the devil for our pay.

Book report #62: Dominic Green, The Double Life Of Doctor Lopez: Spies, Shakespeare, and the plot to Poison Elizabeth I:

This is a bad book, and filthily written. But not without usefulness, however--I have got a page or so of notes for my Stratford Man revision.

Let me see. How do I explain? In late 1594, Elizabeth I's personal physician--and one of Burghley's highest-placed intelligencers--a Portugese Marrano (a crypto-Jew) by the name of Roderigo or Roderick or Roger Lopez or Lopus or Lopius, was executed at Tyburn for plotting to murder the queen. There is a fairly good body of evidence to support the idea that the charges were trumped up by the Earl of Essex. Whether Lopez was a double agent or not seems doubtful.

Green's book takes the tack that Lopez was an opportunist, entirely intent upon enriching himself, and it draws a detailed portrait of the intricacies of Tudor spycraft. Unfortunately, I think it fails to prove its case, or even make it very cogently, and here's why:

The book is full of charming nuggets of information, any of which might be extraordinarily cool if I could trust them. Unfortunately, Green has a tendency to be rather airy with actual facts (He apparently doesn't know the difference between Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of  Pembroke, and Frances Walsingham Sidney. Sidney's widow who remarried Essex was Frances, not Mary, and she was Sir Francis Walsingham's daughter. Mary Sidney was Sir Philip's sister. Also: there is no evidence that Will Shakespeare was ever resident at Southampton's house. There is no evidence that the Ur-Hamlet was written by Will. And those are only a few of the the things I caught off the cuff. Et fucking cetera.) and alternately, to present his speculation and patterns of deduction as if they were fact, enough so that I am dubious of all his information--especially the bits I know nothing about.

He's also wasting a good deal of time attempting to draw parallels between the Lopez affair and both Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, seemingly quite uncritically. And he's a little too fond of cutesy folk etymologies: he comes up with one for "the full monty: that's not even included in this exhaustive article on same, and he seems hopelessly confused about the difference between the Spanish Prisoner con game (familiar to some of you as Nigerian email scam) and the game theory idea of the Prisoner's Dilemma, attempting to tie the second back (through a folk etymology utilizing the first) to techniques used in Elizabethan times (and, we presume, since time immemorial) for interrogating suspected traitors.

I am also deeply uncomfortable with his unsignposted speculation about the motives of various people, about Shakespeare's relationship with Southampton (broad-accented Will was hardly a "perfumed boy" in 1593 (the publication date of "Venus and Adonis") or thereabouts, considering he was playing old-man roles in his thirties), and about the exact nature of the plots and counterplots that lead to Lopez's execution. 

There were several chunks of the book where I keep rolling my eyes and muttering NOW HE'S JUST MAKING SHIT UP! I mean, his conspiracy theory is lovely, but it seems the sort of thing where he found a plausible pattern in the evidence and then convinced himself it was real.

On the other hand, there appears to be a great deal of original research in this book, some of it presented in extensive end notes, and there were all sorts of tidbits that mean that I can seriously shore up the Lopez subplot in Ink & Steel and make it pull its weight more than a little more.

There is also the problem of the prose. Every so often, Green goes off on extremely pained flights of metaphor and long tours through eye-squeezingly bad writing. The extended conceits, stretched (as if on the rack) to far beyond any semblance of cleverness, are not the worst of it.

Nor, alas, is the following: 

A fortress guards the river approach, the White Tower standing over the tide that licks slickly at the teeth of the water gates. Before it, the City's only bridge blocks the watery highway of the Thames like a stockade, the water boiling through its arches. Above, high thin houses jostle along its length, their diamond-shaped window-panesd catching light like watery gemstones. At the southern end of the bridge the towers of a massive gate are crowned with bare poles, their spiked tips waiting for the heads of traitors. From the gate the City debouches on to the southern bank, pooling into a slummy afterthought of brothels, taverns, and pleasure gardens, a patch beyond the City's jurisdiction, the haunt of thieves and prostitutes, gamblers and bear baiters. From the windows of his palace to the West, the Archbishop of Canterbury can see the lost sheep. (from p. 14)

Somebody get Sam Clemens in here to catalogue the literary offenses.

The real tragedy here is that when Green quits messing around failing to be evocative and just writes the book, he gives us perfectly serviceable prose, packed with useful information--if one can trust it:

The accumulated disasters of the fifteenth centure had distilled the Jews of Iberia down to their most determined and faithful core, and then poured them into Portugal, but perserverance alone was not enough. Cut off from the Jewish world outside Portugal, with education and worship rendered dangerous by the presence of the Inquisition, Marrano faith became diluted and diverged from Jewish tradition. At its most extreme, it became a theological phantasm, blending confused memories of Judaism with strands of the Christianity that concealed it. Even the mainstream of Marranism was adulterated. Where other Jews retold the story of Esther, who had saved the Jews of Babylon from the wicked king Haman, Marranos venerated her as St. Esther through a Catholic-style cult. A fully fledged Marrano represents as much a taxonomicl challenge to the historian as the duck-billed platypus did to a Victorian naturalist. All Conversos were New Christians, but some New Christians were really Marranos, and both New Christians and Marranos were in fact Annusim. (from p. 25)

I mean, okay, he's gotten flouncy in there a couple of times where he falls prey to those pained metaphors (the distilling and pouring and all) but basically, this is sound writing.

Okay, still trying too hard? But perfectly readable.

I did find out rather a lot about William Wade, however, which may prove useful.

writing dust rengeek shakespeare

over his white bones when they are bare oh, the wind shall blow forevermore, oh

There, got another hundred-odd pages of Dust got through. It's an odd sort of book for me, very linear, just a nice little quest and mystery plot.

I think I like it. And I like the language in it, too.

Which is good, because I need to start writing Chill in January.

In comments, melissima asked for an explanation of beats, how to hear them and so forth. It's a good question, and a complicated one.

The simplest explanation is that the beats in a story are where the emphasis falls. And if you think of them like the points in a song where the rhythm and the melody converge, you won't be far wrong.

There are hard beats and not so hard beats and all kinds of beats in between. In Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, when [spoiler] says, "Oh, my very dear." That's a hard beat. So is Bigwig telling Woundwort "My chief rabbit told me to hold this run." It's called a beat because you can almost feel it, thump, in your bones; it's a moment when the momentum of the story stops, hard, and you poise on the lip of a revelation and bang. Thump. Wham.

Something just changed. Somebody realized The Awful Troof. Somebody--often the reader--just had something illuminated.

And the narrative needs a built-in-rhythmical pause there, to let the reader assimilate the revelation before she carries on.

There's a thing called "stepping on your beats," which means, more or less, that the writer is inserting his pauses (which may be pragraph breaks, section breaks, changes in the rhythym of the language) in the wrong place to support the revelations. In that case, it causes the same problem as if the drummer is off the beat. There's no thump. Nothing brings home that this is a big moment, and thus the reader may skim past it.

So when we say listening for the beats, what we mean is that you're hearing the places in which the prosody of the story supports the narrative. (N.B: prosody is not quite the same thing as rhetoric. Prosody is an aspect or technique of rhetoric. Hey, nobody ever said that this was easy.)

It's also possible to hit your beats too hard, at which point one becomes unsubtle. As an example, ellipsis poisoning, which is when... the writer... begins to write... as if... William... Shatner... were... pronouncing... every... line.


Not that I'm prone to that or anything.