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bear by san

March 2017



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In defense of transparent prose:

SeeLight takes exception to what seems to me to be a profound misreading of an old post of mine.

(I didn't mention this in her comments, because I was about to run long and decided to come back here to froth, but I also don't see the part where I said that one should kick leaves over one's weaknesses and carry on, as she implies, and I can't imagine anybody who's been reading this blog for any length of time would imagine I would ever say such a thing. I have said, and will say again, that it's strengths that sell a book and not a lack of weaknesses, but that is entirely different from saying that weaknesses don't matter.(1))

What I intended to say, back in the dim mists of July, is that writing genre is no excuse for writing like crap. That is the thesis statement of that entire post.

Moving back to her comments, however, I disagree profoundly with this statement:

Which means, of course, that transparent prose is the best and the most difficult and the rarest of writing styles, 'cause, frankly, you almost never see it. It's really, really difficult to write without particularity of voice because everyone writes with particularity of voice.

karen_traviss and I both used to be journalists. I believe scalzi did a stint in the word mines too? And nihilistic_kid, of course, still does.

The first thing they trained out of me was any relict of style or personality, and any use of words of 6th grade comprehension level or higher. And I can still do it, too. It's not that much harder to write good transparent prose than good any other kind of prose. And one man's transparent, by the way, is another man's obnoxiously intrusive narrative voice.

(It's also easy to do badly, but then, so it purple prose. N.B. "beautiful" also does not necessarily mean "poetic." (Nor should "poetic" necessarily mean "purple.") Word meanings here are generally chosen with care. As Richard Brautigan once said, "God-forsaken is beautiful, too.")

Anyway, transparent prose--good, muscular, vivid transparent prose, not the clunky crap that often passes for it--is a perfectly valid choice. It's just not always the best way to write fiction.

I also take exception to the idea that prose should "bury itself" for the story. Heck, I take exception to shoulds in terms of writing in general: my attitude is that there are techniques that work and techniques that don't.

But if I were to resort to a should, it would be this: Prose should always be in service of the story.

Part of that process is narrative energy; it is the words that give the story life. They evoke atmosphere and portray character, among all their other tasks. The voice should evoke a sense of the story.

(1)Grr. two ways to get up my nose: treat me like I'm dumb, or misrepresent something I said so that I sound completely fucking stupid.


Prescriptive absolutes about writing are (almost) always wrong.

(You notice that I qualify my own prescriptive absolute. *g* )
Yanno, that icon is just hypnotic. I had no idea.
Well, it's not so much that I think I'm smarter. But fuck me, can you read what I say rather than projecting a completely lame and stupid dichotomy onto it?
Qualifier: didn't follow your link.

I don't know if there is an average genre reader. I kind of doubt it. If there is one, I suppose I'm probably not it. But I'm not sure what it would mean to me for prose to be transparent, by which the conversation you're describing seems to mean virtually invisible. Certainly journalism isn't it for me: I loathe the bumptious presumption that news can be relayed as facts, without a teller. (In the same way, when I was studying physics, I had fights every semester because I persisted in using the first person rather than the passive. "The whole picture isn't that the oscilloscope was adjusted, it's that I adjusted it. What if it turns out to be different when someone else does it? The person affects the outcome." Antithetical to scientific writing, at least at the time. People tell me it's gotten better.)

I'm running through things I've read in the past several weeks in my head, trying to think of one in which I didn't notice the prose. It's not that the prose is ostentatious, it's just that I care about prose, so of course I notice it. Clean, elegant prose, mannered prose, reflective commenting-on-everything prose, impressionistically evocative prose...it can all be good. It can all be bad. It can all, as you say, serve the story or not serve the story.

Talking about transparency seems to be trying to take the language out of the writing - as though the ideal story would be one in which what happens could be beamed into your head without a medium. But I wouldn't want that. I like language. I like stories, and stories are told.

I wonder whether the conventions of movie-making have given people this false model of invisible, intangible storytelling. People seem much more willing to believe that a movie is just 'what happens,' and that the only arts involved are the scriptwriting and the acting. There's a solitary quality to the experience of watching movies, even in a full theater, which makes it more immersive, and so, I think, less critically received. But a movie is a story told in a specific way - or a thousand specific ways. Lighting and pacing and music, camera angles, length of shot, transitions, they're all present and real and active just as much as adjectives or prepositional phrases.

I love good prose, from Patricia McKillip to Dashiell Hammett. And I notice prose, and I enjoy noticing prose. I don't know what this transparent business is, but I don't think I care for it.
It sounds like an idea she was wound up to begin with, and she skimmed your post then went on her own related-if-you-squint rant without actually reading your post. Or getting it.

Which is sad, because your original post made a lot of sense.

When the work of real writers so obviously urinates from an almighty height on the sort of stuff you do, aren't you a bit embarassed about discussing this at all? I mean, I appreciate that the folks at Hostess take pride in making Twinkies, but I would think they'd want to steer clear of involvement in any debates about what it takes to prepare a gourmet meal.

No offense, but the use value of an SF trilogy vs. the sort of novel one might choose to keep on the night-table beside one's deathbed makes this sort of cat-fight seem pointless.
You do realize you're talking about my life's work, and I do take it quite seriously.
Tangentally related -- my distinction between porn and erotica:

If the bad style gets in the way of the story, it's porn.

If the elegance of the style gets in the way of the story, it's erotica.

And now, for your edification, an excerpt from the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer:

The Duke's mouth foamed over with chaotic revilement. His captor
smiled brightly, and made a slight gesture, as one who brushes aside
a boisterous insect. With the same motion he quelled to stony quiet a
resentful impetus of his servants toward the Englishman.

"It's murder, is it, you carrion!" finished the Duke.

M. Beaucaire lifted his shoulders in a mock shiver. "What words! No, no,
no! No killing! A such word to a such host! No, no, not mur-r-der; only
disgrace!" He laughed a clear, light laugh with a rising inflection,
seeming to launch himself upon an adventurous quest for sympathy.

Booth Tarkington, "Monsieur Beaucaire"
...totally unfair to send that to me without warning lights, man.
Wow. Pretentious much? laikaseefeel is quite the asswipe. I won't say asshole, because pleasure can actually be got there.
Ooh! I get to use some Britspeak that doesn't cross the pond well, "what a twat."

I was an angsty young man once, but that level of condecension... Cor', but it's special.

Having been a journalist (and hated the level to which my prose was expected to subsist at) I can feel the tension between voice and transparent prose, but I have to say, in your writing, your reportage (on writing) and your day to day narrative of things, I've not seen much where you were straining to make things fit.

There were clumsy bits, and places where the story lurched, but the prose was proper to the piece.

Which is more than can be said of the visual works of Altman.

Thank you.

I try.

It's not my best skill, but I work hard at it.
but then you could read it in the dark.
See, this seemed like it could be an interesting conversation, because where I come from, "transparent prose" is worshipped as a god, so Ms. Light's fundamental assumption (that someone needs to defend transparent prose) seemed warped to me. Then I realized she was using "literary pretensions" in inconsistent and needlessly arch ways, and then some improperly brought-up bonehead schlepped into the comments and got fucked-it-up all over everything.

So I'll keep it short. Your July post was fantastic. So is this one. Woo!

PS - I'm really getting tired of being called a sycophant whenever I like something or someone and say so online. It's such a joyless, cooler-than-thou, tall-poppy loser's game.
Heh. I'll be scraping the stupid off for weeks. I'm gonna go soak in the tub and go geocaching. Wake me if the flamewar is still going on on Monday.
Damn. I go to bed early and miss the grand bitch-slapping that the troll so utterly deserved.

I am boggled at hir idiocy.


clearly i misread your post. but since i read it three times before writing about it and read it again before posting, it's just as clear that the piece i was responding to wasn't very clear. i don't say this to start a flamewar. i don't read your blog and i'm not familiar with your opinions on writing. i was directed to the piece i responded to by a link in gwenda bond's blog. all i had to respond to was the one piece you wrote. if i misrepresented your overall views on writing, it's just as much the fault of your piece as it is of my own stupidity.

I also don't see the part where I said that one should kick leaves over one's weaknesses and carry on

well, i didn't say that you said that. here's what you said:

most of us find one easier to do than the other [i.e. slammin' plot and slammin' prose style], and we learn pretty early in this business to play to our strengths. We won't please everyone; the trick to surviving as a fictioneer is to find one's audience (those persons who are in sympathy to what one is good at or what one is interested in talking about) and satisfy their expectations and desires.

i think this is a pretty clear statement. i let it speak for itself in my post and i'll do so again here.

also, as far as misrepresenting goes, if you reread my post, you'll see that i don't actually cast you on the side of evil, but rather use your post as a jumping off point. it was what i was thinking about that made me write about transparent prose. in fact, you're misrepresenting me all over your post above. i didn't say anywhere "that prose should 'bury itself' for the story". what i said was:

It's really, really, really, really difficult to know your plot, setting, and characters so well that you don't need to obfuscate them (or their lack) with language, voice, or style, but can rather bury language, voice, and style without revealing your poverty of plot, character, and setting.

let me rephrase that since it's obviously easy to misread: prose that buries itself in the story is difficult to do.

you also, apparently without properly reading my post, implied that i was issuing "shoulds": "Heck, I take exception to shoulds in terms of writing in general". did you not see the part where i said:

I'm not about to say here that everyone should write transparently any more than everyone should write "poetically" (wait for it, I'll be taking issue with these terms later.) Everyone should write how they best write. I'm just sick of this discussion that has everyone should-writing either one way or another. I'm ten-fold sick of this coercion that has everyone with (again) any literary pretensions padding their prose with ill-considered detail and unintelligent meditations because both are de rigeur. And I'm a thousand-fold sick of stories that aren't stories, but rather 3 - 5000 word-strong masses of undigested would-be poesy, because "style" and "voice" give bad writers permission to vomit on the page and pass it off as considered work.

i also redefined "transparent prose" for my own purposes, something you also seemed to miss, but might catch if you go back and reread. i wasn't using your definition of transparent prose, i was using mine. and i was redefining it because, as i stated and implied in the piece, anyone with literary pretensions uses "transparent prose" to mean "bad prose". i also stated, very clearly i think, that i myself don't write transparent prose, and don't want to write transparent prose. but then the title of the post is "in defense of transparent prose", and not "i write transparently, elizabeth bear doesn't, she's wrong, and everyone else should write transparently too"

i don't think my original post was at all disrespectful of you, or of what you wrote, nor did i try to make you (or succeed in making you) "sound completely fucking stupid." everything that both of us have written subsequently has suggested that we mostly agree on the substance of the matter. basically, i think your main problem here is that i dared to disagree with what you wrote, and not that what i wrote was, with reference to your specific piece, unjust or wrong.


oops! my apologies. this is claire at seelight. i posted the above. i'm not used to livejournal so i didn't notice that i was posting anonymously.
I have this problem with stuff that's trying to be art, anyway: too often it's boring. What's the point of a piece that's trying to say something if it can't cnovince anyone to listen? Whereas stuff that's just trying to tell a story sometimes succeeds in being art, and stuff that's working to tell a story *well* succeeds even more often.

Which is why I suspect the best of current genre will be remembered a lot longer than some of the most-praised current "literary" novels. Not all, by a long shot: Sturgeon's law still holds, and conversely some of the literary crop really are literature. But pretention usually only fools people for a little while.
Currently next to the bed?

Elizabeth Bear, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Joel Shepherd. Genre authors, every one.

What would I have on my bedside table if I were dying? (Which I take as the ultimate comfort reading.)

Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant.

Why? Because that book is a fundamental part of me in indescribable ways. There's a reason my online name everywhere is peneli. Guess what? Still a fantasy book.
Thank you!!

I read that while I was in middle school and have been vainly trying to remember the name so I could find it again.

Now I can. ::bounces::