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Monday, February 14, 2022

What I like in books, and why

 Di Nguyen recently blogged about what she likes in fiction books and urged others to blog about their tastes too.

Up until 2013 I would have thought it a needless autotomy to restrict my omnivorous tastes with too strict precepts. I used to read relaxedly and could barely articulate why a book didn’t interest me. Then, in one of the most unfortunate decisions of my life, I decided to become a writer. My taking up fiction writing has turned into a very intolerant reader.

Nowadays, I’m conscious that I’m especially attuned to language, I seek language measured by measurements beyond everyday usage. Although “I could have written this book!” features very highly on other people’s lists of reasons to praise books, it doesn’t even show up on mine. I can’t read too long without making my own the embarrassment the writer didn’t feel while filling page after page of irresponsible prose. I like writers who accentuate the choice of words and their positioning in the sentence, usually for acoustic or visual reasons; who unearth oddities and rarities, although the experience of novelty I’m looking for can be and is often better achieved if the author gives ordinary, worn-out words a workout using ingenious and playful combination and recombination. George Steiner said somewhere (this is a rhetorical “somewhere” because I know exactly where he said it – I never stoop to hearsay) that we can’t justify our tastes, and indeed I don’t have an explanation for this need, except that I derive a lot of joy and peace from highly ornate language. I think fiction books ought to aspire to beauty, and although beauty comes in many orders, experiencing words organized into complex structures that unleash their sonority and shape provides a rare sort of harmony and elegance that to me points toward beauty and without which I feel very unhappy if I don’t regularly experience it. For the brief span of time I’m enjoying it everything seems alright.

We all hallucinate an archetypical novel, a Platonic universal of which real-life results are only an approximation. But if I waited for it, I doubt I'd have one new novel to read every five years. So although I devote my blogging to ranting and rambling about my love for the amplified style, I keep on reading out of resignation and compromise. If I curb my love for style, my tastes are multifarious. I and different book types can live in symphily, although sometimes I have to be prodded to give them a try. Di has written that she doesn’t like John Williams’ Stoner; I’m not crazy about it either, we’ve even exchanged some DMs in commiseration. I certainly don’t belong to the crowd for whom the “perfect novel!” marketing campaign was invented. Perfect novel has a title and it’s Ada or Ardor. But a friend I care about very much offered me a copy so I read it for her sake. And pared down style aside, I did enjoy the unfolding of William Stoner’s stoic banality from birth to death since I sympathized a lot with him and saw myself in his dull, unassuming life. And although I’ve read enough admonitions by Nabokov and Gass to know that I shouldn’t do that, and although I agree with them and try to avoid it as often as possible, if I can’t like a book because of the style, I don’t see why I can’t avoid my time being wasted by enjoying it for a bit of cozy humanity.

Provided that a book’s language is excellent, for me its aboutness knows no boundaries. Books can discuss anything and contain any type of person; I even think they can have a very strong political point of view; I have to since one of my favorite writers is José Saramago, and few surpass him at sanctimony. I think style and structure ameliorate sermonizing. I’ve recently come across this passage in Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics which perfectly encapsulates my own opinion:

“The work of art doubtless has the goal of uplifting people, making them happy, enriching them. But its theme is beauty, and it can truly serve its goal only when this theme is realized. It is not difficult to see the difference between goal and theme. The principle of l’art pour l’art contains the assertion that the work of art must not serve any other goal, whereas our thesis (namely, that beauty is the theme in the work of art) does not detach the work of art from serving other goods.”

Hildebrand is right in condemning art for art’s sake, which has contributed to the confusion that art fulfils its purpose if it pursues form exclusively. For me, form is but the basis of the novel that will grow out of it but which will also contain much more than form. It’s like a painting’s canvas, which must be prepared before the pigments are applied lest the painting goes to rot quickly. Where the analogy stops is that the novel’s canvas must be constantly prepared alongside content until the novel’s culmination. Not even great implacable formalists like Joyce or Nabokov can be reduced to formalism alone.

Although Hildebrand was mainly and justifiably worried about those who use art for art’s sake to shy away from humanity, the ones who cause me apprehension are those who think they can find humanity by shrinking language, those for whom novels show life more authentically the more laconic the language. I consider this a fallacy since our relationship with the world can’t bypass language; it can, but not for a writer. A writer only has at his disposal a substance that is almost the same substance consciousness is made of – words; and without words welding mind to world, all that precious authenticity can’t even be communicated to a reader. Since words are unavoidable, I prefer a supersensorial stream to stenography.

I repeat that my choices are colored by very personal judgements since I’m a word dabster (I’ve published two books); I can’t stop myself from fussing over wording to achieve what I hope are unpredictable phrases that will delight and refresh the reader. So, it’s always with bedazzled sadness that I meet fellow writers who disdain style, since that means they’re outside the reach of what I consider one of life’s greatest pleasures.

But since I’m not dogmatic about this, in the absence of satisfying language I do apply an informal hierarchy, otherwise I’d die like a castaway stranded on a deserted island who hates coconuts. I think humor atones for many flaws. I prefer hilarity to dourness. I don’t make distinction between character- and plot-driven novels, since verbally speaking they tend to be equally awful. I’m infinitely engarboiled by lit-fic aeolists who earnestly think fiction books are inherently better just because they deal a lot with feelings. I don’t mind books that incite insight into the human condition, but it’s not like life doesn’t do that already. I think either mode provides different pleasures, none of which I see why I should deprive myself of. I like character very much, and like Di I hold Tolstoy in high esteem for his ability to show so transparently the inner turmoil of his characters. Everything in him is kitsch-free. Hildebrand writes in his Aesthetics: “There is nothing trivial in nature. No animal can ever be trivial, still less a plant or a rock.” I think the same can be said of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection.

I don’t think novels exist to report reality, although I’m not militantly against realism. Actually, I’m forced to read mostly realism since the best stylists are realists. However, I love overly-plotted novels with overtly fantastic happenings and replete with strange situations and extravagant, larger-than-life characters with clear-cut objectives. Although I can give it up, I prefer plot. I don’t mind plotlessness if the style enlivens the stillness. However, I find it strange for characters not to do anything interesting, stagnant in deafening, darkening anxiety. I expertly avoid books about the meaningful meaninglessness of life. I don’t understand the purpose of a character who is a mere sensillum; I think characters should do things, in fact I think they reveal themselves through action. I don’t sanction boredom and I’m highly suspicious of books that try to trick me into believing that the acme of wisdom is to willingly enroll in monotone moments one after another.

Speculating about why I love overly-plotted fiction with lively characters, I reckon it comes from my earliest experiences as a reader. My mom read to me from a yellow-cover volume of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales (that I still own) which according to her I demanded that she start telling them anew as soon as she finished them. But at the time I was still a listener. My oldest memories of my having control over what I read are right after I learned to write. My first addiction were Disney comic books: there was lots of Mickey Mouse, but my favorites were the Duckverse characters: for me Uncle Scrooge is one of the greatest characters ever invented. Sums of money I got from my dad, uncles and grandparents were spent on comics. Those Disney stories are mostly about inventions and exploration. Usually, they start with Uncle Scrooge bullying his nephew Donald Duck into going somewhere dangerous to retrieve something he wants. Donald is also a lovable loser because many stories are about his attempts at becoming rich, usually by inventing something that works well for a moment but then turns his life into hell, and so are a mixture of ingenuity, arrogance and comeuppance. From an early age those stories instilled in me that reading and the fantastic were the same thing.

Next, I discovered superheroes. Around ’94 or ’95 Portuguese television was showing X-Men: The Animated Series (1992). I’m sure I was exposed to it before I saw Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994), which at one time I also followed. Anyway, what I do know is that one day I discovered those characters also existed in comic books sold in newsstands, kiosks, supermarkets. So, most of my pocket money was channeled into them as I slowly abandoned the ducks. Thanks to superheroes, for a long time I continued to equate reading with fantasy. At first I was a Marvel fan: Spiderman, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Avengers, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Doctor Strange. It took a few years for DC comics to pique my curiosity, mostly because it was becoming increasingly harder to find Marvel back issues.

Comics may have fostered my love for unusual, amplified language. Originally, comics magazines were exported from Brazil and were written in Brazilian Portuguese, full of words and expressions exotic to me. In 1995, I was about ten or eleven, the Brazilian publisher Abril, realizing what a good market it had in Portugal, started printing the comics directly here, in European Portuguese of course. They also relaunched their several collections with new number #1s: it was at this point that I started collecting them. However, I easily exposed myself to Brazilian Portuguese because I spent small fortunes acquiring hundreds of back issues; I was always on the lookout for them and they were available everywhere back then. So, when later on I started reading Brazilian novelists like Jorge Amado, João Guimarães Rosa, Rubem Fonseca, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Paulo Leminski, it was easy to adapt to their syntax, semantics and vocabulary. Since then, I’ve been a collector of strange words. Sadly, Abril suddenly and unexpectedly folded its comics operations in Portugal in 1998, right when the X-Men were about to get into the “Age of Apocalypse” storyline after Legion, Professor X’s son, accidentally created an alternate timeline by killing his own dead. I then continued the next years amassing back issues, there were thousands to collect. Some people say that fiction teaches them to accept mortality, that we’re going to die, that loss is inevitable; I learned to accept loss and that we live in an absurd world that frustrates our plans when I realized that after months of publicity in advance I wasn’t going to read “Age of Apocalypse”. To this day I still haven’t although I’ve been told it’s one of the highlights of the X-Men canon.

I don’t want to make it look like my tastes come from comics, but just a few days ago I smiled at something Steve Gerber said in an interview. Gerber came into comics in the 1970s and created and developed several new characters for DC and Marvel: Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, Foolkiller, and Howard the Duck. He was part of an early movement that predates Watchmen to make superhero comics more sophisticated by telling, I hesitate to say “mature”, stories. Very deservingly, Gerber is one of many comic book writers finally being taken seriously enough to merit a Steve Gerber: Conversations, which I recommend to readers interested in comic book history. Anyway, as I was flipping through it the other day a passage caught my attention in which he complains about what comics did to his writing style (he had previously been a short-story writer):

“Another thing it left me with was a style of purple prose, from writing all those Man-Thing captions, that is completely unacceptable in short stories and contemporary ‘literature,’ contemporary writing, or contemporary popular fiction, let's say. Writing a real story after writing comics for so long is a real challenge.”

I find this amusing because one of my favorite defenses of my beloved amplified style is precisely called “In Defense of Purple Prose”, by the great Paul West. Now thinking about it, while growing up I was indeed very exposed to florid phrasemaking. The main difference I see in comics from when I read them at 10 (and the comics I was reading were mostly pre-‘90s back issues) and modern comics was the recourse to text. Back then captions did a lot of the storytelling, often redundantly, but compared with the decompressed spareness of modern comics at least I felt I was getting more for my money. You had to be wordy to hold Thor’s writing chores, what with all the faux-archaic English he spoken in and which has been nixed from the modern title. The loquacious Chris Claremont, during his Uncanny X-Men run, one of my favorite comics, was a prodigious perpetrator of purple. To this day Alan Moore is still infamous for a sentence he wrote in the groundbreaking Saga of the Swamp Thing and which has become an emblem of purple in comics: “Clouds like plugs of bloodied cotton wool dab ineffectually at the slashed wrists of the sky”. Mind you, Moore is actually known for being one of the better guys at prose in comics. I must have been really ruined by comics because when I come across stuff like this in West, Nabokov, Alexander Theroux, Gass, Angela Carter, it looks pretty normal to me.

You’d think that given my love for fantasy stories I would have moved on to science fiction, horror and fantasy novels. But I never got into them. I have a lot of fondness for classics authors like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Arthur Machen, Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, but I get most of my fantasy and sci-fi from movies, perhaps because comics left a big visual impression on me. Whenever I tried contemporary names, the language seemed dull and the characterization very faulty. This may be surprising, but I think comics are a good school for characterization appreciation. If you spend years living with Peter Parker or Bruce Banner, you do get to know them better than many “realist characters”. Superhero comics are essentially monthly soap operas, they’re all about the drama; when Spiderman isn’t fighting Doc Ock, Peter’s worrying about paying his rent, getting dumped by girlfriends, worrying about paying Aunt May’s medical bills, finding time to study for his exams, and this type of drama was as exciting as the superhero stuff. Paradoxically, comics made me care as much about fantasy as about real-life drama. Hence my ideal novels are fantasy deeply grounded in real experience: The Master and Margarita, The Third Policeman, Nights at the Circus, Mumbo Jumbo are for me the prose equivalent of comics.

One type of novel I do like is the encyclopedic novel, a mishmash of erudition, arcane knowledge, unpredictable digressions, amidst strange plots and bizarre characters. This may look like a contradiction after saying that I dislike plotlessness, but I don’t see anything incompatible between digressions and plot, on the contrary, ramifications are powerful generators of plot, as Jan Potocki knew so well in his nestled stories-within-stories novel The Saragossa Manuscript. Again, I think I have comics to blame for this. The procedure of my two favorite comics writers, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, is very much like this: they deploy tidbits from the least expected fields and wrap them around very interesting, satisfying stories. I remember in my early twenties going through the endnotes in From Hell, jotting down every book Moore mentioned and thinking, “I have to read them all”, amazed at the research that had gone into the book. In Doom Patrol Morrison mixed pop culture with stuff from science, chaos theory, the occult, reveling in the strangeness of the world. Still, I think their biggest importance was introducing me to Robert Anton Wilson. Sadly, I don’t remember where I first discovered him, since both have overtly borrowed from him and mentioned him in interviews. Morrison has even written forewords for two recent RAW reissues. RAW revealed to me a wonderfully weird world when I read Quantum Psychology and Prometheus Rising. But RAW also taught me acatalepsy since he always kept a skeptical view of the weird ideas he publicized. That resembles my own relationship with fiction: although I welcome the discussion and playful exploration of odd ideas, I hate being preached to. Although RAW was an essayist (and also occasional novelist), I’ve been looking in fiction for the same high his books gave me when I first read them in my early twenties.

Since I have an upbeat attitude to life mildly tempered by cynicism, I love novels about human monsters. Because I spent my childhood reading stories about heroes who stop Galactus from eating planet Earth, although I’m a sucker for life-affirming fiction, that also means I love comical, unrealistic, over-the-top evil. There’s nothing like the thrill of novels narrated by schemers, con-men, liars, pedants, self-pitying sons of bitches, misanthropes, misogynists, Nazi apologists. I have a great time being in the company of Charles Kinbote and of the Dick Nixon who narrates The Public Burning. For me the best passages of Paradise Lost are Satan’s speeches. And Captain Ahab speaks in thunder. One reason for this is because crank characters tend to have better lines, something stimulates the author to give them a seductive voice. Nutjobs seem to require an amplified style. I just do not understand the purpose of characters who spend the whole of a book auditioning voraciously for unoriginal vocabulary. I also find it strange that unlike normal characters these human monsters aren’t short on vitality and don’t lack the capacity to feel awe at the world. I detest benumbed, world-weary, blasé smart alecks, especially when they’re written by twentysomethings freshly graduated from an MFA.

I think this succinctly covers what I like in books. What we’ve learned from this is that if you’re planning to offer me a book – don’t! Chances are I won’t like it and you’ll just waste your money. Jelly beans are a good gift, so long as it’s not black licorice. Black licorice is the minimalist style of jelly beans. Mint chocolates are an even better gift. Pastry in general is alright.