Wesley Osam’s undertaking a series of posts on the Novelization Style, which is a fine-enough name for a thing that thinks it has no name, that imagines because it sounds just like everything else around it can’t be heard, but that once you’ve finally seen it can’t be unseen, like the goddamn arrow in the FedEx logo, poking your eye on every commute, now. —The notion of “transparent” prose, to tug a loose thread, has always so bedeviled me, if only because the sheer folly of seeing one’s chosen medium as an impediment, to be done away with, has always struck me as, well, sheer folly: I’ve whittered on about it before, and it was the subject of perhaps my first-ever twitter rant, but Wesley’s digging in with grace and purpose; go, read. Myself, I just want to take up just a little bit of it, here—
In effect Novelization Style has no narrator—or, at least, the narrator, and the implied author, is neutral, impartial, and devoid of personality. No one is telling this story. It’s a camera, pointed at a set, with no one behind it.
So you don’t ask “Who is the narrator?” which means you also don’t ask questions like “Why is this narrator telling this story? Why did they make these decisions about the plot, or the characters? What do they want me to think about all this, and do I agree?” The story feels less like something someone made, and more like something that just sort of happened. This does not exactly encourage you to think about what you’re reading. When I read a book like Leviathan’s Wake it’s a struggle to actively engage with the book instead of… well, just sort of skim along the surface with it.
This is where the writing gets tricky, because this disengagement is an accidental side effect. But it’s going to sound a bit like I’m accusing writers of writing this way to discourage questions about what they write. This is not even remotely any writer’s goal. I thought I should pause to explicitly note that, to forestall confusion.
Because maybe, if we’re reading something like those old space operas with no place for women, reading thoughtlessly reinforces ideas we’d be better off questioning. A few years ago, because it seemed popular at the time, I gave Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy a chance. What I remember is that the pro-democracy, reformist male lead gained some political power and quickly became a dictatorial tinpot general because, gosh, going all Pinochet just worked better. The books seemed barely aware they were making a political argument.
—and set it next to this, from Ethan Robinson’s critique of so much more than The Weave—
A book that raises such specters needs to deal with them; this one does not. In her review of the musical Urinetown Erin Horáková, paraphrasing and expanding on something I once glibly tweeted, analyzes the ways in which a work of art, by presenting a political critique that stops just short of where it needs to, or goes awry at just the right (wrong) moments, can present the appealing appearance of opposition while in effect serving to prop up the system it appears to oppose.
—from which I’ll then move on, to Erin’s critique—
I don’t think the show means to so thoroughly betray its political content and its Brechtian form. It’s not evil; it’s just stupid. In trying to “blow your mind” with this final turn and add another layer of cynicism, Urinetown manages to undo every scrap of work it’s done thus far. Then it has the nerve to sneer that:Little Sally: I don’t think too many people are going to come see this musical, Officer Lockstock.
Lockstock: Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?
It’s rich to say that people won’t hear this story and change, when the musical itself has pretended to be a revolutionary text and then said change is too dangerous, the workings of power too mysterious and wise (however corrupt), and that thus the wisest thing one can do is nothing. This is like that shitty Doctor Who episode “Stolen Earth,” where Davros tells the Tenth Doctor that his problem, as a character, is that he “makes people killers!!” Now that character, at this point in the run, had a score of serious issues, and none of them were that? So the show burns a straw man and tells itself and its audience that it’s gotten to the heart of the matter, that it’s done its repentance. Again, the fail-condition of criticism is reification. In misdefining a problem and/or not offering possible ways to fix a problem while dwelling on that problem in your art, you can just reinforce said problem. Radicalism has issues and is capable of failing itself and those it advocates for, but not quite in the boring, simplistic way depicted herein. Rather than attacking the culture of overweening corporate power and its control over our lives and how that control is redefining our ideas of privacy, the body, etc. (which would be fairly apropos right about now), suddenly Urinetown is talking about vague ideas of personal responsibility, but not in a tangible, useful way. Shit, was the last act written by a Republican?
—and then round it all with this, from Teju Cole:
In McCurry’s portraits, the subject looks directly at the camera, wide-eyed and usually marked by some peculiarity, like pale irises, face paint or a snake around the neck. And when he shoots a wider scene, the result feels like a certain ideal of photography: the rule of thirds, a neat counterpoise of foreground and background and an obvious point of primary interest, placed just so. Here’s an old-timer with a dyed beard. Here’s a doe-eyed child in a head scarf. The pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were. They are astonishingly boring.
Boring, but also extremely popular: McCurry’s photographs adorn calendars and books, and command vertiginous prices at auction. He has more than a million followers on Instagram. This popularity does not come about merely because of the technical finesse of his pictures. The photographs in “India,” all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accouterments of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators. In a single photograph, taken in Agra in 1983, the Taj Mahal is in the background, a steam train is in the foreground and two men ride in front of the engine, one of them crouched, white-bearded and wearing a white cap, the other in a loosefitting brown uniform and a red turban. The men are real, of course, but they have also been chosen for how well they work as types.
Clear? (—“It strikes me that one of the similarities between great fiction and great marketing copy is the ability to sell the content of whatever it is you’re writing about,” writes RandyC, extolling the importance of transparency in prose, but “Weaker photography delivers a quick message—sweetness, pathos, humor—but fails to do more,” writes Cole. —Which is true not just of photography.)