Allusion: sixth (and probably last) in a series

“It is, let me stress,” says Robert Alter, “an unnatural act to compose a poem or write a story.” And now that you’re all set to quibble with him, he goes on: “No one would think of perpetrating such an act without having been exposed to poems or stories that present themselves as objects of emulation or rivalry.” He goes on to instance the sonnet as a form that no one would use to express themselves without knowing what a sonnet is and entering into its continuity.

And, he’s not exactly wrong. I mean, I remember the first sonnet I ever tried to write. Probably best that my old folder of poetry was lost in some move or other. Still, if we were exposed to no forms of literature, we would have to invent them — I’ve been watching a lot of Time Team and you wouldn’t believe the number of times Phil Harding holds up a chip of flint he’s just dug up and says in his adorable West-Country accent, “Now, this don’t look like much, but it’s actually a Neolithic worked scraper — an exciting find!” Creating or maintaining forms of literature may not be “natural” — but they’re as essential a human technology as any other tool developed from antiquity.

But the reason Alter is using this argument is that he is trying to combat the sense of allusion as, again, something accidental or incidental to a text, which is better spoken of as an agentless process of “intertextuality.” “You can ‘allude’ to something,” Alter says, “but you can’t ‘intertextual’ it.” Not to belabor the point (but I totally will because this is my blog and I want to), but this idea that the literary critic does things to books texts, and only writers and naive people let books do things to them, is one that I just can’t accept. Yes, to consider texts critically is not the same thing as to enjoy or write them; but half your critical apparatus goes out the window if you refuse to think of writers as active agents in purposeful engagement with the tradition they have chosen to enter into, or their stories or poems as anything but inert objects to be played with in your current academic environment. I loved my education but I often felt that it took away with one hand what it gave with the other. “Here is a boatload of life-changing texts, but you should feel embarrassed if you ever admit that one had an actual effect on your mental landscape.”

(This is perhaps not fair to my professors in the English department, who no doubt had their hands full developing callow twenty-year-olds into proper critics not hampered by the Dunning-Kruger effect; but even my most sensible mentor, a medievalist with a wry sense of humor, when suggesting we consider how a text might be designed to affect us, used a gingerly dryness as if to insulate himself from the spirit of the age. I took note of that along with everything else in those seminars.)

Anyway, allusion. Alter calls it “an essential modality of the language of literature,” rather than simply a device in the writer’s toolbox. That is: the act of writing a poem or story is an act of engagement with whatever other examples of the form the writer has read and been affected by, and that engagement gives rise to allusion in different forms and modes. Two of Alter’s examples are Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “Thou art indeed just, Lord.” Never once in Faulkner’s book does the biblical story of David and his son Absalom make a direct appearance. But the title, being an allusion to that whole tragedy, informs the story between the covers as a comparably tragic self-destruction of a house. Hopkins, on the other hand, starts his sonnet with a direct quote from Jeremiah, and then strikes from there at the heart of his own frustration and sterility.

These two examples of allusion are comprehensive, and there are also recurrent or fleeting allusions within a text — but to use allusion, rather than just to be colored by whatever you’ve already read when you sit down to write, is to set up and activate a resonance in your reader that enriches their experience. Do it really well and they may not even have to get the reference.

Of course, the writer can make allusions for their own private enjoyment as well. A casual reader of Ryswyck may note by the style that I’ve obviously read a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold and Dorothy L. Sayers, and if I wanted to conceal their influence I probably wouldn’t be able to. A person familiar with the Major Arcana would likely recognize the images of at least two characters, which I worked into the design. But I’d be surprised and pleased if any reader caught the several references to the Gospel of John in the text — I put those in the design for my own pleasure, and to remind myself of what I like best about that gospel, the telling of a story from beginning to end in such a way that time itself becomes layered and laminated, like an exploded diagram of a theological reality.

Nobody needs to get that in order to enjoy my tale. But it’s part of the “high fun” of writing to make full use of all the nodes and meridians of meaningful stories in your reach. To think that a story should be full and resplendent with its own sui generis meaning, free of all dependence on other texts, is — well — a bit wanky, and a modern aberration. Some Stone Age person knapped a flint scraper for Phil Harding to find; I went to the store and bought a stainless steel knife. Guess who did more heavy lifting for the human race?

Now watch me dice this onion and cry some tears of gratitude.

This has been a not-so-liveblog responsive reading of the chapters in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Brought to you by the letters Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, and by the number Q. Tune in next time for…whatever I decide to do a series on next.

On (e)quality

Some years ago, I ran across a tweet thread that I cannot now find (alas), in which someone said that a certain comedy panel should have 50% women. Some dude shot back with something like, “Here’s a concept, why don’t we choose the panel based on how funny they are?”

Her reply: “No, we do need some men.”

The simplicity of that retort has stuck with me and kept me amused in all sorts of situations, from the choosing of board members for a church to the awarding of literary prizes.

I love the whole pris-de-fer of it, like “how can we add fifty whole percent of women to a thing without adulterating the quality of it, answer me that, huh?” was such a begged question that one can’t even parry that response.

“No, we do need some men.”

Or: “No, we do need some white people.” “No, we do need some cis folks.”

The problem is and always has been that Northern European white hetero cis male voices are presumed to be wholly representative of all humanity, and all other voices are presumed to be representative of nobody but themselves. That’s a real problem; shoring up standards against the incursion of minority upstarts is the opposite of a real problem.

(For a non-literary example, take ordination in my church, the Episcopal Church. We started ordaining women in the 1970s. Then, strangely, we felt the need to institute the General Ordination Exam to make sure our candidates for priesthood were fully conversant in all areas of ministry. Up till then, of course, a dude could just go meet with the bishop and the bishop could just say, “Okay, fine, go to seminary, take a course, and I’ll ordain you at such and such a date.” Now, the ordination process is insanely byzantine and varies from diocese to diocese. How strange! Yet despite that we are getting more and better priests and bishops and, not coincidentally, vastly more diverse priests and bishops as well.)

May I just testify briefly that the rise of diverse works in my genre has been good for me personally, as a white woman in a privilege-ridden racist society. I didn’t know to go looking for other voices; and structurally speaking, it was difficult to find them by accident — which is not an excuse but certainly a fact. Then I read a space opera by Ann Leckie in which the privileged skin color is brown. Then I read a story by Nnedi Okorafor in which a young African woman represents Earth on a voyage. Then I read a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin that is a mythopoeic tour de force, whose power has everything to do with the not-white point of view, but whose scope is the farthest thing from boutique.

I liked these things. I wanted more of them. And I knew that I liked them and wanted more of them.

That’s how I’ve benefited directly from deliberate inclusiveness, as a reader. And I hope to benefit directly from it as a writer going forward, as I gain acquaintance with other people’s vantage points.

I mean, it ought to be a no-brainer. But I practice my pris-de-fer just in case.

Monochrome

We had a winter storm over the weekend, and I didn’t go out in it. I cleaned the kitchen and changed the cat box and swept the carpet and drank hot chocolate and made macaroni and cheese from scratch. I watched the snow turn the view out my window to a fully-integrated image made up of white and grey and faded brown.

L.S. Lowry, Landscape in Cumberland

Last weekend, when my friend’s funeral was held, there was no snow and nothing dynamic in the temperatures, and sunshine that gave little comfort, and no birds. I saw: one robin, one hawk, one sparrow in the space of five days. The sky was bald and deserted and I was deeply unnerved. So when I saw a junco hopping through the snow on the balcony railing, a perfect little puff of charcoal and taupe and white underbelly, it was a small monochrome miracle.

There are still distressingly few birds around, but the tracks in the snow under the birdfeeder are signs for rejoicing.

Not as much writing got done this past week as I would have liked, but the black marks on the white digital page have increased by a number greater than zero, so I’ll take it. And I’ll take the lovely thick fog that enveloped the city in the early hours this morning, and the calls of crows in the distance, and the faint limns of buildings buffered away from sight, and the world just a bit muted, the barrage of details hushed, just for a moment, just for a little.

I’ll take those simple things while they’re coming.

Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.

Free as the road

A few days ago I discovered that making a new year’s resolution to “see friends more often” is a thing. Like, I dismissed it when I found it in the NYT crossword, but then I saw it cropping up on actual lists of people’s goals for the new year. And that inspired me to rant on Twitter.

And yeah, I know, nobody wants even friends randomly showing up at their house for undefined socializing, but that’s wrapped up in the whole cycle of overscheduled burnout that seems to have ramped up in the last ten years in particular. My friend calls me: “Is this a fencing night? Can we go have dinner?” And half the time, yes, it is a fencing night, and I miss fencing practice too often as it is, and I have friends there too, and so I say “How about Tuesday?”

This past summer I experimented with doing a bullet journal. I admit, playing with colored pens is fun, and it was nice to have my sticky-note to-do lists in one little Moleskine notebook. But then I got sick and had that whole ER rodeo thing, and lost interest. And the sheer executive functioning nightmare of earning a living plus managing a household plus connecting with my people — because none of that happens without significant effort — makes me think that something needs dismantling somewhere.

So no, I don’t think there’s a job I’ve fallen down on when six months goes by since the last time I go to my friend’s house. I think that six months of my chronos has stolen my kairos, and we need to mount the barricades.

Last Friday one of my book club friends died after only a week in hospice. She had been battling protean cancers for years, and they had finally grown beyond treatment. On the book club group text this week we hashed out whether to attend the visitation or the funeral, and if and when to move our winter feast. All these practical acts of scheduling, all the planning of my writing projects for the year — there’s a gap between all of that and my friend who now makes no plans and manages no schedule. I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I’m sad about her death and angry about the vicissitudes of planning…or angry about her death and sad about the vicissitudes of planning. I don’t know.

But I’ll have to let it lie for now, because it’s nine-thirty and my apartment isn’t going to clean itself before the year turns.

Christmas Window: Cabin Pressure!

This is going to make sense to about five people on my Twitter feed; the rest of you will just have to indulge me. Or better yet, indulge in a listen of the BBC radio play series “Cabin Pressure.” Trust me, it’s one of the better things you can do with a large public holiday.

Get dressed you merry gentlemen!

Advent calendar wrap-up: The Cold Open

Well, it looks like I fell at the final hurdles when it comes to posting every day for Advent. The weekend saw me holed up at home, writing — a scene sequence for The Lantern Tower chapter six, and then the sermon I gave at my church on Sunday. After that, there wasn’t much that felt urgent enough to put into a blog post, so I let it lie.

Sunday evening I went out for tacos and margaritas with one of my book club friends, who had been doing a great deal to help our mutual friend with household tasks and errands before she moved to hospice. We talked of mortality, of giving care, of the ways love and faith manifest at times like this.

Then I wrote some more, because that’s what there was to do.

This wasn’t one of the weeks where it’s immediately apparent what I’m going to write about for my sermon. Sometimes that happens: sometimes there’s something going on in the world or the country or the life of our community that connects with the readings with a neat little snap, and I ruminate the content and the structure and then finally compose the thing at least 24 hours before I deliver it.

And then sometimes there are occasions when, despite knowing weeks in advance when I’m preaching and what the texts are, I fumble until the very last minute before it’s time to shower and dress and leave for the church. Yet it’s not usually the exegesis or the relevant insights that’s the problem; I get plenty of help in that department, if not from on high then at least from teachers and commentators.

No, the problem is usually the cold open.

Every sermon needs a cold open: an image, a quotation, an anecdote, a narrative, or a concept that sets the tone and theme for what people are about to hear. Without it, frankly, the likelihood of your hearers giving a shit goes down exponentially. Many preachers content themselves with telling a joke and then taking advantage of the indulgent goodwill that follows in its wake; this is a strategy that usually annoys me to listen to, not least because a good many of these jokes are of the kind of gendered humor that only the het couples in the room are likely to enjoy. Not being a member of a het couple, my expectations of any relevance to come drop sharply.

A really good cold open is something you can call back to throughout the sermon; it doesn’t have to be Serious but it ought to be memorable, and be able to make the serious things memorable too. And from the writer’s point of view, it makes articulating those serious things possible. It filters out what isn’t coherent and gives you a thread to pull when you’re working through the rest of the structure.

Until I have a cold open, I can’t start.

The cold open is essential to sermon-writing because a sermon is a short composition that won’t benefit from a complicated structure, and a simple structure falls apart without a driving image. But something like a cold open works for long forms too. A novel’s prologue often functions that way: or the first scene if there isn’t a prologue. Sometimes the author leads off with an epigraph to set the tone. None of these strategies guarantees being good or effective, but the instinct for using them is the same: what one thing is this piece of writing going to be about? Here’s the essential clue.

But at times like this, coming up with a cold open for a sermon, or a first line for a chapter, is easy. It’s mediating the relationship between that writing and the context of daily life that’s hard. It’s trying to say something definite while being caught up in a liminal space.

Which is probably why there’s not a cold open for this post.

So, my best wishes to all for your holiday. Lights shine upon you.

Advent calendar #20: #MOOD

Right, so usually my editorial style guide for Genuwyne Quality Content on this blog tends to the dignified and pensive, because being flippant and off-the-cuff very often blows up in my face.

But it’s just before solstice, I’m a little exhausted from grievous things, my dignified and pensive reserves have been diverted to composition for my sermon this Sunday, and then I ran across this little gem, so it’s going in today’s Advent window. Enjoy!

Advent calendar #19: Margaret Atwood

I still can’t bring myself to read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale, because, well. I can observe plenty of nightmares going on round here without seeking the same out in my fiction. However: I know that Atwood is snarky and brilliant, so for today’s Advent window I give you a short essay of hers that I read 25 years ago and appreciate better now than I did when I was an undergraduate.

The Female Body, it’s called. (Honestly, “my topic feels like hell” should be a regular tag.)

Meanwhile, it’s the day’s deep midnight, and I’m looking forward to the crescendo again.

Advent calendar #18: Christmas Truce

I know, we’re still a week out from Christmas itself. But this is what I’m in the mood to post: a clip from the film Joyeux Noel, which if you haven’t seen it, never mind this and go watch.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is an event that has always fascinated me. And no doubt the power of this story fed into my imagination when I was conceiving the funeral sequence in Ryswyck. It’s obvious that the powers who prosecute wars don’t trust to the discipline of soldiers to recognize the humanity of their enemy — and kill them anyway. And possibly they are correct: it’s a very short hop from “I don’t like to kill you but I’m going to do it for my country’s sake” to “Why were we doing this, again?” Much easier to convince people that they are fighting to exterminate subhuman vermin who can’t encompass the complex conscience (in French that word has a happy dual meaning of both “conscience” and “consciousness”) that they themselves enjoy.

On the other hand, I can’t think of anything more soul-corroding than to take on board a view of other humans (in groups or individually) as either degraded figures compared to yourself, or else non-player characters to whom you can do anything you like and the meaning it has for you is the sole meaning it has altogether. And I think part of what makes the spectacle of sexism or racism or what-have-you so maddening is just that sight of people trying to rescue their own vision of themselves by doing exactly that harm which will thwart their own hopes. (Not that I care about the fate of sexists and racists more than that of the people they harm, but you’d think some net good would come of it, and it’s exactly the opposite.) As C.S. Lewis pointed out, hurting someone increases your resentment against them, rather than discharging it.

But to cast down the mighty from their thrones, and to lift up the lowly is good news for the mighty too. We need more Christmas Truces to make that clear.