Friday, 8 May 2009

Let me count the ways ... of writing cliches

An Unreal Nature posting today, Power Source, had an interesting quotation about poetry:

Bad poetry is almost always bad because it attempts to claim for itself the real power of whatever it describes in ten lines: a sky full of stars, first love, or Niagara Falls.

- Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard (1982)

This jogged my memory to dig out a clipping on the same subject that we've had around for probably a couple of decades: specific attribution lost, but I think it's from a US or Canadian writers' magazine:

The Poem You Must Not Write

1. It's Hell To Be A Poet.
This poem celebrates writing as a divine calling and the poet as a suffering, misunderstood bearer of truth in a cruel, indifferent world. Self-pity rarely interests readers, and when a poet blames his failure on forces other than himself, he only compounds his poem's problems.

2. I'm An Intellectual.
This poem combines high-sounding, philosophical, didactic and literary observations and allusions, usually in trite, archaic phrases of rhyme and metre. Poems whose main purpose is to impress usually don't.

3. Let Me Tell You How It Is.
This poem states obvious truths or preaches a little sermon urging readers to accept what is already generally believed: God is good, death is deadly, good is better than evil, nature is lovely, etc. Commonplace and preachy poems are never successful.

4. Look What I Can Do With My Computer.
This poem's typographical gymnastics may make a good ad for print fonts, but they don't hide careless writing.

5. Guess What This Means.
This poem is simply obscure (intentionally or otherwise), written in a private symbology about a situation or event that readers can only guess at.

6. Echoes Of The Past.
This poem is often, but not always, written in a correctly structured form, yet is heavily laced with poeticisms, grammatical inversions and archaic phrases and usages that went out of style more than a century ago.

7. Open Heart Purgery.
This poem has many variations covering all aspects of loving and losing, birth and death, and every other sort of emotional experience. Writing such poems may be therapeutic for the writer, but the work is generally too private to be of interest to other readers.

- John D Engle

I'm fairly sure that this John D Engle is the Kentucky-born poet, author and editor John D Engle Jr., who died in 2006 (see obituary), so I'm inclined to think the advice is sound. I'd be grateful if anyone could supply attribution and publication date.

Addendum: I just found a second clipping from a prose equivalent in Christopher Derrick's Reader's report on the writing of novels. Part of Derrick's work was as a book reviewer and publisher's reader, and the book crystallised his experience into advice for would-be novelists. I can't say I like the sexist tone in places, but it's a nicely barbed snapshot of overdone novel-forms that were turning up in publishers' slush-piles 40 years ago. After preamble about the flood of submitted Kingsley Amis imitations folowing the popularity of Lucky Jim, Derrick continues with:

Here are some further examples, some novels or novel-elements that have become cliches:

(i) The imaginative reconstruction of a remote past, prehistoric or mythological, as understood in the light of archaeology, anthropology, and comparative religion. This is a highbrow genre, calling for a certain amount of background study. At its best it makes magnificent reading, and notably in the hands of its high priestess, Mary Renault; but she and others have set an alarmingly high standard. The great mistake is to regard it as a soft option. When this kind of novel fails to be outstanding, it tends to be rubbish : the colourful background and properties draw attention to any central imaginative weakness, rather than making up for it.

(ii) A more lowbrow version of the same thing. A grand rowdy mix-up of sex, violence, and religion in some ancient world, real or imagined: gladiators, bosoms, toppling disasters, temples and sinister priesthoods with their rituals and their schemings: slave-girls being whipped to death. Much is commonly made of the fact that in a society conceived on these lines, people can be plausibly represented as not wearing many clothes, and also as carrying swords and spears all the time, with little public restraint upon the use thereof.

Sometimes we are taken right back to cave-man days, with uncouth characters called Ug and Pong spearing one another and having babies in ditches and stumbling about in swamps and forests. It can be good fun if you're in the mood.

(iii) The novel that is too simply and thinly derived from the fact that its author read English Literature at his university. Often he was a poet or novelist by vocation, but then had to go into some dismal job because he had a family to feed and couldn't get much money by writing. Typically, he became a copy-writer in an advertising agency: the point and tension of this story — which is plainly an autobiographical complaint — arises from the fact that while this job was, in a way, related to the author's education and ambitions, it also involved some loss to his integrity, his bright vision.

In another version that's commonly American, this becomes the campus-novel: the faculty-members who occupy the foreground invariably have Literature for their field, never Biology or Economics.

Literary studies at university level tend to generate a particular kind of stress or disappointment in later years. The same may be true of other fields of study; but where Literature is concerned at least, this is over-familiar territory to the publisher's reader.

(iv) The politico-military thriller of tough action, unless it takes the following principles into account: (a) If there ever were any 'atom secrets', we don't believe in them now: we find it hard to believe in military secrets of any sort. (b) Nobody believes in a dualistic world any more, with Good Us in total and righteous opposition to Bad Them, (c) We shall take it for granted that the Organisation — the one that employs your conscience-harrowed agent — is blind and absurd. If your story is to depend on his gradual and upsetting discovery of this, you have to account for his stupidity in not seeing it from the start. (d) You won't be able to curdle our blood with any newly-invented bomb, gun, ray, germ, or whatever. We're too hardened.

(v) The painfully Irish novel. Glory and heartbreak of wild uproarious youth in Dublin, with students and poets and poverty and fine whirling talk, and Guinness and the Gardai, and people being sick at parties, and mad-eyed mistresses and dotty peers, and great crumbling Georgian mansions where pigs loiter in the drawing-rooms, and everybody hallooing off into the night in some overloaded rackety old car, while the inescapable Church hovers over all.

(vi) The painfully American novel, in which everybody makes a full-time job of acting out — in roaring titanic fashion — some role selected from a Jung-styled repertoire of ancient myths and symbols. This is sometimes a poetical and prophetical lament for the world's despair and for the hellishness (erroneously seen as total) of modern American life; sometimes it's a great raw bleeding slice of history, full of violence and filth. Sometimes it's both. Two things tend to be wrong with Americans, affecting their novels disadvantageously. One is that they worry too much about being American: the other is that they take book-psychology much too seriously.

(vii) The holiday novel. How I — a nice English schoolmarm — was quite bowled over by the hot Mediterranean sun and the garlic and the bottom-pinching Italians.

(viii) The satirical danse macabre: a derisive raiding of dry puppets, a jubilantly sick capering through vistas of dimness, inspired by a vision of modern society' as corrupt (obviously), and also as phoney and daft in the highest degree, and indeed as actually dead, though unaware of the fact. There is usually some suggestion of nostalgia for grand colourful old reality, which is there all the time, if only people had the energy to reach out for it.

Smugness is the fault of this novel: its writer tends to be young and censorious.

(ix) The solemn and weighty D.Porn. thesis, in which the service of Venus is endlessly described in detail, and is made to seem like a necessary but very unpleasant kind of medical treatment.

(x) The young girl's novel about how I got seduced.

(xi) The young girl's novel about how I didn't get seduced.

(xii) The agonised Catholic novel about birth control. This is always written by a lady.

(xiii) The agonised Catholic novel about clerical celibacy. This is never written by a priest.

(xiv) The female novel which is too simply a complaint about how beastly men are to girls. You're right, dear; but it isn't a new discovery.

(xv) The novel that is based too simply upon this further fact: that each sex can, with some plausibility, accuse the other of being essentially predatory in amorous relationships.

(xvi) The novel that is based too simply upon the end of adolescent self-centredness and the learning of compassion. Usually it involves the late and upsetting discovery that this girl isn't just a luscious sex-machine but an actual human being as well, despite appearances.

(xvii) The novel that brings a group of strangers together in some confined and stressful environment for a prolonged ordeal, so that their shams and acts collapse and it becomes apparent what they really are.

(xviii) The army novel: though the English version of this has become rarer since conscription ended. It depends upon the conflict or tension between a young recruit who's cultured and sensitive and a bull-necked sergeant who isn't. Its weakness is that it tends to labour the obvious. War is a barbaric and irrational business, and if there are to be armies at all, they plainly can't be run on civilised and reasonable lines. Your discovery that the army is not so run is very far from being a new one: don't proclaim it too excitedly.

(xix) The psycho-clinical case-history. The writer of this novel supposes himself to have achieved the whole of a novelist's task if he has successfully conveyed to us the nature and flavour of (say) schizophrenic experience. It tends to be fascinating, in an awful way, since we're all amateur psychologists; but it seldom works as a novel.

(xx) The vast family chronicle, with a family tree that unfolds at the back and tends to get torn. It begins with old Josiah Heckthornthwaite, who indomitably founded the Mill in 1762, and who now glares down in disapproval, from his dark portrait on the boardroom wall, upon the disintegration of the modern world and the scruffy antics of the young.

(xxi) The novel that devotes all its energies to playing elaborate games with the novel-convention. As a novelist, you are fully entitled to be clever in any way that takes your fancy and lies within your powers; but don't overact the part of the man who, writing a clever novel, builds it around the character of a clever novelist, in whose work he himself features, and writes a novel that is in fact this one, the one that you're now reading, so that the narrator becomes a character within a novel written by a 'himself' who is (in a sense) a quasi-fictitious character in a novel written by anybody, except that ... After a certain amount of this, we all run lunatic and drop the book.

Each of these games has been played very often indeed, and possibly by yourself. If the novel that you wrote last year falls into one of the categories just listed, don't take it too personally: you aren't the only one.

- Christopher Derrick (Reader's Report on the Writing of Novels: a publisher's reader examines the pitfalls facing the aspiring novelist. London: Gollancz. 1969. ISBN 0575002662)

Christopher Derrick, incidentally, died only recently in 2007: interesting character, who knew a number of literary figures including CS Lewis and GK Chesterton (connected in part by religious interests - most of his published works related to Catholic philosophy). He was the younger brother of the Catholic journalist Michael Derrick.
- Ray


  1. All true. There is so much bad poetry -- painfully bad poetry in the world ...

    Numbers 2 and 5 are similar to what Johah Lehrer talks about in reference certain types of movies in today's post on his Frontal Cortex blog:

    "...there's been a segment of filmmakers that sees the movie as akin to a puzzle, an artistic form which should only make sense in the moments before the final credits start to roll. Instead of having our narrative understanding slowly build, these directors dole out comprehension in sudden spurts, when a crucial twist is suddenly revealed. The end result is that disbelief can't be suspended because we're too busy trying to figure out what the hell is going on."

  2. My particular peeves are #3 - especially nature poems that don't make the conceptual jump to some wider aspect of human experience - and #6, efforts along the lines of:

    Along the street as I did go.
    I tripped and hurt my middle toe.

    where it's blindingly obvious that the inversion exists purely to get "go" at the end of the line for the purposes of rhyme, and the archaicism "did go" to pad the line with an extra syllable to m make it scan.

    As to the movie angle, for me the dividing line is between complexity and, as he says, "confusion masquerading as complexity". Overall, Lehrer's article has a strong smell of explanatory neurophilia: a neuroscientific explanation to bolster an essentally reactionary view of nonlinear plots and intertextuality. I don't think effort to understand the narrative or allusions to other works have as much power to break suspension of disbelief as he claims (it rather reminds me of the Penn & Teller cup and ball trick - the illusion persists even when the mechanics are in plain sight).