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Friday, January 26, 2018


Thalia, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
from my post-apocalyptic adventure
in blank verse, Thaliad
(Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
Clive is the answer to one
of the questions below.

I am busy scouring a novel and so offer a few Quora doodles in lieu of a proper post. These were written in little corners of time and often constitute a break from something larger--or you might say that they constitute part of that writerly tradition, avoidance of work! Writers being such oddly-feathered birds, avoidance of work often means more writing. The questions answered fall into the realms of writing, mythology, and painting; some are serious answers, some less so.

Fiction, poetry, painting, and mythology

Your answer to Is there a book with old paintings and their stories?
Your answer to My parents hate/are scared of some of my art pieces and don't want me to create more similar types. How should I justify my means of painting them?


  1. "In art, is there a relationship between spontaneity and value?"

    That's a really good question for an aspiring artist or writer to be contemplating, especially if they realize that good art sometimes gestates slooowly...

    1. And maybe that we gestate slowly as well. And surely we die and are born again many times in one life if we grow and change.

  2. "disagreeable politics". William F. Buckley Jr was not only right-wing (Why should taxes raised in New York go to pay for schools in Mississippi?) but a devout Catholic which brought an unpleasant Gott-mit-uns stench to some of his stuff. Nevertheless I used to read his column. He was widely regarded in the US as an intellectual which calls into question some of the nuances we associate with that desgnation.

    He wrote a political thriller (name forgotten) obviously because he thought he was clever enough to manage such a minor task. It was sad stuff, and revealed - among other things - that he wasn't good at plots. I read it. I wasn't fool enough to claim I could write better than he could, but was more or less certain I was better informed about the demands fiction imposes.

    Someone once said I looked like WFBJr and I bore this with equanimity. In a restaurant in Boston, another diner, having overheard my conversation, politely asked me about my origins since my face reminded him of someone or other. I told him about the supposed WFBJr resemblance. Momentarily he was taken aback but recovered rather well, I thought. Saying, "Even if that were true it would have been a step too far to have mentioned it."

    In my opinion this could only have happened in Boston.

    Answer to your first question: Yes. How else might I have engineered this comment?

    Answer to your second question: at least four times as much effort as writing a 400-page novel since sweat from fiction writing doubles up with length. Interestingly this anecdotal law passes into recession beyond 500 pages when the creative process self-degrades into a sort of scrapbook approach.

    1. I have no objection to politically-minded people writing novels; it keeps them out of worse mischief, I imagine. Buckley's son writes novels, I think--did you try those? Obviously I have not. Truth be told, I tend to dislike the category of politician and to be rather apolitical, remembering the existence of politics when I must. I have opinions about events and laws and so on, but I am not of the feeling that my opinions about the passing, changing world are so important that I simply must inflict them on other people. In this, I suppose I am unlike a great many writers of our day.

      As someone who started out as a poet and accidentally tripped and fell into novels, I expect that I was not good at plots at first. More accurately, I distrusted plot. In fact, I felt plots were silly contrivances, obvious and at times embarrassing--all of which is sometimes true. But as I went on, I liked them and the propulsion they give more and more.

      I like your doodle-answers. My current ms. has 463 pages plus a glossary, so the second one is a good warning to me! And now, back to that surprisingly long (for me) enterprise....

    2. A plot is a sequence of fictional detail that encourages the reader to keep on turning pages. Plots include Kingsley Amis's definition of sci-fi (The plot is the hero), Agatha Christie's justifications for a surprise ending, the obvious backbone of the more readable pre-twentieth-century classics (eg, The Red And The Black), and the ultimate - striven for but rarely achieved - whereby the passage of time, the development of character, the exploration and resolution of the theme and the logic of the events all fuse to create a sort of engine which unobtrusively drags us (willingly) from one satisfactory unity to a variant of that unity. Fill in your own candidate here.

      Plots are routinely misunderstood and thus mistrusted. Those with a literary bent fear that the girders, brickwork, cables and poured concrete of a plot may show through and endanger the fineness of their prose. But a plotless novel risks inanition.

      Someone I read recently (I'm getting shocking with names) said that fiction writers who ran into difficulties and/or produced low-grade work were guilty of not asking the right questions to begin with. One interpretation of that (for me) is that such writers haven't paid enough attention to their plots.

      Jeff: Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene are two of my heroes. Both mobilise their Catholic ideas via a specialised form of weariness which is hard to describe but easy to recognise. Insofar as I can remember the Buckley novel, read about forty years ago, the weariness was there but without the justification (ie, proof that the right questions had been asked, you might say.) However dubious the phrase I used, thank you for repeating it.

    3. I think it also has something to do with schooling of a certain era--the mistrust of plots. And the reading of experimental fiction that abandons plot. And the felt need to be not so obvious.

      But part of the arc of my own fiction (not that anybody needs to notice it but me) is the story of being more and more fascinated by propulsion. And a great deal of that is plot.

  3. Good point, Marly; it's true that we're "reborn" several times if we're living properly and perceptive enough to change to make writing and art, whether fortune's wheel is raising us up or flinging us down.

    ...of course, as a Catholic writer myself, I'll admit to wondering what "an unpleasant Gott-mit-uns stench" is, exactly.

    1. Hah. Jeff Sypeck, meet Roderick Robinson! Two very different set of eyes on the world... "The world is so full of a number of things, / I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings." --Robert Louis Stevenson

  4. The elder Buckley wrote spy novels around one Blackford Oates. I read two, and have read worse, partly because when young I would read almost anything. Still, I think that by the standards of spy novels they weren't that bad. The younger Buckley goes in for comedy. He is pretty good at the comic novel, but tends to keep his elbow very firmly in one's ribs.

    I think that most of Tolstoy's political ideas were silly. Fielding's political ideas, as far as I can infer them, make me grateful not to have appeared as a defendant in his courtroom. Smollett has a memorable passage in Roderick Random in which the protagonist complains of his tough duty as physician on a slaver to the Argentine. None of this keeps me from enjoying War and Peace, Tom Jones, or The Tour of Humphrey Clinker.

    As for spontaneity and value, I am no artist, but suspect that true spontaneity is hard to come by, and that often enough the young accept substitutes.

    1. Life is dreadfully short. Books are so many. Rereading is important. I may never get to Buckley and son! So am glad to hear a report...

      Yes, I have zero belief in writers as better than other people in the realm of political ideas (or in most realms.) Not that some writers aren't dead right about something huge (Solzhenitsyn, say, on the gulag and human nature.) But in general the kind of deep-diving or surface frolic they do is not helped by their politics.

      By the by, Tom Jones is for me one of those books that I simply must reread now and then. Also any Austen. Bleak House. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Woman in White. Etc.

      I do like the illusion of something tossed-off with grace, whether it actually was tossed off with grace or put together laboriously. The curious question is whether a reader can tell the difference.

    2. An obituary quoted John Kenneth Galbraith as saying that it was usually about the fifth draft that he put in those spontaneous touches the reviewers noticed. So perhaps readers of long volumes on economics can't tell the difference.

    3. Hah, interesting. Perhaps he was far enough from the material then to be frolicsome...

  5. Thanks for being the much needed catalyst with your answer about writing that damned novel. This curmudgeonly chemist will now begin compounding the long inert novel. Time will tell if it is a worthwhile chemical compound.
    Best wishes....

    1. Do you mean "A large number of words in the right order"? Luck!

  6. You've posted nothing since January 26, eleven days ago. But the headline of this current post does, I suppose, give me elbow-room to communicate nothing. Or Nada, as multi-lingual US citizens like to say in slick bars. Doodles are not expected to be rational.

    I've just admitted to my brother I've not read Robert Frost, also that I know no reason why. Perhaps you can tell me why, and not in any po-faced way. I only know two things about him: that he launched the phrase "the road not taken" which I envy him for, and that he became cranky (because of sunlight?) at Kennedy's inauguration. Third point, but more speculative: he had a fine shock of very white hair at the end, endowing him with sagelike qualities. Since my hair, presently dull grey through being unwashed, may go the same way is there any chance I'll be regarded as a sage in my latter-day senescence? You say you learn more about me from my blog comments than from any other sources, so here's another for you to gnaw on.

    1. Well, while you were complaining, I was posting, so there!

      I think that you will look quite sage-like with a shock of white hair, but you ought to go read some Frost to get ready. He really is good, far better than people commonly say.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.