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Friday, August 15, 2014

Rules of Writing IX: good writing and defective style

While I didn't think a great deal of magnum opus, my objections were not to the stylings of David Foster Wallace's prose, and since he is still recognized as the creme de la creme of our generation's New York literati, he serves as an adequate guide to literary style. He described good writing so:
In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.
Notice that his definition is intrinsically subjective and determined by the reader. This is why various claims that a competent writer is stylistically terrible while another one is wonderful are, for the most part, mere posturing. Now, that doesn't mean that one cannot be a technically bad writer, since there are basic grammatical rules to every language, words have specific meanings and can therefore be used improperly, and sentences or paragraphs can be strung together in a variety of incoherent and otherwise incompetent ways.

But the fact that the idea communicated is distasteful or that it is communicated in a way that is uninteresting or feels leaden to a reader does not, contra the blatherings of the would-be literary crowd of the SF/F community, make it bad writing. No matter how they preen and posture, David Foster Wallace himself is telling them that they are wrong, and since they are no more than literary wannabes, they have no counterarguments to this appeal to authority.

This subjective element doesn't mean that all functional prose is of equal beauty or equally effective. Not at all. One need only compare the difference between my pedestrian style versus John C. Wright's sparkling literary pyrotechnics to see that. But it does mean that in order to be legitimately considered bad writing, as opposed to merely not-great writing, there has to be something technically incorrect about it. So, for example, I'll turn to Ayn Rand, to whose prose deficiencies I have myself referred. Here is a randomly selected paragraph from Atlas Shrugged.
One by one, the men who had built new towns in Colorado, had departed into some silent unknown, from which no voice or person had yet returned. The towns they had left were dying. Some of the factories they built had remained ownerless and locked; others had been seized by the local authorities; the machines in both stood still.

She had felt as if a dark map of Colorado were spread before her like a traffic control panel, with a few lights scattered through its mountains. One after another, the lights had gone out. One after another, the men had vanished. There had been a pattern about it, which she felt, but could not define; she had become able to predict, almost with certainty, who would go next and when; she was unable to grasp the “why?”
In my estimation, Ayn Rand's chief stylistic problem was her overreliance upon the past perfect simple tense and the passive voice. While her sentences are more or less grammatically correct, and therefore not, strictly speaking, erroneous, the effect is stultifying. Count the astonishing number of "had VERB" instances in the two paragraphs. There are 11 in only seven sentences. Her prose is so passive it is lying supine, flat upon its back, drooling.

Moreover, it is not used in an entirely correct manner. The past perfect simple tense is to be used "when describing an event that occurred before something else followed". But what follows the failure to return of a voice or person, what follows the factories remaining ownerless, when those events are still ongoing? Also, if something is unknown, how can it be silent?  It is the men who are silent, not the unknown. It would have been acceptable to say "some unknown silence", but it is not correct to say "some silent unknown". And how does a voice return, via the telephone?

"The men left and were never heard from again." That would be a much simpler way to say it. She's shooting for a flowery, more dramatic and haunting effect, of course, but she lays it on too heavily and it comes off poorly. It's also structurally inconsistent to switch from who and when to "the why?". This is Rand's flair for the dramatic asserting itself at the wrong time, she should have simply said: "she was unable to grasp why", although she could have also, less gracefully, chosen to utilize the "who?" and the "when?". These are but a few of the many such errors that litter her writing; they do not make her a bad writer (style being only one of the four major facets of writing), but they do make her an observably flawed stylist.

I'm not cherry-picking here. I intentionally chose a passage at random knowing that I would find some such deficiencies, although I did not think to discover such an abundance of them. In fact, that is the most fair way to judge a writer's technical competence, as intentionally focusing on one passage that one finds infelicitous is not only indicative of negative intent, but can be completely misleading. Furthermore, most assertions of bad writing, particularly when a controversial writer is concerned, are provably false. Consider:
The first thing one picks up on when starting Atlas Shrugged is the poverty of the prose. Ayn Rand, no matter her or her followers’ opinion otherwise, just isn’t a very good writer. The language is plodding, non-lyrical, and often often awkward. For example, in one scene she writes, “He stood slouching against the bar.” To my knowledge, one stands against a bar or one slouches against a bar-but one does not stand slouching.
This is amusing, not only due to the phrase "often often awkward" or because the posturing would-be critic only supplies one example, but because he doesn't quote the text correctly or provide a legitimate example. As another observer noted: "About the “slouching,” the actual sentence is “Bertram Scudder stood slouched against the bar.” That’s perfectly sensible: a person can slouch while sitting or standing, and in doing so the person might be leaning against a bar." Since "to slouch" means "to sit or stand with an awkward, drooping posture" it is perfectly reasonable to clarify whether the slouching individual is sitting or standing.

Now, as I've already pointed out, there are legitimate grounds to criticize the stylistic facet of Rand's writing. But very few of those who claim she is a bad writer ever seem to reference them. In a similar manner, I have been vastly amused by the way in which my critics have focused, laser-like, on a single passage from "Opera Vita Aeterna" that has been repeatedly cited to support the claim that I am a terrible writer. This is the exhibit one of the execrable writing they condemn:
The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night’s Mistress, would unveil herself as well.
While there are no technical errors of the sort we see in Rand's writing, there is obviously something a little strange there. The implication that the sun's rays are physically holding up the sun, and that night is falling because those rays are no longer strong enough to do so, will likely strike the reader as weirdly literal.

And if the story proceeded into more similarly clumsy metaphors, one might reasonably conclude that the writer has an overly literal mind and is technically deficient in that regard. But it doesn't; even the most dismissive critics have noted that it's only this first passage that contains anything of this sort. Moreover, instead of proceeding into a pedestrian tale of swords, sorcery, and derring-do, it's a rather unusual story where nothing seems to happen and almost everyone dies violently, in addition to this dichotomy is a short spelunking into pseudo-Thomistic philosophy sufficiently sophisticated to lead critics into mistakenly concluding it is cribbed, and to top it all off, the ending is ambiguous. So, it should be clear that the writer does not have the overly literal mind suspected at the start.

This doesn't matter to the superficial reader only looking for an excuse to dismiss the writer, of course. The pedestrian critic will simply moan about the supposedly awful metaphor and think no further. That's exactly the role he is supposed to play. But the ideal reader will wonder about the seeming contradiction observed. He might know the author well enough to realize that the author's mind is more Machiavellian than literal, and possessed of a cruel sense of humor.  And he would certainly know that the author's observable familiarity with medieval philosophy would tend to indicate an awareness of the naturalistic literalism of that era.

Or he might not. Regardless, what is so funny to me is that the very people who think Monty Python is so clever and funny when they portray the sun walking on two legs below the horizon in a movie don't recognize the exact same thing when it isn't presented in a juvenile, full-color cartoon format. As it happens, the critics were correct to react to the passage in a hostile manner, they simply didn't recognize how it defines my relationship to the type of reader they represent, which is to say, my unconcealed contempt for their dim little minds.

I'm more interested in ideas than style. I'm certainly not one of those writers, like Ayn Rand, who claims that every comma is sacred and placed with perfect intent, but as a general rule, it is safe to conclude that something seems a little strange, there is a message to someone, somewhere, being sent. Even if it is a simple one that could have been just as easily delivered with a single finger.

In the wake of Robin Williams's suicide, David Brooks pleaded for mercy for the creators: "My plea here is for people to give the needed space to artists and performers to fail every now and then, and to understand how exposed someone feels when trying something new. The trolls, the Twitter executioners and the like should save their savagery for those who are famous for being famous."

I could not disagree more. Bring it on. Wax eloquent on Twitter and on your blogs about what a terrible writer I am, what a terrible person I am. Open up your hate and let it flow into me.

Labels:

141 Comments:

Anonymous Michael August 15, 2014 9:03 AM  

I found Edgar Allen Poe's Philosophy of Composition to be fascinating, despite not being a writer myself.

http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm

Anonymous Truman Capote's Unpublished Nephew August 15, 2014 9:08 AM  

Rand isn't a particularly good writer, but she is an exceptionally effective polemicist.

I'd rather read he poor prose with a great message than someone like Joyce Carol Oates who is a really fine writer with crappy stories.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 9:27 AM  

I'd rather read her poor prose with a great message than someone like Joyce Carol Oates who is a really fine writer with crappy stories.

That's the point the pinkshirts can't understand. Style is only one-fourth of what goes into being a good or bad writer. If you have lovely style, but you have nothing to say, no plot, and your characters are stock, you are a worse writer than a word butcher with ideas and a plot.

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 9:28 AM  

> Rand isn't a particularly good writer, but she is an exceptionally effective polemicist.

Writing is a blend of ideas and the expression of those ideas. You have to have both. And has anyone expressed Rand's ideas any better in the 50+ years since she penned them? I can't think of anyone offhand.

That said, Vox's criticisms of her style are correct. And much better stated that my forlorn attempts in an earlier thread. :) But then, as Jon pointed out in that thread, she wasn't a native English speaker.

Anonymous Stephen J. August 15, 2014 9:32 AM  

Personally I think there is only one way to rightly assess a writer producing a work of entertainment as terrible: Does he make topics, plots or characters which should be interesting -- as the reader judges such things -- boring? Which I hope makes this compliment less understated than it sounds: Your writing, Vox, has never bored me with anything I wouldn't normally be bored by.

Conversely, a really great writer is somebody who can take things I would normally be bored or put off by and make them enjoyable to read about. I normally have no patience whatsoever for the ambisexual angsty Goth scene, but Poppy Z. Brite writes about such characters in Lost Souls with such vividly rich prose I can't help but enjoy it anyway.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 9:35 AM  

Does he make topics, plots or characters which should be interesting -- as the reader judges such things -- boring?

That's not a bad metric. Subjective, of course, and not at all technical. But useful all the same. Stanislau Lem is a MAGNIFICENT writer by that metric, as he actually makes government-run scientific bureaucracy interesting.

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 9:38 AM  

> If you have lovely style, but you have nothing to say, no plot, and your characters are stock, you are a worse writer than a word butcher with ideas and a plot.

Yep. I'm not a writer not because I'm incapable of putting ideas into word in a semi-coherent form, but because I don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said by others better than I can say it.

Of course, if I did want to become a writer, I'd have a whole bunch of work to do before my I could produce anything of quality beyond a simple short story. I have no experience at either character or plot development and I have no consistent, coherent style. All of these things can be learned, but you have to have something to say before it's worth learning them.

Anonymous Doug Wardell August 15, 2014 9:41 AM  

It's amusing how many people take issue with your writing and the passage you cite in particular while touting people like Swirsky as brilliant writers. If I get to the end of a piece and have to ask what the point was, I'm probably not going to read anything more from that writer no matter how skilled the prose is. That said, I did stick with Name of the Wind despite how boring the first third is. Luckily, the payoff was worth it.

Also, thanks Vox, now I'm going to have Down with the Sickness stuck in my head all day. ;)

Blogger Buddy E. August 15, 2014 9:42 AM  

'Writing is a blend of ideas and the expression of those ideas. You have to have both. And has anyone expressed Rand's ideas any better in the 50+ years since she penned them? I can't think of anyone offhand.'

Terry Goodkind, perhaps. Some of those themes are central to the sword of truth series.

Anonymous Susan August 15, 2014 9:43 AM  

I have been a reader all my life VD. When I sit down to read a book, my mind's eye opens up and a book can become very visual to me in my head, not necessarily because of a Mary Sue, but because the writer has created a very vivid picture of his world in the book I am reading.

I like that passage about the cold autumn day. Living in Oregon, I can relate to that paragraph.

I suggest that the problem with those who find fault with that paragraph are exposing a deficiency in their own imaginations, rather than any supposed fault of yours. This is why I rarely agree with critics. They are unwilling to let their imaginations loose for a run. Too busy nitpicking the faults of others.

I apply the same standard to books as I do to movies, does it entertain me, and does the plot stay consistent. I am aware of how high a standard you have set for yourself, but as long as your target readers, like me, are entertained and informed, that should be standard enough to satisfy any writer.

Screw the rabbits. TC's nephew is right.

Anonymous Nemo Maximus August 15, 2014 9:43 AM  

Does he make topics, plots or characters which should be interesting -- as the reader judges such things -- boring?

The skilled writer can make things that are exceptionally boring, such as eating breakfast cereal in Manilla, mysterious, hilarious and interesting even if he goes on about it for 4 pages. I am referring of course to the scene in Cryptonomicon where Neal Stephenson entertains us by having the protagonist eat Captain Crunch.

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 9:45 AM  

> That's not a bad metric. Subjective, of course, and not at all technical.

Who was it that said (paraphrasing from memory) that the worst thing you could say about a story was that you didn't care what happened to these people?

Anonymous Stilicho August 15, 2014 9:47 AM  

Inexpertly carving and serving a nice prime rib will always yield a more palatable and savory meal than the most delicate and accomplished preparation and presentation of a horse apple.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 9:47 AM  

Repetition is what I cannot tolerate. Is the writer using the same word... or same literary trick or device over and over and over again?

If you want to wax descriptive in a few scenes in a novel.. fine. If you insist on blowing words describing every little thing like its the most important thing ever... my head is going to explode.

its like a song with a catchy chorus... that repeats the chorus way to much. Its fun at first but by the end of the song you're ready to jam pencils* into your ears


* for the millennials: Pencils are old fashioned writing tools. Primitive things made of wood with a carbon rod through the center.

Anonymous Stephen J. August 15, 2014 9:49 AM  

"The men left and were never heard from again." That would be a much simpler way to say it.

That reminds me of something the writer Kingsley Amis once said of his son Martin Amis's prose style: "I say give the reader something to enjoy in every sentence but he goes further, so that after a while I'm longing to read something simple like: 'They finished their drinks and left.'"

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 9:51 AM  

> The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark.

Oh, and while I find that perhaps overly ornate, I don't have any problem with the metaphors. They strike me as describing the scene quite well. If the story continued in that style, I'd probably find it tedious. If the single paragraph I quoted of Rand's in the earlier thread had been a unique example, it wouldn't have been a problem. The problem is that the whole book is like that. And it's still a good book in spite of it.

Anonymous I put your head in the toilet in high school August 15, 2014 9:53 AM  

I found Ayn Rand entertaining.

I also find Star Wars entertaining, even though George Lucas is a shitty writer.

I guess that makes me NOT a NERD.

Anonymous paradox August 15, 2014 10:03 AM  

Twitter executioners
The Left is so dramatically gay with their pejoratives.

Anonymous Ten41 August 15, 2014 10:10 AM  

VD
One need only compare the difference between my pedestrian style versus John C. Wright's sparkling literary pyrotechnics to see that.


I have been meaning to mention something for a while now; you have a tendency to (at least to me) denigrate yourself when compared to Mr. Wright.

I like his books, I really do, but if I had to choose between AODL and Wright works, I would pick yours.

Why? Because, sometimes what is required is a darn good story; good versus evil, difficulties to be surmounted, that sort of thing. AODL is that sort of story.

So, now that that is done, how is AODL2 coming? I know that you are working twelve odd jobs, but...

Anonymous NorthernHamlet August 15, 2014 10:13 AM  

Vox,

Was it your intention to extend your opening metaphor and technique throughout that work or only to provide a contrast? I haven't had time yet to read all your work, so forgive the ignorance. Your answer can of course also be both.

Anonymous Pellegri August 15, 2014 10:15 AM  

Just finished a writing workshop led by an author of literary fiction. I fear his advice is going to turn everyone in that class (who hasn't got better resources) into a fine stylist with defective stories.

One classmate (male) was praised for writing a "brave*" story about a "sex worker" who made $1000 an hour and had given up her job in computer science (due to "microaggressions" from her jealous, insecure male coworkers that she beat at everything) because she liked the lifestyle as a hooker better. It came completely with a "not written to be titillating" sex scene in the middle, offered unvarnished to a workshop that included sixteen-year-olds.

Very puzzled as to why this wasn't just dismissed as weird male fantasy. In retrospect it's actually a pretty unflattering but largely true description of modern female behavior, though I don't think its author intended it that way--she's supposed to be "liberated" and "empowered," I guess, because she likes sex and makes men pay to have it with her. And sometimes her clients disgust her, but she'll soldier on because she also likes money.

Honestly I'd take Swirsky's mawkish trainwreck over that. Barely. Insane female revenge fantasies bother me slightly less than whatever this was.

*"Brave" because it takes a lot of empathy for men to write about the inner lives of hookers. Don't ask me.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 10:17 AM  

"I like his books, I really do, but if I had to choose between AODL and Wright works, I would pick yours."

Ya know... I used to take my dad to really nice steak houses... and every time he would order chicken tenders. And I would say "Dad... these people make the best steaks on the planet. You can get chicken tenders at freakin' hardees." And he'd look at me... blank.. and say, "I want chicken tenders."

Anonymous Joseph Dooley August 15, 2014 10:18 AM  

Vox, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to force the reader to slow down, I load my writing with metaphors and tight dependent clauses. This is helpful if you want to introduce or describe an alien world but don't want to take 2 pages of blocky text to do it.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 10:20 AM  

Was it your intention to extend your opening metaphor and technique throughout that work or only to provide a contrast?

The latter. The opening sentence is a bit on the ornate side. It's a short story, so that was a means of saying: "Look, it's quasi-medieval fantasy, all right? So there's this traveler...." I freely admit it is better read within the context of the Selenoth world than by itself, but it still works as a stand-alone.

If anyone doesn't grasp the heart of the story, I pity them. Because, above all else, it is a story about two close friends. And if you truly can't relate to that in any way, well....

Blogger CarpeOro August 15, 2014 10:23 AM  

"Her prose is so passive it is lying supine, flat upon its back, drooling."

That is what he said.

(Sorry, could control myself on the end of a tedious week of work)

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 10:25 AM  

I like his books, I really do, but if I had to choose between AODL and Wright works, I would pick yours.

I understand. They are very different experiences. John's worlds are to be marveled at. Mine are to be lived in. The difference is that John could do what I do. I can't do what John does, even though I am very closely involved with some of it. Speaking of which, his novella coming out next week is simply wonderful.

AODAL 2 is coming along strong, but slow. I think people will enjoy it when it's finally done. There is one minor character who has been promoted to perspective character that I suspect many guys are going to love.

Anonymous jay c August 15, 2014 10:29 AM  

The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark.

Maybe it's my overly literal mind getting in the way, but I am missing the connection between the so-called clumsy metaphor and an overly literal mind. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Anonymous Olen August 15, 2014 10:32 AM  

Haven't read any of Vox's work (sorry!), but why is the metaphor about the sun supposed to be bad? It reminded me instantly of the sun going down in the winter in Wisconsin, walking back from sledding at the high school to my grandpa's house. The words instantly connected me to a memory and a feeling I haven't consciously recollected in years. Isn't that what good writing does, become something more than literal and hit the reader in the heart, not just the head?

Anonymous zen0 August 15, 2014 10:32 AM  

"Her prose is so passive it is lying supine, flat upon its back, drooling."

Maybe that is where Greenspan learned FedSpeak.

Anonymous Rob August 15, 2014 10:40 AM  

I must add that I think the words describing the sun are wonderful; The deliberate way that modern knowledge is dismissed and the scene is described in just the way it may seem when the eye sees it (in surprise: the REAL world), and described just so, makes the words awaken into an image in my minds eye.

I must be literal too :P

Blogger Giraffe August 15, 2014 10:40 AM  

Open up your hate and let it flow into me.

Somewhere Bane is smiling.

Since you asked, in one of your War in Heaven books, you used the phrase "for the nonce" too many times. QED, you are a bad writer.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 10:44 AM  

"Haven't read any of Vox's work (sorry!), but why is the metaphor about the sun supposed to be bad? "

Because Vox gives mindhurt and feelbad.

duh.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 10:47 AM  

Jon Bromfield? Where is Jon Bromfield? He couldn't shut up about Ayn Rand's critics last night.

today?

crickets.

strange...

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 10:50 AM  

> The difference is that John could do what I do. I can't do what John does,..

A man's got to know his limitations. :)

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 10:53 AM  

> Jon Bromfield? Where is Jon Bromfield?

He may be in later time zone, Nate.

Anonymous bob k. mando August 15, 2014 10:55 AM  

Pat Hannagan August 15, 2014 10:35 AM
Here's an idea.




am i nuts? or does the star of this play look somewhat like a 2 decades younger version of the director?

because, if i'm right, the way the producer gushes about the appearance of the star is just ... downright creepy.

and besides, Kelli O'hara is better looking.




VD
it's a rather unusual story where nothing seems to happen and almost everyone dies violently


that is ... one of the most bizarre conjunctions i've ever contemplated.

violent deaths for EVERYONE!

but there's not really anything going on in this story, y'all can mosey on along now.

are you spoofing GRRM again?

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 10:56 AM  

I am missing the connection between the so-called clumsy metaphor and an overly literal mind. Can you explain what you mean by that?

The metaphor depends upon the idea that the sun's "descent" is a literal physical descent, and that the rays are literally too weak to physically hold it up. So, the superficial reader assumes that the only reason to use such a strange metaphor is if one is thinking in weirdly literal terms.

Anonymous Pellegri August 15, 2014 10:58 AM  

that is ... one of the most bizarre conjunctions i've ever contemplated.

It's beautiful, though.

Also, Vox, thank you for this post. I should've said that above.

Anonymous Daniel August 15, 2014 10:59 AM  

I am sorry, but I'm too dim to even grasp the false problem the critics are latching on to. The highlighted paragraph is one of the tone-setters, and one of countermodern qualities that makes the novella so Hugo-worthy in the first place.

Are you suggesting that these critics would have preferred you to write "The sun set. Dark was coming." ? Because that is not what the story is about. In fact, the story is thematically about the (false, but understandable) perception by the dying that the warmth of heaven's Sun was too weak to keep the demons at bay, and was in retreat of the winds.

Help me out here. I do not understand what the critics are latching onto in that elegant foreshadowing. From my perspective, they seem to be complaining that the food is too delicious and rudely underpriced.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 10:59 AM  

that is ... one of the most bizarre conjunctions i've ever contemplated.

I have to admit, I find the various contradictory criticisms to be amusing. It's totally derivative and unoriginal, but it's really weird. Although my favorite was probably the Amazon reviewer who said the demon just vanishes from the story. Well, yeah, except for returning and slaughtering everyone.

are you spoofing GRRM again?

No, not at all. It just made sense.

Anonymous Josh August 15, 2014 11:00 AM  

From my perspective, they seem to be complaining that the food is too delicious and rudely underpriced.

And such large portions, too!

Anonymous Salt August 15, 2014 11:02 AM  

The sun's decent reminded me of Pittsburgh on a cold gray day. "Aw, come on. I know its been a long day for you but stick around just a bit longer." Also reminds me of when a band at a concert just has no more to give.

Anonymous Not Nate August 15, 2014 11:04 AM  

My name is Nate and I wipe my butt with Ayn Rand novels. Me so good writer yo!

Anonymous Josh August 15, 2014 11:06 AM  

Also, the rays holding up the sun line could work with the common understanding of the cosmology of selenoth.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 11:08 AM  

"My name is Nate and I wipe my butt with Ayn Rand novels. Me so good writer yo!"

weird... and here I thought I voted for Anthem to win the 1939 retro hugo...

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 11:10 AM  

" Well, yeah, except for returning and slaughtering everyone."

I liked the one that thought the Elves came and killed everyone... and complained that it was so predictable.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 11:12 AM  

I wonder how many of these Ayn Rand folks realize that if she was alive today she'd have been one of the worst trolls VP has ever seen and probably would've been banned within a few days for babbling about herself every chance she got.

She'd have made Ann Morgan look reasonable and Wheeler look sane.

Anonymous Josh August 15, 2014 11:21 AM  

I think that fandom for rand is inverse to the amount of rand one has read.

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 11:24 AM  

> I wonder how many of these Ayn Rand folks realize that if she was alive today she'd have been one of the worst trolls VP has ever see...

I can't argue with that. :)

And the worst of it is that from my comments here people will think I'm an Ayn Rand critic, when I actually think her books were pretty good.

Blogger Rantor August 15, 2014 11:30 AM  

Wow, for a moment it was as if millions of lives cried out relieved of their hate. Cathartic. I feel more relaxed now knowing their is less hate in the world.

Rough week in beautiful Stuttgart. At least the evenings are filled with good food and great beer.

Anonymous Epimetheus August 15, 2014 11:33 AM  

I think "incipient dark" is an awkward phrase to end the sentence on. Replacing "incipient" with "growing" or "approaching" or whatever would better cohere with the earlier personification of sun and wind. Also, "incipient" might be a rather technical word to use in an imaginative passage ie. interferes with the reader's submersion.

Maybe use the word "darkness" to end the sentence phonetically softer, reinforcing the wind's "whispering" and a general sense of the day concluding gradually.

"The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with a whispering promise of approaching darkness. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night’s Mistress, would unveil herself as well."

What say you?

Anonymous Noah B. August 15, 2014 11:34 AM  

In a similar manner, I have been vastly amused by the way in which my critics have focused, laser-like, on a single passage from "Opera Vita Aeterna"...

I was hooked after that passage. And if your critics are focusing heavily on that one passage, it makes me think they are just ripping off other critics instead of reading your work for themselves.

Anonymous Noah B. August 15, 2014 11:36 AM  

"I think that fandom for rand is inverse to the amount of rand one has read."

It's not often that I begin to read a book with excitement and put it down only a few pages into it never to return, but that was my experience with Atlas Shrugged.

Blogger Quadko August 15, 2014 11:37 AM  

would have been acceptable to say "some unknown silence", but it is not correct to say "some silent unknown".
Well, I certainly bow to the real writers on analysis, but "some unknown silence" is a ghost town and abandonment by a multitude of individuals evoking sorrow, while "some silent unknown" is a servant of Cthulhu preying upon civilization evoking horror. To the character, that second was indeed her response, however the writer should have strung words together more skillfully to get there.

I still love Ayn Rand's stories "from a distance," as it were. Not because she hit the bullseye, she was very reactionary and overcorrected in many philosophical areas from her clear vision of the soviet evils of her childhood. But she was the clean wind, the voice in the wilderness crying foul over the decade of my first science fiction reading where it seemed every stinking science fiction story, grand as many were, was peddling a leftist utopia of communalism, peace through weakness, evils of religion and triumph of atheism (ironic, given her beliefs), and so forth message fiction. (I still remember the horror of the space-recycling story and those evil pro-raw material and production villains, though the author and title are long gone.) Or "good" Roger Elwood "Christian" science fiction - glad to have read it, but why did it have to be so bad and heavy handed message fiction of its own! :-) I had retreated to fantasy "about people and character" rather than science fiction "about liberals being right and taking over the future with rockets" until Atlas Shrugged brought me back to enjoyment of the field.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 11:40 AM  

I think "incipient dark" is an awkward phrase to end the sentence on. Replacing "incipient" with "growing" or "approaching" or whatever would better cohere with the earlier personification of sun and wind. Also, "incipient" might be a rather technical word to use in an imaginative passage ie. interferes with the reader's submersion.

I find it amusing that one of the reasons I am supposedly a terrible writer might be that my vocabulary is too extensive. Not only is it a perfectly legitimate word there, but I like the way it flows as well as it tends to indicate the immediate nature of the nightfall in a way that neither "growing" nor "approaching" do.

Blogger Quadko August 15, 2014 11:51 AM  

vocabulary is too extensive
That's what an author is supposed to do - expand the vocabulary of the reader, and thus expand their world. Thanks to Mr. John C Wright this month for introducing me to the word "quotidian" and then hitting me over the head with it every other page for a while. Quite a rarefied word for such an every day meaning. ;-)

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 11:51 AM  

> Well, I certainly bow to the real writers on analysis, but "some unknown silence" is a ghost town and abandonment by a multitude of individuals evoking sorrow, while "some silent unknown"

Actually, while not being a "real writer", I agree. The two aren't exactly the same thing, and second is less clear. In the first case (unknown silence), it's clear that silence is the noun and unknown is the modifier. The silence is present, but you don't know it's nature. In the second (silent unknown) it's not clear which is the modifier and which is the noun. It could be either.

Blogger Iowahine August 15, 2014 11:53 AM  

@Epimetheus:I think "incipient dark" is an awkward phrase to end the sentence on. Replacing "incipient" with "growing" or "approaching" or whatever would better cohere with the earlier personification of sun and wind. Also, "incipient" might be a rather technical word to use in an imaginative passage ie. interferes with the reader's submersion.

Maybe use the word "darkness" to end the sentence phonetically softer, reinforcing the wind's "whispering" and a general sense of the day concluding gradually.

"The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with a whispering promise of approaching darkness. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night’s Mistress, would unveil herself as well."

What say you?

Perhaps the first fanfic?

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 11:53 AM  

> Thanks to Mr. John C Wright this month for introducing me to the word "quotidian"

There's a reason I have the Oxford dictionary add-on and Google Translate readily available when I read this blog and his. :)

Anonymous hygate August 15, 2014 11:55 AM  

A couple of decades ago the US Army required all soldiers to attend classes on writing. They were attempting to improve reports, evaluations, etc. One of the biggest buggaboos? Writing in the passive voice.

Simply removing everyone of those "hads", which could easily be done with only minimal rewording of one or two sentences, would improve the selection.

Anonymous hygate August 15, 2014 11:57 AM  

And it would have shortened the book.

Blogger Quadko August 15, 2014 11:57 AM  

Oxford dictionary add-on and Google Translate
Hear, hear. I've gained greatly by Kindle Touch's click-and-define behavior. It was a surprise how natural it has become when I was reading a paperback and wanted to click-and-define a word - but I was too lazy to track down a computer or dictionary.

Blogger rumpole5 August 15, 2014 12:07 PM  

Gosh, just think of the following that you would command if you COULD write! But then, that might provoke envy and criticism from your literary inferiors.

Anonymous scoobius dubious August 15, 2014 12:09 PM  

"While there are no technical errors of the sort we see in Rand's writing"

There is one. And if you fixed it, it would not only be slightly more grammatically correct, it would also improve the lyricism of the passage. Can you spot what I am indicating?

Also, --and believe you me, I am neither fan nor friend of Rand-- I understood the passage you cited perfectly, and I think your criticisms of it reveal a tin ear.

Read more poetry, dude.

Anonymous Jack Amok August 15, 2014 12:17 PM  

"Making heavy weather of it" is how I would describe Rand's prose. You're getting somewhere, but it's slow going with lots of thuds. Her prose doesn't flow smoothly by. She needed an editor, but probably had trouble listening to one (Nate's comment about Ann Morgan fits here). Vox's editorial remarks on the quoted passage probably illustrate a couple of reasons why Rand's prose is sluggish. "She had felt..." implies she feels differently now and the reader's brain is waiting to learn what the change is. When it never comes, it makes the passage feel drawn out, longer that it really is. Simply changing that sentence to "She felt as if..." would make it much better.

Likewise, "...from which no voice or person had yet returned." would work better if "voice" and "person" were swapped, since the exceptional should usually come after the common. "Voice" is still a clunker, but at least get the order right so you convey the important message that not only have none of the men returned, but no one has even heard from or about them since they left.

But maybe she was too proud to listen?

Anonymous Krul August 15, 2014 12:19 PM  

In my estimation, Ayn Rand's chief stylistic problem was her overreliance upon the past perfect simple tense and the passive voice. While her sentences are more or less grammatically correct, and therefore not, strictly speaking, erroneous, the effect is stultifying. Count the astonishing number of "had VERB" instances in the two paragraphs. There are 11 in only seven sentences. Her prose is so passive it is lying supine, flat upon its back, drooling.

When I first read Atlas, I thought this was intentional. I figured she was using an obtuse style to make the reader feel the frustration and "stultifying" passivity of a hopeless existence in a dying society.

However, if that were her intention then the style should have changed when Dagny made it to Galt's Gulch. As I recall, it didn't.

Stephen J - That reminds me of something the writer Kingsley Amis once said of his son Martin Amis's prose style: "I say give the reader something to enjoy in every sentence but he goes further, so that after a while I'm longing to read something simple like: 'They finished their drinks and left.'"

Have you ever read The Black Company? That book has an inspired stylistic economy. The author somehow shows an engaging, exciting, multilayered world with a cast of strange characters using only these short, clipped, straight-to-the-point sentences. It's uncanny; I've never seen anyone else create such a fully immersive experience with such a utilitarian style.

"They finished their drinks and left" would be right at home in The Black Company.

Anonymous AXCrom August 15, 2014 12:22 PM  

VD,

I looked at Castalia House but have yet to see the triumphant announcement that CH will be publishing Andrew Marston's magnum opus... Did he really decline your offer to publish?

Anonymous NorthernHamlet August 15, 2014 12:25 PM  

Vox,

The latter

If I'm not overstepping...

While it's a good trick, if you will, the passage is what may be called "unjustified" or "unearned" within the larger work (something that makes the small space of the short story particularly difficult).

A somewhat similar but less poetic example would be Dante's rope in the Inferno. Right when he needs it, there it suddenly is. Unearned.

Examples that are less contrived might include Pynchon's use of Orwell in Gravity's Rainbow, the opening specifically of interest here. Or for short stories, Hemingways use of the Lord's Prayer in A Clean Well Lit Place. In music, the way Beethoven subverts tradition while creating a progressive unfolding of his themes (maybe Nate or another musichead can confirm if I'm wrong here).

If I have time this week, I'll try to read your short story and offer feedback, if you're interested. In no way am I defending your critics or their opinions here (which are likely BS) merely offering a dialog of mutual interest if you're down.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 12:33 PM  

"It's uncanny; I've never seen anyone else create such a fully immersive experience with such a utilitarian style. "

you can't think of anyone?

no one?

really?

There isn't some famous american author that was well known for his stripped down minimalist prose?

because I would swear there is..

Blogger Cui Pertinebit August 15, 2014 12:36 PM  

No offense, Vox, but all of your criticisms of the passage from Ayn Rand were technically incorrect.

Not every verb with an auxiliary is in the passive voice; the verbs here are simply pluperfect, not passive voice. She only uses two passive verbs ("had been seized" and "scattered").

The grammatical explanation you found of the pluperfect (or "past perfect," as you called it after the modern style) was not very good, and was clearly one of these modern explanations written on the assumption that people have too much difficulty with the actual concepts of grammar. The past perfect doesn't merely indicate something that happened "before something else occurred." The more accurate explanation, is that perfect tenses have a "continuing aspect," meaning that the verb has a continuing status or effect relative to the time of the main verb or idea.

The Future Perfect, for example, indicates that an event will have already been accomplished at a future time, with some relevance to the main verb or idea. For example, "Tom will arrive at 3:00" is pretty straightforward: "expect Tom at 3:00" is the gist. But, "Tom will have arrived at 3:00," means that Tom's arrival will be a fait accompli, with importance for some future event. The gist is, "3:00 is too late, because Tom will have already arrived," or "3:00 is a safe bet, if you're only coming to see Tom, because he'll be here by then."

The present perfect is a past event with continuing effects in the present; the pluperfect ("past perfect") is a past event, usually occurring before a main verb or idea in a past tense, whose lasting effects were already present anterior to the (probably past-tense) main verb or idea (though possibly in the past AND in the present). Ayn Rand is very correctly using the pluperfect here, to indicate that all these accumulating factors had already occurred and been apprehended and considered, prior to the past-tense fact that "she was unable to grasp."

It is entirely grammatically correct to say "some silent unknown." Ayn Rand is using the participle "unknown" as a noun, which is exactly how a participle is used when it is not being employed in a compound tense: it is used as a verbal noun or adjective (something the gerund also does, as a pure verbal noun). In more literary ages, this was extremely common, but it's not uncommon even in the present. And, yes, something unknown can be silent, just as something unidentified can be flying. You may not know what is in the box, but you know something is in it, and it is being quiet.

For all these reasons, I don't think she is being flowery or dramatic; she is setting the scene, building a sense of the character's perplexity after many affairs, by very correctly using the pluperfect tense to show that these elements had been accumulating (there it is again!) for some time.

The style is debatable. I'm not an Ayn Rand fan, for the record. But, that said, since your criticisms were all technically inaccurate, it seemed possible that you may be missing the style on account of your misapprehension of the technique.

Anonymous Jack Amok August 15, 2014 12:37 PM  

While it's a good trick, if you will, the passage is what may be called "unjustified" or "unearned" within the larger work (something that makes the small space of the short story particularly difficult).

Perhaps your problem with the contrast is that it's not reinforced. It's a one-time shot with no return.

There's a section in Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat where the three men are planning a boat camping trip up the Themes and Jerome (as the narrator)) goes on a two or three paragraph purple prose bender describing nature and the joys of outdoor camping. The wind's are an "Aeolian chorus" and the advancing shadows of evening are "night's silent army". It is an over-the-top extravaganza of prose that gathers steam as it goes and leaves you a little exhausted by the end.

The next sentence is "Harris said, 'what about when it rains?'"

After which Jerome goes on another slightly smaller bender about how "there's no poetry about Harris." The effect is great. It illustrates character and provides humor and creates a rhythm. So Vox's problem is rhythm. If his Latin heritage was more Cuban and less Mexican, he'd be a better writer.

Anonymous jay c August 15, 2014 12:39 PM  

So, the superficial reader assumes that the only reason to use such a strange metaphor is if one is thinking in weirdly literal terms.

It seems weird to me to consider that metaphor to be literal, unless the reader has synesthetic tendencies. The whole point of such literary metaphors is to get the reader to feel similarly about the object as he would about some other, normally unrelated arrangement. One of the things I love about Bradbury was his ability to write about a feeling in terms completely unrelated to the actual situation he was attempting to describe and still make sense.

Look up and observe the snow falling straight down at you from the street light above with nothing but unending blackness behind it and know the rush of a locomotive bearing down on you unseen from beneath your feet.

An over-literal reader might think that makes no sense. How can a train bear down on you from below your feet when you're standing on them? What a joyless experience reading must be for someone like that.

Or maybe I'm completely misunderstanding what you mean because I really would say that I have an overly literal mind. Aspies gonna Aspie, you know.

Anonymous Stephen J. August 15, 2014 12:39 PM  

Have you ever read The Black Company? That book has an inspired stylistic economy.

I have, and I agree with the "economical" evaluation, though perhaps not so much with the "inspired". ;)

Don't get me wrong, I can recognize good effective compact writing when I see it, but I have to admit my personal taste is far more towards the lyrical, emotionally atmospheric and poetic than Cook's stuff tends to be -- I much prefer Guy Gavriel Kay, or even Jacqueline Carey, for my fantasy. I may be biased somewhat by having been beaten over the head with Hemingway during high school -- precisely the time of my life when I was least able to appreciate that sort of prose -- but the effect on my tastes has lingered nonetheless.

(Larry Correia is something of an exception, but Correia's sense of humour is much goofier than Cook's -- I've never been one for the bleak or the black.)

Anonymous Beast09 August 15, 2014 12:40 PM  

That's the point the pinkshirts can't understand. Style is only one-fourth of what goes into being a good or bad writer

I don't know if its that they can't understand that. It's a matter of taste.

For me, prose is like the wheels on a car. They're a fraction of the whole, but the car is not moving without them.

Anonymous Krul August 15, 2014 12:46 PM  

Re Nate,

Shoot, I haven't read Faulkner in decades. His stuff didn't make much of an impression on me, so it naturally wouldn't occur in this discussion.

Anonymous Mr. Nightstick August 15, 2014 12:49 PM  

When one reads Vox and John, I see two very different writers, but they both have certain je ne sais quoi that speaks to my inner man in a voice similar to the Bible. I thing the same spirit animates both their works.

Blogger rcocean August 15, 2014 12:52 PM  

Faulkner is amazing and incredibly uneven. He can be poetic, obscure, verbose, concise, and just plain great - all in one novel. His bag of literary tricks certainly wasn't used to cover up a lack of talent, maybe he just got bored.

Anonymous NorthernHamlet August 15, 2014 12:54 PM  

Jack,

Perhaps your problem with the contrast is that it's not reinforced. It's a one-time shot with no return.

Let me say again, I haven't read the work. My comment is merely to offer a possible literary reason, going off the passage and Vox's intent. I take no issues with one-offs or good tricks in literature. Unlike Vox's critics, I respect that he's going after a difficult task.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 12:58 PM  

"His bag of literary tricks certainly wasn't used to cover up a lack of talent, maybe he just got bored."

Faulkner was the literary equivalent of a power lifter. He could do it dammit... and he was going to do it. He could do more than you and he was going to show everyone he could do more than you.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 12:58 PM  

I looked at Castalia House but have yet to see the triumphant announcement that CH will be publishing Andrew Marston's magnum opus... Did he really decline your offer to publish?

He did. We are bereft.

I don't think she is being flowery or dramatic; she is setting the scene, building a sense of the character's perplexity after many affairs, by very correctly using the pluperfect tense to show that these elements had been accumulating (there it is again!) for some time.

You're absolutely wrong. I have no doubt that you are plu-correct, but she is being both flowery and dramatic, and unnecessarily so.

But, that said, since your criticisms were all technically inaccurate, it seemed possible that you may be missing the style on account of your misapprehension of the technique.

All I have to say is to point to the 11 hads in 7 sentences. Grammatically correct or not, it is still bordering on the unreadable. I read two of her books in high school and never had even the slightest temptation to ever pick up another one again. And I read very long history books for entertainment. Her style is absolutely unpleasant.

Also, since we're being pedantic here, I note you missed the non-returning voice. Furthermore, your entire section on "the silent unknown" completely missed the salient point: the men are silent, not the unknown.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 1:01 PM  

"For me, prose is like the wheels on a car. They're a fraction of the whole, but the car is not moving without them."

hrm. For me its more like an automatic transmission. its nice to have sometimes but sometimes even the smoothest one can get in the way.

Blogger Jon Bromfield August 15, 2014 1:03 PM  

"Jon Bromfield? Where is Jon Bromfield?"

Reading and pondering Vox's post and all the comments here and on the earlier Retro Hugo thread.

The comments so far display more insight, intelligence and thoughtfulness than I've seen previously on this subject, in almost 40 years of discussing Rand and give me much to think about. Thanks, all.

I will post when I think I have something useful to say, but for now consider these quotes from AS. Remember, Rand wrote these more than 50 years prior to the election of Barack Obama:

"He didn't invent iron ore and blast furnaces, did he? He didn't invent smelting and chemistry and air compression. He couldn't have invented his Metal but for thousands and thousands of other people. His Metal! Why does he think it's his? Why does he think it's his invention? Everybody uses the work of everybody else. Nobody ever invents anything."

and

"He didn't dig that ore single-handed, did he? He had to employ hundreds of workers. They did it. Why does he think he's so good?"

Put up against such clairvoyance and profound psychological insight into the minds of collectivist egalitarians, the carping about Rand's wordiness and active/passive voicing seem about as vital as John Scalzi farting in an Ohio thunderstorm.

Blogger Giraffe August 15, 2014 1:05 PM  

So what if she had written "some silent void"?

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 1:06 PM  

While it's a good trick, if you will, the passage is what may be called "unjustified" or "unearned" within the larger work (something that makes the small space of the short story particularly difficult).

I have no doubt you are right. But, as perhaps I did not make clear, it's just an upraised middle finger, nothing more. Some of my other books contain nonsensical metaphors: "then it hit me, like a cheetah" or praises to a certain individual's buttocks (see: The Return of the Great Depression) because that sort of thing amuses me.

I don't mean to pretend that it was any sort of literary experiment. The thought amused me. I wrote it. And it still amused me later, so I left it in. I put no more thought into it than when I commented that Kim Stanley Robinson was one ugly woman. That's just how my sense of humor works.

That's probably the one thing my critics most often miss: I have a sense of humor and I don't expect others to share it.

Anonymous Krul August 15, 2014 1:07 PM  

Jon Bromfield - Put up against such clairvoyance and profound psychological insight into the minds of collectivist egalitarians, the carping about Rand's wordiness and active/passive voicing seem about as vital as John Scalzi farting in an Ohio thunderstorm.

Remember we're talking literary merit here, Jon. I don't think anyone's going to dispute the value and influence of her ideas. It's her skill as a novelist, and particularly as a prose stylist, that's in question.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 1:08 PM  

Put up against such clairvoyance and profound psychological insight into the minds of collectivist egalitarians, the carping about Rand's wordiness and active/passive voicing seem about as vital as John Scalzi farting in an Ohio thunderstorm.

That's beside the point, John. We're discussing style. I have stated that Rand is a great writer and a flawed prose stylist. Her ideas are interesting and compelling; that's why she is still read when 10,000 better stylists are forgotten. At the end of the day, what's in the box matters more than the wrapping. But, right now, we're discussing the technicalities of wrapping paper.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 1:13 PM  

The train is fine.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 1:19 PM  

No offense, Vox, but all of your criticisms of the passage from Ayn Rand were technically incorrect.

I thought I had mentioned this, but since I didn't, none taken. It is always a pleasure seeing someone who knows what he's talking about weighing in. I don't pretend to be a grammar expert; Lord knows I butcher it beyond recognition in both French and Italian.

Anonymous NorthernHamlet August 15, 2014 1:20 PM  

Vox,

I mistakenly thought there was some confusion on your part. Your use of the term "ideal reader" should have tipped me of that you aren't naive about literary theory.

Anonymous The other skeptic August 15, 2014 1:25 PM  

Hachette sent me this form email response because I sent their CEO an email saying that I will never buy a book by one of their authors (which is easy for me to say and follow through with, since I pretty much only buy stuff by Kratman and Castalia these days):


Thank you for writing to me in response to Amazon’s email. I appreciate that you care enough about books to take the time to write. We usually don’t comment publicly while negotiating, but I’ve received a lot of requests for Hachette’s response to the issues raised by Amazon, and want to reply with a few facts.
· Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone.
· We set our ebook prices far below corresponding print book prices, reflecting savings in manufacturing and shipping.
· More than 80% of the ebooks we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower.
· Those few priced higher—most at $11.99 and $12.99—are less than half the price of their print versions.
· Those higher priced ebooks will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published.
· The invention of mass-market paperbacks was great for all because it was not intended to replace hardbacks but to create a new format available later, at a lower price.
As a publisher, we work to bring a variety of great books to readers, in a variety of formats and prices. We know by experience that there is not one appropriate price for all ebooks, and that all ebooks do not belong in the same $9.99 box. Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish—hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and ebook. While ebooks do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.

This dispute started because Amazon is seeking a lot more profit and even more market share, at the expense of authors, bricks and mortar bookstores, and ourselves. Both Hachette and Amazon are big businesses and neither should claim a monopoly on enlightenment, but we do believe in a book industry where talent is respected and choice continues to be offered to the reading public.

Once again, we call on Amazon to withdraw the sanctions against Hachette’s authors that they have unilaterally imposed, and restore their books to normal levels of availability. We are negotiating in good faith. These punitive actions are not necessary, nor what we would expect from a trusted business partner.

Thank you again and best wishes,
Michael Pietsch

Anonymous Daniel August 15, 2014 1:33 PM  

The thing with Williams is notable, too, and related. While Terry Pratchett is lionized and respected for calling on others to kill him painlessly to avoid his own suffering, in the apparent face of Parkinson's disease, Williams is being mourned as a tragic end.

So, he was not brave and noble for ending his own pain under his own power, but Pratchett is for guilting others into doing it for him? I wonder if certain critics are merely an expression of "do what you will, especially if I like it."

Anonymous The other skeptic August 15, 2014 1:35 PM  

OK, I'm not getting this:

The train is fine.

Is it just some weird tic that Nate has, or does it have meaning?

Blogger Giraffe August 15, 2014 1:36 PM  

Is it just some weird tic that Nate has, or does it have meaning?

Yes.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 1:38 PM  

Your use of the term "ideal reader" should have tipped me of that you aren't naive about literary theory.

I'm not naive about many things. Most days, I work to stay on the "skeptic" side of the skeptic/cynic divide.

Anonymous Don August 15, 2014 1:44 PM  

Sorry Nate but I think that if she were alive today she'd be too busy on Craigslist on the swinging scene to write anything or troll effectively. She strikes me as the kind of woman who just gets hornier as she ages.

Blogger Under Par August 15, 2014 1:44 PM  

Wow. In a post where he explains as aspect of writing the pinkshirts are too stupid to understand he uses that very aspect with Down With The Sickness. Not only does the title aptly reference the pinkshirts, the subject itself is child abuse, the very thing that makes a certain pinkshirt infested group truly sick. Is there such a thing as a triple entendre?

I'm an undeducated ignoramus but there has to be some literary aspect to describe employing genius such as this. Maybe an AWCA Insight Technique or something. Daniel - any ideas?

Nice touch VD.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 1:46 PM  

http://www.theonion.com/video/autistic-reporter-train-thankfully-unharmed-in-cra,20098/


The train is fine.

Anonymous Susan August 15, 2014 1:47 PM  

Everything with Nate has meaning TOS. Sometimes obvious, sometimes very subtle.

Anonymous Don August 15, 2014 1:48 PM  

When I wrote about Ayn I just realized that it would solve everyone's problem with 'Ann'. Craigslist and hooking up. Give her a hobby she needs one badly, is contemptuous of men already anyway, too old to have kids, and there's plenty of guys there just looking for a hook up with zero standards. If she lives in a metro area she could be busy with her social life 24/7 and never bother VP again! Win-win.

Plus she hates Christianity and the Bible so what kind of standards does she have anyway. It's all anything goes once you start making up your own.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 1:50 PM  

"Everything with Nate has meaning TOS. Sometimes obvious, sometimes very subtle."

unfortunately sometimes the meaning is "nate didn't read X very carefully and now is saying something stupid about it. let's watch!"

Blogger CarpeOro August 15, 2014 1:53 PM  

"(Larry Correia is something of an exception, but Correia's sense of humour is much goofier than Cook's -- I've never been one for the bleak or the black.)"

You should read the Garret PI books. They go to the slapstick side at times.

Regarding Ayn Rand, I listened to a radio talk show host years ago that was generally pretty well informed and definitely not pc (this was in Detroit around the time Rush started out. He proceeded him). Had great guests and commentary far above the caliber you find on radio talk shows in general. He was also a huge Ayn Rand fan. I tried reading Atlas Shrugged and just couldn't finish it. After hearing about the mess her own life was and determining that her brand Objectivism had a few too many holes as she practiced it, I basically filed it away with other perfectionist visions. Oh, and I was reading my father's college course history books for enjoyment from a young age also. My father was concerned that I become overly focused on history and got me to reading Alfred Hitchcock's juvenile books (Three Detectives). Went over to Andre Norton from there and found my way to Jerry Pournelle. Ayn Rand was easily one of the more laborious authors to read for entertainment.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 1:58 PM  

Ayn is profoundly valuable for what she was against. Unfortunately what she was for.. was much less valuable.

Anonymous jay c August 15, 2014 2:10 PM  

The train is fine.

Well, I appreciated it.

Anonymous adamalan August 15, 2014 2:24 PM  

I never understood what the big deal was with this passage. To me it was just beautiful.

But maybe that is because I'm someone who worked the cold north lands and so it resonates with me in a way city liberals who know not beauty could never comprehend.

Blogger Nate August 15, 2014 2:26 PM  

"I never understood what the big deal was with this passage."

There isn't anything wrong with it. The fact is someone decided to lampoon it... and now its been repeated over and over and over again. It gets repeated because rather than actually read the story... they would prefer to repeat what others have said so it looks like they've read the story.

Anonymous automatthew August 15, 2014 2:42 PM  

Not entirely OT: I recently began reading Out of the Silent Planet aloud to my wife and eldest son. When Devine enters the narrative, I found myself speaking his lines in the the same voice I use for Bertie Wooster. Devine has the same style and even some of the verbal tics (use of acronyms, e.g.).

Makes me wonder if Lewis was intentionally imitating Wodehouse.

Anonymous automatthew August 15, 2014 2:45 PM  

Found the section I was looking for:


"Touching, isn't it?" said Devine. "The far-flung line even in the wilds of Sterk and Nadderby. This is where we get a lump in our throats and remember Sunday evening Chapel in the D.O.P. You don't know Weston, perhaps?" Devine indicated his massive and loud-voiced companion. "The Weston," he added. "You know. The great physicist. Has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger's blood for breakfast. Weston, allow me to introduce my old schoolfellow, Ransom. Dr Elwin Ransom. The Ransom, you know. The great philologist. Has Jespersen on toast and drinks a pint -"

Anonymous ENthePeasant August 15, 2014 2:53 PM  

Hasn't been a "Sickness" reference here in a long time. Got a bit Melancholy, brought back memories of Bane, God bless him.

Blogger rcocean August 15, 2014 2:57 PM  

Ayn Rand - is it ever possible to criticize her on the internet without some Randian showing up to tell you that "you just don't get it" or that your criticism is wrong? It appears not. Its amazing that Randians are rare in real life, but seem to infest the internet like atheists.

Blogger rcocean August 15, 2014 3:00 PM  

And I wouldn't say "style" is just the "wrapping paper". There's the story and the how you tell it. Its like saying which actor gets cast in a film is irrelevant, since they all speak the same words.

Anonymous ENthePeasant August 15, 2014 3:03 PM  

Never forget that Rand was Russian. If you read Pasternak, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and a bunch of others, they all suffer from the same style deficiencies which are Russian in nature.

Anonymous A Plate of Shrimp August 15, 2014 3:13 PM  

"Never forget that Rand was Russian."

Erm, not quite. (Nor was Pasternak.) She spoke Russian, to be sure, and she was from Russia... but she wasn't Russian.

Blogger Cui Pertinebit August 15, 2014 3:44 PM  

Vox,

I'm glad no offense was taken; I've grown accustomed to people always taking offense, even when I tell them none is meant (or when there is no reason to take it). It's heartwarming to see someone well-adjusted enough not to jump to the default position of indignation.

Of course, the corollary is probably that most people, when they say "no offense," mean precisely to give offense. But, as I'm glad you could see, I truly didn't mean any. Grammatical niceties are easy to lose track of. It is only through the study of other languages that my English grammar came to be perfected. Learning the main Romance languages made all the English grammar that I had been taught, clear; learning Latin grammar taught me more about grammar than I had ever known; learning (Attic) Greek taught me more about grammar than I thought there was to know! I'm not by nature inclined to be a "grammar nazi" (i.e., someone who insists on rules of grammar from an authoritarian spirit), but once one starts to grasp these higher order subtleties of grammar, imprecisions stick out more sharply, and one regrets the loss of clarity and subtlety that comes from even a slightly impoverished sense of grammar. I hope the explanation wasn't too tedious; it came from a love of clear expression, rather than a zeal for playing the scold. But, it seems that you picked up on that.

Anonymous ENthePeasant August 15, 2014 3:50 PM  

Shrimp, Explain please? She was born and educated in Russia, I believe in what became Leningrad. If you're speaking to her Jewish roots, she was never a practicing Jew, nor were her parents.

OpenID cailcorishev August 15, 2014 4:21 PM  

Ayn is profoundly valuable for what she was against. Unfortunately what she was for.. was much less valuable.

Well put. I've always thought it a shame that she didn't reject Soviet atheism and the worship of Man along with the rest of the evils of the regime she fled.

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 4:22 PM  

> unfortunately sometimes the meaning is "nate didn't read X very carefully and now is saying something stupid about it. let's watch!"

We've all been there and done that, Nate. It comes with the territory.

Blogger Jon Bromfield August 15, 2014 4:36 PM  

Looking back on my posts I realize I didn't always correctly follow the points critics of Rand's prose were making. I can only plead that years of trying to solicit reasoned responses to my challenges to actually cite examples has left me raw and prickly and too quick to defend Miss Rand.

For example, John Scalzi often writes in his blog WHATEVER that Ayn Rand is a "shitty" writer. When I asked him to explain his critique and provide an example of her fecal prose, I got the usual "If I have to explain it to you, you're too stupid to understand" crapola. I know, I know, this is standard operating leftie bullshit: don't argue logic and facts, call names and slur your opponent. But it still grates. What a joy then to get responses that actually present reasoned and sincere opinion.

If Scalzi ever wants to know why this blog kicks the intellectual and popular crap out of WHATEVER, all he has to do is check out this thread and the Retro Hugos one. Presented with sound counter argument, people here will change their minds, admit their errors, and thank those who have corrected him. Even the host himself does that.

Somebody once asked me how one should respond to someone who has eviscerated your argument in fair debate, leaving you broken and humiliated but now wiser. There is only one way proper response:

"Thank you."

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 4:46 PM  

Looking back on my posts I realize I didn't always correctly follow the points critics of Rand's prose were making. I can only plead that years of trying to solicit reasoned responses to my challenges to actually cite examples has left me raw and prickly and too quick to defend Miss Rand.

Not that you need it, but you may consider yourself formally absolved.

Somebody once asked me how one should respond to someone who has eviscerated your argument in fair debate, leaving you broken and humiliated but now wiser. There is only one way proper response:

"Thank you."


An excellent point. Everyone is wrong, sooner or later, about something. Everyone. Even if you are absolutely brilliant and possess impeccable logic, eventually you'll be fed an incorrect piece of information and reach a false conclusion. And then you need someone to set you straight.

No one likes being wrong, but it doesn't have to be a big deal or a blow to your ego.

Blogger Russell August 15, 2014 4:58 PM  

"And he would certainly know that the author's observable familiarity with medieval philosophy would tend to indicate an awareness of the naturalistic literalism of that era."

You sneaky bastard! I missed that completely.

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 5:01 PM  

> For example, John Scalzi often writes in his blog WHATEVER that Ayn Rand is a "shitty" writer.

Heh. The same Scalzi who in a recent interview was claiming that there was no objective criteria for evaluating art. See http://voxday.blogspot.com/2014/08/he-doth-protest-too-much.html for more details.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 5:23 PM  

The same Scalzi who in a recent interview was claiming that there was no objective criteria for evaluating art.

But you're missing the point. You see, HE was being attacked, so therefore he needed a way to disqualify it. When he is attacking Ayn Rand, he doesn't. The existence or nonexistence of objective criteria totally depends upon his needs at the moment.

Anonymous VD August 15, 2014 5:25 PM  

You sneaky bastard! I missed that completely.

As I said, anytime you are thinking, "now that's odd", that should be your cue to start thinking "then it hit me, like a cheetah!"

Hey, I write long books. I have to amuse myself along the way.

Blogger James Dixon August 15, 2014 5:37 PM  

> The existence or nonexistence of objective criteria totally depends upon his needs at the moment.

Oh, I understand that, Vox. But it's possible Jon doesn't.

Blogger Jon Bromfield August 15, 2014 6:03 PM  

"But it's possible Jon doesn't."

Oh, I do understand, James. But even though I'm old enough and smart enough to know better, I sometimes am deluded in thinking liberals with a measure of demonstrated intelligence (Scalzi, Jim C Hines, for example) would welcome, if not be persuaded by, a reasoned discussion of an opposing view. After all, we're all interested in finding truth, aren't we?

I know, silly me.

Blogger rcocean August 15, 2014 6:23 PM  

"If you're speaking to her Jewish roots, she was never a practicing Jew, nor were her parents.

According to the laws of Israel, she would've been classified as a Jew. She also considered herself Jewish. The fact that she didn't "observe" Jewish laws just meant she was a "non-observant" Jew. Which you no doubt already knew.

Blogger rcocean August 15, 2014 6:24 PM  

And who is a Jew? Who isn't? Its all complex. Some say this, some say that. Its just all a mystery.

Blogger rcocean August 15, 2014 6:25 PM  

"The existence or nonexistence of objective criteria totally depends upon his needs at the moment."

IOW, he's a liberal.

Blogger Tommy Hass August 15, 2014 11:55 PM  

So I finally cracked open Atlas Shrugged that my GF gave me.

I'm actually impressed and interested for what follows after reading the first chapter, but the prose really IS robotic. It's also hard to focus when the chapters are so long and I like reading just before I go to bed. Oh well.

btw, why am I not suprised that the atheist, slutty Jewess writes a female character that emasculates her older brother with shameless abandon. lol

Anonymous kfg August 16, 2014 12:37 AM  

To me, trying to read Rand has always been entirely unlike being hit by a cheetah.

@Jon: Einstein and Bohr had an infamously rancorous public feud, a decade or so in duration, over the "New Physics" of quantum theory. It culminated with Einstein sending Bohr a letter which read simply, "Thank you for proving me wrong."

@A Plate of Shrimp: I understand what you are saying about Pasternak and Rand, but there is one question that still rather puzzles me:

Who is a Russian?

Anonymous Giuseppe August 16, 2014 6:47 AM  

"The metaphor depends upon the idea that the sun's "descent" is a literal physical descent, and that the rays are literally too weak to physically hold it up. So, the superficial reader assumes that the only reason to use such a strange metaphor is if one is thinking in weirdly literal terms."

This warrants an OMFG. Though not in an offensive way to various Deists (of which I am one). The description above has finally explained to me who buys the pieces of crap written by James Patterson and David Baldacci. Why and how such people/readers exist remains, at least for now, a mystery.

Anonymous VanDerMerwe August 16, 2014 11:41 AM  

"The cold autumn day was slowly drawing to a close. The pallid sun was descending, its ineffective rays no longer sufficient to hold it up in the sky or to penetrate the northern winds that gathered strength with the whispering promise of the incipient dark. The first of the two moons was already visible high above the mountains. Soon Arbhadis, Night’s Mistress, would unveil herself as well."

This is actually incredibly good. I'd buy these books, but I just don't have the time to read at the moment.

Anonymous Jack Amok August 16, 2014 12:57 PM  

According to the laws of Israel, she would've been classified as a Jew. She also considered herself Jewish. The fact that she didn't "observe" Jewish laws just meant she was a "non-observant" Jew.

But in context with the claim that Rand has "style deficiencies which are Russian in nature the relevant meaning of "Rand was Russian" is her education and cultural upbringing, not her tribal or religious background.

Blogger rcocean August 16, 2014 3:23 PM  

Her fathers name was Rosenbaum & her mother's Kaplan. This seems indicate both were either German Jews or Polish Jews. I have no idea how "Russian" either of them were. Rand was born in 1905 and left Russia at 20. Who knows what her "cultural" background was, or how "Russian" it was. Certainly, she never identified with Russia during her long life.

Anonymous kfg August 16, 2014 4:16 PM  

Her middle name is Russian. Her upbringing was upper class in a major city, St. Petersburg/Petrograd, and attended Petrograd University.

She might have known a few words of Yiddish, but might not have. Even in the former Polish provinces where Yiddish had formerly been the language of the street, government Russianization programs were extensive and effective. She claimed to only be able to read German which suggests a lack of familiarity with spoken Germanic dialects. She would not have had religious instruction in Biblical Hebrew, which in any case would have been a limited, ceremonial third language. Russian would certainly have been her first language and the language of her college education.

She claimed Russian, English and French as spoken languages.

In linguistic terms she was as Russian as anyone, whether she liked the place or not.

Anonymous Giuseppe August 17, 2014 6:45 AM  

@cui pertinebit

Do you do any freelance work as an editor? Or possibly a teacher of grammar to those terminally incapable of grasping it from books? Your explanation here is probably the first time that my sense of a passage has been explained in a way I understand and also matches my feeling of it. Something I would never have been able to articulate, only sense. I would very much like to get in touch and possibly offer some paid work and if that's of no interest I would still very much like to pick your brain a little. The link on my name takes you to my almost defunct blog (years out of date) but the contact info on there is current. I hope you'll get in touch.

Blogger Markku August 17, 2014 2:26 PM  

Ok, now I have to wonder what they are teaching over there, because we are taught all the things cui pertinebit mentioned at grade school in Finnish class, before we start learning foreign languages, so that we can learn them analytically. Every kid should be able to articulate the difference between "had done", "has done" and "did" when they encounter them in English class.

Blogger Markku August 17, 2014 2:37 PM  

Now that I think about it, this might actually explain a lot. First of all, we share a very analytical approach to education with the Russians, except that they go even further with it. I could totally see Ayn just going "ok, pluperfect goes here, here and here" without it even occurring to her that it might have stylistic effects, being one of the most cumbersome options.

Anonymous hungrytales August 17, 2014 4:34 PM  

@VD: speaking of Stanisław Lem. He happened to be also exceptionally intelligent. I wrote about it in the recent IQ thread but my comment got lost somewhere in the oblivious Blogspot's bowels. Something in the ridiculous 185 or something regions. As a matter of fact there is this hilarious letter Phillip K. Dick wrote to FBI where he denounces Lem as a writing "committee". Seeing through the genius of his work he just couldn't believe it all to be conceived by a single man.

Anonymous Pellegri August 17, 2014 5:52 PM  

Ok, now I have to wonder what they are teaching over there, because we are taught all the things cui pertinebit mentioned at grade school in Finnish class, before we start learning foreign languages, so that we can learn them analytically. Every kid should be able to articulate the difference between "had done", "has done" and "did" when they encounter them in English class.

I did not learn these things until taking a foreign language myself. The most they'll ever ask you to do in the American education system--at least, back when I was in it--is diagram a sentence for the most basic parts of speech. Even then I somehow escaped doing sentence diagrams personally. Everything substantive I know about grammar came from learning German and then Russian.

Blogger Cui Pertinebit August 18, 2014 1:22 PM  

@Markku The American education system is fatally, terminally, catastrophically flawed. Just to give you a sample of the idiocy now reigning supreme:

All my "junior high" teachers told me that I would like high school, because that's where the classes would get serious and I'd really be able to fly, rather than being bored and refusing to do the assigned work, as I did in jr. high. So, I enrolled in Honors English my freshman year of High School. The first semester was spent reviewing parts of speech (many students still did not know what a preposition, conjunction or gerund might have been) and the rules for the capitalization of proper nouns. The second semester was spent reading Shakespeare.

What kind of insane system manages to keep 9th graders ignorant of basic grammar, yet still bothers giving them Shakespeare to read? The Mathematical equivalent would be reviewing your times tables in one semester, and studying Sir Isaac Newton's "Principia" in the second semester.

I once read a book that was not very well written, but was very well documented, called "The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America," which demonstrated that there has been a deliberate left-wing movement since the days of Rockefeller, etc., to create a populace that was "trained," rather than educated. The emphasis was on producing workers, rather than independent citizens who may impede the growth of industry and social cohesion with their own, petty hopes and dreams. The goal would be to socialize students to adopt an unthinking allegiance to processes, authority and group-think, training them on *how* to do certain things (basic Math, reading, etc.) without ever encouraging students to understand the inner principles of anything. If students actually come to understand principles, they may become autonomous, thinking, rational individuals that operate from principle rather than from learned, reflexive processes. And then trying to march them all into cubicles, factories and new social structures is like trying to herd cats.

If you go to a 10th grade classroom in an American public school, you will not find any students doing Geometric proofs by hand, demonstrating an understanding of how geometry works. You will not find students reading good literature or being asked to write solid critical essays with impeccable grammar. You will find students being taught how to operate their graphing calculators, reading government documents (per the recommendations of "Common Core") and writing three-paragraph essays about their most embarrassing moment ever. If you meet an educated American, you can be certain that he was not educated in public schools or, if he was (like myself), almost everything he knows is self-taught, and probably came at the expense of performance in the school system. Some of my lady teachers would ask why I "wasted my potential" by not doing the assigned work; on three of these occasions they had tears in their eyes. I pity some of these modern women in education, because you can tell that they care, in a way, but are simply so wrong-headed and misguided about the whole affair. When I explained to them that I was as knowledgeable as I was, and was as interested in learning as I was, precisely because I didn't anesthetize myself with their endless worksheets, they looked at me like I had just wrung their puppy's neck. The American school system is DOA. A new one will have to be conceived and reared up with skill (by private persons), almost certainly following the coming collapse.

Blogger James Dixon August 18, 2014 10:46 PM  

> The most they'll ever ask you to do in the American education system--at least, back when I was in it--is diagram a sentence for the most basic parts of speech.

Yep. Subject, verb, adjective, and adverb is about it. At most they might make you recognize that a clause is acting as the modifier rather than a single word. And that was 30 years ago. I expect it's far worse now.

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