Talks: “And so…”

Below, more or less as delivered, is the text of a talk I gave on July 9th 2010 at Readercon in Boston. I haven’t attempted to tidy up the text at all; nor have I done anything to reflect the (excellent) discussion session that followed with Ellen Asher, John Clute, Eric Van, and members of the audience. I’ve added a few links to relevant online resources. There were two sections that I had to cut for reasons of space: a discussion of Hope Mirrlees’s poem Paris, and an extract from M John Harrison’s novel Light. If I have time later on, I’ll restore them. If you don’t like reading this much text onscreen, you can download a PDF of the whole thing here: And so…

Thanks for coming. I guess there are two ways into what I want to talk about. The first is a comment from an editor I work with, who said he always found it especially difficult to extract 2 or 3-sentence pullquotes from my reviews because each sentence was quite tightly hooked to the ones on either side so that they didn’t make sense out of context. The second is that I spend far too much time listening to director commentaries on DVDs. You’ll often find directors saying something of this form: Well, we shot the last scene in London and this one in Los Angeles six months later, but looking at Brad and Angelina run from one to another, you wouldn’t know it. For us as viewers, not knowing what was shot where, we naturally put the two shots into one narrative. The question that’s begged is how and why that happens. On the face of it, it’s remarkable that, in certain contexts, we put discrete entities like shots in a movie together into narrative. I think it’s even more interesting when you consider sentences in a prose narrative.

One can approach this from the neurological perspective, of what the brain does in putting narratives together – and Googling around will reveal that plenty of people have, including denoting symptoms of something called dysnarrativia, where certain kinds of brain injuries impede narratives from being formed. But, especially with someone like Eric Van here who knows far more about that than me, I’m a bit wary of doing so. I want instead to approach the question from the other side, and ask what it is writers do (consciously or unconsciously) to create narrative from sentence to sentence.

Last year, I gave a talk here called “Excellent Foppery” in which I put forward a model of how we create story at the top-level. There is (I said) a world out there of undifferentiated “facts”, and we make sense of them by imposing certain things on them – narratives called things like “story” or “causality”. But I was conscious then, and am more conscious now, of an unexamined term in my argument that was doing a lot of the conceptual heavy-lifting: the term is “story”. What do we mean when we say that sentences (or scenes in a movie, or whatever) form a story? I have a provisional answer, which I’d like to try out by talking about some extracts from writers of the fantastic. The provisional answer is that story is entailment: not one damn thing after another, but one damn thing therefore another. As an example, take this paragraph from the first chapter of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, describing the protagonist Meyer Landsman:

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead. Meyer Landsman is the most decorated shammes in the District of Sitka, the man who solved the murder of the beautiful Froma Lefkowitz by her furrier husband, and caught Podolsky the Hospital Killer. His testimony sent Hyman Tsharny to federal prison for life, the first and last time that criminal charges against a Verbover wiseguy have ever been made to stick. He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It’s like there’s a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.

I’ve picked Chabon to start with for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this extract at least is just a character sketch, with none of the complications I’ll get to later in discussing fantastic material. Secondly, Chabon is so good at what I want to talk about: having each sentence follow from the last. So the first sentence, about Landsman’s fondness for plum brandy leads to the next about him only having two moods, working and dead, which leads to the next, about how good he is at his work, and so on. By the time you get to the end of the paragraph, the argument about what kind of man he is has built up a kind of cumulative force so that the last two sentences (about his thoughts blowing in the wind) not only link back to the ones preceding them but to the ones at the start.

By itself, this is hardly a revolutionary hypothesis: that sentences ought to lead you by the hand, as it were, through the story: hence, for instance, E M Forster’s injunction to “only connect”. But there’s a particular kind of game one can play, I’d suggest, with passages like this. If you can insert at the start of each sentence the words “And so…” and still retain their sense – as you can with many sentences in the Chabon extract – then it’s especially densely-woven; for want of a better word, especially story-like.
Now on to a more overtly fantastic extract, from Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness – from one of the embedded stories within the novel that demonstrate the nature of the world Winter:

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again. On hearing this command one of the two, the one who bore the child, despaired and would hear no comfort or counsel, and procuring poison, committed suicide.

Here, I would suggest, many of the same comments apply as with Chabon, with one proviso. Le Guin is similarly committed to story as the drawing of a continuous narrative thread; and this passage fulfils the “And so…” test I described earlier so long as you make one assumption: that you know what “kemmer” is, what place it fulfils in this society, and why it drives the motivations of these characters. The line of narrative – the ban on these two brothers kemmering, the suicide – follows logically even more smoothly than with the Chabon. But this kind of logic, I’m saying is contextual; and in the fantastic, you need tools to understand the context.

One final straightforward example. It can be argued that the claims I’m making are that story is essentially positivist, that it needs to make sense in a certain fairly trivial way. I think things are a bit more complicated than that, as I’ll explain later. But it’s certainly true that my model works very well on that most positivist of forms, hard science fiction. Here’s a chunk from Tom Godwin’s famous story “The Cold Equations”,

There could be no alternative. Additional fuel would be used during the hours of deceleration to compensate for the added mass of the stowaway, infinitesimal increments of fuel that would not be missed until the ship had almost reached its destination. Then, at some distance above the ground that might be as near as a thousand feet or as far as tens of thousands of feet, depending upon the mass of ship and cargo and the preceding period of deceleration, the unmissed increments of fuel would make their absence known; the EDS would expend its last drops of fuel with a sputter and go into whistling free fall. Ship and pilot and stowaway would merge together upon impact as a wreckage of metal and plastic, flesh and blood, driven deep into the soil. The stowaway had signed his own death warrant when he concealed himself on the ship; he could not be permitted to take seven others with him.

I scarcely need to underline the point there. “The Cold Equations” is a story of consequences playing out; this happens to be a point where they’re stated explicitly. One might almost see this passage as a kind of scientific working-out, an argument that might literally be stated in another context as a set of equations.

Now is where things get a little more complex. Here is Kelly Link, from her story “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”.

One of the things I seem to have misplaced is how, or maybe I mean why. It’s like the names. I know that we lived together in a house on a hill in a small comfortable city for nine years, that we didn’t have kids-except once, almost-and that you’re a terrible cook, oh my darling, Coraline? Coralee? and so was I, and we ate out whenever we could afford to. I taught at a good university, Princeton? Berkeley? Notre Dame? I was a good teacher, and my students liked me. But I can’t remember the name of the street we lived on, or the author of the last book I read, or your last name which was also my name, or how I died. It’s funny, Sarah? but the only two names I know for sure are real are Looly Bellows, the girl who beat me up in fourth grade, and your cat’s name. I’m not going to put your cat’s name down on paper just yet.

In the terms I’ve been using up to now, this is an extract that mostly fails the “And so…” test. And, I’d argue, that’s the right thing for it to do. This is a story about profound disconnection, about failing to make sense. The narrator believes that he is dead, and tells the story in order to try and reconstruct the life that he can no longer properly remember. But his attempts are fragmentary and difficult. (Indeed, one of the most striking things about Kelly Link stories when you look at them on the pages is the gaps: the frequency with which her paragraphs don’t lead on to one another but are followed by a physical gap on the page: disconnection made physical.)

To indulge in a bit of theorising for a second, the last hundred years have been a time when old assumptions about “making sense” in the humanities have by and large fallen apart. After Schoenberg, there’s a sense that it’s no longer the job of classical music to return the listener to some stable tonal home; after Picasso, there’s no longer the sense that the job of art to depict some kind of world that’s objectively “out there”; after Eliot’s The Waste Land (or, since I’m at Readercon, after Hope Mirrlees’s superb poem Paris), there’s no longer the sense that poetry has to follow the tracks of metre, rhyme, or certain kinds of cumulative rhetorical argument. This cluster of early 20th-century devlopments, collectively of course called modernism, by and large didn’t influence science fiction and its sibling genres; indeed, I’m increasingly seeing the force of David Hartwell’s argument that sf and fantasy have been the great anti-modernist literatures of the last century. In this sense, a mode like slipstream – defined, as Bruce Sterling did, as stories that leave you “feeling very strange” as living now does – is almost at the opposite pole from sf, and certainly from hard sf. Hard sf asserts that the world can be made sense of and so used; slipstream asserts that the world – or even the individual consciousness – are not remotely accessible to being “made sense of”.

The techniques of modernism and its successors have only gradually come into the field of the fantastic. But one writer whom it’s impossible not to mention when having this discussion is Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is an extremely interesting case, because in many cases the stories he sets down look straightforward: a narrator with a story to tell us sits down to do so. But Wolfe, even more subtly than Link I think, builds in discontinuities to his stories – what John Clute has called his ability to turn on a dime. As a result, firstly, he demands that you read every sentence; secondly, very often, it’s not clear why one sentence follows another. Indeed, I’d suggest, one definition of a complete reading of a Wolfe story is one in which you do understand why each sentence follows the last. Here’s a relatively straightforward example, from The Shadow of the Torturer, in which Severian has encountered a picture-cleaner in the seemingly infinite passages of the Citadel:

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more. This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it-not into our necropolis but into one of those mountain forests of which our necropolis was (as I understood even then) an idealized but vitiated image. It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.

On initial reading, this passage fails the “And so…” test far more than it passes it. The first sentence describes the armored figure in the desolate landscape; the second says that it holds a banner but no weapon; the third that its visor is gold and reflective. Almost every sentence defeats the expectations raised by the previous one; and, if I can put it like this, defeats the expectations in a way you didn’t expect. A lot of this is because of what happens at the level of language: in particular, Severian’s use of the word “warrior”: one’s mental image is of a knight in plate armor. Only much later, when one figures out the passage could describe a picture of an astronaut on the moon, do things begin to make sense. Severian uses the word “warrior” (and, later, “knight”) because of the martial culture he comes from. Similarly, the words “armor” and “visor” carry different weights for him than for us because he may well have been brought up to think of a space-suit as armor.

So understanding Gene Wolfe is almost a process of translation: indeed, if you’re fond of George Steiner’s model of reading-as-translation as put forward in After Babel, I suspect you could get it to map quite closely onto the steps you have to go through to read Wolfe successfully.

Here’s another example, one that looks straightforward but actually isn’t, from early on in Hope Mirrlees’s great fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist, describing the eponymous town:

Lud-in-the-Mist had all the things that make an old town pleasant. It had an ancient Guild Hall, built of mellow golden bricks and covered with ivy and, when the sun shone on it, it looked like a rotten apricot; it had a harbour in which rode vessels with white and red and tawny sails; it had flat brick houses—not the mere carapace of human beings, but ancient living creatures, renewing and modifying themselves with each generation under their changeless antique roofs. It had old arches, framing delicate landscapes that one could walk into, and a picturesque old graveyard on the top of a hill, and little open squares where comic baroque statues of dead citizens held levees attended by birds and lovers and insects and children.

This has always been a paragraph that bothered and haunted me, and I think I can now suggest why. It looks like it’s a straightforward piece of description, one thing following from the next as a camera might pan over the vista. But the language is working in two different directions. We’re told that the Guild Hall looks “pleasant”, but also like a “rotten apricot”, and however pleasant the colour, “rotten” has obvious connotations. The description of the houses “renewing and modifying themselves” evokes, at least now (after, say, Geoff Ryman’s The Unconquered Country) the idea that that might be a literal truth. And the beautifully understated point that the arches frame delicate landscapes, as a picture might be framed acknowledges subtly that this is a description in a story. So the argument in the paragraph, the one-sentence-following-another, seems to be saying something simple – that this is indeed a wholesome place – but that argument is, as it were, sailing into the headwind of the language that articulates it, which paints an altogether more complex picture.

So the overall argument I’m making – and I don’t have time to get to many more examples – is that “And-so”-ness is complicated by having to articulate fantastic stories, and complicated whenever it happens after, say, 1910 because after that there are alternative ways of doing narrative on the table. The Link, Mirrlees and Wolfe extracts embody various responses to that problem; the Chabon and Le Guin that I quoted at the start represent another. Without being pejorative, I’d suggest that in those extracts Chabon and Le Guin are embodying what we might call naïve narrative: the idea that one thing can follow another, and that storytelling like that is not problematised.

One final example, and then I’ll wrap up. It’s the first few sentences of William Gibson’s Virtual Light (1993):

The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city’s middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod.

Hours earlier, missiles have fallen in a northern suburb; seventy-three dead, the kill as yet unclaimed. But here the mirrored ziggurats down Lazaro Cardenas flow with the luminous flesh of giants, shunting out the night’s barrage of dreams to the waiting avenidas – business as usual, world without end.

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night.

The obvious metaphor here is cinematic. The language is dense because, as it were, the scene is only coming into focus. Sometimes one thing does follow another – the description of the gunships, and then the mention of the suburban deaths – and sometimes it doesn’t. The beginning of a book is a time for introducing new information so that, inevitably, the mention of the gunship or the colour of the air doesn’t follow as a logical or causal consequence from what’s gone before. One might say that there is a logic, an argument, here in the choices the author has made; but it’s an argument that will only become explicit when the scene and its place in the story are fully perceived. Within a few pages, we know that the courier is lonely, scarred by trauma, and so the flat-affect and seeming randomness of these images makes some sense. So “And so-ness” may sometimes be covert rather than visible on the surface.

A couple of concluding thoughts about the model I’ve proposed. The first is that what I’ve described as “And-so-ness” – one thing in a story having a causal link with the next – is our default mode for understanding stories. Approaches such as Link’s or Wolfe’s are deliberate moves away from the default. So most readers experience Link or Wolfe as a challenge to their ideas of what a story should be, just as they experience twelve-tone music as a challenge. There’s a whole separate set of notions here, that I don’t have time to go into, about humour; if I had another hour, I’d argue that many jokes work on the basis of causality gone wrong. So when we’re put into the situation of not getting a joke, it’s a similar sense of frustration to not getting the point of a Gene Wolfe story. And if, like me, you’re still not sure who Severian’s mother is, that nagging itch is because the story – as it were – points to the need to identify her but doesn’t (I think) allow you to. By the standards of the default – which you can argue with – it doesn’t give you what you want.

I’d like to finish by suggesting one huge and obvious counter-example to the theory I’ve put forward: dialogue. Every extract I’ve quoted has been description rather than dialogue, and only one (the Link) has been first-person. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard Russell T Davies say on the subject of writing was that he felt he learned how to write dialogue properly when he realised that in most conversations people aren’t listening to each other. A lot of conversations don’t embody, as economists might put it, an efficient exchange of information, and they certainly don’t proceed in logical sequence. Hence why “As you know, Bob” infodump dialogue grates: because it takes into dialogue an exchange of information whose perfection wouldn’t be believable in the real world. I don’t want to go too far down this path, but there may be a sense in which stories often embody a tension between the order of author-controlled description, and the disorder of characters’ dialogue, of perfect vs imperfect understanding of the story. I suppose that’s a note to leave things on: although I’d argue that this “And so-ness”, this hooking of each sentence to the next, is important for a story, I’m only saying that it’s necessary, not sufficient. There are very few things more damaging to a story than the exercise of too much visible authorial control. As much as a story is fixed on its paper, we want to believe that the characters, not the author control it. We want to be led by the hand but not to know it. If you know you’re being manipulated, you can’t believe it; but unless it follows from what’s gone before, how can you believe a sentence like – say – And so they all lived happily ever after?

Thanks.


One Response to “Talks: “And so…””

  1. […] Graham Sleight posts as fascinating talk about how literature works that he gave at […]

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