31 August 2014 @ 09:54 am
Writers and Language  
"But it really is a cardinal shame that editors are such a time-serving lot. I wish to Hades that some millionaire would endow a magazine for weird and arabesque literature, and have it edited regardless of anything but a genuine standard of literary merit. I have a notion that the results might be surprising--though I don't think it would ever rival the Post, or even the he-male adventure magazines, in circulation.

Of course I may be all wet. On the other hand, an anxiety to please the plebs, and offend as few as possible . . . can result in nothing but crap and mediocrity. I certainly think he could afford to run a few high-class tales, if only to keep up any literary reputation that the mag may have acquired. Connoisseurs, I feel morally certain, are not going to exult over the recent avalanche of tripe."

Clark Ashton Smith, to August Derleth, Sept 28th, 1932.

I never took much to Clark Ashton Smith (too much horror, too few interesting women) but we have this beautifully produced edition of his letters, so I picked it up and opened it randomly to read over breakfast.

Elsewhere he derides James Joyce and Gertrude Stein as horrible writers, while in another letter he predicts that H.P. Lovecraft will be read by generations to come.

It's always interesting to me to see how others define greatness or trash, and of course every writer is a genius if only in his or her own mind. Just recently, on a forum a fan talked about a writer at a con going on at a panel about how desperate the writer was to choose the correct narrator, assuming that his/her agent could get a deal at a prestigious recording company. The fan said that everyone else on that panel was biting their lip, probably wondering if said narrator would refuse to read that cliche-ridden claptrap--they were staring up, or down, or away, as [X] went on and on about the importance of elegant accents.

I couldn't help thinking of that this morning, as someone responded to my post of yesterday with an interesting bit about Caxton choosing the right dialect to print Chaucer. Language is such a marvelous, ever-changing river. No one ever sees quite the same flow of waters. Even if standing side by side.
( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
al_zorraal_zorra on August 31st, 2014 05:30 pm (UTC)
[ "Just recently, on a forum a fan talked about a writer at a con going on at a panel about how desperate the writer was to choose the correct narrator, assuming that his/her agent could get a deal at a prestigious recording company." }

Did he mean an audio book company?
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:15 pm (UTC)
al_zorraal_zorra on August 31st, 2014 09:43 pm (UTC)
Isn't this what is known in the business as putting the cart before the horse?

But I recall back in the day young fellows carefully casting the film that was to be made from their so-far not only not published but not written novel.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 09:51 pm (UTC)
Maybe. I recollect a writer some time past talking about how the fan groups they would be devoted to their as-yet-unwritten fantasy trilogy would be organized: the fan group devoted to their main male character as opposed to the group devoted to the author . . .
Ceeparagraphs on August 31st, 2014 05:55 pm (UTC)
1932! Times change and then again some things don't.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:15 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah. You should see him going on about crappy pay rates, and how very, very late those are!
martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on August 31st, 2014 06:03 pm (UTC)
my spelling is really a past life poking through .. the usage of E and Y instead of I .. amazing. And its still readable.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:16 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Amazing, isn't it?
negothicknegothick on August 31st, 2014 06:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the Caxton citation. Wonder what Old English text he was given to translate, that looked more like Dutch. The rude and broad text was (as you say) most likely Chaucer.
It reminds me to forgive students who complain that they can't understand Shakespeare because he wrote in old English.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:17 pm (UTC)
I saw that too, about Dutch. That was fascinating. And of course "Eyren" is very like "Eier", the German word for eggs--maybe it's the same in Dutch as well.
Bummblebummble on August 31st, 2014 07:39 pm (UTC)
Dutch is 'eieren'; three syllabels as opposed to the German two, but pretty similar.
(hmm, I've been thinking about how to 'translate' the pronunciating into English... the closest I can come is 'eye - yuh - run')
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 07:41 pm (UTC)
Which seems very close indeed to the Caxton's "Eyren."
a curious collection of circumstancesyouraugustine on August 31st, 2014 06:30 pm (UTC)
I think ignorance should always be forgivable? Without knowing - aka having been taught, either by teacher or autodidactically - that these terms have very specific meanings, "old English" is a logical label for a modern student to apply to a page full of words and grammar that only vaguely resemble what they work with on a daily basis (and even then, mostly only because we insist on editions that do not preserve the original spelling). It's recognizably English, and it's weird because it's old.

If they're still doing it at the end of the course, of course, they deserve a metaphorical smack. But one does have to learn something for the first time, and my high-school teachers sure didn't get into the difference between Old, Middle and Early-Modern English. (I knew the difference, but I lived in the library.)

It's sort of like most people constantly referring to any music played by a symphony orchestra as "classical", when "Classical" is actually a very specific period of European, largely aristocrat-driven music: they're wrong and sometimes if it actually pertains to the subject I'll do a quick correction, but it makes sense from the information and knowledge they've had previously.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:35 pm (UTC)
I agree with all this. And sometimes will use terms that I know might not be entirely correct, but my auditors will understand it so it's an effective shorthand. (Like classical music!)
a curious collection of circumstancesyouraugustine on August 31st, 2014 06:37 pm (UTC)
Right. :D

(My other one is "herbal tea". "Tea" = camellia sinesis. If it ain't dried camellia sinesis, it ain't tea, it's an infusion, tisane, etc.) (But I'm still gonna ask the waitress if the restaurant has "camomile tea", because otherwise she's gonna stare at me weird.)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:38 pm (UTC)
a curious collection of circumstancesyouraugustine on August 31st, 2014 06:24 pm (UTC)
longish babble 1
I was reading a book a while back called Proust Was A Neuroscientist, which was interesting; as all such books do, in places it wildly overreached itself, in places it was wrong about one thing or another, but one bit that genuinely interested me and which I've found quite accurate was the author pointing out that we have to learn to hear music as music.

Music is not objective or removed or a Platonic Form: rather, our brains learn to react in a certain way to a certain collection of pitches. The first few performances of The Rite of Spring left audiences totally baffled, because it sounded like noise. I had a similar experience having grown up in a house surrounded almost entirely by classical, folk or otherwise traditional-Western-pre-rock music, so that the majority of rock and roll and even a lot of pop music just sounded like NOISE to me.

There are songs that are now my favourites which, the first time I heard them as a pre-teen, I literally covered my ears and ran to turn off the radio. I hadn't learned - my brain had physically not been trained - to hear those patterns of sound as music, so to my brain they came off as completely chaotic and unintelligible.

I know a lot of my peers who had the vice-versa problem with bel canto opera: arias that are built to show off a virtuoso coloratura soprano or tenor are not going to sound right to someone used to melody-led rock and roll with a heavy beat.

What you hear formatively is a big part of that; you can also train yourself to listen to different kinds of music (I developed a greater appreciation for cutting-edge jazz, which sounded entirely like Noise to me beforehand, due to a year and a half of car-pooling with an aficionado; conversely, he found the way I deconstructed narrative and characterisation fascinating because he'd never seen the patterns I saw); and then there's a weird and wobbly element of personal taste in there that who knows what it affects, as there always is. But in broad patterns, what you parse as music is what you're trained to listen to.

tl;dr: I think a more or less similar thing applies to prose-style and storytelling.

There was a graphic a while back that went around that I liked, which was about Hamlet as it would end up being edited if it were submitted today, naturally stripped of all its nuances, opacities, etc etc etc. What actually made me think about this, though, was rereading Sense and Sensibility - which I quite adore - and knowing it would never be published as-is today. Telling all over the place! Long, complicated compound sentences! Unclear timelines! Entire conversations happening not in dialogue but in narrative! etc, etc.

And the thing is, I also know a lot of my peers find it very hard to read first time through for exactly that reason. It's not a familiar shape. They don't know which passages to read with hugely attentive detail and which they can skim and get a good idea of what's going on*. Important things happen where they're not expecting them, and then dull things happen where they're expecting climaxes. The rhythm is off.

Then, after a couple of semesters reading stuff from that era, it's suddenly not so difficult anymore: their expectations have changed, their idea of what shape a thing needs to be is different. Their brains have learned to parse this style.

Similarly a lot of old stuff only sounds high-falutin/etc because of the associations we've built up in our brain: in any discussion of Shakespeare I've been in, to pick the easy target, someone is always startled by the revelation "you know such and such passage is a penis joke, right?"

By same lines, I've often stopped people/classes when reading Paradise Lost (in all its self-consciously epic questionable glory) and gone "okay everybody, let's take a minute: he's just saying the angels fought this war by dropping mountains on each other's heads. Like, take a minute to actually picture that. It's like an anime aimed a little boys."

tl;dr 2: how people rate art has an awful lot to do with a) what they've already learned to consider art, b) the cultural value put on different kinds of art, and c) actually paying attention, and all of those are massively changed by time, culture, opinion, etc.
a curious collection of circumstancesyouraugustine on August 31st, 2014 06:24 pm (UTC)
longish babble 2
And then, of course, the id gets involved. (There are literally stories - be they on TV, movies, books, comics, whatever - where when people ask my opinion I am like "this story makes me so unspeakably happy I have no idea how good it actually is. It contains x y and z element doing q, p and r." There are also a lot of them where I can see that objectively it has some hella flaws, like poor pacing or whatever, but I still don't care, because my id is happy.) And that's even MORE culturally influenced while at the same time being even more personal.

tl;dr 3: One really has to make people in the discussion pin down a definition of what they mean by "good" before the discussion has any real meaning beyond personal taste. I think, anyway.

*reading Every Word, All The Time is exhausting. I read paragraphs at a time unless I know that something is going to require more attention, at which point I read sentences at a time.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:33 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 2
Yep. And it's interesting to look at old trends in popularity, and old reviews, to see how "Good" as a generality has changed over the decades.

Personal "Good" and "not-good" can be even more idiosyncratic.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:31 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
That is a great insight about music. My experience, at least, leaps to clamor, "Hey, you're right!" I recollect when I was a teen, a family connection raved to my dad (who listened to jazz, and only jazz, so I grew up with jazz as he controlled the stereo) about Ravi Shankar. My dad bought an album, put it on the stereo. We all sat around the living room, listening to this weird noise. He took the album back the next day.

Within a few years, I'd come to appreciate Indian music, and now I seek it out.

OTOH. As I said, jazz, and only jazz from dad. Our babysitter played rock on her transistor when she sat us, but it was pretty much all Chuck Berry, which sounded to me like a washing machine. (Still does.) Grandparents didn't listen to music. So why, when I first heard classical music at around five, did I weep because it affected me so hard, it was what I had wanted all my life?

Re art, I think that much of what has lasted the longest has the widest range of appeal, from the lofty pinnacle of yearning and awe to the raunchy humor that hits at the ridiculous side of human existence.
a curious collection of circumstancesyouraugustine on August 31st, 2014 06:38 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
Jazz to classical feels like a logical transition to me, especially if it what now would be considered classic jazz (which given when you'd've been growing up I think is accurate), though I'm too braindead to say why, and of course most of the little songs we learn as kids fall along the same melody patterns as most "classical" music, especially if you were being exposed to the mainstream symphonies/etc rather than the odder fringe ones.

(There's a lot of Baroque, for example, that's definitely an acquired taste . . . and then there's the mainstream of Bach's output. You know?)

Edited at 2014-08-31 06:40 pm (UTC)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:43 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
Dave Brubeck and that generation of jazz. Not sure if that is considered classic, in the way of twenties jazz, or forties swing/jazz. Most of it I loathed, and still loathe, as it there was no melody to follow, except for the rarity like "Take Five" (strong melody, that driving 5/7 beat, and the beginning and end of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" whose middle dissolves into what sounds to me like wobble) but then there are all kinds of childhood associations, too, that probably muddy the waters. Like, I'll suddenly hear some jazz and smell stale cigarets, though no one is smoking, and feel a restless anxiety, hearkening back to childhood. so I suspect I will never hear jazz objectively as music.
Annann1962 on August 31st, 2014 11:28 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
"so I suspect I will never hear jazz objectively as music"

Good to know I'm not the only one. I want to say it's just noise but it's more than that. I don't imagine anything when I'm listening. Most other music gives me visuals, remembrances, whatever. Jazz just makes me angry, and I don't know why. Partly its lack of logic, to my mind. I just don't get it. It gives me nothing. I've got one association, but I'm over that, yet the noise remains.

ETA: It isn't even the noise factor. Heck, I like Jesus and Mary Chain and most people think that is noise.

Edited at 2014-08-31 11:30 pm (UTC)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 11:47 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
Yeah, it has the same effect on me. One day a couple weeks ago our yoga instructor played jazz, and it was the worst day I've ever had at yoga--no rhythm for breathing, just noise that had to be resisted.
al_zorraal_zorra on September 1st, 2014 08:20 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
Your instructor should try some afro latin jazz: lots of rhythm, lots of spaces -- or New Orleans jazz, from back in the day or today.

There's so many varieties of music called jazz. I dislike some of them heartily and get lost in others, particularly the contemporary Afro Cuban composers and players such as Yunior Terry, for instance.

But there's the very cerebral -- mostly white! -- jazz that got started in the 50's that I call blip blop -- oooo, I cannot bear that stuff. It definitely rid itself of rhythm, which, jazz without rhythm -- what's the point of that????

Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:46 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
Yeah--I didn't really get to explore classical music properly except for the rarity (once a month on Friday afternoons, the teachers would play some and let us draw to it, sheer heaven, in fourth and fifth grades) until I had moved out on my own, and joined the Musical Heritage Society. Plus made friends who had been collecting for years. Over my twenties I gradually became exposed to glorious choral music, and the nervous oddities of the Mannerists, like Gesualdo.

I rather like the pompous order of baroque, because it always throws me back to scenes in Austria. And Bach is soothing.
a curious collection of circumstancesyouraugustine on August 31st, 2014 06:50 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
Bach is v soothing. For engaged listening, though, I love the really early Baroque monody and its very early counter-point developments best - all the crunchy dissonances and releases. Which can definitely be an acquired taste: I've had more than one acquaintance wrinkle their nose up at Pergolesi's Stabat Mater because all they hear is the dissonances.

And then for instance my bff loves the late impressionists, who I can seriously take or leave as far as listening goes. (They're a lot of challenging fun to perform, but that's different: a lot of stuff I like to sing I'm not huge on listening to. XD)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 06:53 pm (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
Oh, yes. I hear you on both.
Kalimac: Haydnkalimac on August 31st, 2014 07:50 pm (UTC)
Professional writer on music says: Yep, this is real. You have to apply what I call the right "ears" for any particular style of music, and acquiring those ears can be tricky. While all my adolescent peers were listening to rock, I couldn't stand it, and only found my way into it years later, by way of electric folk. Like our hostess, I have never acquired the ears for most jazz at all, though theoretically it uses similar techniques to classical, a form I took to immediately.

This is why I disparage the claim that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. What is bad by one set of "ears" is good by another.
Sherwood Smith: Flian's musicsartorias on August 31st, 2014 07:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah--you are one of those who has helped broaden my classical music education over the years.
a curious collection of circumstancesyouraugustine on August 31st, 2014 08:20 pm (UTC)
Yeeeeeah. I developed a greater appreciation for the cutting edge of jazz through listening to the guy in question talk about it . . . but not a greater enjoyment.
Lenora Roselenora_rose on September 2nd, 2014 04:07 am (UTC)
Re: longish babble 1
I've found the same effect when I started reading manga and watching anime. even the ones most accepted as Western-accessible, like Miyazaki or Fullmetal Alchemist have certain protocols and storytelling habits that jarred on first exposure. Not just the obvious ones, like the extreme expressions, but things like where and how much exposition pops up, and when. Where the low-brow jokes are slipped in.

A lot of those "If hamlet were wtritten today" things tend to assume editorial (and copy-editorial) protocols that I really don't see in any but the most egregiously bad real copyeditors; they're usually badly exaggerated and based on the Tom Clancy style bestsellers rather than books with genuine merits to the prose, and genuine nuance and opacity (I don't have to tell anyone here that those are in fact still written). And yet, there is, as you say about Sense and Sensibility, often a bit of underlying nugget, about how our actual reading and writing protocols have changed.

And yet, people do still train themselves to listen to baroque music, or the most convoluted jazz. People still train themselves to read Austen in massive numbers, and Shakespeare too. (Although i really do argue that Shakespeare is much better performed, even in a group reading.)
Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on August 31st, 2014 07:52 pm (UTC)
Clark Ashton Smith had a point. Lovecraft is being read by generations to come still today; and, by conventional standards still today as then, Joyce and Stein are terrible writers. If they're great, it's because they transcend their formal terribleness.
Queen of the Skiesqueenoftheskies on August 31st, 2014 10:31 pm (UTC)
I don't know that this has anything to do with the topic at hand, but I yesterday, one of the fascinating aspects of the reading for me, was noticing the types of stories each of you told, as well as HOW you told the stories. The different wording, the different styles, the elegance and flow of narrative.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on August 31st, 2014 10:47 pm (UTC)
I was appreciating that too, as I listened!
Chiara Castelnuovo-McKenziecmcmck on September 1st, 2014 07:20 am (UTC)
'Elsewhere he derides James Joyce and Gertrude Stein'

Sir, I do not wish to know you..............
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 1st, 2014 01:53 pm (UTC)
asakiyumeasakiyume on September 2nd, 2014 02:48 am (UTC)
have it edited regardless of anything but a genuine standard of literary merit.

Yeeessss, somewhere on Mt. Sinai there's a tablet with the genuine standard of literary merit on it.

It's definitely good to branch out, whole new styles of story, things written with different conventions in mind, or different concepts of voice, narration, etc.

As with you and classical music, it may be that some things just *zot* right into you and make you love them. Other things you might grow to love. And other things may just always leave you cold.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on September 2nd, 2014 03:01 am (UTC)
Yep egg-zactly!
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