It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.
Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*
In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.
As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.
Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.
By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.
At this stage in my PhD research into literary style I am looking to machine learning and neural networks, and moving away from stylostatistical methodologies, partially out of fatigue. Statistical analyses are intensely process-based and always open, it seems to me, to fairly egregious ‘nudging’ in the name of reaching favourable outcomes. This brings a kind of bathos to some statistical analyses, as they account, for a greater extent than I’d like, for methodology and process, with the result that the novelty these approaches might have brought us are neglected. I have nothing against this emphasis on process necessarily, but I do also have a thing for outcomes, as well as the mysticism and relativity machine learning can bring, alienating us as it does from the process of the script’s decision making.
I first heard of the sci-fi writer from a colleague of mine in my department. It’s Robin Sloan’s plug-in for the script-writing interface Atom which allows you to ‘autocomplete’ texts based on your input. After sixteen hours of installing, uninstalling, moving directories around and looking up stackoverflow, I got it to work.I typed in some Joyce and got stuff about Chinese spaceships as output, which was great, but science fiction isn’t exactly my area, and I wanted to train the network on a corpus of modernist fiction. Fortunately, I had the complete works of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence to hand.
My understanding of this recurrent neural network, such as it is, runs as follows. The script reads the entire corpus of over 100 novels, and calculates the distance that separates every word from every other word. The network then hazards a guess as to what word follows the word or words that you present it with, then validates this against what its actuality. It then does so over and over and over, getting ‘better’ at predicting each time. The size of the corpus is significant in determining the length of time this will take, and mine required something around twelve days. I had to cut it off after twenty four hours because I was afraid my laptop wouldn’t be able to handle it. At this point it had carried out the process 135000 times, just below 10% of the full process. Once I get access to a computer with better hardware I can look into getting better results.
How this will feed into my thesis remains nebulous, I might move in a sociological direction and take survey data on how close they reckon the final result approximates literary prose. But at this point I’m interested in what impact it might conceivably have on my own writing. I am currently trying to sustain progress on my first novel alongside my research, so, in a self-interested enough way, I pose the question, can neural networks be used in the creation of good prose?
There have been many books written on the place of cliometric methodologies in literary history. I’m thinking here of William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups, Mallarmé’s infinite book of sonnets, and the brief flirtation the literary world had with hypertext in the 90’s, but beyond of the avant-garde, I don’t think I could think of an example of an author who has foregrounded their use of numerical methods of composition. A poet friend of mine has dabbled in this sort of thing but finds it expedient to not emphasise the aleatory aspect of what she’s doing, as publishers tend to give a frosty reception when their writers suggest that their work is automated to some extent.
And I can see where they’re coming from. No matter how good they get at it, I’m unlikely to get to a point where I’ll read automatically generated literary art. Speaking for myself, when I’m reading, it is not just about the words. I’m reading Enright or Woolf or Pynchon because I’m as interested in them as I am in what they produce. How synthetic would it be to set Faulkner and McCarthy in conversation with one another if their congruencies were wholly manufactured by outside interpretation or an anonymous algorithmic process as opposed to the discursive tissue of literary sphere, if a work didn’t arise from material and actual conditions? I know I’m making a lot of value-based assessments here that wouldn’t have a place in academic discourse, and on that basis what I’m saying is indefensible, but the probabilistic infinitude of it bothers me too. When I think about all the novelists I have yet to read I immediately get panicky about my own death, and the limitless possibilities of neural networks to churn out tomes and tomes of literary data in seconds just seems to me to exacerbate the problem.
However, speaking outside of my reader-identity, as a writer, I find it invigorating. My biggest problem as a writer isn’t writing nice sentences, given enough time I’m more than capable of that, the difficulty is finding things to wrap them around. Mood, tone, image, aren’t daunting, but a text’s momentum, the plot, I suppose, eludes me completely. It’s not something that bothers me, I consider plot to be a necessary evil, and resent novels that suspend information in a deliberate, keep-you-on-the-hook sort of way, but the ‘what next’ of composition is still a knotty issue.
The generation of text could be a useful way of getting an intelligent prompt that stylistically ‘borrows’ from a broad base of literary data, smashing words and images together in a generative manner to get the associative faculties going. I’m not suggesting that these scripts would be successful were they autonomous, I think we’re a few years off one of these algorithms writing a good novel, but I hope to demonstrate that my circa 350 generated words would be successful in facilitating the process of composition:
be as the whoo, put out and going to Ingleway effect themselves old shadows as she was like a farmers of his lake, for all or grips — that else bigs they perfectly clothes and the table and chest and under her destynets called a fingers of hanged staircase and cropping in her hand from him, “never married them my said?” know’s prode another hold of the utals of the bright silence and now he was much renderuched, his eyes. It was her natural dependent clothes, cattle that they came in loads of the remarks he was there inside him. There were she was solid drugs.
“I’m sons to see, then?’ she have no such description. The legs that somewhere to chair followed, the year disappeared curl at an entire of him frwented her in courage had approached. It was a long rose of visit. The moment, the audience on the people still the gulsion rowed because it was a travalious. But nothing in the rash.
“No, Jane. What does then they all get out him, but? Or perfect?”
Of came the great as prayer. He said the aspect who, she lay on the white big remarking through the father — of the grandfather did he had seen her engoors, came garden, the irony opposition on his colling of the roof. Next parapes he had coming broken as though they fould
has a sort. Quite angry to captraita in the fact terror, and a sound and then raised the powerful knocking door crawling for a greatly keep, and is so many adventored and men. He went on. He had been her she had happened his hands on a little hand of a letter and a road that he had possibly became childish limp, her keep mind over her face went in himself voice. He came to the table, to a rashes right repairing that he fulfe, but it was soldier, to different and stuff was. The knees as it was a reason and that prone, the soul? And with grikening game. In such an inquisilled-road and commanded for a magbecross that has been deskled, tight gratulations in front standing again, very unrediction and automatiled spench and six in command, a
I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking that there’s some merit in parts of this writing. I wonder if there’s an extent to which Finnegans Wake has ‘tainted’ the corpus somewhat, because stylistically, I think that’s the closest analogue to what could be said to be going on here. Interestingly, it seems to be formulating its own puns, words like ‘unrediction,’ ‘automatiled spench’ (a tantalising meta-textual reference I think) and ‘destynets’, I think, would all be reminiscent of what you could expect to find in any given section of the Wake, but they don’t turn up in the corpus proper, at least according to a ctrl + f search. What this suggests to me is that the algorithm is plotting relationships on the level of the character, as well as phrasal units. However, I don’t recall the sci-fi model turning up paragraphs that were quite so disjointed and surreal — they didn’t make loads of sense, but they were recognisable, as grammatically coherent chunks of text. Although this could be the result of working with a partially trained model.
So, how might they feed our creative process? Here’s my attempt at making nice sentences out of the above.
— I have never been married, she said. — There’s no good to be gotten out of that sort of thing at all.
He’d use his hands to do chin-ups, pull himself up over the second staircase that hung over the landing, and he’d hang then, wriggling across the awning it created over the first set of stairs, grunting out eight to ten numbers each time he passed, his feet just missing the carpeted surface of the real stairs, the proper stairs.
Every time she walked between them she would wonder which of the two that she preferred. Not the one that she preferred, but the one that were more her, which one of these two am I, which one of these two is actually me? It was the feeling of moving between the two that she could remember, not his hands. They were just an afterthought, something cropped in in retrospect.
She can’t remember her sons either.
Her life had been a slow rise, to come to what it was. A house full of men, chairs and staircases, and she wished for it now to coil into itself, like the corners of stale newspapers.
The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it is a lot shorter. I started off by traducing the above, in as much as possible, into ‘plain words’ while remaining faithful to the n-grams I liked, like ‘bright silence’ ‘old shadows’ and ‘great as prayer’. In order to create images that play off one another, and to account for the dialogue, sentences that seemed to be doing similar things began to cluster together, so paragraphs organically started to shrink. Ultimately, once the ‘purpose’ of what I was doing started to come out, a critique of bourgeois values, memory loss, the nice phrasal units started to become spurious, and the eight or so paragraphs collapsed into the three and a half above. This is also ones of my biggest writing issues, I’ll type three full pages and after the editing process they’ll come to no more than 1.5 paragraphs, maybe?
The thematic sense of dislocation and fragmentation could be a product of the source material, but most things I write are about substance-abusing depressives with broken brains cos I’m a twenty-five year old petit-bourgeois male. There’s also a fairly pallid Enright vibe to what I’ve done with the above, I think the staircases line could come straight out of The Portable Virgin.
Maybe a more well-trained corpus could provide better prompts, but overall, if you want better results out of this for any kind of creative praxis, it’s probably better to be a good writer.
Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)
Samuel Beckett — How It Is
Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.
Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:
we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away
The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:
as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom
2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths
In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.
Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.
3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians
The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.
Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.
Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
4. Don DeLillo — Underworld
To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.
Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.
It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.
5. Anne Enright — The Green Road
Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.
Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.
It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.
6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying
7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.
Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.
So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.
8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions
William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.
However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.
And of course, the sentences are very powerful
Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.
It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.
9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel
10. James Joyce — Ulysses
I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.
I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.
For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.
11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet
12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time
The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.
And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.
But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that
Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.
Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.
14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow
15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.
It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
I’m always surprised when I read one of the thinkers generally, and perhaps lazily, lumped in to the general category of post-structuralist, when I find how great a disservice the term does to their work. To read Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, is not to find a triad of philosophers who struggle to produce a coherent system via addled half-thoughts in order to deconstruct, stymie or relativise everything. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another philosopher I’ve read who displays greater attention to detail in their work than Derrida, and Deleuze, far from being a deconstructionist, presents us with painstaking and intricate schemata and models of thought. The rhizome, to take the most well-known concept associated with Deleuze and his collaborator, Félix Guattari, doesn’t provide us with a free-for-all, but an intricately worked-out model to enable further thought. Difference and Repetition is likewise painstaking, and so involved is Deleuze’s model of difference, applying it in great depth to my theory of literary style, might be something to do if one wished to be a mad person, particularly since, at an early stage in the work, he attempts to map his concepts to particular authors, such as Borges, Joyce, Beckett and Proust. But I’ll do my best.
My notion of literary style has been influenced by the fact of my dealing with the matter via computation, i.e. multi-variate analysis and machine learning. All the reading I’m doing on the subject, is leading me towards a theory of literary style founded on redundancy. When I say redundancy, I don’t mean that what distinguishes literary language from ‘normal’ language is its superfluity, an excess of that which it communicates. For the Russian formalists, this was key in defining literary language, its surfeit of meaning. I don’t like this distinction much, as it assumes that we can neatly cleave necessary communication from unnecessary communication, as if there were a clear demarcation between the words we use for their usage (utilitarian) and the words we use for their beauty (aesthetic). The lines between the two are generally blurred, and both can reinforce the function of the other. The shortcomings of this category become yet more evident when we take into account authors who might have a plain style, works which depend on a certain reticence to speak. Of course, a certain degree of recursion sets in here, as we could argue that it is in the showcased plainness of these writers that the superfluity of the work manifests itself. Which presents us with the inevitable conclusion that the definition is flawed because its a tautology; it’s excessive because it’s literary, it’s literary because it’s excessive.
My own idea of redundancy comes from a number of articles in the computational journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, the entire corpus of which, from the mid-nineties until today, I am slowly making my way through. It provides an interesting narrative of the ways in which computational criticism has evolved in these years. At first, literary critics would have been sure that the words that traditional literary criticism tends to emphasise, the big ones, the sparkly ones, the nice ones, were most indicative of a writer’s style. What practitioners of algorithmic criticism have come to realise however, is that it is the ‘particles’ of literary matter, that are far more indicative of a writer’s style, the distribution of words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘said,’ which are sometimes left out of corpus stylistics altogether, dismissed as ‘stopwords,’ bandied about too often in textual materials of all kinds to be of any real use. It’s a bit too easy, with the barest dash of an awareness of how coding works, to start slipping into generalisations along the lines of neuroscience, so I won’t go too mad, but I will say that this is an example of the ways in which humans tend to identify patterns, albeit maybe not necessarily the determining, or most significant patterns, in any given situation.
We’re magpies when we read, for better or worse. When David Foster Wallace re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style. But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like ‘She tied the tapes,’ in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such filler.
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is concerned with reversing a trend within Western philosophy, to mis-read the nature of difference, which he traces back to Plato and Kant, and the idealist/transcendentalist tendencies within their thought. They believed in singular, ideal forms, against which the notion of the Image is pitched, which can only be inferior, a simulacrum, as they are derivative copies. Despite his model of the dialectic, Hegel is no better when it comes to comprehending difference; Deleuze sees the notion of synthesis as profoundly damaging to difference, as the third-way synthesis has a tendency to understate it. Deleuze dismisses the process of the dialectic as ‘insipid monocentrality’. Deleuze’s issue seems to be that our notions of identity, only allow difference into the picture as a rupture, or an exception which vindicates an overall sense of homogeneity. Difference should be emphasised to a greater extent, and become a principle of our understanding:
Such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.
Recognising this would be the advent of difference-in-itself.
This is all fairly consistent with Deleuze’s sense of Being as being (!) in a constant state of becoming, an experiential-led model of ontology which doesn’t aim for essence, but praxis. It would be fairly unproblematic to map this onto literary style; literary stylistics should likewise depend on difference, rather than similarity which only allows difference into the picture as a rupture; difference should be our primary criterion when examining the ways in which style becomes itself.
Another tendency of the philosophical tradition as Deleuze understands it is a belief in the goodness of thought, and its inclination towards moral, useful ends, as embodied in the works of Descartes. Deleuze reminds us of myopia and stupidity, by arguing that thought is at its most vital when at a moment of encounter or crisis, when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’ These encounters remind us that thought is impotent and require us to violently grapple with the force of these encounters. This is not only an attempt to reverse the traditional moral image of thought, but to move towards an understanding of thought as self-engendering, an act of creation, not just of what is thought, but of thought itself.
It would be to take the least radical aspect of this conclusion to fuse it with the notion of textual deformance, developed by Jerome McGann, which is of particular magnitude within the digital humanities, considering that we often process our text via code, or visualise it, and build arguments from these simulacra. But, on a level of reading which is, technologically speaking, less sophisticated, it reflects the way in which we generate a stylistic ideal as we read, a sense of a writer’s style, whether these be based on the analogue, magpie method (or something more systematic, I don’t want to discount syllable-counts, metric analyses or close readings of any kind) or quantitative methodologies.
By bringing ourselves to these points of crisis, we will open up avenues at which fields of thought, composed themselves of differential elements, differential relations and singularities, will shift, and bring about a qualitative difference in the environment. We might think of this field in terms of a literary text, a sequence of actualised singularities, appearing aleatory outside of their anchoring context as within a novel. Readers might experience these as breakthrough moments or epiphanies when reading a text, realising that Infinite Jest apes the plot of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, as it begins to cast everything in a new light. In this way, texts are made and unmade according to the conditions which determine them. I for one, find this to be so much more helpful in articulating what a text is than the blurb for post-structuralism, (something like ‘endlessly deferred free-play of meaning’). Instead, we have a radical, consistently disarticulating and re-articulating literary artwork in a perpetual, affirming state of becoming, actualised by the reader at a number of sensitive points which at any stage might be worried into bringing about a qualitative shift in the work’s processes of meaning making.
As has been repeated in any number of the literary outlets which give Will Self column inches, Self has thumbed his nose at the British literary establishment, readers and writers alike, by returning to the ground zero of avant-garde prose writing in his trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and the forthcoming Phone. I held off reading Umbrella for some time, for the same reason that one generally doesn’t read a novel written by one of the authors that one might rate highly, sensing in advance that it will be in some way a disappointment, particularly when said author has set themselves the task of re-invigorating an dormant genre in which one is steeped in, on a semi-professional basis.
But I did listen to, and read, an awful lot of interviews in which Self spoke on why he’s returning to modernism as a wellspring for his own fiction. In one of these interviews, which unfortunately, I can’t seem to find, Self says that one of the things he was trying to avoid, was writing a post-modern version of modernity. At the time I heard it, I had no idea what that might mean, or what a post-modern modernity might look like. After having read Umbrella, whether Self intended it or not, I have a far better understanding of the phrase, because I think that a post-modern modernity is exactly what Self has stumbled upon in Umbrella.
The plot moves between roughly three time frames, centred around four individuals, the primary one being Zack Busner, a fixture in many of Self’s works, Busner generally functions as a composite of the author and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. In Umbrella, Busner is a psychiatrist based in London, treating Audrey Death for her encephalitic lethargica, which has left her in a catatonic state for decades. In some parts of the novel, Busner is doing so in 1970, and in other parts, he looks back on the affair in 2010. While this is happening, the narrative will jump back to the Audrey’s early adulthood in the opening decades of the century, working in a munitions factory, getting involved in radical socialist circles. Her brothers, Stanley and Albert, are also focalisers of the narrative at points, albeit in very different ways. Indirect discourse and interior monologue are probably the two best known characteristics of modernist prose, and these two take the lion’s share of the novel’s foray into experimentation, allowing for the character’s voices to blend suggestively with the narrator’s, making it difficult to tell where Audrey, Busner, Albert and Stanley are speaking amidst the barrage of music-hall pieces, street rhymes and song lyrics. Side Note: Azaelia Banks and The Kinks feature. Unfortunately, Self generally does so through use of italics. Here’s a typical example:
The boyfriend hadn’t minded gotta split, man and Busner was split…a forked thing digging its way inside her robe. She fiddled with bone buttons at her velvety throat. His skin and hairs snagged on the mirrors, his fingers did their best with her nipples. She looked down on me from below … one his calves lay cold on the floorboards. There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window —
Italics are used here to allow us access to Busner’s mind, his memory, and for Lear references. There’s nothing bad in here (or in the novel overall, Self’s sentences are staggering for how rhymically attuned they are, particularly when he dallies with academic verbiage and sub-clauses to the extent that he does), the problem is you sort of know where these turns are coming from the typography. There was a ‘Remastered’ version of Ulysses published about six years ago, produced by Robert Gogan, in which the interior monologue appeared in italics. The three or four people in the world who care about such things were outraged at the simplification, seeing the text as having been purged of its ambiguity. I think this periodic italicisation is to Umbrella’s detriment overall; it substitutes a reading that might have demanded even more of you for a more surreal-looking typeface.
My own notion of Umbrella’s modernism would therefore be rather distinct from the identification made between Umbrella and this rather inflexible and monolithic modernism made in some literary journalism, because I don’t see it as modernist in the same way that the ‘men of 1914’ are modernists. Although they might have one thing in common.
Self’s modernism is a selling point serving a rather specific function in today’s literary marketplace. Self’s modernism builds upon his persona as a surly performer on television news-panel shows and newspaper columns, going out of his way to discourage people from reading his books by his performative hauteur and dismissive attitude regarding everything. Returning to a praxis of literary art some six decades out of date is the logical conclusion of being Will Self. For Self, being a latter day modernist is to reject the commodification of the literary artwork, and insist upon the right of the author to write something wholly non-commercial. Umbrella therefore carries with it a critique of commodity culture, and the proliferation of screens, which Self also decries regularly, believing it to signal an end to the novel. However, the canard of modernism’s opposition to commodity culture has been overhyped after postmodern novelists made such a point of engaging with the novel as a commodity, and one should remember that modernism was deeply involved in the marketplace of its time; Ezra Pound began using zeitgeist-y words like ‘modern’ and ‘futurity’ to draw Marinetti’s audiences, who were substantially larger than his own when he first came to London. Performative modernism, cultivated for the purchasing attentions of a well-groomed and discerning élite is one of the things that Self gets right regarding his channeling of the genre.
Umbrella also seems to draw on modernism’s sometimes overlooked heritage, as it is at least somewhat to blame for the volume of secondary literature written subsequent to its boom and bust. From even a vague knowledge of these texts we might produce some foundational aspects of modernism; that it is taken to entail a shift in consciousness and human subjectivity, that exposure to slaughter and death on an industrial scale led to an ambivalence regarding technology and a sundering of rigid social hierarchies, an increasing mediation of our reality through mass media, growth of radical political movements such as feminism and socialism, etc. etc. etc. Our responses to these texts are thereby pre-determined; we know what we can expect from a canonical modernist text.
Which is why the modernism of Umbrella seems post-modern. It’s hard to read Audrey’s re-animation in the 1970’s, or Busner’s recollection of the time in 2010, as a meta-commentary on Umbrella’s resuscitation of the genre. The fact that Audrey worked in a munitions factory, as a radical socialist and feminist, that one of her brothers, Stanley, went to fight in the war, while her other brother, Albert, Pynchon-like, became an arms manufacturer selling weapons which fuelled the conflict, that in her comatose state she rehearses the actions of her time at the lathe, seems to have been dictated by our relationship to modernism in our contemporary setting. In the novel’s closing stages, Audrey’s status as a symbol of technology’s encroachment into our subjectivity is made overt:
The final words Audrey Death had spoken before relapsing into a merciful swoon were a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over fourteen-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three…that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain-chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?
The irony here is that the paragraph in which Self is telling you exactly what the novel is about, features a character attempting to make sense of a random string of numbers. This is far from what the book is, a novel which has been compulsively over-determined in any number of columns, interviews and lectures which, taken collectively, probably come to a length equal to the text. While the modernists can be considered guilty of pushing particular interpretations — they often wrote about their own work, in the way that authors often do, by pretending to write objectively on other authors, The Waste Land came with annotations (parodic ones, but annotations nonetheless) — it feels as though Self’s foray into it is too overtly packaged as such. It’s probably my own fault for consuming it as I did, a book has to be sold after all, and no one made me read those six Guardian interviews. I should wrap up by saying that this novel is very good, and that you should read it, and, in true modernist style, ‘the rest is noise’.
Remember that class artefact-oriented BBC series from a few years back, A History of the World in 100 Objects? Sure, we all do. Well Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum and the guy who was responsible for that, did a similar series on Shakespeare, and it’s ace.
After watching Game of Thrones I’ve become terribly sentimental about the North of England, so the timing on me finding out about this series was bang on. Public service broadcasting at its best, the BBC’s resident brain Melvyn Bragg goes through the history of the North of England, from the Norman invasions to The Beatles. Judi Dench is also in it, being class. Public service broadcasting at its best, etc. etc.
The title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury has its origin in a somewhat obscure soliloquy given by Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s play,Macbeth. It reads:
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the phrase comes under some pressure. ‘Sound’ and ‘fury’ are not, in Faulkner’s usage at least, abstractions of which the tale of life is full. The double-use of the definite article suggests a more particularising motivation; it is The Sound and The Fury. With this in mind, I control effed the text for uses of sound and fury, because what turned up presumably means something to somebody.
April Seventh, 1928
Sound Count: 3
Fury Count: 0
As the chapter that Benjy narrates is the first one, one could argue that The Sound of the title is the moaning noise that Benjy makes, the moaning bellow that serves as the clearest indication to those of us capable of restraining ourselves from Sparknotes or Wikipedia summaries despite how adrift they may feel in this novel, that Benjy is neurologically impaired. In a way that is, again, presumably significant, he is often unaware that he makes this sound at all, the reader is only capable of coming to the understanding that he is when putting Jason’s complaints about Benjy’s constant ‘bellering,’ next to how often other characters instruct Benjy to hush.
June Second 1910
Sound Count: 12
Fury Count: 1
The Sound, for Quentin, is almost certainly the ticking of clocks, the ringing of bells and markers of time’s passing in general. Like Benjy’s The Sound, it passes in and out of his awareness: “You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.”
Unfortunately for Quentin, even when this sound terminates, he gains no respite from interminable clock-ticking/bell-ringing. Even the absence of sound evokes violence and despair: “The bird whistled again, invisible, a sound meaningless and profound, inflexionless, ceasing as though cut off with the blow of a knife.”
Quentin’s The Fury appears in one of his extended degenerating mélange of voices, within which it is very difficult to situate oneself. Again, what emerges is Quentin’s overwhelming fatalism and desperation: “until someday in very disgust he risks everything on a single blind turn of a card no man ever does that under the first fury of despair or remorse or bereavement he does it only when he has realised that even the despair or remorse or bereavement is not particularly important to the dark diceman and i temporary.”
April Sixth 1928
Sound Count: 2
Fury Count: 0
Its perhaps only fitting that Jason’s The Sound, is the ‘hollow sound’ that soil makes as Quentin is being buried, its low sound’s reverberation subverting Mrs. Compson’s remark which appoints Jason her only hope, a son who is resentful enough of the opportunities that Quentin received to fleece maintenance money intended for her. Even the hollow sound fades, it re-surfaces later as ‘no sound’ from upstairs.
April Eighth 1928
Sound Count: 16
Fury Count: 1
Fury receives a rather bathetic treatment in the final chapter of the book. Jason, finding that his stolen money has been stolen in turn, holds the travelling show in town responsible and assaults the first member of it he comes across. Their struggle is awkward and ungainly, neither are triumphant: “Jason tried to grasp him in both arms, trying to prison the puny fury of him.” The anti-climax chimes with Jason’s failure to, 1) get his money back and 2) successfully carry out some sort of gesture, no matter how pointless, which might redeem the Compson’s from their over-determined misery. The Puny conclusively defuses all the potential rawness and hazard of The Fury.
There are a number of artistic movements that came to be named by their detractors. The umbrella terms under which they operate were initially formulated as terms of abuse, forced upon them by reactive sceptics, detractors and the Louis Leroys of history. Impressionism, a nineteenth century genre of painting is one such example. There are others but they elude me for the moment, I’ll update this post once I remember.
Impressionism is relevant within the context of this post because it is a term often used to convey the style of Virginia Woolf’s fiction. Impressionism demonstrates the triumph of brilliant patterns of colour neither-one-nor-the-other over the tyranny of the line; the preference for an endless disclosure of horizon-rich landscapes over filthy symmetry and one therefore cannot fail to detect a certain congruency of approach when casting one’s eye over the vivid lyrical passages that appear at points in Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves: “The sun had now sunk lower in the sky. The islands of cloud had gained in density and drew themselves across the sun so that the rocks went suddenly black, and the trembling sea-holly lost its blue and turned silver, and shadows were blown like grey cloths over the sea. The waves no longer visited the further pools or reached the dotted black lines which lay irregularly upon the beach. The sand was pearl white, smoothed and shining.” There is a rather beautiful paradox established here in the ethereality of the lengthily undulating sentences and how invested the words are in the materiality, the textures of the features of the landscape, the thickening clouds, the chameleon-like sea-holly.
Woolf’s painterly style isn’t limited to these rather lovely descriptive sections, but continues in her highly unique approach to characterisation. The Waves is narrated by six characters, who speak in a rambling and significative yet highly concentrated modernist style. Unusually for a modernist text, whoever is narrating at any given point is clearly signposted, as in this rather mundane example: “‘I was running,’ said Jinny, ‘after breakfast.” Here, the narratorial voice signals clearly when a monologue begins and ends. This makes a contrast with James Joyce’sFinnegans Wake, for example, or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, therein character’s voices are interwoven and interspersed and therein madness lies.
At this stage, the work of the impressionists have come to be recognised as Great Works of Art, no longer the outliers that they were when they initially came on the scene and were forced to set up their own salons where their works could be exhibited. It is hard not to snicker derisively at the conservative devotees of particular schools of art that the impressionists railed against in order to foster the environment in which their works could be appreciated.
In an altogether different context, the word impressionism has come to take on a derisive connotation once more, as devotees of computational literary hermeneutics have began to delineate traditional literary critics, known mostly for their grotesquely troglodyte insistence on reading the thing, rather than appreciating literary works of art through bean-counting like normal people in a post-digital era. For computational critics, this methodology (bleh) is insufficiently rigorous, if you’re not counting the number of times Woolf uses the device of personification and graphing it on a colour-coded visualisation, to advance the point that she uses it is useless. I’ll take this opportunity to proclaim myself an impressionist 4 lyf, if and useless to boot, if reading a book is what those who are useless do.
Also, on a fun note, each character is at least partially based on close friends of Woolf’s, such as Mary Hutchinson, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India. This is great news for all Bloomsbury Group fans-people.