Thursday, February 10, 2011

Blood and language in fiction

A little while ago I started dipping into the collection of James Tiptree Jr.'s science-fiction stories, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Tiptree was the pen name of a woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon, the subject of an amazing biography by Julie Phillips called James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. (More about that tragic double life here.)

So, how are the stories? In a word, grim. GRIM. As a feminist in the 60s and 70s, Sheldon was not optimistic about the patriarchy giving way to an egalitarian utopia. In the stories I've read so far, patriarchy is an overwhelming force, existing both outside and inside individual men, whose implacable goal is to wipe women off the face of the earth. For example, from "The Screwfly Solution," there's this scene of a man waking up from a dream about his wife and daughter:

A terrible alarm bell went off in his head. Exploded from his dream, he stared around, then finally down at his hands. What was he doing with his open clasp knife in his fist?

Stunned, he felt for the last shreds of his fantasy, and realized that the tactile images had not been of caresses, but of a frail neck strangling in his fist, the thrust had been the plunge of a blade seeking vitals. In his arms, legs, phantasms of striking and trampling bones cracking. And Amy--

Oh, god. Oh, god--

Not sex, blood lust.

Well, so, that's a bit heavy-handed. That's the definition of heavy handed. For us more literary writers, heavy-handedness is a no-no. It's not tempered, not nuanced. If you want to convey horror, let your readers divine it for themselves; there is no need for such verbal bludgeoning. It indicates a level of authorial rage that goes beyond the boundaries of the story, which makes us wonder, in an unseemly manner, about the author's personal problems.

Or so the conventional writing wisdom goes.

Here's another passage, from "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," which is a little harder to dismiss from on high:

Under the whine of bulldozers the sea could be heard running its huge paws up and down the keyboard of the land.

OK, workshoppers, have at it. What's wrong with this picture? The sea as a giant beast is all well and fine--but a beast that plays the piano (albeit probably badly)? When we think of paws on a keyboard, we may think of a cat *walking* on a keyboard--not deliberately "running its paws" over it. The image also suggests a side-to-side movement of the paws, whereas the motion of waves hitting the shore is back-and-forth, approaching and receding. In short it's not just a mixed metaphor, but a hash.

And yet it's compelling. The image has stuck with me for weeks. It may make little sense when looked at closely, but it's audacious and vivid. It took guts to create this image. Its sheer power makes my objections look like petty quibbling.

I can't bring myself to fully endorse the "Oh, god, Oh, god" school of writing. But after reading Tiptree, a lot of literary fiction looks, well, bloodless to me. We trade pure energy for decorum and significance, and at times we may give up too much.

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