Supermassive

Two things happen in the middle of big projects, I’ve noticed.

One of them is the mid-project motivational slump: that period where you hate the project, can’t see any point in completing the project other than to demostrate your incompetence and hubris to the world at large, and can’t imagine why you chose to start the project when you could have written, oh, I don’t know, a nice conventional linear narrative about competent Anglophone spacemen bringing civilisation to someone in sore need of it, goshdamn. The project taunts you. Touching it blackens your fingers, like an old fireplace in a foreclosed cottage.

(There’s a dissertation update, for them as was lookin’.)

The second is what I’m starting to think of as conceptual accretion. In the early phases of any project, you’re getting your sources and inspirations in order, keeping them together in a big tank somewhere, sloshing around near the front of your brain, to see what happens when you smoosh ’em and smash ’em together. Some of those ideas and facts and twistings might merge or mix, and you start getting a nice solid bolus of… shit, I don’t even know what this precursor material is called, but I can tell you mine comes in boluses, and you keep building them up and compacting them down with more layers of material, like one of those ice-cored snowballs they warned you about at primary school after that boy lost his sight in one eye, until suddenly some certain mass or density is achieved, and criticality occurs.

At this point, any new idea you encounter may well be sucked into the project by the increasingly powerful gravity well focussed on your original idea-bolus. The first few days of this phenomenon are deceptively heartening, as they offer what seem to be new angles on the original target, but after a little while you end up with an accretion disk of rubble the size of a solar system orbiting around an idea so dense and obsessed upon that it is obscured by its own singularity, which not even the light of your own thoughts able to escape unscathed.

 

Come to think of it, Thing Two may well explain Thing One.

It’s what we point to when we say “good”

OK, philosophy-of-literature time. Good buddy and shiny-domed death metal maven Ian Sales has an irate post reiterating his belief that the quality of any piece of literature can be assessed objectively. Go read it, it’s pretty brief. (Unlike this thing.)

So, my instinctive response to this statement is always “NO WAI!!”, but I figured it’s high time I figured out why. Postmodernism – which I’ve always viewed as a lens for examining the mechanics of culture, rather than as an ideological standpoint on how things should work – is a big part of it. Also, reading Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance at a formative age left me with an awestruck fear of the utter hollowness of the word “quality”: like “love”, we say it all the time, but we don’t know what we mean when we say it. Or rather, we know what we mean when we say it, but the assumption that everyone – or indeed anyone – else understands it to mean the same thing is demonstrated to be false countless times every single day. I’m not going to reiterate Pirsig’s assaults on quality here, because that would be counterproductive; suffice to say that if you can’t furnish a universally acceptable definition of a property, then you can’t even begin to defend an objective measure of that property. First principles, innit?

But I’m going to continue anyway, because it seems to me that the text of Ian’s complaint reveals that he’s not actually claiming what he thinks he’s claiming. So, let’s go piece by piece.

If there is no such thing as good – because if it’s entirely subjective and personal, then it’s completely useless as a descriptive term – then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don’t they all choose completely different books?

Now, Ian undermines his own argument here by including the counterargument as a throw-away: yes, “good” is completely useless as a descriptive term. It’s an emotional term, a relational term. Goodness is not an intrinsic property. Goodness is bestowed by the speaker. To argue otherwise is to make a case for a higher being, some deity or demiurge, capricious and inscrutable, that bestows the phlogiston of goodness upon some objects or phenomena, but not upon others; and to make the further case that you can somehow divine the presence of this mystical property, despite lacking a testable methodology for the process.

So how do editors, prize juries and academics choose good books? I submit that they make choices based on their own tastes, and apply – after the fact, and largely subconsciously – retroactive reasoning to justify that taste. That reasoning is informed by unending projects of canon-building and reconstruction; it’s informed by the opinions of others interested in the same field (those opinions being modified by existing biases toward their holders in the assessor), and a variable degree of willingness (or, in some cases, puckish intent) to hold a contrary opinion for its own sake.

And why don’t they all choose different books? Why, but they do – look at the different sorts of fiction published by, for example, Gollancz and Baen, two popular and respected genre publishing houses. If there was an objective measure for quality, then every publishing house in the business would be in a bidding war over the single current best-book-on-the-market. If there were an objective good, an objective best, then we would not observe the spectacular diversity of form and style that pertains to almost every field of the arts, fiction writing included.

They can do all this because the quality of a book can be determined objectively. It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities.

The second sentence here completely undermines the first. If assessing a book’s quality is not an exact science, then it is by definition not objective. If the definition of quality “is subject to changes… or re-evaluation”, then it is by definition not objective. From good ol’ Wikipedia (which, for the sake of gratuitous po-mo snark, I should point out is not a truly objective source, but – or so I’d argue – good enough for purpose here):

A proposition is generally considered to be objectively true when its truth conditions are met and are “mind-independent”—that is, not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.

So, if we could develop a computer program or some sort of manual checklist by which the goodness or quality of a book might be assessed, and have that test agree faultlessly with the opinion of every single person who had ever read the book in question, then we’d have a good case for an objective measure of goodness.

But that’s a project doomed to fail, and not for any reason related to the difficulty of the programming. On the contrary: it falls over because it relies on a unanimous agreement among readers. If quality is truly objective, then it should be self-evident to anyone with the capacity to perceive it. Compare to an objective property, like, I dunno, blueness*: a thing that is blue, that possesses an intrinsic blueness, will be perceived as blue by all who behold it. By way of contrast, I defy you to find a book that would be rated as “good” by every single person who read it, over a realistically-sized sample of readers. Never going to happen. Subjective, you see.

Now, if you want to make an argument that not every reader is qualified to assess the goodness of a book, well, I have some sympathies with that… but it completely undermines this whole “goodness can be measured objectively” thing. So I put it to Ian that he’s not making the argument that he thinks he is.

If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless.

Well, I’m glad to see we agree on something! (Though I’d make the statement more precise by saying “Best [X]” awards are completely pointless as generators of answers to the question they pose, whereas they have a wider set of implicit subcultural and social functions which they evidently achieve quite well.) As measures of quality, awards are only as reliable as their voters… and the above is a very strange defence statement from someone whose regular carping about award shortlists I greatly enjoy. You can’t have your cake and eat it; if awards sometimes – heck, ever – fail to recognise this objective property of goodness and laud a bad book (or even an indifferent or flawed book), then not all voters or jury members are recognising goodness when they see it… which means goodness is being determined subjectively within the system in question.

This is, of course, a microcosm of the actual book marketplace, which frequently sees bestsellers made of books which have been scorched with the universal opprobrium of almost every critic capable of typing a coherent sentence. If there’s an objective goodness to a book, how come some many people not only loved The Da Vinci Code, but adamantly defend their love of it from those who would (quite rightly) point out that its prose is dreadful, its tropes hackneyed, its appeal based largely on seductively specious conspiracy theories?

The defence could be made that those readers – or the voters in our imaginary award – simply don’t have the right checklist or program with which to detect goodness. And I’d agree – to a greater or lesser extent – with that defence, too… while pointing out that it reframes goodness not as an objective property, but as a property that can only be properly assessed by those with access to a specific set of knowledge. This is intrinsically an elitist argument.

And that’s fine: people who work with literature are surely more knowledgeable about it than those who do not; the reader who reads fifty books a year has a more informed opinion than does the person who reads just one. I give greater weight to the opinion of a working mechanic on what car to buy than I do to the opinion of a florist on the same matter. But if you then argue that only the expert opinions have any value at all, you’re silencing a huge swathe of voices, rebuilding the ivory tower. And that’s one of my core arguments in favour of subjective quality: it means I can have my opinion – and argue passionately in defence of it, with all the knowledge I’ve picked up along the way, if the desire takes me to do so – without denying anyone else that same right, and without anyone else being able to deny it to me. Which brings us to:

And studying literature, well, that’s a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual’s value judgment is worth exactly the same another person’s? There’d be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.

Well, no. There is a canon of literature considered to be great, but that canon, as Ian himself pointed out earlier, is in a state of continual (if at times glacially slow) flux, as critics and academics return to obscure oddities from the past to place them on fresh pedestals, toppling a few dusty statues of last year’s heroes in the process. This is subjective consensus generation in action! (The final interview in Delany’s About Writing goes into glorious and intimate detail on the mechanics of canon formation, and it’s his cogent arguments there that I’m making a rough hash of here.)

And while I can’t speak for everyone, for me the value of studying literature is not so much to seek for an objective truth (which is arguably the demesne of science), but to develop a theory and defend it against attack, or modify it in light of new discoveries. Literature, and the study of literature, is a perpetual discourse, a rambling debate upon which no one (hopefully) will ever call time. It’s not the winning, in other words, not the being the rightest, but the taking part. (Yes, I’m being thoroughly idealistic here. After having been warned about the travails of academia over the long term, I’m trying to enjoy my naivete while it lasts.)

OK, then: having, I believe, successfully demonstrated that the objectively-assessed goodness Ian makes claims for cannot actually exist, I want to see if I can tease out what I think he’s really chasing after – because it’s something I, as a fellow writer, am also chasing.

… there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction. It’s what makes one writer more talented, more skilled than another writer. It’s what makes one story worthy of study and another not worth giving away for free.

[…]

… everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research…

There’s an implicit bias in these statements which, when made explicit, turns them into perfectly reasonable and logical statements. That bias is Ian’s perspective as a writer – and not just a writer, but a writer embedded in a community of other writers, critics and literary demagogues.

If “everybody” agreed that clumsy prose and tone-deaf dialogue made for bad fiction, I submit that Ian wouldn’t get much mileage out of his (agreeably entertaining) trolling of Asimov fanpersons! Furthermore, Asimov has his defenders inside the circle as well as outside of it, and their positions might be paraphrased by saying that the value of Asimov’s works are as an important nexus of development in the history of a particular genre. Asimov’s work would likely be bounced by publishers nowadays for being hackneyed and poorly-written, but there was demonstrably a time when that was not so.

So goodness must be a moving target; quality evolves, iterating through countless new attempts by writers and critics to pin down and define “good” writing. Every book written is an attempt to contribute to this evolution, and critical discourse combines with commercial success (or lack thereof) to act as the evolutionary pressures acting upon it.

Ian tweeted to me earlier that “it’s important to me to know how to improve my craft”, and that’s a goal I fully sympathise with; I am trying to do the same. But here again is that schism between the way a writer perceives a book and the way someone who reads for pure pleasure perceives it.

The reader is interested in the affect of the writing as an end unto itself; it matters to them that it succeeds in entertaining (or scaring or enlightening or sensawundering) them, but they are indifferent to how or why that affect is produced. The writer, however, wants to know how that affect is produced, in order that they might replicate the technique (or perhaps avoid it).

By way of analogy: a PC owner doesn’t care about how the code of a program is put together, so long as the software does what they want it to do. But a programmer cares very much about how the results were achieved: could it have been done more elegantly, using less CPU cycles, more function objects, less loops, so on and so forth? The craftsperson’s attitude will always be different to the consumer’s. That’s what makes them a craftsperson – what makes them an artist.

So, to wrap up something that’s already waaaaaay lobger than I meant it to be, here’s a declaration of my own for everyone to kick around:

“Quality or goodness in art is inherently subjective; furthermore, any art for which there can be defined a demonstrable objective measure of quality immediately ceases to become art, and becomes mere engineering. Corollary: much engineering is not actually pure engineering, because its praxis incorporates the subjective value-judgements of its practitioners, predominantly in terms of aesthetics but sometimes also in philosophy or methodology; as such, many if not most good engineers are also, in some respects, artists.”

Discuss. 🙂

[ * – I’m pretty sure there are arguments to be made that blueness isn’t a truly objective property, being a function of our senses and hence fallible. But when you start going in that direction, you can end up saying that even the existence or being of a thing is not objective, and that way lies madness, solipsism or a career in high finance. Philosophy is fun! ]

Petrichor

At thunder’s sullen grumble to the east
the clouds roll in, their dirty woollen grey
a blanket for a tramp. And you will say
“That’s it, that smell! It has a name. At least
I know I saw it on the internet
a while ago
, so it’s A Thing for sure,
no Wikipedimeme!” There’ll be no cure
for curiosity; when you forget
this word you’ll wander Sainsbury’s, slightly high,
a-chanting three full lines (which just popped out
while walking there) as memo, mantra – why?
The rain distracts you, irrigates your thought
with slow warm dusty drops that fall
on concrete slabs, that smell, what is it called?

[ Author’s note: kludgey sonnets a speciality. ]

Paracosmic

So, hello again. Mixed news from Planet Dissertation today: on the plus side, I’ve got a much better (working) title (more on this in a bit), and I’ve got nudging up to 3k of first draft done already; less rosy, I’ve bogged down badly over the last two days or so.

Reasons for this are potentially manifold. For a start, I think I may be coming down with some sort of plague. I woke up on Monday feeling like my lower back had been pummelled with a socket wrench while I slept; experience dictates that this either means I drank way too much the day before or am undergoing some sort of viral assault, and I had maybe two beers all of Sunday. That said, Saturday was a bit more drinky, and involved lots of walking and sitting on awkwardly made pub benches… but I’ve felt rum as hell all day today also, which I’m also trying to put down to other environmental factors, in a kind of desperate attempt at coercing reality itself by barraging it with evidence in favour of my preferred conclusion… so, yeah. Maybe I’m ill, or just a bit run down. No biggie, but, well, schedules – and quality material is hard to come by when my body’s shouting too loud for the brain to work. Slow progress, like ploughing a concrete field with a toy tractor.

Also: I have continued to read Burroughs, to the point where I have decided to stop for a while. Like so many drug-centric writers, he attained something of the same power as the drug that obsessed him. I’d forgotten how much you sink into Burroughs’ writing, like a warm clean bath taken in the bathroom of a filthy squat paved with used needles and empty wraps… and once you’re in there, the prospect of getting out looks very unappealing. And in your own local consensus reality (should you venture there, as I must from time to time), you notice something newly chitinous about your fellow pedestrians, a horrible mechanical grace, a speeding-up of action and urgency like something out of a wartime newsreel, herky-jerky every limb and grinding jaw, Max Schreck lurches and the leers of cornered foxes… Burroughs gets into every cell, tries to make you into him, a colony, your DNA rewriting itself before starting on your body from the inside out, a nanofactory that consumes itself to produce its one and only possible product. What you read can definitely affect you physically — I remember taking two sick-days running off one of my old factory jobs after reading Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, which I spent laying in bed, exhausted and weepy, battering my mind with cheap soapbar hash in the hope of being able to sleep without dreams. Perhaps I’ve overdone it on Burroughs, cooked a grain too many for the comeback spike. If I turkey off immediately after this binge, though, I might just get away without and further ill effects…

… unless that assumption is in and of itself one of said effects, in which case the mugwumps are probably disembarking at Sloane Square as I type. Point being, I’m headed up to Sheffield for work on Thursday afternoon, and I could really do with not getting ill right now. Selah.

Now, yeah, titles. I really liked the original working title I had for this… thing I’m writing, for the sake of the word itself and also because it sums up one of the dominant motifs of the fictional world in question. Regrettably for me, a certain Charlie Stross and a certain Catherynne Valente have both written very well-received (and well remembered) stories with the title Palimpsest in the last fistful of years, so I can’t use that, and have know it from the start. (OK, technically I could use it, there’s nothing to stop me, but it would haunt me forever, because that’s the way my brain works. Selah.) But in a serendipitous fashion, an alternative just rolled on out of my Twitter timestream this afternoon, courtesy Gary Gibson.

A definition of paracosm:

paracosm is a detailed imaginary world involving humans and/or animals, or perhaps even fantasy or alien creations. Often having its own geography, history, and language, it is an experience that is developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time: months or even years.

Now, any genre writer or critic will recognise that as being either a fully-fledged secondary world, or something that would wander toward the liminal fantasies of Farah Mendleshohn’s deliberately provocative taxonomy of fantastic literature: fantasies where the demarcation between the ‘real’ world and the fantastical elements in play – not to mention the actuality of their fantastic-ness (fantasticality?) – is elusive for the reader, and very often for the narrators too. (I’m probably mangling that definition a bit, but I plan to go back and re-read that chapter sometime soon, so I’ll leave it for now.) But the suggestion of childhood and immaturity around paracosm as a term fits nicely, because I’ve realised that what I’m really doing with this novella is exorcising a whole load of mental baggage associated with Portsmouth and the years I spent there, flailing my way through adolescence and a succession of rewritten selfs/identities.

Which sounds absurdly pretentious, of course, and makes it little different from much of my writing to date, but this story is much more explicitly set in a recognisable Portsmouth, and isn’t going to be a ‘proper’ science fiction or fantasy story. It’s a slipstreamy kind of thing, and the metafictional aspects make that even more slippery; I’m deep into unknown territory, here, and kinda making it up as I go along. Which is why it’s incredibly frustrating to get bogged down – if I can make anything happen, why can’t I get myself out of this transition?

The obvious answer is that I can get myself out of it, and that I just haven’t found the right route yet… and it occurs to me that thinking about paracosms might help me find it. (As might reading less Burroughs.) So, that’s the plan: pick something new to read, read it, and head back to the cliff-face tomorrow with my pickaxe all shone up and sharpened.

And that, ladies and gents, is how you publicly pep-talk yourself out of a writing funk.

Can’t believe I never tried it before.

[ Physician’s note: all optimism herein should be considered retrospectively null and void in the event of poor progress tomorrow. The patient must not be unduly encouraged in these grotesque performative ramblings. ]

23 skidoo!

So, welcome to the first of hell knows how many (or how few) Dissertation Diary entries. Analysis of our creative work is an important component of the grade, with an emphasis on analysing process, inspiration and sources. This means some sort of documentation of the process is necessary; I’ll need to mine it heavily for the ‘rationale’ piece, so I can demonstrate what I was trying to do, and what I did to achieve that. It’s a surprisingly difficult way to think about my own work, even though it’s a component of the ‘critical mode’ that I apply to everything else I read. An odd little ego-firewall built into the brain, there; like a Dunning-Kruger prophylactic.

Now, the way I write means I kinda end up self-documenting as I go; it’s a by-product of the process. When I have a question about what needs to happen next, or where a character wants to go, or even just which compass-point I should be pointing the plot-jalopy toward, I tend to just literally ask myself that question and answer it on the page in front of me (screen, notebook, whatever). I picked this method up from reading John Berlyne’s mammoth work of obsessive fan-scholarship, Powers: Secret Histories, which includes images of pages from Powers’ original scripts and notebooks, where you can see him doing just that[1]. “So, maybe Harry’s just lost his job? That could be good — but no, he needs to keep the job a bit longer because Sally will meet him there, but not until after her courtcase, which hasn’t happened at this point (though we could have the courtcase scene earlier on as a false flag)…” (I’m not paraphrasing there so much as showing you how it works out on the page when I do it.)

This leaves me with a bunch of metadata chunks that describe how I came up with the chunk of text-proper that follows it. The transition from one to the other can happen mid-sentence, and often does (techniques that get the words coming out are the ones that get kept). While it’s not common for me to argue about technique in these braindumps, they stand as a window into my own mindset as I wrote them, and that will make the storying of the stylistic choices I make during writing and editing far easier, as well as sounding more self-reflective than saying “that’s just how it looked like it should be written, y’know?”(which, if I’m honest, is about as much as I can ever recall of the process of writing immediately after the process has ceased… assuming, of course, that the true fugue-state of Actual Writing has happened; by contrast, I can recall every single second spent in the more easily-accessed state of Trying To Write, in horrible and vivid detail.)

All of which is a rambling way of explaining that whatever gets posted here will be like the next layer of meta-ness out from those raw notes. I will probably do some kicking around of the bigger questions that crop up in the writing processs here, not least because – beyond the initial concept and character and a few ideas for set-pieces – I’m making it up as I go along. This is a deliberate choice, and a chance to push against a long-held personal hang-up, the “you can’t start writing the story until you can see the whole of its shape in your mind” fallacy. The first half of the course has convinced me this isn’t the case (or at least isn’t a cast-iron Law), and writing in a different way will make me more conscious of process, which in turn will make the documentation of said process easier. That’s the theory, anyway. Yeah.

Speaking of theory, though, the novella-to-be is already veering hard into metafictional territory (which wasn’t unexpected), so I figure a record of contextual guff might be useful, or at least interesting (to me). Especially as I’m planning to do some cut-up stuff in the text. Which brings me (finally, elliptically) to the title of this post. Now, as I’m doing cut-ups, I need to be going to some good primary sources, and who’s the man for cut-ups? Ol’ Bill Burroughs, of course. So I got myself Word Virus, the Burroughs ‘reader’ anthology, and dug up his original article on the method (which is now manifold, with dozens of re-annotated or re-introduced examples scattered all over the intertubes).

Now, Burroughs is a sychronicity trigger, perhaps because of his own fascination with sychronicity. I’ve also heard this called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon – a phenomenon whereby shortly after first encountering a concept or idea or person, you subsequently run into loads of things that connect back to it or them in really obvious ways. Think of it as a more paranoid version of “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon”, if you like; it’s a pattern-making mind connecting three dots and calling it an elephant, perhaps. Whatever the cause, it happens, and it always feels odd, like a mild deja vu that rings on for weeks with occasional spikes of volume or intesity, like the chime of a temple gong.

Today’s example, for your delectation (or for posterity, or to kill the time while I wait for them to finally announce whether BoJo gets to keep his crown for another four years). While doin’ my Inbox Zero, I find an email from a guy telling me about the piece he wrote for the LA Review Of Books for the A E van Vogt’s centenary. So I click through, and there’s a page of all his van Vogt pieces all linked in a row. Scroll down to the World of Null-A review, encounter reference to Alfred Korzybski and his theory of general semantics. Look up Korzybski on Wikipedia… discover footnote to the effect that Burroughs went to one of Korzybski’s workshops. See?

So I took things to Twitter, as I am wont to do. My reasons for including the results should become clear upon reading them:

The sphincter of Theory

While bleating about the inevitable synchronicities attendant on reading Bill Burroughs…

Storified by Paul Graham Raven · Fri, May 04 2012 18:46:41

"There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking." KorzybskiPaul Graham Raven
As I probably should have seen, reinvestigating Burroughs for my dissertation is becoming a cascading tree of sychronicities…Paul Graham Raven
Even when I go to look up something that seems unrelated for a different purpose, it all points back to Burroughs…Paul Graham Raven
Question is, given metafictional status of dissertation piece already established, can i fold these synchronicities back into the text?Paul Graham Raven
I may have disappeared up what a writer of my acquaintance once referred to as "the sphincter of Theory".Paul Graham Raven
@PaulGrahamRaven as long as you cite your question on twitter in the references, I think it is fineS0B
@PaulGrahamRaven I didn’t even understand the question…Matt Wingett
@S0B But that means I’ll have to also cite your reply, and this counter-reply… #dividebyzeroPaul Graham Raven
@paulgrahamraven: hopefully not into The Colon of No Return.Brendan Carney Byrne
@PaulGrahamRaven What would Žižek do?S0B
@S0B He’d say "the problem is not that Kung Fu Panda is inherently socialist; it’s that he doesn’t appear not to be", maybe.Paul Graham Raven
@BrendanCByrne Semicolon, Shirley? ;)Paul Graham Raven
@PaulGrahamRaven “the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” as well you knowS0B
@paulgrahamraven: don’t call me, Shirley. looks like I picked a bad day to quit painkillers. etc etc.Brendan Carney Byrne
@PaulGrahamRaven Use more lube^Wdirect social engagement.Eleanor Saitta

Hmm. Well, I guess when you’re doing cut-ups, everything’s literally grist for the mill.

And that’s probably enough DD for now, as I’ve put in about the same wordcount on it as I have today’s fiction output. There may be more of this to come. Hell, at some point I might even get around to explaining the concept, explaining why that concept led inevitably to metafiction, and explaining (to myself, in increasing panic) why I thought any of it was a good idea when I started.

[ 1 – The great irony is that I have yet to read a Powers novel in published form. ]

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …