The Link Hand of God

Right! Hello again, everyone. After a ridiculously hectic month, I’m on holiday for the next week, giving me a chance to catch up on all the admin, reading, blogging and other writing I haven’t had time to do. And where better to start than with a links post? Some of these, obviously, are fairly old…

28 thoughts on “The Link Hand of God

  1. Okay, the comments to the Ballard/Clute there are funny, in a slightly sad sort of way. I wonder if the “parking tickets” guy will follow Clute over to SH?

  2. On the other hand, the Grossman/Clute makes me wonder how long before Clute’s obsession with capital-S Story pushes him all the way through the magic mirror into the drawn-out unhappy life of an M. John Harrison character.

  3. I do adore the Clute-related comments. Particularly the one who gets very annoyed on the grounds that Clute is probably one of those people who bristles “Do you know who I am?” when criticised… despite the fact that Clute hasn’t responded to any of the comments.

    It’s like the Harry Enfield characters who were invariably filled with self-righteous rage over the fictitious transgressions of celebrities.

    “Oh I admire Clute. His stylistic quirks bring a real sense of performance to a form of writing that is all too often merely functional and his sustained insight into genre writing continues to give science fiction and fantasy a sense of intellectual continuity and evolution BUT when I hear about him traveling to disaster areas in order to loot the bodies of the dead and help himself to abandoned family heirlooms from the destroyed homes of the victims I say ‘Oi! Clute! NAAA-OH!'”

  4. In the Ballard comments, the bizarre line “Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan talks like this guy writes.” delighted me on so many levels.

  5. I’ve never read the comments on a Clute review before. Now I see why my criticisms of language don’t get much traction around here. Every time I note an awkward sentence construction, people must hear echoes of the mouth-breathers whining about Clute ala “Seriously, how exactly is it that you have a job writing anything other than parking tickets?”


  6. I’ve seen the commenters at SH whining about some story or other being “too hard,” so I can imagine that the same sort of unappreciation will meet Clute there. Some people will always prefer dross to gold.

  7. Karen, there’s a kind of failure at sentence construction that comes from not knowing how to write, and there’s a kind of failure at sentence construction that comes of knowing too damn much about how to write. One’s a bad Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich movie and the other’s a bad Peter Greenaway or Werner Herzog movie. Parking Tickets Guy doesn’t make it evident that he can see the difference.

  8. This is what I wrote on a blog which linked to one of Clute’s reviews. I was in asshole-mode, but I stand by what I said.

    I see. A review must expand vocabulary, validate 13 years of post-secundary education, showcase sophisticated erudition (BIG WORDS) and therefore be intellectually rewarding to read.

    If the enumeration of strengths and shortcomings of the work under scrutiny doesn’t add up to a clear, albeit personal and open to debate, evaluation of merit, well, that’s not the main purpose, right?

    In the course of my English Literature classes I’ve read, among others, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, The Faerie Queene, The Changeling, A Journal of the Plague Year,The Mysteries of Udolpho, Vanity Fair, Zanoni. I don’t find Clute particularly obscure or challenging, nor does he enlarge my vocabulary or convey a frisson of literary excitement.

    He does, however, give the impression of a mismatch between style and function, or at the very least of unnecessary sophistication. To wonder what’s the point is only a natural reaction.

    Some of his coinages (”realpolitiking consiglieri”) taken in isolation may be considered aptly descriptive turns of phrase and felicitous creations , but the cumulative effect is floridness with no apparent purpose, and therefore bathos. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that the phrase “indurated durance vile” has been chosen because it conveys some particular shade of meaning with regards to the type of confinement we may encounter in The Windup Girl.

    But maybe I’m too literate to appreciate what Clute’s trying to do.
    I may be misled by my studies of classical rhetoric – the science, or art, of harmonizing goal, content and form, which was strict in prescribing which kind of style was appropriate for various types of discourse, and aware of the potential pitfalls of wrong choices.

    “For instance, bordering on the Grand style, which is in itself praiseworthy, there is a style to be avoided. To call this the Swollen style will prove correct. For just as a swelling often resembles a healthy condition of the body, so, to those who are inexperienced, turgid and inflated language either in new or in archaic words, or in clumsy metaphors, or in diction more impressive than the theme demands
    Most of those who fall into this type, straying from the type they began with, are misled by the appearance of grandeur and cannot perceive the tumidity of the style. ” (from the Rhetorica ad Herennium).

  9. Asshole mode. Yes, I see

    Might we consider the possibility that Clute employs a rich style because he considers his subject, science fiction, to be a rich thing even when he is considering those examples of it that fall short of the mark?

  10. Or alternately that style is an end in and of itself regardless of literary form?

    Criticism is a creative activity and there’s no reason why style should not be part of that creative output. Not all criticism has to be written in the style of an academic essay.

  11. The point is not “examples falling short of the mark”.

    The point is that style is always a function of purpose.
    The purpose of criticism is to illuminate the subject under scrutiny, not to divert attention to the creativity of the critic.
    A rich style might be justified when discussing authors who use language to that effect (say, Gene Wolfe) but is ridiculously dissonant when discussing authors who choose to employ simple and transparent prose.

    And it goes without saying that a rich style is in no way inherently better than a plain one.
    Simenon was a GREAT stylist, and yet he only used simple phrases and commonplace words.

  12. That is one view of the matter Marco but there are others. Approaches that are entirely legitimate.

    Clute is jarring because he’s pretty much the only SF critic who is a stylist. This is doubly rare as SFF writing is becoming more and more hostile to stylisation. There are now few genre writers that could be described as stylists and so to have an SF critic be one appears ludicrous, eccentric, self-agrandising.

    The view you seem to be adopting is a very deflationary view of the role of the critic. It makes them into these parasitical midwives who exist purely in order to distribute opinions about product. Obviously, if you take this view then anything other than a transparent prose-style is inappropriate.

    But this is not the only view of what it is that critics do.

  13. No, that’s not what I said.
    I can conceive of a variety of stylistic choices that are appropriate in any given case, and of course essays can be a very personal and creative form of literature.
    A sf critique could be the starting point for a rapturous philosophical flight into life, the universe and everything.
    But you still have to calibrate your stylistic choices according to what you want to do with your subject, otherwise you’ll misfire.
    The Windup Girl review doesn’t offer striking insights. Written in plain language, it would be pretty conventional.
    Written in overly ornate language, it’s jarring.
    I’m not really bothered by it that much, mind you; but that’s my opinion.
    Now, the fact that there are precious few stylists in modern sf, that’s another matter.
    It’s the result of a double exclusion: style is not the main concern for commercial genre fiction, while the more literary genre fiction is not generally read/reviewed/discussed outside the genre. Every genre is a microcosm that reproduces in itself the subdivisions of the mainstream between commercial/well-crafted/experimental-innovative-literary works.

  14. Yes, as Marco says, it is not enough to simply say that Clute is a stylist, he is a very particular type of stylist.

    I will have to have a think and collect my thoughts but there are a lot interesting things here. I have a lot of sympathy for Marco’s point that style is a function of purpose. I tend to find Clute hit and miss. At the same time I am very glad he exists and, as Jonathan says, he is all the more provocative for the impoverished state of the genre (I am a lot less forgiving of SF than Adam).

  15. I wouldn’t go that far but I do find it ironic the amount of flack you get for being a snobby member of the literati when you are clearly – how to you say? – a trufan.

    Going back to my main point, Jonathan says: “Clute is jarring because he’s pretty much the only SF critic who is a stylist.” That simply isn’t true, unless he actually meant “a stylist above all else” which just gets us back to where we started. It seems to me undeniable that the writing at, say, Punkadiddle is the product of a stylist. The style is very different to Clute’s but that does not mean it does not exist and it might even mean that it is more useful. This is perhaps a tediously bourgeois view but, unlike Jonathan, I’m not sure style and utility can be so cleanly divorced in criticism.

  16. Martin, I think you’re right about the bone of contention, I don’t think that style necessarily does follow from function simply because sometimes style is a function in its own right.

    Beyond that, I don’t agree that Clute is a stylist “above all else” as that suggests that the content of his reviews are invariably second to the style of the writing and I don’t think that’s correct. Nor do I think that his style actively impedes the delivery of his opinions. I would say that Clute is a stylist for style’s own sake, which is slightly different.

    To me, the discussion to be had about Clute’s writing style is not whether or not his writing style is useful. Rather it is, more basically, what the actual point of it is. Cocteau said that for some people, style is a way of saying very simple things in a very complex way, but for him it was a way of saying very complex things very simply. I’m not sure that Clute’s style is articulating anything particularly complex.

    As someone who hasn’t studied literature beyond GCSE and whose understanding of style is rudimentary, I can’t always see what Clute’s choice of words and cadences brings that a more traditional transparent style does not. There could be something there, I don’t know. So instead I tend to see his writing as being like the embellishments of a piece of baroque music : The trills, improvisations and repetitions do not serve any purpose but they are simply there and they serve their own aesthetic function.

    It’s like if you see a performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Take the Da Tempeste aria… it’s written in a certain way but it’s kind of expected that the performers will embellish it in their own way. It strikes me that asking why Clute adds in the strange words and phrases he does is like asking why the singer inserts embellishments into the text. It doesn’t add any meaning to the song but it’s kinda pretty and is an end in itself.

  17. I don’t think that style necessarily does follow from function simply because sometimes style is a function in its own right.

    A primary focus on style can be the main function/purpose of a text, certainly. But not usually the main function of a critique, unless it is very clear that the work under scrutiny is merely inspiration or pretext.
    Style is an end in itself, but not every style is suited to all occasions.
    Mismatch between tone and content is the root of humour and parody, camp and kitsch; the dividing line between baroque and kitsch is thin and to some degree subjective, but Clute straddles it dangerously.
    He could be justified if his unusual words and turns of phrase were in service of a clearer expression of what he wants to communicate. Sometimes it is so, but more often than not the cumulative effect is sophistication with little added value.
    It’s the equivalent of an entire meal rich in sugar and fats and low on protein.

  18. What is important to me about Clute’s style is that he is a reviewer of fiction, of stories told via language, who himself displays an appreciation for language: for choosing just the right word; for how words sound in combination. There is a joy in language in his reviews. Because it matters to me, as a reader, how skillfully a tale is told at the level of language, I find it difficult to trust reviewers who do not show such an appreciation.

  19. Martin: “Punkadiddle is the product of a stylist”

    I’ll take that as a compliment.

    “I do find it ironic the amount of flack you get for being a snobby member of the literati when you are clearly – how do you say? – a trufan”

    God, yes. I do love SF. At the same time I realise (and I think I’ve become reconciled to) the fact that for many SF fans I will always have the mark of Cain upon me.

  20. who himself displays an appreciation for language yes

    for choosing just the right word not really

    for how words sound in combination indurated durance vile?

    There is a joy in language in his reviews yes

    how skillfully a tale is told at the level of language or how skillfully a review tells not very much at all

    reviewers who do not show such an appreciation
    I’m not a reviewer, and I do appreciate language(s).
    In the comments to a review by Adam Roberts in Strange Horizons I even translated the ending of a German short story he mentioned, but that goddamn literary elitist ignored me.

  21. You’ve really got a bee in your bonnet about those three words, haven’t you? To be honest, the more I see them repeated, the more I find myself liking them; they actually feel hard and ugly, the shape and sound of them, in the way that what they mean is hard and ugly, and in the way that The Windup Girl can be hard and ugly.

  22. Reviews and criticism are a literary form of their own, and reading a good review can be a pleasure in itself, without regard to the work under criticism. While academic criticism is usually not written to please the reader, the criticism offered to the general reader can and should be.

    A piece of criticism has no obligation to be naked information, like an instruction manual, or to be written in a style that mirrors the work, or a style accessible to the lowest level of literacy.

    A good critic does more than dissect the work under review; a good critic, like Clute, brings added value to the analysis, brings something of himself to illuminate the work and its connections to the wider world of literature. When I come to a work of criticism by someone like Clute, it is in anticipation that I will both learn something and take enjoyment in the learning.

  23. Lois

    Reviews and criticism are a literary form of their own

    Yes, but this means they have their own set of rules and expectations.
    There’s a place for this kind of writing:

    “The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.

    Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.”

    but it’s usually not reviews or criticism.

    reading a good review can be a pleasure in itself, without regard to the work under criticism

    but a review is only good if it engages meaningfully the work under criticism; otherwise even the pleasure derived from its aesthetic dimension can turn to frustration.

    A good critic does more than dissect the work under review; a good critic, like Clute, brings added value to the analysis, brings something of himself to illuminate the work and its connections to the wider world of literature.

    Well, SOMETIMES I feel that Clute “brings something of himself to a work” in order to dazzle more than illuminate.

    Maybe we should start a “John Clute Reviews Club”.

    You all
    still have to work a lot on your style,
    since I generally enjoy your reviews more than Clute’s ;)

  24. A Clute Reviews Club would be a very good thing.

    I’d like to become a Clute when I grow up.

  25. Actually, I winder if there might be a generational element to this.

    I’ve been reading Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen and that’s filled with incredibly purple prose. Prose that is distracting at times and which also allows certain points to slip out without the type of forensic nailing down of definitions and terms you might expect from a sustained work of scholarship. The book was written in 1952.

    The problem is that, I think that we’ve kind of been bamboozled into expecting the style favoured by academia to be the norm and the benchmark for non-fiction writing. This is largely because of a huge expansion not only in who goes to university but also in what constitutes subject matter worthy of academic consideration.

    But Clute is not an academic critic. Plus he started writing about SF at a time when it was ignored by academic critics almost entirely.

    So I feel that approaching Clute’s writing from the standpoint of what is good academic writing is something of a category mistake. Why should he obey that set of rules?

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