Since it has come to my attention that someone has a certain something against me for various aesthetic/philosophical reasons, and also because I triggered him horribly (and very purposefully too), I decided to make use of the opportunity to think deeply through and through what I think about the nature of Art overall and whatever else that needs to be thought through. This will serve as my log for those thoughts. That way if anyone ever asks me about this kind of thing ever again I can point over to here, and then focus on my own craft of writing.
I will admit that I am very bad when it comes to structured top-down argumentation in the standard-style. Losing 200 or so debates in debate club was more or less what made me realize this. It is a very very painful thing to find that all those magical words that you had planned out for yourself has disappeared in the crux of the moment.
I will also admit that I am a very sore loser. Part of this comes from the fact that 50% of National Service experience is what you would call people (to use the term from Goodfellas) “breaking your balls”. Thus I myself was indoctrinated into this sacred art of ball-breaking, and it has carried on within my heart – both for good and for ill.
From these two statements, then, the caveat is this. Half of what I say is always messily arranged, and my replies to people who affront me are most likely going to be a mix of blatantly sarcastic and/or aggressive. These are traits that are better to have if you are someone like Jonathan Swift, and worse to have if you are someone like a Prime Minister.
But, in this case, although I can’t promise a proper arrangement, I will try to outline my thoughts as clearly as possible.
And if you are wondering why I bother with a thing like this, I can only reply: Surely I Must.
I can imagine a book with a character that is sketched out well. I can imagine a book with two characters that are sketched out well. If I were to rate things on this scale, I would say that the first book is definitely worse than the second book.
Of course, a well-sketched character is completely different from my own personal sensibilities. If I was a moralist I wouldn’t like to see a well-sketched out mass murderer character. This was some of the reasons that criticisms were made against Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – because they didn’t like the implications that Kubrick made a film where a psychotic like Alex could be placed in a position of sympathy.
Yet, if a character is sketched out well. I cannot deny his presence no matter what my personal disposition towards that character is. That is simply the standard I believe should be abided by.
Of course, that is only a level one. Quantity doesn’t necessarily determine quality. If two well-sketched characters are placed in a structure but the whole falls apart – then it’s an entirely different matter.
Similarly. If a book delves deeply into a microcosm well (e.g. a Chekhov short story or good family drama), and a book delves deeply into a macrocosm well (e.g. Science Fiction or some huge book on society). Then a book who does both well must surely be considered a better book than either of the two.
A small scale family drama has the possibility of being fitted into a large scale work about society. Of course it’s an entirely different matter whether it’s done well or not, but one can imagine the fact that it is done well.
And one can also imagine the fact that a book like that is joyous from start to finish, has a good pacing of humor, has a good intricacy of plot, and fulfills all the great merits that good entertainment contains.
What brings it all together, though, is unity of theme and structure. Something which is wholly lacking in the excesses of most kinds of ‘experimental’ fiction out there. Placing together 15 different ideas, styles of dialogue, or whatever must contribute to an overall structure or it is extremely flaccid. That isn’t exactly experimentation but merely laziness – stepping out of the backdoor with the wave of a hand saying it’s ‘too profound’ or ‘represents the innate chaos of life itself’.
While life itself might be like that, to write fiction in such a way is completely useless. Something may have the veneer of chaos, but if its chaos for chaos sake, then it wouldn’t be anything to even place a finger on.
Now some people might point to the fact that people have differing tastes. While that may be true, those are only the specifics. Despite divergences in the specifics, the basic structures of cognition are going to be the same, at least until transhumanism kicks in or something weird like that.
The problem is that, firstly, the structure of such cognitive functions are still being widely debated and are very very hard to pin down. Even if one pins them down, the very nature of it will still be elusive to the sense. You’ll only be able to grasp it, here and there, intuitively. The mind is a factory of illusions after all, and can’t hold itself within itself all of the time.
Yet, there are quite a number of people who consider the fact that since it can’t be pinned down on a precise level, then surely it must be non-existent. Those kinds of people would be the type of people who feel that the Godel Incompleteness Theorems refutes all maths, and virulently decided that they would never ever do maths at all since it was either inconsistent or incomplete. What mathematicians did was that they simply chose to keep the system of mathematics as ‘incomplete’ and went on their merry way.
The gist is that, while all of it seems to be a bit hazy upon interrogation, there is no reason to throw the idea of criticism in to chaos. Words like ‘plot’, ‘narrative’, ‘theme’, or ‘character’ are still the bread and butter of criticism. There are still ways of saying that something is definitely better than something else, although the problem is that most critics who try to say this focus on the wrong thing. They focus on specifics, and not structure. This is why people are quick to label genre-fiction as deficient because they cannot see how a structure can be carried over from one to the other.
Basically, criticism is hard. A person who does something completely different that no one has seen before – but it still manages to work – may still have critics be predisposed to call it a ‘failed device’ because they only view it as a strange literary device in the micro-sense, and can’t see how it fits in the overall structure (e.g. some critics criticism of Slaughterhouse Five’s time travel fragmentary style). Likewise, a person who sees something completely different may like its novelty in the micro-sense, but be unable to see that the entire structure is slipshod because he views things in such a small nature (e.g. what I previously thought about Infinite Jest and Pynchon). Some people will say that it is better to be simple and plainwritten all the way. Others will say that it’s better to be maximalist. I’d say that, regardless of whether one is plainwritten or maximalist, the answer is simply to be precise to what you want to convey.
(It is more probable, though, that a person who focuses on being plainwritten will have a better critical sense than a person who decides to be maximalist and writes in a cluttered and messy way. The former must necessarily always edit himself, while the latter can let his subconscious do the work and foist it as poetic.)
In terms of the specifics of criticism, there are no rules. In terms of the structure, though, you can easily pinpoint a few general rules.
Earlier I wrote about a critic of Kara no Kyoukai who chose to attack the work on purely language reasons. This, to me, is extremely silly. While John Cassavetes may be a director who directs purely with improvisation, and Kubrick a crazy perfectionist – The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and A Clockwork Orange both have great things to say about the nature of violence and all that. A person may be able to write like a bag of bricks if it has purpose. If it has no structured purpose, then there is no saving the work no matter how well the writer stylizes it.
What the critic should have said about Kara no Kyoukai was that, while the specifics of the plot are semantically curious, it doesn’t go that far off from a melodramatic guy meets psycho-girl storyline. This trope has existed since probably early Gothic fiction or Gothic Japanese fiction. I think Yumeno Kyusaku probably has a few works that are like that. I’ve seen the trope appear from HakoMari all the way to Denpa Teki Na Kanojo, and while Nasu dresses it up with the dual-gender concept, it really doesn’t stray that far from that kind of premise. I can even pinpoint it all the way back to early horror stories or Eastern fairy tales of ghostly lovers.
On the other hand, to use a work I recently read, Romeo/Mareni actually fared better than this in the Shinju no Yakata Twins Route by using the Gothic setting as an outline to delve into the nature of introversion. This is not really a new way to do up the trope, but it provides something more tangibly human to grasp onto. Even though Shiki and the Twins are painted in completely different ways, and Kara no Kyoukai might have more action and interesting concepts to butter it up, the core structure of the Twins Route is simply better, and does it with so much less words than the entire 7 volumes of Kara no Kyoukai. Personally the Kara no Kyoukai movies are some of my favorite movies in the world, since I watched the whole thing around 2-3 times a few years ago, but I can still state that Shinju no Yakata’s Twins Route is a better work.
The rules then, are simply to write good characters (which is completely different from writing realistic characters, since characters don’t have to be realistic to be good – just adequately caricatured or archetyped), write without cliché, or, if you’re using a cliché, seek to undermine it rather than dwell upon it, write with humor or gravitas, write about large ideas while linking these large ideas to smaller emotions, and try to capture as much of life is possible. These are simple in theory but hard in practice.
Finding out what works and what doesn’t work is very much both an act of creation and discovery, and requires much insight going beyond the penetration of mere ‘likes’, which is why it’s so hard. But not to do so is a solipsistic approach to Art. There was no way that people born on the bread and butter of classical meter could have guessed that Walt Whitman was coming just around the corner. Very little people working in Fantasy Action fiction can also perceive of the way in which someone could write something like Hanachirasu – where action tropes are utilized to commentate on a higher purpose while still keeping the entertainment and action factor. I couldn’t have conceived of it either until I actually saw it myself. At the very least, I recognized it, and now I can use it. That is why I became interested in the creation of logically sublime action scenes.
What a person likes is born solely from circumstance, and is thus rooted in biology. They may be able to derive a few ideas from that – but that is like reading a medical textbook and still choosing to trust in early Greek Medicine because it seems to describe more of how you ‘feel’ than what actually occurs inside. You might be a good scholar of Ancient Greek Medicine, but you’ll never be a good doctor. You may be happy about that fact, but that bears little relation to the activity itself. A lot of people are good opinionaters, and are perfectly happy to be good opinionaters, and some of the opinions they come up with may be extremely beautiful, but… you know the rest.
I am extremely susceptible to sentiment, even when I know it’s manipulative. I felt myself tear up at the most melodramatic moments in Interstellar even though I knew that it was basically a rip off of Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star, and I also fall for everything that Jun Maeda can throw at me. I can feel sad at something as overblown and angsty as Mari Okada scripts, and I can feel pumped at ridiculous action scenes. I am the kind of person who can absolutely like everything in the universe – from death metal to simplistic beat-driven pop. I was even completely drawn in to something like Inside Out, and was completely devastated at ‘that moment’ (everyone knows it).
But feelings are ultimately transient, and what causes something to stick is structure. The best works out there are hyper-mnemonics. The moment you come across the situation in your life, your mind will immediately be drawn to that turn of phrase or moment – provided, of course, that you yourself are susceptible to the work in the first place. More importantly, the memory of the work will never entrap you in mere remembrance, but create a clarity and drive. It is to this extent that a work will answer questions and not merely posit them, but the onus of the action is on the viewer.
Scientologists, apparently, force their members into secluded areas where they have to read the entire works of L Ron Hubbard until their head is entirely spinning full of Scientology doctrines. These Scientologists may think be reminded of L Ron Hubbard whatever they do, and they may be perfectly happy in doing so. Does that mean that the works of Scientology are hyper-mnemonics? I would say no, because it merely seeks to perpetuate their own biases and never open themselves to the world around them. On the other hand, a poet like John Donne, despite being completely Christian, can still say a lot about the nature of Love (and its illusions) in a deep, wry, and striking manner.
(For example The Dream by Donne deals with the illusions of romance struck against fierce realities of the world, which makes it on another level than so many of Shakespeare’s romance sonnets that are merely content to perpetuate the illusions without a counter-thesis. They may be nicer stylistically, depending on your aesthetics, but The Dream is a level higher.)
A work is a strange thing that can cause someone to reach that general structure through something crafted from specifics – and that is why works of art can be so disparate but lead to the same point. There isn’t a science behind it (at least not yet, though there may be. I would rather say it could happen so I wouldn’t be surprised when it does) – but there are definitely general strokes that can be sought out. Criticism is exactly that.
I myself do not consider myself particularly good at criticism yet, but I will not be the one who says that it doesn’t exist.
These are some exercises to illustrate the silliness of specificity.
I will write a scene where a businessman goes home from work feeling dejected.
“He went home. He placed his suit on the sofa and threw himself onto it. He sighed. The world was hideous and weary to him. He wasn’t raking in much, and the times were getting tougher, and it all felt like it was going to waste.”
“As he walked home, the shadows of the street raised themselves up and around him. It added a heaviness to his step. A dark cloudiness. He turned the doorknob, and the calm light of the interior came into his eyes. He threw himself onto the sofa like a log. The world was hideous and weary to him, and he was choking inside it. The times were weighing themselves into his brain, and it felt it was all going to be a waste.”
“As he trundled on the cemented walks, while whispery the winds of sheer darkness swallowed and churned in his mental-scape. Darkness and drear all madness and milling about. Finally he reached the shiny and unornate doorknob of his house, where he entered the fray of full comfort at last. Homeliness echoed through and through. The comfort was overwhelming as such to send him sprawling torpedo-like into the sofa, where he simmered in his fatigue like a ham on a pan. The world was hideous and weary and seemed like so many gutters spilling cement onto his scalp, and the times were slough and it felt like it was all a waste.”
“Upon the cement, warped as lion’s den
Did he stalk as heavy as Denmark’s slain
King of his own bounty, would pursue
Hope as slender winds, to come of home
But the sheer darkness swallowed him in night
As Lucifer burnt of dogs in his dwelled domain.
A knob would overturn, cause a flask
Of homeliest ambrosia to lighten his load
In the fray of comfort full at last
And lighter hands would make his comfort weave.
He tossed himself upon the plush
Like a corpse thrown in graven stone
Thought about the hideous wear of world
And black bile of day that sunk in skull
The times of rough, and all a waste
Oh when will end – my mire, my arc?”
“As Spinoza once proclaimed, that a stone would merely want to bask in the being of a stone. So he walked home with that in his sense. A very interesting paradox can thus arise from this. The old concept of the labyrinth that the Greeks so drew from Zeno of Elea – that refutes the idea of distance and merely proclaims it to be all a dream. But if we take the idea that the world is all in perception as the Idealists would admire – can we say that such paradoxes are not merely states of mind? Then we shall say that he was in such a state of mind. The paradox of distance was all apparent to him, and he was like Achilles chasing after the tortoise. Yet, he proved the paradox insignificant. He reached his house. In a way that a person finds will to be sacrosanct over sight, he did not know how he had arrived there. Etc…”
“A little murmur passed over him, like a grey sprite rolled up in a blender. Place so many grapes, and apricots, and peaches into that blender and the light whirl of mush would have so reflected his train of thought. The salutations of a work day sunk into the sunset brushed upon the skyline. Soon, the grey would mesmerize like a magician playing top-hat. A great furry rabbit kind of night (ah, was that a poem? What poem?). His shadows scoped behind him like lonely paper motifs, as the kind that were pressed upon dainty children’s book covers. Shadows of the innocence? Milieu of the thought as a child – he bounded back into the time when nanny would wipe his snot off him when he was tussling through the see-saws and the playground spectacle. Listen – memory. The ear heard it back, but was enclosed.”
Now, a person would be able to like some of these better than others, but one can imagine a scenario where all of these would work out. The overly poetic kind could provide a light irony if used correctly. But if we do not care about this man coming back from his workplace then all the stylization would be for naught. On the other hand, if the author has done up the structure quite well, then if he were to write in any of the styles above, we must accept that it works even if we don’t like the writing style.
When reading the work itself, your mind can flee to all sorts of other poetic connexions and philosophical insights, but we must make a clear distinction between what actually appears within the work itself, and what appears from the flight of fancy. Surely some people can write a good autobiographical essay using a work as a jumping off point, but in my realm of things, criticism is the ability to catch that elusive structure into some tangible explanation.
The bottomline is simply – be ambitious!
Never idolize any authors. Kill all false idols. Destroy genre barriers. Find greatness in works, but rather than harp on them, use those works as jumping off points to discover new methods that work (and don’t just fall into crap like so many other ‘experimental’ fiction), always be self-aware about writing (since some great works have been made solely from intuition rather than clarity). Criticism is the domain of finding such new methodologies, and thinking about why it works, and how such methods can be used to make better structures. Literature isn’t dead yet, given that no author has adequately managed to structure the perfect blend of microcosm and macrocosm in a thematically consistent and entertaining form that outlines deeply and powerfully a scope of humanity itself – no, not even Dostoyevsky managed this yet.
It is a strange thing that we are in an age where every single writer has the ability to tap into almost every single past writer, and yet no one really writes like they’ve had the entirety of history and literature at their fingertips. If they do (with embarrassing pastiches) – they do so in a manner that is completely structurally flaccid, and then proceed to say that Literature is dead and over with. Such writers must be destroyed. Writers like that should learn how to plot like Minoru Kawakami instead – at least, then, they’ll be able to provide exciting entertainment to the public – and be forced to come up with logical structures beyond their worldview. That’s so much better than foisting more infantile word games, embarrassing poesies, limp philosophies, unfunny humor, dry references, slim characterization, and all of that into the fiction market.
If I were to rate myself on a scale. I would probably consider myself – ‘YA Fiction Writer’. That is merely the structure that I am currently only able to reach due to a lack of experience and not enough skill – even though I think about writing more or less everyday to the point where I suffer from insomnia at times simply because I am thinking how to chase a character or sketch a scene properly.
That is simply the nature of the world. It must be lived with.