In our information and book saturated era, one requires supreme discernment. This means understanding the ‘mode’ of a book with as little information about it as possible – so that you can know whether it’s worth it or not. When I use the word ‘mode’ I am talking a little about an author’s intentionality, but it’s slightly different. I’m more referring to an author’s capability – which is what is important anyway. This capability can be derived from what they choose to add and what they omit. It does not require you to guess what is inside their mind.
So, without further ado, these are some 3rd paragraphs from random books. I will not give any context. I will use the female gender when referring to the author.
Over his shoulder, she noticed someone stand up from a sofa and hail a friend. Carol’s clear green eyes flickered and their direct gaze slid away from his face.
‘Fascinating,’ she murmured. ‘I must see it. Oh, is that ..? Yes! Excuse me, I must …’ He reluctantly moved aside and looked for another audience. Carol fought her way across the crowded room and sat down thankfully. The sofa’s other two occupants were inextricably entwined and ignored her, fully engrossed in discovering as much of each other as their public surroundings would permit.
This author understands a slight bit about the kinesthetic feel of the text. You can tell this from the way she writes “clear green eyes flickered and their direct gaze slid away”. But she also doesn’t overload it, which makes the text easy to read.
Furthermore, her space-awareness extends beyond a certain limit. For example, she uses the words “inextricably entwined… fully engrossed in discovering as much of each other as their public surroundings would permit”. But this is done within the space of a party. It is a psychological observation, but not a particular far off or stunning one. I cannot tell how much she can really reach beyond what is given to her.
The dialogue does not tell us much about her skills in that department. But it is still caught within rather standard realms. A person trying to excuse herself and do something.
I would probably read a few more paragraphs of this to see how much space the author can cover.
“Pull the blind up, Charlotte,” a voice ordered – Vanessa’s probably, but it might have been Janet’s. Charlotte had to climb to the end of her bed to do that, and when the blind sped up with a hiss, she saw the moon rising across the river, a huge September hunter’s moon, the color, almost the texture, of honey.
Kinesthetic feel – “the blind sped up with a hiss”
A moon across a river with the texture of honey is not that far off from the main poetic spaces. This is because the moon is a standard image, and even Moonriver is a song sung in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The fact that it is a hunter’s moon shows better discernment, but the color of honey is not particularly impressive. I know this because I’ve used that word too many times already in poetry.
This doesn’t go beyond description, and the voice is also normal. I might read a few more paragraphs to see which way it leads.
Joseph had often wondered what it was like to ride the big waves on the North Shore. To feel the ocean swell and build underneath you until it rose up, three stories high, rumbling and pushing with a primeval force, beginning to reach out over you, cutting off the sun and the sky, wrapping around you with a seething roll of heavy foam. Joseph had seen it, all that pressure building inside a tunnel of water until it suddenly collapsed, like a building falling down, the air pressure exploding like a cannon, shooting a surfer out of a tube in a blast of salt spray at fifty miles an hour. He had heard it was an unbelievable rush. Better than sex, better than any drug. But he couldn’t do it. Leave it to the crazies from Brazil or the rad Cali dudes to risk getting shredded on the coral just beneath the waves.
I don’t have to talk about this author’s kinesthetic sense, but this is called going the other way round. In other words, she is thinking with her sound rather than with her authorial sense. You can see this from using words like three stories high and primeval force – and then the old way of saying better than sex. If it’s not a cliché, it’s an action descriptor. A standard movement. If all of it had been interesting descriptors, this might have stood a chance, but the cannon metaphor, which is slightly interesting, comes after so much fluff – so it feels merely like the author is hitting one nice sounding descriptor out of 10. In that case I would rather just watch Point Break five times than read this book.
Essentially this entire paragraph says only one thing – surfing is cool. It may strike the fancy of a Freudian interpreter as to how many phallic images there are, but all these are still mere derivations of the main descriptor. The ending is meant to show, after that poetic kerfluffle, that this author understands what it is like to “speak the cool speak”.
This paragraph might work depending on the context. If, for example, it was written in a sparse manner before seguing into reminiscing. But you can tell whether the author is capable of that just from reading a few more paragraphs. If all of the paragraphs are as bloated as this while not providing much insight in particular, then you know that this is beyond her capabilities.
For that matter, let me throw in an extra paragraph:
He had a Samoan last name, Tanumafili, but he was never mistaken for a Samoan. When asked what race he was, he always referred to himself as chop suey: a crazy mix of leftovers jumbled up and thrown together. Chop suey. Fill that in on the census form.
What the probe had found was a star with reasonable possibilities for encouraging life; a belt of debris, including particles, planetoids, irregular chunks somewhat under planet size with interesting implications for systemic formation, and a planetary companion with its own system of debris and moons… a planet desolate, baked, forbidding. It was no Eden, no second Earth, no better than what existed in the sun’s own system, and it was a far journey to have gone to find that out. The press grappled with questions it could not easily grasp itself, sought after something to give the viewers, lost interest quickly. If anything, there were questions raised about cost, vague and desperate comparisons offered to Columbus, and the press hared off quickly onto a political crisis in the Mediterranean, much more comprehensible and far bloodier.
This is a sci-fi book. The first part is descriptor of a star with possibilities for life, but you can immediately tell something is up with this author from the second part.
Look at that. A mere two sentences. Starting from “the press grappled…” – the author managed to characterize a kind of ignorant attitude of the media. Furthermore, she developed that idea in three ways that spread out beyond that first characterization. She talked about the media’s attachment to money (costs), their attachment to a precedence (a famous figure of Colombus) – and then went on to end with that witty turn “much more comprehensible and far bloodier”.
In other words, this author has, in a single paragraph, given you a description of a star, and a tight sketch of a real human faculty for ignorance.
I’ll throw the next paragraph out now:
The scientific establishment on Sol Station breathed a sigh of relief and with equal quiet caution invested a portion of its budget in a modest manned expedition, to voyage in what amounted to a traveling miniature of Sol Station itself, and to stay a time making observations in orbit about that world.
The “breathed a sigh of relief” and what follows is an ironic development to the initial characterization. It twists the idea around, furthermore, that somehow the press ignorance is to be valued – especially to those who are in the know.
The deftness of a writer like this just has to catch your attention all the way through. Of course whether one can maintain it is the other question.
All little towns are alike, save for a few local customs. When M. le Baron Gaston de Nueil, the young Parisian in question, had spent two or three evenings in his cousin’s house, or with the friends who made up Mme. de Sainte-Severe’s circle, he very soon had made the acquaintance of the persons whom this exclusive society considered to be “the whole town.” Gaston de Nueil recognized in them the invariable stock characters which every observer finds in every one of the many capitals of the little States which made up the France of an older day.
Well, you can probably tell that this writer comes from the tradition of French Realism.
“All little towns are alike, save for a few local customs” – that is just a sharp and perfectly pointed remark to start with.
“He very soon had made the acquaintance of the persons whom this exclusive society considered to be “the whole town”” – equally sharp and pointed.
“Recognized in them the invariable stock characters which every observer finds in every one of the many capitals of the little States which made up the France of an older day” – notice how this serves to swerve and develop the previous two remarks? The author begins with a maxim, and then provides a psychological insight into the perspective of those who think that they understand “the people who are in” – and then twists it to show that they are merely old stock characters in the play of history. Just by reading these lines, you can tell how beastly the author can be.
Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts. But, as they say, money isn’t everything.
Well this is obviously A Clockwork Orange.
This entire sentence is about stealing money from people, but that won’t be entirely clear until you reach the last sentence, since you don’t know what ‘deng’ is. There is a hint though, in the “counted the takings and divded by four” as well as “smecking off with the till’s guts”. More important is the fact of the violence, which is told in the slightly whimsical and baby-ish nadsat argot.
Therefore he became rather less of a dilettante in his work than he had been recently, and he agreed to produce a new play written by a friend of his. George Talbot was a man of the theatre. He had not acted in it for many years now; but he wrote articles, he sometimes produced a play, he made speeches on important occasions and was known by everyone. When he went into a restaurant people tried to catch his eye, and he often did not know who they were. During the four years since Myra had left, he had had a number of affairs with young women round and about the theatre, for he had been lonely. He had written quite frankly to Myra about these affairs, but she had never mentioned them in her letters. Now he was very busy for some months and was seldom at home; he earned quite a lot of money, and he had a few more affairs with women who were pleased to be seen in public with him. He thought about Myra a great deal, but he did not write to her again, nor she to him, although they had agreed they would always be great friends.
This is written in the normal realistic short story style, so you have to judge it solely on the basis of its insights.
The main insight is that Talbot is a dump of an ex-actor that fucks around with a lot of women because he is lonely due to Myra leaving him. Slightly discerning is how he makes use of his celebrity status to bring people to his desires, while lazing off – but I bet Chekhov has got a couple of those kind of stories up his sleeve already. After all, this is kind of the rich guy with an inside that is empty as hell trope which is pulled off by both Citizen Kane & Shame.
I would say that I would not be able to know the author’s talent until I see where she takes the character. But I should be able to tell in a matter of paragraphs.
As the newly hired head of the company’s research-and-development division, I was obliged early in my tenure to visit our assembly plant in Gbandeh and make the acquaintance of the company representatives and local managers, ostensibly to facilitate future communication between the New Jersey home office and its African outpost, but mainly to evaluate the Katongans’ ability to adapt to the fast-changing demands of our sales force. The design and materials for our product were subject to the shifting whims of American and European women and children with disposable incomes and self-images easily manipulated by advertising. We were working, therefore, in a very competitive field. Our people, all our people, from manufacturing and assembly to advertising and sales, had to be extremely adaptable: we had to be both creative and reactive in equal measures. In Africa, I stood at the crossroads of the two.
This author uses the air of business terminology, but you can see her skills from the line over here:
“The design and materials for our product were subject to the shifting whims of American and European women and children with disposable incomes and self-images easily manipulated by advertising.”
Which shifts all the jargon and business speak around into a different light. This paragraph doesn’t provide much more than that though – and you can probably see a paragraph like this just as easily in some lame po-mo story about an executive going through a mid-life crisis – possibly written by late-stage Joseph Heller. I’ll be able to tell what type of author she is by the next few paragraphs.
But, in fact, I don’t need to, because this was the previous paragraph:
“I don’t apologize for these conditions, nor do I judge them. Simply, they were, for me, working conditions, just as they were for our Katongan assemblers and managers. History created the conditions, and I, like my African cohorts, saw myself as merely an ordinary man with a small job to do, a job that could have no effect on history one way or the other.”
Now imagine what you would expect, had the previous paragraph been something like:
“I went to the meetings where the upper management told me about buzzwords like Marketing and Internal Revenue and Synergy, and in those meetings I looked at my watch and wondered about how my wife was growing colder and more distant everyday, and, as an added bonus, my children were spending my money on consumer electronics that I could never, in my entire life, understand.”
If you were to take the latter paragraph, it would sound like a kind of standard late Joseph-Heller style Middle-Class Male book. On the other hand, the former paragraph roots it in a kind of humanistic meditation, clashing against the jargonistic terms. Furthermore, it shows how much he narrator, and the poorer African people that the narrator interacts with, are caught up in the same strain. It’s as though the narrator suddenly took the voice of a person like Thucydides before shifting back into a corporate drone speak.
Of course there may be moments when Supreme Vision fails. For example, a fun writer like Ryohgo Narita writes in a plain and functional style although he merges 6-7 character arcs together. Or it may fail when you read a paragraph where the writer is purposefully writing in a lower mode because he is taking a kind of viewpoint. Yet, generally, even when a good author writes in a lower mode, they will still have certain ways of developing it that will make them distinct from the rest.
A particular hard to grasp author might be Irwin Shaw, because he writes realistically and functionally but he places his characters in poetic situations, like so:
““Don’t answer it, anyway.” My father came into the living room. He didn’t know how to handle bill-collectors. They bullied him and he made wild promises, very seriously, to pay, and never did and they’d come and hound him terribly. When he was home alone he never answered the doorbell. He never even went to see who it was. He just sat in the kitchen reading the paper while the bell clanged over his head. Even the postman couldn’t get the front door opened when my father was home alone.”
You can spot a bit of those little insights though. For example, it sketches out the narrator’s father’s cowardice deftly – and also includes a comedic remark about the postman at the last sentence to show the extent of his paranoia.
But there are massive waves and waves of fluff out there, so one must be steeled up to battle against them.