Keep your inner weird on a tight leash

There are men who can spin nightmares out of their heads.  What a gift!  I used to think to myself that if I had the talent to write fiction, I would like to write stories like Franz Kafka’s.  I loved it how, in stories like The Hunger Artist, The Penal Colony, or The Trial, he would take a single grotesque, insane idea but human being otherwise just as they are; then he would have all the characters act as if that one thing were completely normal and focus on little practical details of how to deal with it.  Then in grad school, I discovered the old 1960’s The Twilight Zone and thought it was the best television show ever.  Rod Serling had a real talent for the eerie, for creating the situation that starts out almost normal but just slightly “off”,  but off in the appropriately suggestive or dread-inducing way.  Take my favorite episode, Judgment Night, about an English ship in WWII separated from its convoy in a night fog, told from the point of view of a passenger who can remember nothing but his name and city of birth.  It perfectly captures the feel of being in a nightmare:  the missing details, the dread, the way you can feel events coming in the dream that haven’t happened yet.  The old Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie also does a good job with atmosphere and creepiness.

Making weirdness that is arresting and suggestive is a real gift, but to have great art, it needs to be disciplined and fitted into a coherent story with believable characters.  Coincidentally, Arts and Letters Daily has recently linked essays on two artists who show what happens when someone with the gift gets to let their inner weird loose.

Kurt Vonnegut was an entertaining science fiction writer.  That’s no small thing, and it’s too bad he didn’t seem to be satisfied with it.  Although he grew preachier with age, that’s not really what did him in artistically.  (The linked article makes the intriguing suggestion that Vonnegut lectured us on politics and culture because he thought that that’s what great authors were supposed to do, and that a “great author” image was needed to sell books.  I wonder if that’s true for many authors.)  Victor Hugo inserted a bunch of social policy essays into Les Miserables, but it’s still a damn readable story (just skip the essays).  The trouble, I think, was all the blasted playing around with the form of the novel that got to be a bigger and bigger part of his later works:  the doodles, the autobiographical asides, the inserting himself into his own novels (complete with his authorial God-like powers).  Sure, it’s entertaining at first, but you basically throw away any hope of making a dramatically compelling narrative.  I think Vonnegut’s best work was some of the earlier stuff, like The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night, where he tells pretty straight narratives.  The weirdness is still there, and it’s crucial for the novels’ success, but the weirdness is in the service of storytelling.  Slaughterhouse Five gave him, I think, the wrong signal.  Of course, that’s the book Vonnegut is most famous for, so he seems to have gotten the idea that letting his inner weird run free and undisciplined was what the readers wanted.  Still, I kept reading some of his weird books.  Breakfast of Champions, for example, had some amusing bits.  Galapagos was the last Vonnegut book I read, and it left me pretty well through with him.

Stephen Sondheim has a gift, no doubt.  Of course, nothing else he did was as popular–or as good–as West Side Story, which owes at least as much to composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins.  (About Robbins:  West Side Story is the only musical I can think of, except Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, where the dancing is a real highlight and not an annoying distraction.)  Just listen to the songs–almost any of them; there’s very little that isn’t top notch.  The music and lyrics come together perfectly.  And it’s in the service of a straightforward story, one that everyone was already basically familiar with.  Sondheim has had some other good stuff.  I own the soundtrack to Merrily We Roll Along, and I like it very much.  My parents got me the soundtrack to Passion one year for my birthday, and if I ever meet Stephen Sondheim, I’m going to ask for their money back.  Inside the tape cassette, it had an interview with him where he talked about how annoyed he was by the fact that ordinary people sing and hum to songs in West Side Story, and he didn’t want his new musical to “suffer” such a fate.  Mission accomplished, Steve.  In his later work, Sondheim has let his inner weird completely loose, tinkering with theater the way Vonnegut did with the novel, hardly bothering to engage his audience with anything that might interest them.  He’s suffered the fate of being allowed to focus on interesting ideas, while his reputation for genius saves him from having to tell compelling stories.  A musical about fairy tale characters and how “happily ever after” doesn’t really work out is a neat idea, but there’s more work to be done before it’s a good story.  (The linked article tells a damning anecdote about the audience reception of Into the Woods.)

Science fiction and fantasy writers have to be world-builders.  You need powerful weirdness to do this well.  But some writers get too wrapped up in the process, leaving art and audience behind.  Frank Herbert wrote the greatest science fiction novel of the last century.  Dune had an elaborate backdrop; Herbert worked out the history, politics, social forces, and even the religions of his galactic empire.  The sequel, Dune Messiah, was pretty good too.  I stopped with the series midway through Children of Dune, when Alia starts being visited by the ghost of Vladimir Harkonnen and cheating on her husband, or something like that.  It just wasn’t fun anymore.  My mother stuck it out for another couple of books.  Apparently Paul’s son turns into a giant worm and rules Arakkis, and then…and then…and then even the Amazon summaries become incomprehensible to me.

Reading the Lord of the Rings was one of the great experiences of my high school life.  Again, magnificent world creation.  A while later, I saw that my library had the Silmarillion; apparently Tolkien decided to abandon narrative and write some dense Middle Earth history.  I picked it up and looked at it, and then put it back on the shelf.  Maybe it’s good; I don’t know.  I would hate to have to learn that J. R. R. Tolkien let his inner weird loose.

10 Responses

  1. I enjoyed the story of creation in the first part of the Silmarillion, but the rest I found rather tedious, almost like a fairly well written history textbook. More disappointing, my understanding of the earlier eras of Middle Earth was not enhanced to my satisfaction.

  2. I just want to pick up on the aside about lecturing.

    You know the “Great Books of the Western World” set, right? For a work of fiction to make its “greatness” cut, it had to have passages saying something interesting about at least 25 of 102 irreducible “great ideas”: God, government, freedom, love, et al. A vaguer version of that standard is commonly held implicitly. Hence a novelist with the ambition of a Tolstoy or Hugo is in great peril of emulating them in stopping the plot to lecture on some idea.

  3. “When things turn weird, the weird turn pro.” I did not say it first but I had the good sense to steal it.

  4. The Silmarillion was mostly written some twenty-thirty years *before* Lord of the Rings, so it isn’t an example of the phenomenon you describe – however I agree with you that the 1977 Silmarillion isn’t good:

  5. I got deep into Vonnegut from 1982-4 – and I think it did me considerable harm at the time, encouraging a sentimental, dishonest despair.

    V was a persuasive advocate that all general ideas, all religions and philosophies, are delusions – and ‘therefore’ (?) we should choose to believe whatever makes us happy and kind.

    But of course, the mind doesn’t believe anything of the sort – all it knows is that it is pretending to believe whatever seems personally and socially expedient.

    Indeed, the idea that everything is a delusion and we can and should therefore pick a ‘nice’ delusion to live by (and that the only non-nice delusions are those which claim not to be delusions, to be real and true) is such *obvious* nonsense that it insulates itself from criticism…

    …on the basis that if I perceive that it is obvious nonsense, yet it is advocated by a world famous, clever and deft author, and is taken seriously by all sorts of powerful people, then ‘I must be missing something’ – and therefore it probably *is* true but in a way I am too feeble or corrupt to appreciate.

    So I tried to believe it; which was… exceedingly demotivating, and had the usual consequence of my seeing life as merely a distraction from intolerable ‘reality’.

  6. I guess I was saved by my superficiality; I mostly ignored the philosophy, just sort of imagining it was there for effect. My Vonnegut phase came right after my Eugene O’neill phase–another despairing nihilist, but at least seldom sentimental. I was also reading some of Sartre’s fiction back then. I must be incredibly stupid that my soul wasn’t damaged by imbibing all that stuff. (My soul was damaged plenty, but by my own foolish sins rather than stuff I was reading.) I remember them all fondly.

  7. I read Vonnegut as an undergraduate, in the late 1970s, and agree with bgc’s statement that it was “exceedingly demotivating.” Yes, I read it mainly for the laughs, but I also soaked up the absurdist worldview, which changed adulthood from something that frightened me into something I could view with (phony) contempt. Along with the Beat literature, Vonnegut rationalized my Peter Pan syndrome. I don’t believe that I or any of my peers was rendered particularly kind by these books, or even very happy. They encouraged a milieu each pursued his own small pleasures, and more or less ignored other people provided they didn’t stand in our way.

  8. One thing that made Vonnegut hit home was that he had some genuine insights – for example, he said that loneliness/ homesickness was the major malaise of modernity.

    I think he was right, pretty much – and I don’t think anyone else stated it so clearly at that time. Maybe this varies between people, but I certainly feel this very strongly in some situations – and V put it into words.

    CS Lewis talked of this longing as inconsolable Sehnsucht, and realized it could not be satisfied in this world – but indeed pointed beyond this world.

    Vonnegut didn’t perceive this, but (in some moods) seemed to assume that the problem was wholly (rather than just partly) an artefact of modern mobility and that there could be an answer in the State creating artificial families.

    The trouble is with many of the best-regarded modern literary figures is that while they are excellent diagnosticians, their recommended treatments are deadly.

  9. If you are interested in the Silmarillion, I commend to your attention Tom Simon’s review of it at

    His error seems to have been subtly different than letting his inner weird loose: rather, he couldn’t recapture the ability to translate his default creative style into a popular form. But I don’t he suffered either Vonnegut’s error of thinking he was writing better than ever, or Sondheim’s of dismissing his potential readers with contempt.

    (Simon’s review is part of a sequence about the 1977 “big bang” publications which established fantasy as a leading publishing genre: most of the other reivews are delightful examples of the harsh book reviews.)

  10. Wow….are you guys serious? The Simarillion was great! That is one of my favorite Tolkien works, period. I know some fans of LOTR didnt get it, but I stand with the many more who did.

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