A couple of years ago, I had a very pleasant dinner with (among others) THE Sodomite Hal Duncan, a delightful and brilliant gentleman and good dinner conversation besides. We had a polite disagreement that has come up again recently, and I find myself reviewing my position in the conversation we had back then and amending my position (without actually going so far as to embrace his). The subject was whether text and meaning were separable. This is the kind of thing that happens when overly intellectual writer types sit down over pizza, and should be carefully considered when arranging dinner parties for fear that it take over the table. Hal’s take, as well as I remember it, was that the literal series of words on the page *is* the story, and any change to that sequence of words necessarily makes it a different story. My take was that story was more structural: that a particular image or meaning can be reached by a variety of different arrangements of words, and one story can be told using different words without doing violence to the story itself.
Constant readers of the blog here may remember David Hartwell calling me on my poor scholarship over a previous post. If you skipped the comments on that, the relevant bits were “This is intelligent and thoughtful, but it ignores most of what other intelligent and thoughtful people have said about genre over the last forty years, and that is a severe difficulty, leading to some wheel-reinvention and loose terminology.” and “…I’d suggest starting with Delany’s discussion in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.”
So like a good boy, I toddled out and bought The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and I’m still digesting it. One of the points Delaney makes in the first essay (or at least the first essay in my edition — apparently it’s a slightly different lineup than the original) was essentially Hal’s point. Specifically, Delaney argues that “Put in opposition to ‘style,’ there is no such thing as ‘content.'” And he makes a pretty strong case. He posits the example of two different translators creating with the same content two wildly different books (one of them engaging, the other unreadable). He proposes ruining Zelazny’s “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” by changing one word and adding one in every grammatical unit of every sentence without altering the synopsis — the “content.”
It’s impossible to keep from being persuaded of something by the arguments, but the conclusions I’m reaching aren’t Delany’s or Duncan’s.
A professional editor of my acquaintance who shall remain nameless was talking about a bestselling author who I don’t know (who also with the nameless, right?). Editor said that reading Author was page by page a terrible, punishing experience full of cringe-worthy sentences and clumsy word choices, but that he couldn’t put it down. For Editor, there are two different levels: sentence and story, and of the two story sells more books. I suspect that’s true, but more to the point, it reminded me of where my own opinions about the role of language were set.
A personal aside. Before I was born, my father spent two years in the Peace Corps, teaching English and some simple construction skills in Malagana, Columbia. When I was born, my father was fluent in Spanish and taken by Central and South American literature. He read me Enrique Anderson Imbert when I was very young, translating them on the fly. Cortazar’s “The House Taken Over” is one of the most important ghost stories of my adolesence. I read some Marquez and Fuentes when I was growing up, and was fairly taken by both of them. The most problematic relationship I have with the great names of Latin American Literature is Borges. I don’t actually like him much, but I keep reading him. And more often than I like, I agree with him.
For one thing — a minor point — I don’t think we read word by word so much as phrase by phrase. That’s trivial. The greater point is that I *do* think content separately from any given specific verbal expression of it. Or, to go all perl programmer on it, there’s more than one way to do it. The argument that I read in Borges lo these many years ago when I was all doughy and impressionable was that language changes, and yet classic stories exist. It is possible for some folks to take genuine and unambiguous pleasure in reading Chaucer and seeing Shakespeare performed despite the fact that “It is ful fair a man to bere him evene,/For alday meeteth men at unset stevene.” and “Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty: come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.” are almost meaningless to an ear accustomed to modern language. When Delany offers to destroy “Doors” by swapping out words with the same meanings but different nuances, he’s doing what time and the natural drift of language do anyway. Even the relatively recent classics like Dickens wouldn’t be publishable if they were turned in as fresh manuscripts today, but the stories persist. Part of that is that they’re armored by the stories about them, but part of it is also that the level of what Editor calls storytelling exists, and at that level Macbeth is strong enough to pull us through despite the inaccessibility of the language. And there are contemporary novels full of cringe-worthy sentences and clumsy word choices that are also strong enough on that higher level of abstraction to be compelling.
There are a lot of writers in speculative fiction who are very aware of language and of the nature of stories as words on a page. I’m thinking of Kelly Link, for instance, who writes some of the most pyrotechnic sentences in modern literature, often in ways that absolutely defy a literal interpretation of their content. And as soon as I’ve thought of that, I think of Carol Emshwiller and Karen Joy Fowler’s Elizabeth Complex. These aren’t stories that are trying to create an immersive movie-like dream so much as an compelling experience of language. There are also authors who try to have the sentences vanish and their meaning carry the story.
Used to be, I was in the camp that said the individual words are less important than the story being told. And I still am, but I’m less militant than I was when Hal and I had dinner.
I feel a little weird writing an essay about something that seems self-evident to me. I can only take comfort in the fact that it didn’t always seem that way. Anyway, here’s what I’m thinking now:
You can have a story without language, but you usually don’t. You can have sentences that don’t carry a narrative of any sort, but (at least in fiction) you usually don’t. The vast majority of the time, sentence and story go together. And by that I mean style and content. They are interdependent but separable in just about the same way as a dancer’s movements and the choreography of the piece they perform. It would be silly to say that, for instance, that a piece choreographed by Bob Fosse becomes a different dance whenever a new dancer joins the company. It would also be silly to say that the dancers don’t matter.
A dance with great choreography can — I am assured by those who grok dance better than I do — be interesting even if the individual dancer performing it may not be top-notch (though when they’re just godawful, it may be hard to enjoy). And a really amazing dancer can forgive pedestrian choreography. A really great story — great content — can be compelling even when expressed in awkward style, and a beautiful style can carry a predictable plot and unconvincing characters. And because of that, I have to believe that style and content — story and sentence — are different things.
And sure, it’s better when they’re both good.
[EDIT: Well, less an edit than a note. If you'd be interested in what Ted Chiang and S. M. Stirling thought about this, they're commenting over at the livejournal that Lizard Brain feeds]