The Good, The Bad and the Bland

The idea that the extraordinary narrative which has been called the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment is an elaborate practical joke evolved by some person, cursed by a perverted and sinister sense of humour, has now been abandoned by all who have examined the matter. The most macabre and imaginative of plotters would hesitate before linking his morbid fancies with the unquestioned and tragic facts which reinforce the statement. Though the assertions contained in it are amazing and even monstrous, it is none the less forcing itself upon the general intelligence that they are true, and that we must readjust our ideas to the new situation. This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger. 

H.P. Lovecraft in a typical « unspeakable horror » mood? No: Conan Doyle only warming up before getting to the heart of the matter.

In the course of a defence of R. Austin Freeman’s literary abilities I once pointed out that his writing, though often denounced as stilted and overwrought, wasn’t actually much more so than Doyle’s. The extract above shows that the same can be said of Lovecraft’s even more reviled prose style. So why are Freeman and Lovecraft so often derided for their « antiquated prose » whereas no one ever said that about Doyle?

Our notion of what constitutes « good writing » is heavily coloured by early twentieth century Modernism and the many changes – some good, some less – it brought to the literary craft. One of them and the most relevant to this article is the banishment of the « overwrought » prose that had been dominant in the previous century. There are many artistic and commercial reasons for why Romantic and Victorian novels were so long, but among them was the writers’ propension to use more words than was strictly necessary and never leave anything unsaid or undescribed. Modernism violently rejected that. Suddenly the emphasis was on restraint, economy and ellipsis and as a result not only did books become significantly shorter but « good » prose writing became one that said more with increasingly less, culminating with Hemingway’s near eradication of adverbs and adjectives.

Needless to say, neither Freeman or Lovecraft got the memo or they just didn’t care (the delightful Stoneware Monkey makes clear the low opinion in which Freeman did hold modernism in art) Also both men were basically Victorians lost in the modern era; Freeman because he was born one and Lovecraft because of his education and literary tastes. It is thus not a surprise they wrote accordingly to their upbringing, but this leads us back to the question that opened this article: Why are they not given the pass that is routinely given to chronologically Victorian writers?

Writing styles like yogurts are subject to expiration dates. Anyone for instance still writing like Rabelais in the middle of the French Grand Siècle would have been seen as hopelessly backward. Conversely, no one in the nineteenth century would have been caught channeling Lesage or Fielding – so passé, my dear! A more recent example is French critic Sylvain Bourmeau lambasting Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones because it was written like a nineteenth-century novel. Since in most people’s minds the notion of progress also applies to art then anyone that goes against it by choosing to express themselves in a way deemed to be « old-fashioned » is bound to fall afoul of the critical consensus whereas the « natives » that didn’t know better are forgiven for their sins. Anna Katharine Green may have written in a way that overflowers Lovecraft but it’s okay because she « was of her time ». Who knows, perhaps HPL and Freeman would be taught in schools nowadays had they been lucky enough to live and write one century earlier.

The truth is, there is nothing like « good » or « bad » writing, at least in an objectively mesurable way. Even grammar and spelling are not trustful standards as they change overtime and some writers deliberately ignore them. What matters most in the end is whether the prose matches the content. Like it or not, Lovecraft’s hysterical prose fits in the neurotic, nightmarish universe it describes. Perhaps a more restrained writing would have been more or even more efficient – it probably would – but had Lovecraft written like Dashiell Hammett he wouldn’t be the Lovecraft we know, nor his stories would be the same. « Le style c’est l’homme ». 

As it happens, I have no problem with Freeman’s writing, and Lovecraft’s is not one of the primary concerns I have with his stuff. What I find most rich however is how their Victorian writing style is held against them at a time when fiction in Western countries, especially English-speaking ones, is reverting to Victorian standards full speed. Increasingly long books and complex narratives, digressive pacing, obsession with social realism and « relevance »… Modernism appears to have been a parenthesis rather than the radical, one-way departure than it fancied itself to be – its only trace left in contemporary fiction being the abhorrence of « purple prose » though seemingly driven by commercial rather than literary concerns. Is « purple » writing really worse than the bland one found in many a best-seller? You are judges.

4 commentaires sur “The Good, The Bad and the Bland

    1. You’re right. I was so far gone into the subject of « good » writing – admittedly a favourite of mine – that I lost sight of my initial question.

      I think however that I have indirectly addressed the Doyle matter in the paragraph dealing with A.K. Green – both benefit from the lenient treatment granted to writers from « unenlightened » times, though Green arguably was far worse an offender than Doyle ever was. Perhaps I’ll have to do another article to get at the heart of the matter.

      What is your opinion about it?


  1. I suspect that a lot of the negative views of Freeman’s writing go back to Julian Symons’ comment that reading him is « like chewing dry straw ». I must say that I very much disagree with this – I would far rather re-read Freeman than Conan Doyle, and while none of his short stories are quite as good as the best of Holmes, they are far more consistent – none of them are as weak as (eg) « The Veiled Lodger » or some of the other late Holmes stories.

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