Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.

Tender Is The Night

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s time to talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tender is the NightI am hesitant to do this, because my feelings about F. Scott Fitzgerald are complicated, and heavy.  But Fitzgerald towers over American letters, blotting out the sun before it can reach other authors.  He is read ubiquitously, but narrowly: it is almost impossible to graduate from an American high school without having read ‘The Great Gatsby‘, but his other works have faded from the national consciousness.

In fact, really, it is ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and not Fitzgerald himself, which really dominates the American literary cannon, and so I ought to spend a moment on it before proceeding to the book which is usually thought of as ‘Fitzgerald’s other book’.

The Great Gatsby‘ fills me with awe, and with rage, with fury and contempt and profound respect, all at once (I warned you that this was going to be complicated).  It is, as near as I have ever encountered, a perfect novel.

I mean that technically.  ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a masterpiece of prose craft – there is not a sentence, not a single word, out of place.  I am confident in this, because I have read it many times looking for one.  Do you know how difficult it is to write one perfect sentence?  The amount of skill required to write an entire novel of perfect sentences honestly boggles my mind.

So I stand before Fitzgerald as an ant before a mountain, and I am humbled by the sheer talent for the craft of writing which he surely possessed.  Nevertheless, ‘The Great Gatsby‘, while technically perfect, is banal.  Worse, it is barren: emotionally vacuous, and utterly superficial on any level above that of composition.  Its worldview is shallow; its metaphors childish (there is a reason that it is taught in schools – it is simple to the point of obviousness, and therefore the perfect text for teaching young people the rudiments of metaphor).

This juxtaposition, of compositional genius married to complete vapidity, disturbs me profoundly.  It’s more than that, actually: it makes me angry.  Fitzgerald was a genius, but he was also a twit.  Gifted by fate and practice with perhaps the greatest writerly skill in the history of his nation, he only cared about the habits and costumes of the very rich, the drinks they consumed and places that they summered.  He might have used his immense craft to describe anything, to explicate any mystery of the human psyche, but, no.  He could describe only what he felt: a longing to be wealthy.

F Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s like taking the world’s most powerful telescope and turning it to a brick wall – I am devastated by the waste.  I am filled with resentment for the work he did produce, which is so virtuosic and so unfulfilling.  And I think about writers like James Baldwin, who is the closest I can think of to his equal in prose-craft.  And I think about the ways in which Baldwin, who was not only a great writer but also a great soul, used his gifts, and I weep for what the world lost when such mastery was spent on a fool like Fitzgerald.

That, basically, is how I felt about F. Scott Fitagerald when I rolled up to ‘Tender Is the Night‘.  It’s difficult to say why, feeling that way, I even wanted to read it.  Maybe it will suffice to say: I have a fetish for thoroughness, and I do not like to convict a man before weighing all the evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald actually published four novels in his lifetime – ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is the last of them.  It was published nine years after ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and Fitzgerald apparently considered it his greatest work.  It tells the story of Dick Diver, an American psychiatrist living in Europe between the two World Wars.  Diver, handsome and charming, has married one of his patients, Nicole, a beautiful young woman suffering from schizophrenia.  The novel tells the story of his slow fall from greatness: an affair, the collapse of his marriage, and his alcoholism.

It is apparently considered a semi-autobiographical novel: Fitzgerald, one of our many famous literary alcoholics, did live in Europe and wrote it after his own wife, Zelda, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I had not connected these facts when I decided to read it, and they did not intrude on my experience of the novel itself.  Nevertheless, I was aware all through ‘Tender Is the Night‘ of a much greater depth of insight, of humanity, in this work than in ‘The Great Gatsby‘.

It is not, in terms of prose-craft, the masterpiece that ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is.  It is poorly paced, and makes a few jarring transitions.  It also contains a few experiments with prose style (particularly in attempts to catch Nicole’s madness) which are unsuccessful, if not downright incoherent.

But Dick’s slow unwinding, the emotional forces which impinge on him, which drive him onwards in all their contradiction, those are beautifully portrayed.  The thing which failed in ‘The Great Gatsby‘, the attempt to show how a wealthy life might yet be bleak, actually works here: all the strands of money and charm and loveliness which surround Dick Diver slowly enmesh and entangle him, tightening and tightening around him until he, and you, are thrashing in a sort of slow, angry suffocation.

And, of course, because it is Fitzgerald, it contains passages of transcendent beauty, like this one:

“Baby had certain spinsters’ characteristics – she was alien from touch, she started if she was touched suddenly, and such lingering touches as kisses and embraces slipped directly through the flesh into the forefront of her consciousness.” (p. 172)

Or this one:

“Her naivete responded whole-heartedly to the expensive simplicity of the Divers, unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality rather than quantity from the run of the world’s bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior, also, the nursery-like peace and good will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods and been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.”  (p. 21)

Or this one, which I believe I will carry with me for the rest of my life:

“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual.  There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still.  The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye.  We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.” (p. 169)

It’s kind of funny, actually: ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a perfect book utterly without emotional effect; ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is a imperfect book which is, nonetheless, much more emotionally affecting.  It lacks the tightness, the lapidary, flawless prose that ‘Gatsby’ has, but it shows so much more depth, is so much more moving, than ‘Gatsby’ ever was.

Maybe it’s because Fitzgerald, himself a man falling apart, was writing about a man falling apart in the exact same ways.  He might have been too barren a soul to ever describe anyone else’s humanity, but he was able to describe his own plight with some grace.  He remained a vain and shallow man to the end, but, finally, he turned his craft on the one subject which could hold both his interest and mine: himself.