A Room of One’s Own is Not a Requirement

Occasionally, I read an op-ed that more or less argues it’s impossible to be an artist (or do anything visionary or creative) unless one has a trust fund. Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” is often taken out of context to support this garbage idea. Woolf was a genius and one of the world’s greatest writers, but she was making a very different point (principally that the women of her time needed a modicum of freedom from oppressive cultural expectations in order to create). Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are perhaps no famous artists or writers who’ve said, “Give up unless you’re financially comfortable.” Woolf never said that. It’s hard to imagine who would.

Since relatively few artists have trust funds, enormous grants, wealthy patrons, or other sources of financial independence, recurring op-eds like this seem akin to emotional trolling. Most people wish they could do something creative. So everyone, professional, amateur, or dilettante can potentially feel demoralized and suffer from bad spleen chi as a result of such defeatism. I sometimes suspect the op-ed writer herself wishes she could stop writing hackneyed disingenuous opinion columns and get back to her novel.

Here is something true: you can do anything you want to do with your life as long as you’re willing to pay the price. And sometimes that price is high. But sometimes what you have to pay matters far less than what you receive. I’ve said this to writing students stressed out by friends and family who think developing a creative life is a one-way ticket to misery, failure, and self-destruction. It’s not, as long as you take a very hard-nosed transactional approach to what you want to do.  Sometimes, they believe me.

Sometimes, taking a hard-nosed transactional approach means living a streamlined lifestyle so people, places, and things will leave you alone. Get a custodian or night guard position. Those jobs still exist, since people are often cheaper and more expendable than technology. Temp for the post office. Be a legal assistant. Work for the county doing road maintenance. Get on a construction crew. Walk dogs. Wait tables. Work in warehouse fulfilment. If you’re not physically vigorous, flip burgers, do data entry, work in a call center. Get roommates. Live in a trailer. Food stamps? Of course. You can live just fine on food stamps. Plant a tiny garden. Get a used bike. Buy a tent or sleep in your car. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have food and time.

Food and time are everything. If you can provide those for yourself and lead a nice middle class life in the suburbs (hard but not impossible), that’s fabulous. Definitely do that. But the point is you don’t need to be comfortable and respectable in order to write a novel or paint or sculpt or do stand-up or build computers or become a Tai Chi master or act or write history books or whatever creative pursuit matters most to you.

Living in poverty might be the bargain you make with the world in order to do this, but it doesn’t have to be. If you truly care about being able to do something creative, you’ll set aside financial despair, status anxiety, and the feeling that things should be easier and the world kinder. Instead, you’ll focus on survival and stability so you can get on with your work. It’s important to be able to see what matters vs. what’s empty and pointless. Most things that torment creative people are ultimately meaningless.

Fame is empty. There’s no way to maintain it without making foolish and unnecessary compromises. It’s fickle, a trap for the immature. Being famous doesn’t mean you’re good. It won’t make you happy. You’ll still see your own sad face in the mirror every morning, famous or not. Everyone knowing your name can easily become an obstacle to real development. Anonymity is a beautiful sort of freedom.

Commercial success is empty unless it coincides with something you really want to do. You’ll be earning money for a company by doing the semi-creative work they want you to do using their IP. If giving your energy to them and creating to their spec doesn’t appeal to you, don’t waste your time. Otherwise, you’ll soon come to loathe yourself.

Validation from skeptical family, childhood friends, ex-partners, and everyone who tried to discourage you along the way is empty. You’ll never get it in any satisfying way. You’ll never accomplish so much that they’ll finally admit you were right about following your creative path. Win the National Book Award and they’ll point out you haven’t won the Pulitzer. Put out a gold album and they’ll wonder aloud why it didn’t go platinum. Winning awards and accomplishing big things will never result in their approval. You’ll never get closure at your high school reunion. You’ll never be the hero.

Earning vast sums of money for your work is empty. High society can easily destabilize your creative process and an artist was never made better by owning a yacht. Many famous writers and artists quit creating after they become rich off their work—not because they don’t want to keep making art, but because they get deeply distracted, depressed, and blocked. Vast sums can buy you space, time, and food, but you can get those without compulsory four-hour dinners with gallery owners, critics, publishers, and media executives. Certainly, say yes to all the money and to whatever accolades and gifts effortlessly come your way, but taking time from your work to deliberately pursue those things is a waste of precious hours.

There is one thing that isn’t empty—the thing that makes the difference, that makes the all trouble and compromise worth it. When you sincerely and humbly choose to do this thing and stick with it, developing yourself and putting in the hard hours, you eventually become a conduit for the transcendent creative power that is your birthright. There is nothing better than experiencing that, than working through its complexities and convolutions.  And it has nothing to do with how many steaks you have in the freezer. As Bukowski writes in “Roll the Dice”: “you will be alone with the gods/ and the nights will flame with fire.” That’s as good a description as any I’ve read. And it doesn’t even come close.

Mapping the Swamp

Today, I think I overcame my hitherto impassable mental block, the one I always get between pages 50 and 70, that indicates I’ve hit the “swampy middle.” The term “great swampy middle” wasn’t invented by me. In fact, I have no desire to discover who first coined the term because I have no desire to utter it ever again; though, I fear that’s just wishful thinking. Of course, I’m going to talk about, think about, and confront the GSW again. I always get bogged down in the middle. It’s stopped me from completing whole books. It hits me in longer stories, too. The hideous abyss waiting for writers at the middle of a piece of fiction is an inevitable occupational hazard.

I’ve been struggling with this novel for several weeks. The first 50 pages emerged quickly. And, in all seriousness, I think they’re very good pages, some of my best. So I can’t allow myself to seriously entertain thoughts of abandoning the project. I have to see it through if only for those good pages.

The only way out is to make an outline. I hate outlines. When I write, I want to be in a creative trance, driving the muse’s burning chariot through the dark firmament of hell. Or something like that. Bukowski promised that you’d know the gods and your nights would flame with fire.  When his promise comes true, it really is the best thing. When the divine chariot is half-submerged in the swamp, when it backfires a cloud of rancid bio-diesel and won’t even start, when the muse doesn’t even show up because she was partying with some publishing industry types last night and has to sleep it off, when the way forward is just a mucky green-brown maze of shit-streaked walls, you need a scaffold. You need to build a ladder out of the swamp. You need to draw a map. So that’s what I did.

I will always hate outlines. But now the editor part of my brain can see the way forward. Now I have a schematic. I know I can follow it—if everything doesn’t change tomorrow, if the muse doesn’t laugh at me and send me a dream that completely turns my scaffold upside-down. That happens, too. We’ll see.

 

Writing Exercise: A Noir Opening Scene in Close Third

Twenty years ago, she might have lit a cigarette.  That would have been better.  Twenty years and people still didn’t know what to do with their hands.  Now they looked at each other and waited.

“I love him.  Is that what you want to hear?”

“I don’t really care about that, Mrs. Sorrel.  Not what I’m asking.”

“You don’t care?  That’s a little cold.”  She balanced her silver purse on her thigh, then turned it slightly.  “And it’s Barbara.”

“What I mean is were you home that night?”

“Instead of with a friend?”

“Yes.  Instead of with a friend.”

“Let me put it to you this way, Mr. Gaffney, after ten years of marriage to Ivan, my friends don’t come around much anymore.”

People waited patiently through what used to be lighting-up-and-smoking pauses.  They looked at each other with blank expressions.  They used the spaces to figure out what they wanted to say next.  In this way, modern conversations were formed.  Women used to listen more than men.  Now nobody listened.  Now people addressed themselves in the presence of others and called it talk.

“I think we should start over, Barbara.  I have to ask because it helps me get an idea of what went on.  Any little thing, you know?” 

He smiled, went over to the pot of stale coffee by the window.  Nobody liked it when you handed them a Styrofoam cup of office coffee, but everybody took it and then felt like they owed you something.  This Stan Gaffney knew like he knew the time or the traffic five floors down on 32nd Street.  Small things to keep in mind.  Small things that made up large things.

She said thank you, took the coffee, and set it on the edge of his desk, far enough away without seeming impolite.  Then she turned her purse on her thigh again, unzipped it, looked inside.  No answers in there.  She zipped it back up.  “Alright.  Sure.  I was home.  I was asleep.”

“At 8:00 in the evening?”

“I drink.  Can I call you Stan?”

“You were drunk?  Passed out?”

“If you want to put it like that.”

“What were you drinking?”

When she came in, she’d set her phone on the other wooden chair facing his desk: Mrs. Barbara Sorrel and companion, Mr. iPhone.  Now she checked it, tapped it with her thumb, trying not to seem like she was stalling.  Maybe the cell phone was the new cigarette.

His question put her off.  Why did the type of booze matter?  It didn’t.  What mattered was the amount of time it took her to think up a brand.  Back in the day, she’d have just taken out another smoke.  Blonde, late 30s or early 40s, good skin, she’d have been nervous, an upscale woman like her with a missing husband, sitting Gaffney’s dusty office on the fifth floor of the old Martindale Agricultural Building.  She wouldn’t come in wearing a pinstriped blazer over a designer T-shirt with yoga love in gold cursive and long-pleated cream pants.  She wouldn’t look like she’d just had her hair done.  She’d have been—or at least would have pretended to be—distraught.  Too bad she wasn’t.

“It was Camitz.”

“How many bottles?”

“What do you take me for, Mr. Gaffney?  Not even a whole one.  I was hardly drinking, actually, just very sleepy.”

“Pills?”

“Not that night.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Thank you.  I guess that’s it.  Anything else you think I should know?”

“There’s a lot I think you should know.  Like, where’s my husband?”

“We’ll get to that.”

“You better for what I’m paying you.”

Now they both smiled together, hard, perfunctory.  They’d been talking for 90 minutes.  She wanted to find out what became of her husband after his birthday party four nights earlier, an event attended by about a hundred people, the part of Kansas City that still had money. 

Stan wanted to know what was so special about the orientation of the purse on her thigh, why she kept turning it, why she talked tough but couldn’t make eye contact, why she’d walked into his office smelling like high-end Baccarat Rouge, why she’d lied about passing out drunk, why she’d come to him at all.  Small things that turned into large things.  Little pieces that fell out of a puzzle.  Put them back in and you saw the picture.

On her way out, Mrs. Sorrel turned, holding her silver purse in front of her like some society matron in a stiff vanity portrait, the sort of thing people hung in the foyers of tasteless mansions.  “You’re probably going to discover that Ivan has a long-term girlfriend named Cheryl O’Neil.  I can get you her address.”

“You’ve been aware of her for a while?”

She nodded at the carpet.  “Even came to our wedding, if you can believe that.  I didn’t know her name at the time.  I found out later.”

“But you were suspicious even then?”

“You want to stay married to a man like my husband, Mr. Gaffney, you don’t get suspicious.  You get realistic.”

Barbara Sorrel had enough money to get as realistic as she wanted.  When she came in, Stan gave her his highest rate and she cut the check then and there like it was nothing.  But maybe all that realism meant she couldn’t trust the usual cadre of flunkies and stool grooms attendant on a man like Ivan.  Maybe she couldn’t put her faith in anyone she knew.  Maybe she felt that finding her missing husband meant she had to drive out to central Missouri to a little town named Hauberk and hire a private investigator nobody ever heard of.

“Well,” he said.  “I’ll be in touch.  And Mrs. Sorrel?  Have a better day.”

She laughed, nodded, and the door closed softly behind her.  

The Inner Work of Being a Writer

The transition from dilettante to serious artist is always indistinct.  As with any art form, one becomes what one does.  One becomes a writer by saying, “I’m a writer” and then writing.  I suppose one becomes “serious” after demonstrating or announcing one’s seriousness at some later date.  But isn’t it a little absurd to say, “I’m a serious writer”?  It immediately raises the question, “How serious?” 

To which one may respond: I’m dead serious, more serious than a heart attack.  So serious I got two degrees in it.  So horrifically, agonizingly, putridly serious that I’ve kept doing it through poverty, flood, plague, and famine.  More serious than a white sale in June.  More serious than the fine print.  Hell, I am the fine print.  I’m a serious dude.  It’s my thing.  I might as well put it on my business card: Serious Writer Since 1997.  That’s over two decades of seriousness, okay?

Maybe that is the required declaration, the necessary attestation of commitment at the necessary volume to prove you’re the real deal.  Because you have to prove it, right?  Because no one can assume how serious you are by just looking at you the way they might if you were some other sort of professional.  No one’s a part-time brain surgeon.  No one does constitutional law as a hobby.  No one flies for Lufthansa as a side gig.  No one asks how serious a nuclear engineer is.  When Red October is about to go under the ice, no one says, “Sure, but how serious is the captain?”

In the arts, however, people always wonder.  Some journalist, critic, competitor, or professor is always ready to say, “You Don’t Deserve to Live was an entertaining novel, but it’s not serious.”  And then everyone must nod as if that makes sense.  This is probably because no one will ever truly agree on how to define a serious writer producing serious writing.  No one has a clue.

Does money show it (James Patterson)?  Do numerous film adaptations of your work show it (Stephen King)?  How about literary and cultural iconicity (Alice Munro, Bret Easton Ellis)?  What about your books frequently showing up on university syllabi (Michael Cunningham, Francine Prose)?  What about your writing having been convincingly marketed as a “modern classic” such that it will one day be hermetically sealed in the basement of Cheops for post-apocalyptic archaeologists to dig up (Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt)?  Where’s the benchmark for quality?  Who can say?  I can say I like some of these writers and dislike others.  But I like a lot of things and people, many of which will no doubt be adjudged “not serious” as soon as we can determine what that is. 

Maybe no one asks Alice Munro whether she’s a serious writer anymore because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013.  Maybe that’s the only reliable standard.  No one argues with the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Nobel committee called her a “master of the short story” and said she revolutionized modern literature.  Of course, three years later they said as much about Bob Dylan.  Three years between literary revolutions can make one’s head spin, but these are interesting times.  Next, the Nobel committee may award Munro a prize for her influence on folk music.  Then we can all relax.  They know what they’re doing.

Of course, there’s still the inner, subjective, impressionistic option.  At various stressful moments in my childhood, my mom would quote a line from “Duration,” my birth hexagram in the I-Ching: “[T]he dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed. In that which gives things their duration, we can come to understand the nature of all beings in heaven and on earth.”  She said this often enough that I had it memorized by age 12.  An enduring meaning in his way of life.  Maybe that’s it.  “Enduring meaning” has a nice sound.  It’s certainly a better formulation and standard than any of the others given above.

But Nobel doesn’t award prizes for embodying an enduring meaning in one’s way of life.  It happens quietly, without parades and gold medals and book tours and exhausting four-hour dinners in New York and swarms of desperate grad students.  The only revolution it can incite is an inner revolution, an inner revelation.  The New York Times Book Review won’t be covering it.  Alice will remain in Canada.  Bob will stare at a tree outside the window and hum a little tune.

So how do you know if you’re a serious writer, if you have talent, if you aren’t wasting your time?  You can never know these things relative to what people say or how much money you’re making off your work or whether the gatekeepers and critics deem you worthy.  You can know whether the act of writing sometimes makes you feel good.  And in that feeling, there may be a quiet, personal meaning.  And if you write regularly, you may embody that meaning such that it becomes part of your life, a way of life.  And then you can stop asking questions that originate in commercial and social status anxiety instead of in the metaphysics of the creative process.

 

538 Words About Dreams and a Lighthouse

(Part of a long story in progress.)

It was around this time that the dreams began.  Looking back, it seems remarkable that they hadn’t begun sooner in all of us.  But, even if they had, we probably wouldn’t have known.  We wouldn’t have talked about it. 

Tyler would have belched and blamed the beer or the Eagles or the general stupidity of Carling.  Greg would have gone along with him, regardless whether he secretly harbored some superstitions or otherwise fanciful beliefs about the provenance of dreams.  And Lindsey, perhaps the smartest and most insightful of us all, would have left it open.  “Maybe it all means something,” she’d say.  “Or maybe not.”  Then she’d ask, again, about the bonfire.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming than Lindsey.  Someone who has a hard time talking about love wouldn’t be able to easily broach the subject of dreams—which supersede love and, in that sense, seem to grant access to an even more private, deeper vulnerability.  It was better for all of us not to ever speak about dreams or love, as was our custom.  But the dreams were real, as real as dreams can be.  And there was no escape, no respite, no bright simple explanation for how they seemed to dovetail with our thoughts, our anxieties. 

In the shadows of my dreams, I saw the lighthouse at Beacon Point.  And the vision struck me like the resonance of a deep temple bell, though when I woke I could not say exactly how or why.  The lingering impression of something incongruous and dense just beneath the surface of the very mundane lighthouse made me doubt my mind.

Dreams of water and rain, of a dark rusted hospital ship drifting toward the rocks.  Waking to thunder and lightning outside my bedroom window.  It had been storming just off Beacon Point for days, never moving too far inland, just enough to cover Carling and the beach.  How much had I slept?  Three hours?  Two?  I went into the kitchen and started some coffee.

Dreams and the fragments of dreams.  Echoes and reflections of a mind untethered.  I didn’t like it when I dreamed, the loss of control, the stillborn sense that I’d been somewhere else, leading a wholly different life.  The residue of those feelings and the fragments that sometimes returned throughout the day: the lighthouse illuminated from behind by an unknown source, its tiny circular windows dark and still, the rain coming down hard but completely silent.  Such images would come back to me like memories. 

In my mind’s eye, I’d recall the surf crashing noiselessly against the rocks, arms of white water raised in a voiceless paean.  And the dead hospital ship making its way inexorably toward the land.  It would crash against the shipways.  The destruction would be incredible.  Enormous.  In my dream, I felt desperate to tell someone.  But I was always alone.

The coffee maker beeped.  I leaned against the sink, looking out through the little window far above the apartment lot, the space tinged green by sodium floods.  And watched the sheets of rain glitter pale emerald against the night.

What if it’s all just pornography?

I once drove a forklift in a magazine distribution warehouse for a living and got to know romance, action adventure, and western paperbacks of the 1980s and 90s fairly well, since we handled a high volume of grocery store book sales.  I read the cast-offs that got damaged in the sorting process on my breaks.  The writing was usually atrocious, but it was an incremental education in what readers actually want. 

Years later, when 50 Shades of Grey sold 15.2 million copies, I wasn’t shocked.  When James Altucher called the book great literature on account of its sales figures, I shrugged.  Someone was bound to make the “volume of sales” argument.  It fit with what I was packing every day into forklift innerbodies.  And it fit with what I knew about the mentality of the publishing industry, where books are “units” and the bottom line runs deeper than all literary pretension.

Recently, I had a long email exchange with a romance writer friend of mine about changes in her genre, which is now almost unrecognizable to me, since I haven’t done a lot of romance fiction editing and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a warehouse-level view of what is being shipped. 

I learned some interesting things from her about the how genre fiction publishing is evolving. But I came away with one difficult unanswered question.  Why do the main characters in romance novels now all seem to have unremarkable porn names—i.e. names suggestive of bank managers and legal assistants in gray office complexes somewhere in middle America?  Ethan Chase.  Julie Steel.  Laura Woods.  Richard Ward.  Shannon Green.  One gets the impression they should either be overseeing new accounts on the 15th floor or having a highly choreographed threesome in the back of a speedboat somewhere in Florida.  Or both.

There are no more 70s porn names. Nobody’s named “Hung Johnson” or Cyndi Squeals anymore (and I suppose there never were in romance writing).  Now there’s just boring character names like Sean Parker, Katie White, and Corey Davidson and equally boring characterization to follow.  At least the Fabio romance novels of the early 90s had lurid bodice-ripper paintings on the covers to go along with “Pirate Fabio” or “Fabio in Space” or “Fabio Conquers the Cavemen” or “Fabio and the Secret of the Dragon Crystal”—basically all the same book with a different configuration of adjectives. They never called him “Andrew Roberts.” He was always Fabio, the bodybuilder who got his nose broken by a duck on a rollercoaster in Williamsburg, who now wants to ravish you and save the dolphins.

Thinking I might do some research on the evolution of character-naming trends in romance writing and porn and write about it for a magazine, I did some digging and found a news story about how porn sites have seen a dramatic uptick in popularity as a result of Covid isolation.  It got me thinking about a Wired piece from 2015 on how social media, cell phones, and the internet in general have disrupted the entire porn industry.  I wondered whether there was a relationship between how audiences were being trained to consume online adult entertainment and how they’re reading romance fiction, which often blurs the lines between erotica and tamer forms of storytelling.

I discovered that online pornography seems to be heading toward extreme minimalism in terms of story, characterization, and acting, emphasizing short clips appropriate for “tube” sites as well as smartphones.  The companies still making longer “movies” routinely expect to see them cut into more easily sharable segments.  This affects everything from the way people are hired to what they’re paid to how long they can expect to legitimately work in the field.  But culture magazines like Wired aren’t interested in how this tech shift might have overturned adjacent industries like literary erotica and romance fiction.  As a book editor, I am interested in that, especially in the aesthetic changes (some might say aesthetic fallout) that have ensued.  My friend didn’t have answers, but she thought it was interesting, too.

She said many of the in-house style sheets currently handed out to low-status and even midlist romance writers now require interchangeable sorts of everyman characters.  If Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw had an unremarkable name, at least she distinguished herself through Bushnell’s idiosyncratic narrative first person (and on TV through Sarah Jessica Parker’s ironic Magnum P.I.-esque voice-overs).  But even though the TV series ended in 2004, it was still squarely within the female-oriented rom-com story genre—occasionally with a racy B- or C-plot but nothing too far outside the (fairly permissive, though still present) bounds of HBO propriety.

But now there seems to be a blankness creeping in.  The protagonists seem increasingly like pornographic blank slates, primarily distinguished by lowly positions on the corporate hierarchy, by what they own and don’t own, and who they have to worry about at work.  There’s an unremarkable ex or a lingering, equally blank high school / college boyfriend.  And then there’s Christian Grey, who’s going to make everything happen, but who is about as interesting as a self-cleaning oven.

I’m beginning to suspect that the romance genre is actually now about consumerism itself: corporate style, money, granite tabletops, the Ivanka Trump winter collection, and the bourgeois dream of neatly trimmed lawns and not having to worry about paying for your route canal because the arrogant Ferrari-driving CEO wants to take care of it for you.

Maybe it’s all about suburbia, even when it’s about dragon crystals. Maybe it’s the same formula, just more direct: young, shy-and-willowy Victoria Grantwell works for an attorney named Jonathan Charles, who has a lot of money and devilish good looks. Ravishing ensues—somewhere in the vicinity of walnut wastebaskets and corner offices. By the end, Jonathan Charles is so moved he has an emotion.  All because her passion taught him how to love.

I realize I may have just described the plot of Jerry Maguire. Maybe it was all porn from the beginning.

What HP Lovecraft Can Teach Us About Programming the Reader

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century is that writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it—okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day—then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs and vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate his fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feast—a great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He had to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.