SUPERVERSIVE Review: “Style is the Rocket”

Tuesday , 7, June 2016 5 Comments

First off: I need to warn all of you. This is quite a long post. You need not panic, as much of it is made up of quotes, which can be skipped if necessary in favor of my analyses. But I hope I manage to keep your interest – and ah, therein lies the challenge. Let’s dive in.

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Hi, everyone! Anthony here. Josh is on vacation, and once upon a time I was doing a post every other week here (this lasted two posts before I gave it up), and technically I can come back any time. Maybe I’ll do that! Because I have a new project.

As all here know, Marc Aramini has written a massive book of substantial analyses of every single one of Gene Wolfe’s major and minor works. This gave me an idea to do something similar, but perhaps not quite as extreme. Instead of Gene Wolfe, I’m picking a lesser known author with a somewhat smaller body of work, but one just as good. That man is Tom Simon, who is still writing (as is Gene Wolfe, to be fair) but whose whole body of work currently comprises six books: “Writing Down the Dragon”, “Death Carries a Camcorder”, “Lord Talon’s Revenge”, “The End of Earth and Sky”, “The Worm of the Ages and Other Tails”, and, most recently, “Style is the Rocket”. In this post, I will be reviewing the first essay of the book, “Style is the Rocket”.

What? The whole book in one ago? My dear reader, if I am to equal Mr. Aramini’s feat in miniature that simply won’t do, and Mr. Simon deserves no less.

Before I start, I want to qualify a claim I just made, that Tom Simon is just as good as Gene Wolfe. I truly believe this, but not because of the quality of Simon’s fiction. It’s the quality of his NON-fiction. Gene Wolfe is, perhaps, the better, more creative fiction writer (not that Simon is any slouch); but I am convinced that there hasn’t been an essay writer as good as Simon since C.S. Lewis (not that Wolfe is any slouch). I am being completely serious. Tom Simon is that good.

To make my case, here is a quote from his essay “The taste for magic”, a modern classic:

But as Aslan said to Lucy, ‘Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way.’ Whether the method is effective or not, the intention is mean and shabby. That it is generally done in secret, or at least in the absence of the intended victim, only makes it worse. If you punch your enemy in the nose, you expose yourself to his retaliation; this requires courage, which is a virtue in itself, and partly disinfects the evil of your intentions, though it does not justify them. At the very least the element of danger will restrain you from distributing punches on the nose too freely. If you cast a spell to make your enemy’s nose break out in boils, you risk nothing, you can nurse your hatred in secret, you need never risk taking a punch yourself, or what might be worse, having an honest argument and making up with the one you hate. Whether the spell works on your enemy or not, it works on you, by leaving you to nurse your hatreds in safety and secrecy. They will grow, they will gain power over you, and in the end they may devour you.

Brilliant. And a good lead-in for my first review on “Style is the Rocket”.

The titular essay is, I think, the best in the book. Tom Simon eloquently describes something I observed a while back; what Simon calls “Style is the Rocket”, I called “The Weird Chef Theory”, after a chef who makes technically perfect but intentionally bad tasting food. To wit:

There is a kind of literary colour-blindness which occurs, for the most part, only among highly cultivated people; for such folly in nature is self-correcting. It takes two opposite forms. One is the belief that prose style is all; that a work of literature is only as good as its individual sentences, and that a bland or pedestrian prose style is in itself sufficient to condemn a story as subliterary dreck.

This, I think, eloquently describes why things like “Ulysses” are (at least in theory) adored by critics but hated by readers. Even the cynical reader needs to admit that “Ulysses” is a technically brilliant book. James Joyce went in with a vision and accomplished exactly what he set out to do. In other words – his prose was all. How he said things was perfect. But he never did the job of saying things actually worth talking about:

It is technically correct that a story is expressed as a series of sentences; but that is completely useless as an explanation of what a story is. However, it excludes final causes from consideration, and focuses exclusively on things that can in principle be objectively measured; and to that extent it makes literary criticism look like a scientific activity, deserving of some measure or echo of the prestige that attends the sciences. It is no accident that the New Criticism caught on in the early years of the Cold War, when a massive increase in government grants to the sciences made that section of academia not only more prestigious, but richer and more powerful, than it had ever been before. All through the arts and humanities, one could find professors reacting understandably, if inappropriately, by trying to redefine their disciplines as branches of science. ‘Close reading’ was a manifestation of this trend. It is what you get when you ignore everything about literature except what can be seen under a microscope.

In talking of “Ulysses”, specifically, one can only understand the book at all through an intense side-by-side comparison with the “Odyssey”, and carefully matching sections of Homer’s masterpiece with various sections of Joyce’s magnum opus.

Simon gets to the title of his essay soon after:

The real concern of the Cold Warriors was not with the rockets themselves, but with the payload. The rocket was simply the most convenient device for carrying a payload a long way at high speed. It might be built to deliver an H-bomb to Moscow, or Neil Armstrong to the Moon; it was never built just for the sake of having a giant aluminium phallus. Yet it was fashionable in some circles to pretend that it was the rocket, and the shape of the rocket, that mattered, and not the cargo that it carried. The parallel with the fallacy of New Criticism and ‘close reading’ is curiously exact; and the two errors were made, to a considerable extent, by the same people.

So Simon equates mistaking style for story with mistaking the shape of a rocket with its purpose; as style is not the purpose of the story, the shape of the rocket does not justify the rocket’s existence in and of itself.

It’s worth noting his brief potshot at university academics:

Professors of English Literature, and other academics of that sort, were exceptionally likely to be Leftist in their political views, and Leftist in a particularly superficial and impractical way. Academic Leftism tends to be far more about expressing the correct opinions and denouncing the correct enemies than about any kind of real political activity.


Simon elaborates on his excellent rocket metaphor later on:

Fastening on something external: I think it can be said, without much exaggeration, that this is the characteristic vice of the modern academic, often of the modern writer and artist, and above all, of the modern critic. The mere shape of a rocket, divorced from its function, is an external; the bomb or astronaut on board is the unseen essential. The pistons moving like the heads of elephants were external; what those steam engines were doing is essential. In a work of fiction, the details of prose style, viewed sentence by sentence, are external; what is essential is the experience of being immersed in the story.

C.S. Lewis is, all things considered, a rather pedestrian prose writer; not bad, but no J.R.R. Tolkien or even Jack Vance (and incredibly underrated prose stylist). C.S. Lewis is also my favorite author and creator of one of the greatest fantasies of all time, because his depth of insight and understanding of character are, I believe, completely unparalleled. Those who fixate on his prose, as some are wont to do with his Space Trilogy (I believe Tolkien himself missed the point somewhat of “That Hideous Strength”), also miss the point of C.S. Lewis entirely.

Simon does get to my earlier references on “Ulysses”:

The lack of incident in Ulysses, the deliberate dullness of the characters, the sheer impossibility of figuring out what makes this a story (unless you recognize the obscure allusions to The Odyssey and can tell exactly how and from what Joyce is taking the piss) – these are important flaws, to anyone but a stylistic extremist. But the extremists did their best to shout down anybody who dared to object to these things; instead they piqued themselves on valuing Joyce because he was obscure and plotless.

Nevertheless, Simon is not unfair here, and takes his potshots at the other extreme: Those who ignore prose entirely.

There is, of course, another side to the story. If style is the rocket that propels the payload of fiction, it must be adequate to the task. It would be unspeakably stupid to build a Saturn V merely as a phallic totem; but there is an opposite fault, which is to attach the payload to a rocket too small to lift it off the ground at all.

Here he rightly takes one of my favorite writers, Isaac Asimov, to task:

The patron saint of inadequate prose is still probably Isaac Asimov, who once frankly admitted, ‘All I expect of my prose is to be clear.’ Clarity is greatly to be admired, and in many kinds of nonfiction it is enough…But in fiction it is not enough to ‘tell it like it is’. As Ursula Le Guin pointed out in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, in story the language has to carry the whole load: ‘there is no is without it’.

He elaborates further:

Asimov’s stories tend to have the opposite effect. By striving for a naturalistic ‘plate glass’ prose style, he makes his stories look like stage-pieces, and not very well-staged ones at that. The effect is worst in the novels he wrote in the 1980s, when he took up writing science fiction on a large scale after twenty-five years away from the field. His Robot novels and his Foundation series, each taken separately, have this much of the Hemingway quality, that they do convincingly seem to extend in all directions beyond the limits of the text. But when he decided to combine the two series, he spoilt the effect. Instead of weaving them together into a larger whole, he made them smaller. The whole was less than the sum of its parts; the whole was less than some of the individual parts.

I am a big fan of “The Caves of Steel” (which is expertly plotted and has a brilliant ending), but Asimov’s “The Robots of Dawn”, the third and final robot novel, is a massive step down. There are several reasons, one being the weird obsession with sex (rather like late Heinlein), but Simon is correct that it has the curious sensation of the whole being less than the parts. There’s a crackerjack scene where the main character is stuck in a thunderstorm, and an entertainingly tense ending, and a few fine characters; but his attempts to link it to his early robot stories, while valiant, fall flat; the truth is that they never belonged together, and it shows. As Simon said, adding more history made the book smaller, not larger.

Simon ends his essay with an admirable summary of his arguments:

On one hand we have the aesthetes, the people who think the style is the novel, the medium is the message, and that the rocket (divested of its payload) exists only to serve as a gigantic surrogate penis. On the other hand we have the ‘plate glass’ people, who think that the payload is everything, that the plot is the novel, or the idea is the story, and that if you come up with a strong enough concept, it will fly of its own accord. But books do not write themselves, and astronauts do not reach the Moon by waving their arms or even by wishing their hardest. How to construct a rocket to lift a given payload is a matter of complex engineering; and how to construct a text to carry a given story is a matter of difficult skill. I shall not pretend to explain such matters here. But unless we can get away from our fixations on style-as-all or idea-as-all, the flights of fantasy that we call stories will be unrewarding, and our voyages will be unmercifully short.

This is a brilliant essay. Simon is really more of a Chestertonian writer than a Lewisian writer. Lewis’s greatest skill was, bluntly, cutting through bullshit. He could pierce through layers of obfuscations and tricks and pierce the heart of the matter with startling accuracy, an effect most clearly demonstrated in “The Great Divorce” and “Mere Christianity” (the greatest summary of Christian teaching ever written), but present in all of his work.

Chesterton, too, saw through the tricks and trappings of the modern world into the heart of the matter; but instead of getting straight to the point with clarity and brevity, he dressed it up in wit and humor and presented his knowledge in “paradoxes”, phrases that presented complex truths in concise and memorable ways.

Simon has the wit and humor of Chesterton. “Style is the Rocket” is a long essay, and I had to skip a lot of brilliant sections in my review. But it doesn’t feel long, because nothing about it is boring. Hopefully I’ve conveyed enough examples of Simon’s style that you readers have an understanding of what he is about.

Whew. That was long. But, I think, worth it. Don’t worry; the other essays I will summarize and analyze more briefly. I think, in Simon’s anthologies, I will do one thorough analysis of his best piece and shorter summaries and opinions of his other works; that seems to be fair.

I consider it an absolute crime, a travesty, a criminal offense that Tom Simon is not more well known.  If there is anything I can do to correct it, I will. So remember, when you buy his books, LEAVE A REVIEW!!!! Tell your friends; frequent his blog. Sound the trumpets; anything and everything that might work.

Next up: The rest of the essays in “Style is the Rocket”, then “Writing Down the Dragon”, his best collection. I hope you enjoy it.

  • Jill says:

    Writing Down the Dragon is a very good book of essays. It’s the only one I’ve read of his.

    Re style, I tend to get carried away by it because I love the sound of language and playing with it, too. But if that’s all there is in a book, it is ultimately unsatisfying.

    • Eric Ashley says:

      I’ve associated that feeling of the sum being less than the parts with thematic problems. I noted it in the first third of so of Pullman’s ‘The Subtle Knife’ where individual scenes were well written, but the whole was lacking. I also associate such feelings with reading some left wing nonsense.

      Clear as water writing is just fine. Asimov’s early stuff is okay. Plot and such are more important than style.

  • There are a few other excellent essayists worth mentioning. Mr. Wendell Berry, Mr. John C. Wright, and Sr. Jorge Louis Borges all have excellent volumes of essays. I would love to see more from Mr. Wright. Chesterton and Belloc also wrote great essays.

    • Anthony says:

      I of course know Mr. Wright, whose essays are quite good. Borges I know of but I’ve never read his non-fiction.

      Berry, I must admit, is a new name to me.

      Chesterton was mentioned in the article; if any writer is an heir apparent (and there may well be no writer who is an heir apparent to Chesterton), that writer is Tom Simon.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    “Writing Down the Dragon” is a great set of essays as well. He goes into a very detailed analysis of the morality, thoughts and origins of Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Dragons. Wheather you agree with the man’s arguments, they are so well researched and thought out that the very thinking on his works is a joy.

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