William Faulkner’s Unknown Epic Fantasy

Poetry, according to a casual polling of the thousand or so high school students I taught in my truncated career, sucks.

There are outliers, naturally – both poems that do not suck and students who like the ones that do – but by and large, the sentiment of America’s youth is clear: poetry ranks on the list of possible leisure activities somewhere below forced labor and dental work, but possibly above physics.

Kids (and, less frequently, adults) can usually be brought around to the joys of poetry (as I’ve discussed at more length here), but it’s crucial to first overcome the central grievance, which, as I understand it, seems to be the opacity of the language. And it’s easy to see why when we encounter the first lines of Hopkins’ ass-kicker, The Windhover:

“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air…”

Generally speaking, the language we consume is not like this. It is transparent, or better, entirely invisible. When I ask my wife where I put my half-eaten banana from yesterday and she replies that it’s in the fucking trash where it belongs, both of us understand the meaning of the other at once. This, after all, is the point of communication and, not incidentally, the reason we are so happy together. Neither person pauses to reflect on the language itself, and, as a result, neither of us tries to craft that language in any obtrusive way. She does not, for instance, tell me, “I threw that yellow brown and fickle fruit, before it could fade utterly to mush, into the trash.”

Then again, I am not married to William Faulkner. On page one of Absalom, Absalom (which is, by the way, the best novel in English), we encounter the following sentence:

“[…] Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreaming and victorious dust.”

Clearly Faulkner is doing something here that goes above and beyond basic communication. Some people call it “literature,” or “literary fiction,” but I distrust both those people and those words. Rather than cage it up with a term, I’d just observe that Faulkner wants you to notice his language. Certainly we can look through it, to the scene he’s describing, but we are also encouraged by the syntax, by the odd contractions, by the unexpected juxtapositions, to look at it. Both the scene and the language used to describe the scene share the reader’s attention.

Today, however, as I worked through my review of the copyeditor’s notes on my own book, I was struck by how differently we approach language in genre fiction. With a few exceptions, writers of genre, and here I’m particularly interested in fantasy, attempt to buff and polish their language until it is utterly clear, a perfect window. We might get a stylized opening passage, or a rhetorically embellished conclusion, but the bread and butter of most of these books is nothing at all like Faulkner.

Now obviously, I’ve loaded the deck by choosing Faulkner (and this novel in particular) as my example of linguistic opacity, but even a more temperate comparison might make the point. The first two quotes below are from Annie Proulx, a “literary” writer, but a popular one known more for character than verbal shenanigans. In other words, she could write recognizable fantasy. The third is from China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. I picked it because, among people writing fantasy today, Mieville is reputed (rightly, in my opinion) to be a keen prose stylist. Proulx first, with her description of Diamond Felts:

“Five-foot three, rapping, tapping, nail-biting, he radiated unease.”

Or this:

“He picked up a night ride with Tee Dove, a Texas bullrider, the big car slingshot at the black hump of range, dazzle of morning an hour behind the rim, not a dozen words exchanged.”

In both excerpts the language shoulders its way to the fore. It doesn’t obscure the description because Proulx has her shit together, but it makes itself known as language – beautiful, arresting, and a little unexpected. Compare with Mieville:

“The food stalls stretched the noisy length of Shadrach Street. Books and manuscripts and pictures filled up Selchit Pass, an avenue of desultory banyans and crumbling concrete a little way to the east. There were earthenware products spilling down the road to Barrackham in the south; engine parts to the west; toys down one side street; clothes between two more; and countless other goods filling all the alleys.”

This is a wonderful descriptive passage, the tempo, syntax, and play of consonants all masterfully handled. But look at the difference – aside from that one word, “desultory,” the language defers almost entirely to the content it is tasked with describing.

My statistician friends will not appreciate my basing the whole case on three data points, but I’ll do it anyway: fantasy (and genre fiction more generally) encourages, even relies on, the invisibility of language. Let me be clear, I am not elevating one style or indicting the other, not coming down in favor of either Proulx or Mieville; I love them both. The question that interests me is whether or not there is room on the shelves for swashbuckling sword and sorcery novels in the style of Faulkner, or Proulx, or Anne Carson. Would people read them? Or perhaps they are already there?

14 thoughts on “William Faulkner’s Unknown Epic Fantasy

  1. It’s been years since I’ve read for the invisibility of language. I enjoy strong tone and encapsulating phrasing. To compare to your domestic situation, I live that all the time and don’t want a lack of value in observation to bleed over. Language spoken between people can often have no other utility, largely because the speakers put no more thought into it, and generally making for forgettable conversations. The fiction I consume, built entirely out of words, is more rewarding when it uses them for more than explicitly conveying tropes. There is room for more Mievilles, Rothfusses and Tolkiens, though I do wonder about the size of the audience. Certainly those three did well with it.

    • Thanks for the reply, John. I also really enjoy stylized prose. I’m not sure, however, that I’d put Rothfuss in that category. Aside from the opening and closing pages and maybe a few of the music passages, which are a little more baroque, it seems to me that he writes pretty straightforward, invisible sentences. I certainly wouldn’t put him in the same stylistic category as Proulx or Faulkner or Nabokov, at any rate. Keep in mind, I don’t mean this as a criticism of Rothfuss, just an observation. What do you think?

      • I agree with you about Rothfuss. I almost put him in my short list of great fantasy stylists, but in the end I decided against it. I love his writing and was even moved to tears by one of his music passages—the only time I remember that happening since the last time I read The Lord of the Rings. But those stylistically prominent passages are the exception in Rothfuss’s work. That doesn’t make him any less of a genius as a storyteller, but it’s not enough to put him in the camp of those who rely heavily on style.

  2. A few examples of stylistically heavy fantasy novels come to mind. There’s Riddley Walker (which I haven’t read but is waiting on my Kindle). Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I can think of some more authors that probably fall on the same plane as China Mieville, like Ursula K. LeGuin, Iain Banks, and Patricia McKillip. Maybe Suzanne Clarke. I have a feeling if an author wrote an epic fantasy with the stylistic tendencies of Faulkner, the book would be published as “literary fiction” and have a pretty small print run.

    • Pretty sure you’re right that Faulknerian epic fantasy wouldn’t fly — although I’d love to see someone give it a try. What books are you think of when you mention LeGuin? I actually think of her prose as relatively transparent. Someone else just suggested Mervyn Peake to me, and I’m headed out today to pick up a copy of Gormenghast. Thanks for the ideas!

      • The Earthsea books are syntactically stylized, but the lexical choice are pretty straight forward.

        Consider: “From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

        To add to the list: E.R. Eddison, G.K. Chesterton, Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison, Roger Zelazny.

        Note that the last three are essentially “New Wave” authors and the other two predate Tolkien. Harrison is probably the closest to a Faulknerian fantasy. Neil Gaiman might also fit the list.

        I recommend you read Le Guin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, for a detailed argument of why style should be valued in fantasy. For sake of self promotion, I discuss it briefly here (http://hunterjournal.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/style-and-fantasy/). I would also be happy to email you some of Le Guin’s essays if you have a difficult time finding them.


        • Thanks for the reading suggestions! Is there a book with Le Guin’s essays compiled? I love her work (although I’m reading The Word for World is Forest now and finding it very disappointing). Thought Lavinia was genius. I’m headed over to your blog now to check out your post…

  3. The Language of the Night is a great collection, but it’s difficult to find. I’ll have to check out Lavinia – I’ve only heard good things.

  4. Hey Brian,

    Enjoyed this entry. As Chris wrote above, the one that came to mind was The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rücker Eddison. Perhaps to your point, in the wikipedia page it points out didnt sell well (until the Lord of the Rings got it some notice) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Worm_Ouroboros

    I read it…and do admit I finished it as much as a challenge to myself as anything else. Parts of it were brilliant, others a real chore. I have it on my shelf…next to war and peace!

  5. Brian, I mean no offense by this–I remember fondly several of my English teachers–but I kind of think that only an English teacher could take a passage as self-indulgent as the one from Faulkner you quote above and put it forth as an example of virtuous writing. The problem with it isn’t that it’s impenetrable–we don’t need an author-provided key to its meaning as we would with, say, Joyce–but is that, just as you say, the author wants us to notice it. I would guess that most fantasy readers (myself included) would put themselves into the category of people who believe that prose *should* tend toward the transparent and that character, idea, and plot should trump style. Don’t get me wrong–we all enjoy beautiful language, and far from being exceptions, I would guess fantasy readers even more so. Consider the following quote from Tolkien:

    “And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

    By any standard, that’s lovely prose. But I read The Lord of the Rings several times and never noticed it as such. I never even had to go back and read through it again to understand its meaning. It fits right into the story. I consider it one of Tolkien’s strengths that he was able to write such a paragraph *without* wanting the reader to notice it.

    The passage from Faulkner, on the other hand, isn’t beautiful. Nor does it do its job of exposition in the best way possible. It is, I admit, a good example of self-referential description–like the objects of Miss Coldfield’s frustration, readers both have their attention repulsed and are brought out of the seeming slumber of audiencehood into a more practical, if jarring, awareness of the mechanics of sentence structure–but that irony itself supposes there exists somewhere a *second* audience, composed, presumably, of a sort of intelligentsia, capable of appreciating that irony, at the first audience’s expense. Once this occurs to us, we are all moved to applaud Faulkner’s genius. But, in my opinion, authors who want to insert themselves as characters in their own stories should write autobiographies.

    Another important consideration these days is how the prose will hold up in translation. The more transparent the prose, the more readers you will have in other languages. To follow your statistical methodology (and respectfully so, I might add) I would say I don’t know any Ethiopians reading Faulkner in Amharic. QED.

    • Incidentally, the Tolkien quote above is every bit as self-referential as Faulkner’s–its account of beautiful descriptions is itself a beautiful description. Tolkien, however, manages to do it without making his readers the butt of a joke.

    • No offense taken! Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I thoroughly enjoy both styles of prose (the opaque and the transparent), so I don’t see it as a competition in which one could or should replace the other. Rather, I’m curious about which works best in various situations and genres.

      I had the pleasure, years back, of hearing the outstanding translator Richard Pevear (of Pevear/Volokhonsky fame) speak. Someone in the audience asked which writer he preferred, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. He replied that, hands down, Dostoevsky wrote better sentences. He said Tolstoy’s Russian was both awkward and pedestrian. They would slog through paragraph after paragraph, translating and shaking their heads, arrive at the end of a chapter, despondently start looking over it and realize, somehow, that the chapter as a whole seemed perfect. I have no knowledge of Russian, so I can’t speak to this experience, but I notice that certain styles, in English novels, seem perfectly suited to their material. In fact, one could argue that the appearance of stylistic inevitability is the highest achievement of any work of literature. To your point, Tolkien’s prose is so ably handled that it seems as though it could never have been otherwise. I feel the same way about Faulkner, but I know that many people don’t!

      By the way, do you know Tom Shippey’s book about Tolkien? It’s excellent…

  6. I think there’s a case to made that fantasy has a special need for straightforward language. To give a hasty and prosaic example, think of a description like “The sunset bled through the western sky.” In a non-speculative novel, the reader would understand this description as lyrical and figurative, and there’d be no doubt as to whether or not the sky is actually bleeding–the reader knows the world of the story is one more or less like their own, and their sky doesn’t bleed.

    But in a fantasy world, the sky may actually bleed. Perhaps the gods are at war, and this world’s sky is regularly stained with their bloodshed. It’s a shitty example, but I hope it makes my point. Because readers don’t intuitively know the reality of a fantasy world it’s a little harder to get away with experimentation and a fantasy reader will likely appreciate a clear picture of concrete events more than lyricism. Let them be dazzled with ideas and events rather than with the prose.

    Zelazny, who I’d nominate as one of speculative fiction’s best stylists, occasionally has this problem. Sorry I’m too lazy to reach for an example right now.

    As a writer who admires transparent prose in any type of fiction, I’d say there’s no reason to suppose simple language can’t be original or beautiful. I’m a follower of Orwell’s advice that “prose should be a window pane.” Truly invisible–yet vivid–writing impresses me more than the sort of syntactical agglomeration that Faulkner put together.

    • You make a great point here. I ran into this exact issue with Elizabeth Bear’s novel Range of Ghosts. It’s a really outstanding book, but right at the start I was a little confused by the cosmology (which is pretty radical); I wasn’t sure if some of the descriptions were literal or not (they are). Thanks for the thoughts!

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