Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Only Sayers Can Be Sayers

I ordered a few frivolous (i.e. non-academic) books as a reward for surviving this very stressful semester. Among those was one which particularly excited me, Thrones, Dominions. Thrones, Dominions is based off of a final, unpublished manuscript left behind by Dorothy Sayers, my favorite author and admitted role model. Years after her death, Jill Paten Walsh was asked to finish the manuscript. I had heard that she did so seamlessly, so although I despise on principle the practice of modern authors attempting to write as older authors, I decided to give the book a chance.

I ought never to have done so. The book is an abomination, a blight on the brilliant works of one of the most fascinating and inspiring female novelists (Sayers, not Walsh). Walsh may be a talented writer; not having read her work, I cannot judge whether or not she is capable in her own right. As Sayers, however, Walsh is incapable. The book is blundering, at times nearly crass, and wobbles unsteadily from chapter to chapter, each character a hollow imitation, even an unintentional burlesque, of the full-fledged characters Sayers carefully and skillfully created. I stopped reading midway through, unable to stand the horrid text any longer. Someday I'll sell it at a garage sale, and the offending document will trouble my bookcase no longer.

The dreadful collection of pages masquerading as a novel led me to ponder the sad state of modern fiction. I have been accused before of being elitist in my literary taste, a rebuke that is perhaps occasionally earned (although, let me remind one and all that most great writers of the classics, such as Dickens, wrote not for the elite alone, but for the common masses). I do often make the judgment that if a book is a bestseller today, it must therefore be awful, since mass appeal is seldom earned anymore by books of quality. From time to time, I have been proven wrong in this judgment. More frequently, however, I have been proven right. I do not know whether it is the readers or the writers who are ultimately most to blame, but a large portion of censure is certainly deserved by the writers.

Many modern authors really don't understand how to write! Character development is the greatest casualty; so many modern writers are incapable of creating unique, flesh-and-blood personalities that are distinguishable from one another (and from book to book). Plots are cliche-ridden and oftentimes paper-thin, routinely teetering dangerously on one coincidental decision by a character, or, worse, mere whim. Authors are now increasingly falling into the Hollywood trap of dumbing down for audiences (I give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume that they themselves are not the stupid ones): every part of the story must be explained repeatedly in this new literary style. One cannot simply let the characters take over the story, as the old masters did; no, they have to tell the poor, stupid readers exactly why Mary crinkles her nose or tell us every thought coming in John's head as he gazes upon the lovely woman (and the woman is always lovely). We must be reminded over and over why a certain action takes place, why the door is closed, why the heroine wore red. Occasionally, the author attempts to be clever and delivers a crucial, plot-altering decision devoid of reason! Gone is subtlety; art is dead.

Allusions to brilliant old works are seldom quoted anymore; Sayers positively delighted in obscure literary references, which gave a peculiarly wonderful and scholarly feel to even her detective fiction. Sayers' characters had multiple sides to them, depth, passions, dreams, and, most importantly, history. The past directed, haunted, pursued, and by some characters, could be overcome. Characters grew and developed from their pasts. An entire novel did not have one plot alone; Sayers had side-stories and peripheral events, just as real lives do. Her characters conversed intelligently; modern characters comment on surface details, like how attractive they find one another. Sayers's characters had lives; modern characters have episodes.

As I sadly learned last night, only Sayers can be Sayers. She was a gifted, scholarly, multi-faceted novelist with vigor and depth. She was a theologian, philosopher, educator, and historian as well as author. Many modern writers (I'll be fair and not say all, since I have come across a few rare and deeply appreciated exceptions) are apparently graduates of the People Magazine school of writing: all beauty lies on the surface, where the dense can see and appreciate it, all people are guided solely by their glands, and a woman's sole purpose is be a man's sex toy. Thought, depth, and scholarship are penniless orphans cast into the snow, left to freeze and starve.

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"