So it is a common thing to hear reviewers and book-lovers complain about ‘purple prose.’ Like most complaints, however, this is shorthand for something more complicated. At times we like highly poetic prose, even relish it. What most people mean when they say ‘purple prose’ isn’t simply “elegant or florid” but rather “overly-dramatic or painfully excessive.”
And what makes it ‘excessive’? On the face of it, of course, it’s usually a matter of subjective taste. So we have to grant the subjectivity of it, and go from there in order to try and understand why we sometimes love poetry in our prose and sometimes loathe it.
(This applies to the opposite style as well: sometimes we love a stark, stripped sentence. Other times it makes us want to slap someone…so, extrapolate)
Is It Any Good?
The first and most obvious hurdle that must be passed is whether or not the writing is just plain bad: cliche-riddled, weak, repetitive, and amateurish. I am referring to something that nearly everyone could point to as an example of bad writing, objectively. The craft has not been honed, effort has not been made. In the midst of such writing, purple prose will stand out garishly. It is gaudy there, because it is thoughtless, incoherent adornment.
But let’s be honest, it’s not just bad writing that high-lights overwrought prose. This can happen in decent writing too. Even in excellent writing, and it is this that I want to analyze.
Usually when describing books I dislike, I avoid mentioning titles or authors. I’m not here to mock or deride. But in this case I am going to have to name names. If a book you love is torn apart here, I’m sorry, but it’s too good purpose, I promise!
(Theoretically) Good Prose, Terrible Story
Some people that I both love and respect, and who have excellent taste in literature recommended this book to me, which I ended up loathing. I say this so that you might take everything I’m about to say about the book Beatrice and Virgil with a grain of salt. I hated it. People of indisputably good taste and character loved it. Make of that what you will.
I started reading Beatrice and Virgil, a literary novel that is a supposed attempt to write about the Holocaust in the abstract, or obliquely, or metaphorically or whatever. The writing drew me in, and for a good while I was wondering with deep curiosity what it all meant, where it was all headed. The writing is full of rich, detailed descriptions and metaphors. But, as far as I’m concerned, the book was utterly soulless. Beautifully written, and empty, empty, empty. A gilded, barren vessel, writing about a grave topic in a haphazard, pseudo-deep, fiercely pointless way. And unless the metaphor was supposed to be “pointlessness and emptiness,” I think the book completely failed, in spite of excellent writing.
It made me hate the elegant metaphors all the more because they, so to speak, fell to the ground without accomplishing any sort of purpose. This book feels to me like the author had a interesting, (albeit extremely pretentious and aloof) premise, plus a notebook full of cool, but utterly irrelevant and detached metaphors that he wanted to cram in there. And that’s it. That’s the whole kit and caboodle.
None of the beautiful phrases are preserved in my mind because they had (or seemed to have) no real substance beneath them. I think the very quality of the writing made my disappointment far more severe. I’ve read poorly written books that handled topics ineffectively, but there was not the sense of injury after reading those, as though something important had been ill-used by hands that clearly had the capacity to do much better.
The only other book that made me feel this livid–this deep sense of a failure of the narrative, a insulting usage of the subject matter, and a frustrating use of metaphor and poetry–was The Book Thief. Once again, many intelligent people I love and respect liked this book a great deal. Keep salting as we go along, because the subjective and objective can be tricky to disentangle with books like this.
Much like with Beatrice and Virgil, I was struck with the beauty and strength of the prose in the first few pages. “Sky like burned soup,” Death says. That stuck with me. But as the book wore on (and I do say wore on…weary irritation and frustration is the chief emotion I associate with this book), the blankness, meanness, and emptiness of most of the characters, and of the story as a whole, caused those very same strengths–the prose–to collapse before my eyes. The good, misapplied, turned very, very sour.
Soon every single metaphor stood out like a sore thumb–irrational and sometimes eye-gougingly stupid. It was as if, half-way through the book, the author tried to stick in every last weird phrase he really ought to have reserved for a book that actually needed them. This one did not. Unlike with Beatrice and Virgil, which I disliked for what I saw as it’s horrible misuse of a grave topic, but which was well-written from beginning to end, I started to loathe the prose in The Book Thief to the point where reading it was like nails on a chalkboard. It was with fierce and stubborn grit that I managed to finish it at all.
These are the only two books I have ever read that made me feel a visceral anger in this way. The fact that they are both (the former however loosely) associated with WWII/Holocaust may have much to do with it. I felt personally insulted (???) by the way the authors approached the topic. I fully acknowledge this opinion to be VERY subjective, but it seemed to me that the authors cared more about their style of prose than they did about the very serious, very important historical subject matter. I’m sure that can’t be true, but never have I read a WWII or Holocaust narrative that made me feel so disconnected from the subject matter, as if the topic was totally incidental to the author. A mere decoration they felt added the desired gravitas.
Again, it seems nearly impossible that this is actually so, but the conclusion I draw from this is that if someone is knowledgeable, or feels particularly strongly about a topic/era/subject then a disrespectful or inept–or even simply unusual!–handling of it is going to cast an ugly shadow on the prose for them. The prose is too high above the theme, and given more thought than the theme. It should be stricken and reversed, as one evil chocolatier might say.
All I have said of these particular stories may be quite subjective, but from my own reaction I can learn some principles to more broadly apply: Poetry, I think, is ruined if the treatment of the subject and the beauty of the words do not match. You might notice this in a song you like: the music and the pounding rhythm of the words are awesome…but then the more you think about the words, the more you realize how stupid and shallow they actually are. It can blunt even that which was rightly sharp.
Poetry Steals the Spotlight, for Good or Ill
On the other end of the spectrum, I have one example of a book with a theme and purpose that I thought was quite excellent, quite worthy, but the excessively florid style grated so much that I couldn’t finish it. The book is call One Thousand Gifts. It is about gratitude and what the author has to say is, I believe, utterly true and necessary to hear. But she had a very particular swirliness to her prose which I believe many people would connect to, but which drove me up the wall.
To me, it was intrusive and often eye-roll inducing, and even though I kept thinking “what she is saying, underneath all that erratic decoration, is fully true…but how long can I put up with this?”
This is the prose equivalent of adding so many curlicues to your calligraphy that the word can no longer be read. It may be beautiful (to some) but it is increasingly illegible to most. Purple is not a problem. But it becomes one if we begin to have difficulty seeing the forest for the trees. If you have to scale a mountain of metaphors to get to the heart of the paragraph’s matter, it can become very tedious.
Obviously this is a matter of taste. We have different likes, dislikes, different thresholds for pretty versus practical. But for my own edification, it reminds me that my prose may be as purple (or gray, or black-and-white) as it pleases, provide it doesn’t tangle the readers ankles and blur their vision as they go along. It’s something for me to keep in mind, as I (obviously) tend toward the wordier end of the spectrum.
So when we say excessive, we usually mean “it got in the way.” Prose and purpose were mismatched.
Since I have spent the last several paragraphs criticizing that which doesn’t work, I’m going to offer a few examples of that which does.
(Side-note: For fans of Beatrice and Virgil, The Book Thief, and One Thousand Gifts, I ask your pardon for all the above. I tried to be fair. Grains of salt for everybody!)
Two books that strike the balance of having rich purpose and theme, a beautiful, truly muscular use of both, and which are seamlessly poetic are: Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis, and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. That I only have two examples shows that I am rarely satisfied, perhaps more of a mark against me than against any other authors I decry.
While reading these books I felt that there was not a single errant word. All was balanced so perfectly between fact and metaphor, between soft lilt and sharp edge. The themes were so strong and resonant and the prose matched them perfectly. It is this to which I aspire, and this which seems impossible to achieve. Reading books like this is like basking in sunlight, yet never growing too hot because of a perfectly cool breeze. It is rare, and cherished.
Side-note: There are other books that I found equally powerful, but they were simply less poetic in style (Chaim Potok’s The Promise is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, but the prose style is far more pragmatic, so I did not include it). I chose these two because they have precisely that right use of subtle, incisive poetry and in that usage, such strength.
I remember phrases from these books, and when I recall them, they stir in me a similar joy or sorrow as they did at first. Like a balm or a right grieving. And I am very grateful.
I don’t know what the real name of this trope is, but it generally works like this: there’s a ticking clock of some lethal kind and the character has to run–and I mean RUN–to make it in time.
Run to slam a gate to keep the monster out.
Race to deliver a letter before a dreadful misunderstanding occurs.
Hurry to get out of the city before curfew lockdown.
Sprinting through field and forrest with the hounds baying just behind you.
You get the idea.
On the surface, this seems like a pretty straightforward trope, and I suppose it is, but since I find that I actually use and think about this trope in my daily life, I think it’s worth exploring.
Where do we see this trope? Why does it exist? Why is it that we don’t get bored of such an obvious and common narrative tool?
Off the top of my head I can think of two examples of this trope that impacted me, and I’m going to use them for the analysis.
The first is Shasta in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta’s companion, Aravis, has been wounded by a lion and must recover. Both talking horses, Bree and Hwin, are completely spent and must rest. But Shasta doesn’t get to rest. He has to keep going to warn of invasion. He can only just hope to precede the attackers by a very little bit, if at all. He has to run as fast as he can (remember, he’s already exhausted) in hopes that word can reach Archenland in time. If he doesn’t make it, Archenland won’t make it. If he does, they have a chance.
Thankfully, Shasta makes it.
The second example is of a far more serious nature, as it is based in actual history. It is the movie Gallipoli. In the film there are two extremely fast runners who enlist and fight in WWI. Towards the end of the film there is an assault planned by the ANZAC forces, meant to follow bombardment and proceed in three waves. The timing is bungled, and the first two waves are slaughtered almost instantly. There is some disagreement and miscommunication as to whether or not the third wave should proceed (it being quite clear to the viewer that they will be slaughtered just like the first two waves).
With disconnected phone lines, one of the runners is given a message to halt the third wave. He sprints. His friend–the other sprinter–is in the third wave. If the runner makes it, all those men are saved. If he doesn’t, they aren’t.
The runner doesn’t make it. The wave is sent to death.
Here’s the most obvious reason for the dash or die trope. Well done, a ticking clock creates tremendous tension. I honestly have never figured out what the difference is between the well-done ones and the poorly done ones. I only recognize the difference in what I think and feel.
When poorly done, the ticking clock feels silly and forced. I don’t really believe that anyone is in danger, and I don’t feel the fear and desperation of the runner. To me this indicates that the author didn’t enter into that tension, didn’t really put lives at stake, but simply overlaid it onto the scene because they wanted more tension and didn’t really know how else to go about it. I suspect this, because I can always tell when I am trying to “add tension” to my scenes but don’t personally feel it…it ends up being very paint-by-the-numbers. The stakes could be the fate of the world, and nobody will care.
When well done, the stakes could be relatively low (a mild misunderstanding) but my heart will still race. I wish I knew the trick to this, because it astounds me, and impresses me when well executed.
Value of Fierce Incentive
For the runner themselves, the incentive is razor-sharp. It’s dragging them like ropes, even against the will of their body. When dealing with motive, characters are often given a wide variety and it’s just a matter of context and timing as to which of those motives end up having the most driving power for action. It’s complex. Motives conflict, and muddy the waters, which can be interesting, but can also muddy our understanding of why a character is doing something, or why it’s important.
Not here. We know exactly what’s at stake, and we know when it needs to happen, and we know why the protagonist is so desperate, why they are able to push past their normal physical limits. Everything is on the table. The incentive to run is visceral, adrenaline-soaked, acting like a raw scream in the ear.
Weight and Finality
This trope works best when the success or failure carries dreadful weight, and its impact is final.
When the consequences of failure are tempered–“oh, you’re too late, but some coincidence caused a deferred consequence, how lucky!! Now you get to try again”–that definitely obliterates the tension and value of a ticking clock.
Finality matters in the story because it matters in real life. Sometimes our decisions, or our failures are final. Not always, but sometimes. That’s why people love to watch doctor shows: the decisions of the doctors are often final, and often on the clock.
It’s a grander, more dangerous version of what we feel when we try to meet a non-negotiable deadline. When that happens, it can make our heart race. No less so in fiction.
As to impressing the weight of the thing on the reader (or viewer), the main factor that I’ve noticed is not whether the consequences are large or small, but whether we care about the effects in a personal way. Superhero movies frequently fail on this score. They simply make the consequences really, really big, so big that they become vague and impersonal. The fate of a city, of a nation, of the whole world, of the galaxy. Intellectually, we all know this is awful, but it’s hard to grasp something that big emotionally without tying it to a smaller person or thing. That’s why individual stories often help us understand a massive tragedy more readily than the horrible, overarching narrative.
No matter how big or small you go, if the emotional connection to the consequences is absent–the weight of failure, as it were–no amount of explosions, or ticking clocks, or dramatic pauses are going to make any difference.
I’m going to use another historical example here, but I will acknowledge up front that historical narratives are a bit of a “cheat” (a valid one) in that they actuallyhappened. Weight and finality are inherent, because they are true. We can see a story unfold and know the ending full well, but we are still affected because it’s not just a story.
A last Example
I have rarely (if ever) seen a ticking clock and the sense of consequence used as well as in the film Dunkirk. This is first and foremost because it is a fictionalized rendering of actual events. Real people actually had all these experiences. But all actions or failures of action have direct and (nearly always) final consequences. The style of filming zeroes in with almost claustrophobic proximity, on just a few people. The fate of hundreds of thousands hangs in the air, but focusing on just a handful of people brings home what EVERYONE is going through a that moment in a way a broad sweep could never quite achieve.
In that film, small choices have fatal consequences. Over and over again. Mistakes, however understandable in the moment, result in irreversable outcomes. Many are saved. Many are lost. We see both. We see the last-second save, and the second-too-late loss. Just thinking about one particular scene right now sets a stone in my stomach.
Now Dunkirk is not a straightforward dash-or-die story, but it is a type of one if you look at the actual history. There was a ticking clock to get those soldiers off the beach. The longer it took, the more were likely to die. Consequences of a massive failure could have been devastating, and consequences of individual failure very final indeed.
That is a very sobering example, of course, so I will finish with something a bit more…mundane.
I like to run. It is one of the easiest, cheapest sports. Other than shoes, no equipment required. But I have to fight against a lazy streak when I run for time. In order to improve at speed or distances, you have to be at least a little uncomfortable at some point. A comfortable pace is nice sometimes, but it is a stagnant pace. At some point, you need to hurt a little to succeed. I resist this a little. I don’t want to be uncomfortable.
For years now I have often played this little game with myself when I find that lazy streak bucking up.
“What if someone’s life was at stake? What if the fate of the world rested on whether or not I am able to run fast enough? Would I be this lazy? I’ll pretend I have a message to deliver, and if I don’t keep an 8:30 pace for these last two miles, something terrible will happen.”
Obviously this is silly on the surface, just sort of a mind-trick I employ to try and maintain a minimum goal pace. But underneath, there’s a little something more to it. What if someone’s life really did depend on my willingness, my ability to push myself past all expected physical capacity? What if that tiny streak of laziness had consequences? In dire situations, lives really do hang on the muscle memory we’ve developed–mental, physcial, or moral muscle memory–or failed to develop.
The dash or die trope strips its characters of any insulation from their flaws, any superfluous factors, any easy outs. It tells us who the characters really are in the moment of desperation, and then it shows us the consequences.
I do not remember how old I was when I first read Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Mara Daughter of the Nile. 12, perhaps. And I have probably read it nearly a dozen times since then.
This book rest firmly in the category of “books-that-I-love-till-death-do-us-part-but-am-not-sure-if-they-are-as-good-as-I-think-because-I-am-blinded-by-old-affection.” I find that books read in my teenaged years often fall into this category. The impression they made on me was so great, the warmth and coziness and joy I feel when I think about them is so tied up in my formative years, I can hardly be objective.
Mara Daughter of the Nile is the story of a young slave girl in ancient Egypt who, with hopes for eventual freedom, winds up a double spy for servants of both Queen Hatshepsut and her brother Thutmose. Initially indifferent to who wins or how, she falls in love (because, of course) and there’s all sorts of repartee, skullduggery, and bits of Egyptian history.
There are a few obnoxious cliche’s, such as the “different-eyed heroine,” and an excessive use of the word ‘beribboned,’ but I hardly noticed any such thing at the time. Later I found that there are also a few historical inaccuracies. The author chose to frame Queen Hatshepsut as the villain and the young Thutmose as the hero, and I hear tell the opposite might have been the case. I’ve not studied the period in sufficient detail to know for sure.
But the nature of the real historical figures is not why one reads this book. One reads this book for Mara. For Sheftu. For Innani. For adventure and romance.
Mara is something of a prototype for the sort of YA protagonist one sees frequently nowadays. She’s rebellious, she’s clever, she’s attractive, she’s mistreated. But this was before so many YA leads were action figures; she doesn’t engage in fisticuffs, but rather battles of wits.
The thing I like particularly about Mara, which many books fail to convey effectively, but this one executes pretty well, is her initial indifference to “the cause.” Up until the last third of the book, her main goals remain the same selfish (albeit very understandable) goals from the beginning of the book. Acquire freedom. Stay alive. Live a life of luxury. Who cares under which Pharaoh she does so?
She doesn’t care about the literal or abstract ‘fate of Egypt.’ She’s had a hard life and she wants to get hers. Even a burgeoning romance barely makes a dent in this attitude until shortly before the denouement.
This isn’t actually my favorite sort of character–the selfish, indifferent kind–but it really works here. It jives with her background and personality. It’s not just thrown in there to create drama.
Of note, Mara is a linguist whose duty throughout much of the book is as a translator. It is possible this simple little fact influenced the whole course of my life, a matter of which I will speak more later.
Mara is also very arrogant, another characteristic that I usually dislike in a protagonist. But it’s not left unaddressed. For a huge portion of the book she treats the Babylonian princess, Innani, with considerable disdain. She looks down on her as a ‘stupid barbarian.’ But her perspective changes (slowly, for she is stubborn) as she begins to see the quality of Innani’s character.
So this would be a good time to talk about Innani.
Innani is, at first, mere means to end for Mara. She is the “barbarian” Canaanite princess sent for by Queen Hatshepsut for the express purpose of taunting Thutmose with a bride that he will certainly deem inferior to himself. Innani’s very purpose in the book is to be scorned by Thutmose, mocked by everyone, and used by Mara (and others).
Since Innani does not speak Egyptian, an interpreter is required because Thutmose will not deign to speak her ‘barbarian’ tongue. Mara speaks Babylonian fluently, and she is to use her position as interpreter to glean information for one master (on Hatshepsut’s side) and convey messages for another (on Thutmose’s side).
Innani herself–alone, isolated, looked down upon–is initially treated with scorn even by the narrative itself, although mostly through the Egyptian pride exhibited in Mara’s personal thoughts towards Innani. But over time, Innani is shown to be kind, compassionate, far more intuitive than people give her credit for, and resourceful in figuring out how to live and endure when she is so clearly an unwanted guest.
While I honestly feel the narrative still could have done a little better by Innani, I do like what her character has to offer to the story: a friend that is kinder to Mara than she really deserves, a person who experiences unkindness and arrogance but handles it, if not with perfection, at least with compassion and patience and a modicum of dignity. She is a soft, selfless, and uncynical contrast to Mara’s harsh, selfish, and cynical character. The friendship that develops between them is not the focus of the book, but it is sweet and good.
I am at the point of confession. When I first read this book, it was probably the most romance-y thing I’d ever read in my life. I mean, it has two or even three kisses in it, you guys. That was almost more than 12-year-old me could handle. And I looooooooved it. The romance between Mara and Sheftu probably has a great deal to do with what I deem ‘romantic’ to this day.
I have no idea what I would think of it if I only read it for the first time now, instead of nearly 20 years ago. That timeline does not exist. I can tell you nothing of it.
Both Sheftu and Mara have ruthless streaks and each has the explicit objective of utilizing the other to gain what they want. This is out in the open. Mara wants freedom and riches, and working for (and tricking) Sheftu gives her the opportunity to achieve that and he knows it. Sheftu needs her skill and savvy to set his best friend and master (Thutmose) on the throne, and he would slit her throat in a hot second if he felt like she threatened that objective. And she knows it.
Both have the power to destroy the other’s life and–almost up to the end–both are quite willing to use that power if necessary. They are not enemies, exactly, but they both have their own end-goals which eventually clash.
Of course they begin to care for one another, which makes having the other’s throat slit much more difficult, as one might expect. Naturally this means they are both angry at themselves for allowing the other to be a distraction. Why do I love this so much? I don’t know.
Beyond that there’s a bit of that old upstairs-downstairs-type tension: Sheftu is a great Lord, wealthy and powerful. Mara is a slave and a ‘guttersnipe.’ This theme is not the main focus, but I am a sucker for these upstairs-downstairs dynamics. Again, I don’t know. Or I suppose it’s the romance of overcoming a social barrier, or the idea of someone who ought never to even notice the ‘guttersnipe’ finding them just too darn intriguing to ignore. It’s that idea that someone’s character, strength, or brilliance is hard for even those who want to ignore it to do so.
Here there be spoilers.
At the end Mara has become fully dedicated to Sheftu’s cause of bringing down Hatshepsut and putting Thutmose on the throne. So, naturally, just as she has become loyal, Sheftu discovers all her previous treachery and assumes that she is going to carry out her betrayal (which she has only just decided not to do!!) Delicious, cruel irony.
Mara is trapped multiple times and nearly killed, but she manages to finagle herself out of all trouble until the last minute where she basically sacrifices herself to save Thutmose’s resistance.
She is interrogated and beaten within an inch of her life (literally) but refuses to name names.
This right here is my favorite part of any book.
The hero no longer expects to make it. They hold strong to save others, but they themselves have no hope. Indeed the people she is saving, as far as she knows, still think she’s a traitor. And as far as she knows, no one will honor her for what she does. Heroic self-sacrifice narratives will always be my favorite.
Now even I can admit that this is not the most excellently-wrought version of the heroic self-sacrifice story. There are myriad contrivances towards the end of the book, and there is one heck of a cheesy romantic line following the denouement that made me wince even in my 12-year-old rapture.
Did it matter to my love for this book. Apparently not. I just read again it last month.
A Formative Book
A few years ago I was re-reading this book and it had been quite a long while since I read it, and I made a discovery.
So many of the tropes, scenarios, and character dynamics that I love to write are to be found in this book. I always knew I loved it but I never realized how formative it was. Once I read it I set about a fierce hunt for anything else that could satisfy this particular literary craving. My tastes have changed and grown, and maybe this book would not mean much to me if I read it for the first time just now. But I can say that the hunt that this book (and two or three others) started led me to write my own book.
And as to Mara’s role as translator? Well, 12-year-old me didn’t know that I would work for five years as a translator in the Marine Corps, now did she…but that’s what happened. And the role of languages, dialects, and interpreters still factor heavily into the kinds of stories I love to write.
I have a bad habit of starting three or four books at the same time. The variety part is good, but I think it fosters short attention span; one chapter of this, one chapter of that, then a little of something else.
But I keep doing it, and I guess it’s not too dissimilar from the way I eat my dinner. A bite of this, a bite of that, then a few tastes of something else. It works.
Right now I’m reading:
Mara Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. This is a historical adventure/romance set in ancient Egypt. One of my first loves. I have read it nearly a dozen times. I’m currently writing a blog post about all the hundred reasons I love it, and my near-blindness to it’s flaws (such as the really excessive use of the word ‘beribboned.’)
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. This is just good Victorian-flavored, Dragon-infused fun. It’s the memoir of famous dragon naturalist Lady Trent, beginning with her interest in bird skeletal structure, her penchant for collecting, preserving, and categorizing ‘sparklings’ (teensy pest-sized dragons), and leading to her determination to seek out and study dragons in the wild. There are lovely illustrations, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
Refusenik, by Mark Ya Azbel. Non-fiction account of the author’s life and experiences in the Soviet Union as a ‘refusenik.’ A refusenik is someone who tried to emigrate, but were ‘refused’ by the Soviet government. Most typically this refers to Jewish citizens, as it does in this book. Persecutions often followed if one persisted attempts to emigrate, or protested repeated denials.
The author did make it out of the Soviet Union, so he was able to write this book. What is interesting to me is the timing of the book’s publication. 1987. The book has tremendous value and relevance (this I can already tell from the first 40-some pages), but since it was published so shortly before the fall of the USSR, I imagine it fell off the radar. Accounts of Soviet atrocities, suppression, and propaganda are just as relevant today as they were then.
ALSO, I got a few new books over the past couple of weeks, each a special little thrill to my soul. Each is a sort of purposeful adventure; you’ll see what I mean.
The first was “The Golden Carpet” by Somerset De Chair. This book is, I believe, long out of print. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, I think it went out of print promptly after it was published, in 1945. Luckily, the edition I found is not one of the highly sought after special copies (which sell for $100 or more!!) and I was able to acquire it.
This book is something of a curiosity. It was written by a British Army officer and is an account of the Anglo-Iraqi war, a campaign which occurred during WWII when the Iraqi government (following a coup led by Rashid Ali) refused to break ties with the fascist governments against which Britain was fighting. Fearing that Iraq would become a base of Nazi operations in the region, Britain returned to Iraq (which they had essentially vacated by 1937) to secure the area for the allied cause and re-install a pro-British government.
The specific interest for me is that first-hand accounts of this war are a bit hard to come by and I am hoping it will give me at least some account of the duties and experiences of the Iraq Levies.
The Iraq Levies are a strange bit of history unto themselves, one that is a bit tricky to explain if one has no background in modern Iraqi history. During the British mandate in Iraq, the British trained and maintained local troops which became known as the Iraq Levies. This was initially something of a scout system, starting during WWI, and at a certain time consisted of a fairly wide variety of ethnicities and religious groups. At the outset, there were Arabs, Kurds and Turkomani people in the Levies, but when the actual Iraqi Army began to take form most of these, naturally, became part of the national army.
Nevertheless the Levies remained, and came to be dominated by an ethnic and religious minority, the Assyrians, although a few other minorities still made up a portion of their number.
The Assyrian minority has a complex history, in some ways parallel to the better-known Kurdish situation, and in others rather more akin to the Jewish Iraqi experience prior to the late 1940’s. Regardless it’s a history I want to study further and I’ll take any first-hand accounts I can get. I do suspect that if this book were of stronger literary and historical value, it might have run quite a few more printings, might even be in print today. But I’m excited to see what it has to offer nonetheless. I’m not in an academic context and I don’t have all those delicious historical journals to draw from. I must be creative.
The next book I got was Dear Martin, by Nic Stone. I actually heard about this book a long time ago, not long after I was in the querying trenches. The author had signed with an agent that I had also intended to query, so I followed her. I started to hear about her book and I thought the premise sounded really good:
A young black man named Justyce who goes to a fancy prep school has a bad encounter with a cop, who profiles him and mistreats him. Justyce wants to be like MLK so he tries to process his experiences through that lens (hence, ‘Dear Martin’), but he struggles and becomes increasingly discouraged as he encounters (and becomes aware of) more and more issues.
Yeah I was just going to “read a couple pages to get a feel for it” because I had other books at the front of the line. No dice. Blazed through this book. I had a few small quibbles, but I am so glad I read it and I certainly recommend it. I may go into a bit more detail at my end-of-year reading round-up.
The third book I got is called Salt, by Mark Kurlansky.
Few words in any language thrill me as much as the word ‘salt.’ Salt is a background theme of my book and my favorite candidate for a “literalized metaphor” as author and translator Ken Liu put it.
Salt has the best and most versatile metaphors! I have such a visceral reaction to that word and it’s meaning, purpose, and history. “Salted with fire.” “Salt of the earth.” “Worth your salt.” “Take with a grain of salt.” “Salt in the wound.” “Salt and light.”
So there’s a whole book about the history and meaning of salt??!?! Yes, please, and thank you.
Few things are more beloved and ubiquitous than the Anti-Hero. The term has come to encompass such a broad range of character types, from the simply less-that-sugary member of the good guy band, all the way to someone who only escapes utter, horrific villainhood by one or two actions, which are nevertheless significant actions.
So, as always, the questions here are:
Why does this trope exist and continue to resonate?
What causes the trope to fail?
What causes it to succeed?
For this one, I’m going to focus on the raison(s) d’etre, which I find to be the most interesting thing about this trope, and which largely answer questions two and three.
Bad is easy, Good is hard
Just like in real life, right?
That, to be honest, is something of an oversimplification, but it is the starting point of the Anti-hero. Bad is easy, good is hard. You will often find writers talking about how their villains just write themselves..not to say that a well-rendered villain is an easy thing to accomplish, but that there are no strictures on their behavior. They can do whatever they want.
The ‘good guys’ however are bound,if not by all virtues,at least by those which we feel they cannot do without and still be good. This leads to the stereotypical (and obnoxious) scene where the noble hero refuses to kill the bad guy and lets him get away, while we all groan inwardly knowing that our protagonist could have ended it right there if only they’d been a little more ruthless.
Of course a hero can be sometimes cruel or arrogant or flawed or whatever, but there are lines they cannot cross while still being the person we’re expected to root for. They have limitations. They are good, and in real life we are very glad for people around us to live by those limitations, but the narrow road is not always as easy to write or as entertaining to read.
Enter the style of anti-hero that is more or less a villain at the outset. He or she has the so-called “freedom” of evil. A deceptive freedom in real life, but certainly a helpful one for the author of such a character. They can be vile, dark, dangerous, vicious, and heartless.
But…sometimes they have a moment of mercy. An experience that casts light onto their shadows. Sometimes they fall in love (and are furious about that because it’s an interference). Sometimes their dark past garners sympathy, and the reader (or the writer) begins to wish this villain could someday escape the hole they’ve dug for themselves.
A redemption path begins to break out. If that path is taken, and followed for a while, an anti-hero (in the modern parlance at any rate) is born.
C.S. Lewis implied this “good is hard, bad is easy” principle with reference to his popular book Screwtape Letters. It is an epistolary style book written as though from a senior devil, or tempter, to a junior one who is trying his best to lead a particular “patient” to hell. Lewis mentioned that he had thought of writing an Angelic corollary, full of all the wisdom and strength to fight the temptations laid out in Screwtape Letters. But he stated that every line would have to “smell of heaven.” It couldn’t be merely ‘good advice,’ it would have to be divinity-soaked and holy. He gave up on the idea as being out of reach of his (extraordinary) talents.
It is much easier to write from the perspective of the devilish half we know so well, than the angelic half we struggle to realize. A good and noble character can be glorious, but is just as likely to come off as insipid or two-dimensional. Villains can also suffer from a thinness of character, especially when they are simply serving the role of “thing to be fought against” with no further explanation, but the Anti-hero exists because good is hard to render well without some admixture of evil (what else do we know?) and evil is difficult to render well without leaving some small window of hope for redemption. This comes, I think, from the strange dual impulse in us (quite apart from the difficulties in depiction) to disbelieve in the possibility of real good and real right, while also refusing to believe that someone can be beyond all rescue.
It’s actually a philosophical conundrum, and requires a bit of cognitive dissonance; part of us longs for the villain to be redeemable(ish), but we seem to doubt that there is anything to be redeemed to. The depths we can sometimes understand, but the heights seem to be beyond scope or capacity. In any case, the whole point of redemption, in its original meaning, is an utter reversal of status. Once slave, now free. Once damned, now divine. But since such a radical transition is not easily shown without seeming…well, manipulated, or fake, we usually go in for the halfway point. Either a slightly redeemed villain, or a somewhat fallen hero.
This bleeds into may next point:
Exploring Our Dark Side
The anti-hero is a platform for exploring the darker aspects of our own souls. We can do this with pure villains too, obviously, but–once again–the more deeply we identify with our villains, the more we desire their redemption, the closer they inch toward anti-hero.
But whether villain or anti-hero, it is much easier to explore the horrors and consequences of our own native cruelty, hatred, pride, rage, hard-heartedness, brokenness, and selfishness when we have that slight remove of building a character who is allowed to be all those things. We take that piece of ourselves (and maybe I shouldn’t say “we” but “I”…) and place it on paper and let it run where we dare not go, whether because of our deep convictions, or (frighteningly) because of mere conformity to conventions.
There are two directions this can take, one which I think is demonstrably…um…healthier than the other.
Acknowledgement: This is the healthier one, by my reckoning. This is where we use our pen to ‘probe our wounds,’ to repurpose a Lewis phrasing, It requires exploring our flaws in a way that does not try to evade their worst iterations, the true consequences. It’s admitting what exists, and trying to make something good out of it, maybe even trying to learn from it. I don’t mean writing a didactic story, but simply refusing to ‘cheat’ around that which is wrong or undesirable in us. Our characters don’t get off scot-free and, as the source of their most dangerous flaws, neither do we. In some cases, each and every character we create is like the result of a choose-your-own-adventure. What would happen if I followed that destructive road? What if I didn’t have the love, or support, or positive influences or beliefs that I have? What if I had given up in that dark moment of the soul? This tactic forces honesty and consequence.
Indulgence: This is where we explore our fascination with a broken moral compass, not to edify, but to indulge. To let that part of ourselves run free on the page to satisfy a craving, rather than to expose a truth. This is creating something for very light, unthinking consumption. It is fantasy, not in the genre sense, but in the psychological sense. We think it sounds cool to be a ruthless assassin with no moral code, so we make one and revel in the toughness and bad-assery we associate with that without ever going too deeply into the cold reality of such a thing. If I find that my character’s amorality simply looks cool, but never seems to cause anything but a vaguely menacing aura, then it is like smoking. Looks great, maybe even feels great, but the teeth yellow and the lungs rot.
A great example of how these two tracks play out is through the lens of the classic Revenge Story. I am not partial to the revenge story myself, but it is very popular in both the following forms:
In the “acknowledgement” story, the Anti-Hero/Protagonist sets out to avenge and, while they usually succeed, the process often destroys them as well. They are left broken after breaking so much, and they don’t get back what they lost. The futility of revenge is usually the main theme in such stories.
In the “indulgence” story, there are a lot of “satisfying” moments of revenge and “cool” violence and the story usually ends right after the epic culmination of the revenge plot, with the protagonist walking off into the sunset, blood-covered, but ‘fulfilled.’
If you can’t tell, I have a decided distaste for such a story, because it is such an obvious falsehood. I know a lot of people like this as simple fun popcorn fare, but it irks me to no end.
In any case, this is where, in fiction, we dally with that which we would shun in reality. I don’t think this is particularly admirable, but I have found the tendency to be true of myself at times. I want to work within the character of a hardened killer, or a ruthless ruler…but I would hope and pray I never have to deal with such things in reality, and I will not be so “intrigued” if/when I do.
The Romance of Tragedy and Danger
This tragedy part of this is pretty straightforward. Tragic backstories garner sympathy, draw us in, and are intriguing in their complexity. A character need not be an anti-hero to have a tragic backstory, but anti-heroes usually have one, or are implied to have one. In the original meaning of the anti-hero, they stood in contrast to the farmboy with the courageous spirit, kind heart, and noble motivations. Maybe they fought alongside the farmboy, but the anti-hero has a cruel streak, and acts selfishly. Why? Tragic backstory.
And the romance aspect of this was pretty well summed up by Anne of Green Gables, when she spoke of her own “wicked” protagonists.
“I wouldn’t marry anybody who was wicked, but I think I’d like it if he could be wicked, and wouldn’t.”
This is where you get the “bad boy” tropes, and the villain love-interest types. Villainy, for all the we claim to be against it, can be attractive to us.
I have a couple of ideas as to why this is (though I’m sure my list is not exhaustive):
-We like the idea that a villain goes out of his or herself towards the love interest. If the villain falls in love (or, often as not, in lust) it shows a weakness, a breakage in the armor. This seems to speak to the value, beauty, strength, or character of the one the villain/Anti-Hero desires. Perhaps we picture how this would be if we were the protagonist. For example, if the villain begins to lose his single-minded intensity towards his evil aims, and that’s happening because of little old me? Or little old her? Little old him? What does that say about the quality of a character who can draw someone right off of their dangerous path like that? They must be amazing.
But it’s not as amazing if the hurdle of ‘tragic backstory’ or ‘villainous tendencies’ were not there to be overcome.
-In fiction, we find danger romantic. We envision ourselves, or our characters, standing noble and brave against an onslaught of evil or cruelty. It’s hard to show the brilliance of perserverence and courage if there is nothing to be courageous about. Villains (well-drawn) show the hero’s courage in the strongest light. But this is usually more powerful if we have an emotional connection with the villain as well, or perceive a fraught connection between the hero and the villain. The brings tension and pain into the contrast between good and evil. It hints at the ifs, and whats, and maybes of the villain’s past, present, and future.
And then we’re sad to see the villain stay fully a villain. We have, in an effort to cultivate emotion and empathy, fallen a bit in love with them (romantic or otherwise) and it can be hard to leave them to their destruction. Sometimes they stay a villain, and it’s all the more tragic because they almost, almost became an Anti-hero.
And an Anti-Hero lives in the perpetual state of potential Hero. They live in that halfway point between destruction and redemption. And maybe that’s just really, really recognizable to us.
So in this recent blog post, I discussed a storytelling device that I really liked which was to be found in two wildly different stories–Till We Have Faces and The Emperor’s New Groove–and now I want to talk about a different device which also seems to have a similar sort of bait-and-switch quality.
I’m sure there’s a proper name for it, but I’m just going to call it the Red Herring intro. It’s when the story zooms in on certain character, setting, or culture at the beginning but then subtly turns the tables and by then end of the story you realize that it wasn’t about that at all. An extreme version of this would be where you start with a character and follow them for a while, but a third of the way into the book they die or disappear and someone who you thought was a secondary character becomes the protagonist.
What I am NOT talking about is that sort of thing where you have an intro scene in which some random person is attacked or killed, just to create thrill, but who has no real significance to the story. No, I’m talking about stories where you are led to invest in a setting or character only to find that it was just a tricky way of leading you to something else still more important. The initial setting is still relevant, mind you, but whereas you thought it would be in the foreground, it fades gently to the background.
This works best when the story starts with a recognizable form, character, or relationship dynamic. A guy and a girl start off on an adventure together and you expect there to be a romance, but then the story veers off into somewhat different territory than you expected. It starts out seeming like a rebellious princess story, but it turns out to really be about her long-suffering lady-in-waiting. This is neither good nor bad. Sometimes we want the story to go the way we expect and are disappointed when it doesn’t. Traditional forms or patterns are good and beautiful. They survive for a reason. We like them.
People read romance novels assuming at the outset that the protagonists are going to get together, and they just enjoy seeing how it unfolds. We watch superhero movies knowing that they will save the world and almost certainly survive, but we like watching them do it.
By the same token, it can be really awful when a story veers off its so-called “tracks” and goes where we did not expect. This usually happens when the deviation is extreme and tonally jarring. You pick up something that seems like a fluffy contemporary comedy, and it turns into horror. If the tone feels like cheery, adventurous high fantasy, but it goes into grimdark dystopian gore, few will appreciate that sort of bait and switch.
Whether or not this Red Herring device works depends mostly upon the nature of the preconception that it un-weaves. As I mentioned above, there are tropes we like because we want to see them “completed,” so to speak, or brought to expected fruition. And there are times where we delight to see our expectations thrown out the window. We realized we were making assumptions about what should happen and how things should be, and the author nudges us to some new, strange, untrod ground.
To put it simply, it matters what we are diverting from, and what we are diverting to.
But if the balance is struck–subtlety is best–it can be lovely even as you find yourself saying “This really isn’t quite what I thought this story was going to be about.”
The Black Panther Preview:
This is a somewhat thin example, it being only a preview (albeit an excellent preview), but it shows a miniature version of the Red Herring. The preview starts with two very famous faces in the world of fantasy: Bilbo and Gollum, as it were. These are some guys we like and have seen here, there, and everywhere, so to speak. It seems to be an interrogation, the classic sort, in the dull room with the flickering fluorescents. We know what’s going on. We’ve seen this intro before. Presumably these two guys are important, since we would usually expect our first shots to be of the hero, and of the villain.
But this is not our hero. And this is not our villain. And this cold, badly lit room that reminds you of other interrogation rooms in other films? No, no, no. This is not that story.* Sit here a moment and contemplate this familiar introductory setting for a few moments, because we are about to show you what’s really going to happen here.
Those are the visitors to this story. Let me show you its residents. This is not a story about secret military organizations and aliens and the politics of superhero clubs. This is about a King. A country. A people. A struggle. Ready? Go.
Now, you don’t have to enjoy the preview as much as I did, or even care one whit about superhero movies in order to recognize the subtle way in which the makers of the preview gave viewers something familiar, then switched the camera and said, “yeah, that too, but here’s the main point.”
*There is obviously some presumption here, since I have no idea of the plot of the movie. I’m simply going off of the atmosphere of the preview.
Theeb is a film I watched some time ago. Set in Saudi Arabia in 1916, this story is about a boy, the titular character, and a deadly journey he takes. I will take care not to give away major spoilers, but obviously, the story does not quite go as expected.
At the beginning of the story we have Theeb who keeps close to his older brother. They are bedouins and their father, we learn, has passed away but was greatly respected.
An Englishman soon comes to visit and request a guide. Theeb’s brother is assigned the task and Theeb, through sheer stubbornness, loyalty, and perhaps fear, tags along. This is the “familiar territory.” One thinks Lawrence of Arabia. The Jungle Book. An “exotic” desert setting, with a Westerner introduced, and perhaps some cultural clash hijinks, and the little Bedouin boy will befriend the British soldier and everyone will learns some nice lessons, and then, I don’t know, go to boarding school or whatever.
Not. At. All.
This story is it’s own sharp, clever creature. It takes its own wild turns. It is, as the title suggests, a wolfish story. (Theeb, or thi’ib in MSA, means wolf in Arabic. This was filmed in Jordan, and is subtitled)
Wolves, by the way, are not aggressive creatures. They are shy. They will hide. They will wait and avoid danger if they can. They won’t show their teeth until they have been pressed back and cornered. Then, it’s much too late for you.
And that is exactly how this story goes. The Englishman who seems so important in the beginning? He comes to very little in this story, almost to nothing. Because it isn’t his story. It’s Theeb’s. The secret the Englishman carries which so arouses Theeb’s interest? It is a disappointment, to say the least. So many things you think are important in this story aren’t. So many ways you think it must go, it doesn’t.
Intrigue is shown, only to be cast aside for more dire circumstances. Friendships are forged through struggle only to end as abruptly and brutally as they began, never to be restored. This story has a frustrating and unpredictable quality that perhaps gets closer to real life than many stories do.
(Side-note: I definitely recommend this movie)
For a weaker example, there is Rogue One. Weak, I say, since it wasn’t so much unpredictable what happened at the end, as it was simply atypical for a Star Wars movie. Usually everyone lives and dances with Ewoks at the end of those movies with the scant few dead coming back as happy ghosts.
Cynthia Voigt’s The Wings of a Falcon is a sort of YA quest Fantasy that really acts nothing like a YA quest fantasy. Calling it that gives you no useful information and no sense of the dark, harsh, unrelenting atmosphere of that book.
Why I Like It
I like this sort of story because it draws me away from comfortable expectations to something else of value, however unexpected. The point is, the redirect has to be to something also relevant, also beautiful, also worthy. This would not work if I was expecting a deep philosophical examination of good and evil, and was diverted to platitudes or a diatribe. The diversion must be from a familiar good (the expected trope/story/scenario) to an unfamiliar or unexpected good. The diversion may well be from something soft to something harsh, but there is value in that if the harshness illuminates or fleshes out the softness.
It reminds me a little of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, where Ransom and Tinidril discuss how you might go out looking for a certain fruit in the paradise that is Perelandra, but then you find the one you did not expect. But to reject it for what you expected, rather than receive it as a good, would make for an unadventurous and flavorless life (to say nothing of the theological implications which are the whole premise of the argument!)
Sometimes a story takes you down a beloved path, and you relax in its comfort. And sometimes a story says “you’ve followed me this far because you recognized the road, now come with me where you’ll have to do some climbing and sharp turns, so you can see something you weren’t expecting. I hope you’ll find that it’s worth it.”
And when that diversion is good, it become a fresh perspective and a fresh joy.
It has been several weeks since I posted here for a variety of reasons, but life will be settling into a more regular (if still quite challenging) rhythm here pretty soon. So I’m dusting off the keyboard with a quick run-down of the books I’m currently reading and all that is good about them.
Republic of Fear, by Kanan Makiya
This is an detailed academic account of the nature, tools, rise, and strength of the Iraqi Ba’ath party, most particularly as it pertains to the Ba’ath under Saddam.
I’ve actually been reading this one in bits and pieces for a while, but I’m nearing the end, and while it can get a mite tedious and dense at times, I highly recommend it. Iraqi history is one of my all-time favorite topics of study. What is particularly chilling about ‘Saddam’s Iraq’ is that so many of the things we see as signs of modernization and progress–less emphasis on tribal relations, universal education, sharp increase in literacy–were the exact tools the Ba’ath used to indoctrinate the society. The more the traditional family could be broken down, the more the children could be got hold of and taught state education, the more each individual felt allegiance to the state over and above family, tribe, religion, or any other traditional ties.
You also see how the various revolutionary governments, once they were in power and even stable in that power, would use all the various scapegoats, and any number of massacres, to stir the population to both loyalty and dread. The scapegoats were usually the Assyrian Christians and the Jews. But they also found it easy to dub anything they didn’t approve of or want as “imperialist.” It was an easy slur to throw at your opponents to claim they were ‘for the west.’
Anyhow, for anyone remotely interested in modern Iraqi history, it’s a must-read.
In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson
I did not mean to be reading two books about the rise and nature of tyrannous regimes, but here we are. This book is about the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in 1933. It is non-fiction and very thoroughly researched, but is written in a narrative style, kind of like The Zookeeper’s Wife.
1933: Hitler had already come to power, Jews were already being persecuted, laws against them were proliferating, and the U.S. was largely uninterested in any of these developments. The Ambassador, Dodd, and his daughter Martha initially range between “neutral” about the dangers of Nazism (that would be Dodd), to enthusiastically in favor of Nazism (Martha, at first). You get a disturbing glimpse at anti-semitism in the U.S. as well. There’s this attitude of “Well, I don’t want anyone to be persecuted, but they did sort of bring it on themselves.”
So, parts of it will surely turn your stomach: but it is a very good read so far.
Pensees, by Blaise Pascal
Pascal’s scattered thoughts on God, faith, human nature, and so on.
Yes, I’ve been reading this one for a while too, bit by bit, but that’s not a bad way to take this book, since it is essentially a collection of snippets patched together to form…well…general ‘thoughts’ on topics. Definitely recommended, but worth reading at your own pace, pen in hand.
(If your one of those who marks in books as I do. I know some consider it sacrilege…but I do it all the time.)
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
I’ve read this one before, but it is my favorite Austen, and I was craving it. It is just as good as I remember.
The thing I love about Persuasion is it’s maturity. Anne and Wentworth are older and wiser than most of Austen’s other protagonists. They’ve loved and lost. They’ve moved on (ish).
I adore Anne’s forbearance, her quiet resolution, her resignation even. Her resignation is not that of a weakling, or someone who gives up, but is in fact the sign of a remarkably strong character. She is thrown into the company of a man she loved and rejected, and has to deal daily with his coldness toward her. She is conscious of her failings, chooses not to dwell on anyone else’s failings, and though in some emotional pain, she has grace for everyone around her. She makes a choice to act kindly and sensibly during emotionally fraught situations. And it is not easy. She doesn’t vie for place, or engage in jealousy, or bitterness.
This may sound like she’s too perfect, but she’s not. She battles within herself, but she wins.
And the TENSION in this book, oh my goodness, the tension. Subtle, excellent, beautiful romantic tension. It is this book which confirms my personal view that less is usually more in romance.
And that’s all that I’m reading right now, but I’ve got quite a few things I’m really excited about, including doing a few beloved comfort reads, like Weight of Glory and Mara Daughter of the Nile. I’m much in need of comfort reads right now.