On Clench Racing: Stephen R. Donaldson’s Words of Choice

Paul R. Potts

In case you are unable to read Nick Lowe’s essay, the idea of “clench racing” is that you and a friend pick up copies of Lord Foul’s Bane, open them to a random page, and try to be the first to find the word “clench.” The game is supposed to make some kind of argument about Donaldson’s writing and his unusually frequent use of certain words. And I’ll let my essay say the rest of what I have to say about that.

Lowe also invokes the poetry of Leonard Nimoy, inviting the reader to attempt to complete Nimoy’s lines, in order to make a point about how bad writers demonstrate utterly predictable word choices. This is true, and Nimoy never was much of a poet, but in 2016 I think it is safe to say that his reputation does not rest on his poetry. Rest in peace, Admiral Spock.

Lowe is a smart-ass. I don’t actually mean that as an insult. I enjoy the ravings of smart-asses, if they are actually more smart than ass. But I’ll let you decide whether Lowe is, or I am, the bigger ass, and which of us is smarter.

In his essay “The Well-Tempered Plot Device,” Nick Lowe describes the game of “clench racing:” http://news.ansible.co.uk/plotdev.html. I read this essay to Grace during one of our drives to Saginaw, and we discussed it. Her comment was “I’m glad I have no idea who this guy is, because I can feel free to criticize his writing.”

I did take a few moments to skim through a few chapters of Lord Foul’s Bane looking for the word “clench.” I found it four times so far, enough to tell me the game probably would work reasonably well. But I have a couple of comments about Lowe’s essay.

I took the Leonard Nimoy poetry challenge and I’m happy to report that I wrote concluding lines which were in all cases nearly identical to Nimoy’s lines, except that I left out the word “love.” Mocking Nimoy’s poetry is not much of a challenge, sort of like killing fish in a barrel using a stick of dynamite instead of a gun, but let’s take it as evidence that I have enough of an ear for phrasing to be able to knock these out without breaking a sweat. I can’t really complain about this portion of the essay. Mocking bad writing is a long-standing form of entertainment at cons; mocking bad filmmaking is the reason that “cult” movies develop a cult.

No, my first complaint is that he attempts to jump from a funny observation about Donaldson’s use of “clench” — which is about word choice and style — to a point about predictability in word choice, to a point about plot devices.

First off, I don’t buy his argument. Once you’ve read a novel, you can remember the words the author used a lot. In Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road the word “beat” pops up again and again. Does that mean Kerouac’s prose is predictable? I wouldn’t say that; in fact, one of the reasons On the Road scans so nicely is the way that word, “beat,” crops up rhythmically but unpredictably, like unexpected syncopation in a drum solo. “Predictable” only works if you can predict it before you’ve read it, like you can with Nimoy. Is Donaldson really predictable in his word choices? Let me ask a related question — do people’s habits make them predictable? Covenant says “Hellfire and damnation.” Speed freaks twitch. It makes sense to associate words with people; nervous people clench. I used to clench. My dentist gave me a bite guard and told me to avoid unnecessary travel to far-off Lands.

My next observation is that Lowe seems to be a bit dishonest about what writing is. Writing is artifice, genre writing perhaps even more so. It’s fundamentally an unnatural activity. Writing seems “natural” only to the extent that the reader goes along for the ride with the writer.

Let’s say I’m going to write a novel. What is it that I actually write about? Well, in general, unless I’m David Foster Wallace, or I’m writing something weird and postmodern about my childhood, I’m going to have to give my characters something to do. That’s plot. It’s an artifact. It is fundamentally artificial.

In a short story the plot can be vestigial, or seem very organic. I short story can even by primarily a character sketch, or about a place, or a memory. In a postmodern “blob” of a novel where there aren’t any rules and there is almost no structure, it may seem like there is no artifice. The “plot” can feel seamless. In a genre novel — particularly in a genre novel — you have to build a scaffolding of plot. You do this whether you are very deliberative about it — using note cards, or a timeline, or an outline — or whether it evolves mostly in your head.

Lowe seems to be griping that some writers leave pretty obvious seams. But I want to be clear on this — if you’re a close enough reader, the seams are there in every novel, because ever novel is constructed, and can thus be deconstructed. Genre novels in particular follow conventions and thus have more overt structure. Make no mistake: looking for, and cataloging, plot holes and seams can be quite entertaining. But it is not necessarily the best way to enjoy a novel.

Lowe honestly doesn’t seem to know that much about the history of the novel. To say that elaborate plotting first appeared in comic novels by writers such as Barth and Calvino is to ignore pretty much the whole history of the novel, including all of Russian literature. I like Barth and Calvino, but Barth and Calvino are very cerebral and self-conscious and ironic and self-referential. That’s all well and good, but sometimes people just want to read a story. And they read genre fiction.

Lowe really rubs me the wrong way when he makes statements like this:

You’ve only got to look around you to realize that most books that get published are NOT good. This simple point makes a nonsense of conventional criticism, which lacks any sort of vocabulary to discuss badness in any meaningful way. And yet badness is the dominant quality of contemporary literature, and certainly of SF.

I’m a big fan of Sturgeon’s law, so I have to agree that this is true, although I would place most books into a kind of no-man’s land of mediocrity. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that if Sturgeon’s law is true, and I believe it is, then the only way to get more good books is to get more books. And that means more bad books — a lot more bad books, or at least more mediocre books.

That’s how it works, and that’s OK.

Is Lowe seriously coming from such an elitist position that he thinks he can convince us that Tolkien — author of the best-selling novel of all time — is a hack writer who churned out work that centered around plotting tricks? And even that Donaldson, whose works were huge sellers, was turning out turgid crap? Yes, that’s exactly what he’s saying. And he doesn’t leaven his criticism with any light-heartedness at all. It might have been entertaining to hear him give his talk at a convention. I’m assuming that he actually was smiling when he said some of these things. On the page, though, the finished essay doesn’t read as if he has any actual admiration for the genre underlying his funny, and mostly valid, criticism of the ways that authors create plot.

No admiration? What exactly is someone who hates most modern writing doing, writing criticism of science fiction, exactly?

The author’s elitism is revealed as a pretty hollow value system. He doesn’t offer much to like. His attitude seems to be, at its core, “if people actually like it, it’s crap.” I’m reminded of a funny t-shirt I saw for sale online. It says “your favorite band sucks.”

In fact, Lowe’s entire essay reads like something I might have written when I was sixteen. It has some superficial but funny insights but the overall tone is very elitist and obnoxious. In Lowe’s world view readers don’t rise up and demand something different because they are too stupid to understand that what they are reading is poorly written. Yes, that’s really what he is saying. At the end of his ranting he comes right out and says it:

I hope that in revealing to you, for the first time in cosmic history, these precious secrets of how to tune and play your very own plot devices, I’ve given you some idea of the opportunities that exist for the talentless hack to abuse, short-change and exploit the mindless masses who put up with this garbage.

Huh. This is a bit like Arthur Dent confronting the Nutri-matic drink machine on the starship Heart of Gold. The machine attempts to convince Arthur that the drink it is producing for him is perfectly tailored for his nutritional needs and enjoyment, because it knows best. “But it tastes filthy,” Arthur retorts. “I’m a masochist on a diet, am I?” Just what kind of tasteless gruel does Lowe think we should be enjoying if not the work we actually know and love? Personally, I’d rather settle down with a nice cup of tea.

Lowe continues:

The only thing that could possibly stand in your way would be a united resistance from those contemptible snot-gobbed arthropods the readers themselves, crying out against cheapskate exploitation fiction and demanding stories that can hold the road without the author stepping in every five pages to crank the bloody things up. Small chance of that, eh?

This is supposed to be funny, I suppose, but it reminds me why I will never be caught reading one of the “for Dummies” books. Why am I reading an essay by a writer who calls me “contemptible?” Lowe’s essay should be entitled “Science Fiction for Contemptible Snot-Gobbed Arthropods.”

I certainly have had a lot of fun mocking various writers. I love writing pastiche and parody. Parts of Lowe’s essay are funny, but it left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Maybe that’s the snot in my gob. Or maybe it’s the snottiness in Lowe’s essay.

Imagine that this sentence is a spirited defense of Gene Wolfe’s work. If you’ve read Wolfe, you can write it for me. Although Lowe mocks some of the rare weak spots in Wolfe’s writing in The Book of the New Sun, it is safe to say that, in 2006, Wolfe’s reputation is firmly established. It remains to be seen what people will think in 2026.

I’d like to throw out a few closing thoughts inspired by a writing teacher of mine who loved Mark Twain and tried to remind me that James Joyce, whose work I love, was not a valuable model for a writer attempting (as I was) to actually complete stories that readers might actually enjoy reading.

…he had tasted the consequences of allowing the people of the Land to treat him as if he were some kind of mythic figure. With an effort, the replied gruffly, “Nevertheless. I’m not used to such things. In my own world, I’m — just a little man. Your homage makes me uneasy.”
  Softly, Mhoram sighed his relief, and Lithe raised her head to ask in wonder, “Is it possible? Can such worlds be, where you are not among the great?”
  “Take my word for it.” Covenant drank deeply from his flask.

And, even more to the point, these words — Donaldson might have imagining his critics saying them:

“That was a joke. Or a metaphor.” Covenant made another effort to turn his sarcasm into humor. “I can never tell the difference.”

Recall that Thomas Covenant, the character, was a successful novelist before leprosy turned his life upside-down; he certainly knew what a metaphor was, and he knew that the distinction between joke and metaphor had more to do with the reader, than the writer:

Foamfollower studied him for a long moment, then asked carefully, “My friend, do you jest?”
  Covenant met the Giant’s gaze with a sardonic scowl. “Apparently not.”

And I’ll quote one more passage, as further evidence that neither Covenant, nor Donaldson, took himself entirely seriously. And I’ll let these words stand as my last word on Lowe’s essay:

Watching him go, Winhome Gay breathed, “He dislikes you.” Her tone expressed awe at the Warhaft’s audacity and foolishness. She seemed to ask how he dared to feel as he did — as if Covenant’s performance the previous night had exalted him in her eyes to the rank of a Ranyhyn.
  “He has good reason,” answered Covenant flatly.
  Gay looked unsure. As if she were reaching out for dangerous knowledge, she asked quickly, “Because you are a — a ‘leper’?”   He could see her seriousness. But he felt that he had already said too much about lepers. Such talk compromised his bargain. “No,” he said, “he just thinks I’m obnoxious.”

Looking back on this from 2022, I find myself asking what a critique like Lowe’s might look like if it was written by actual fans who were not condescending and steeped in the rhetoric of academic literary criticism. What popped into my head was Lionel Twain’s rant at the end of Neil Simon’s film Murder by Death, in which readers of mystery novel get their revenge through Twain… who, in turn, is revealed to be the housekeeper, perhaps herself an anonymous mystery fan:

You’ve all been so clever for so long you’ve forgotten to be humble. You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters at the end that weren’t in the book before! You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns l’ve outsmarted you they’ll be selling your books for cents. It’s checkout time, ladies and gentlemen. I have your bills ready. Credit cards will be accepted.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 20, 2006

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