Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Madison Bell: How Not to Write Historical Fiction

The Stone That the Builder Refused by Madison Smartt Bell.

Bell is out with the massive third volume of his massive historical trilogy.

I actually-- stupidly-- bought the first of the three books, All Souls Rising, in paperback in the late 90's to read on a flight I was taking to California to visit my sister and niece. I pushed myself through a few chapters, none of it making sense. In-flight drinks and shitty meals broke the monotony. I tried chatting with my seat mates. Nothing there. I looked out the window at the clouds. I went back to the book, pushing through more godawful chapters of verbiage as I floated along. The next thing I knew the plane was at the gate in L.A. and I was waking from a deep nap.

Bell's latest edition of his Herculean task of writing this sludgy mess looks no better. I get the feeling he's punishing himself for the sins of his race (the trilogy is about the Haitian revolution); or making a statement to the world that he's an impressive writer. Impressive writers are supposed to have impressive books to show for their efforts, and yep, there they are. All three of them, large in size and heavy in weight. As they sit weightily on someone's coffee table or bookshelf they look very impressive indeed. That's no doubt how most people will leave them.

(I wonder if even Bell's coterie of friends have read these mind-slaughtering works. It could make for some embarrassing cocktail party moments.
"Yes, I loved the books," a pudgy dilettante tells him. "Great stuff! Very thrilling."
"What was your favorite part?" author Madison Smartt Bell asks.
"Er, umph, harumph, ah, er, yes, excuse me, I seem to have swallowed a sizzle stick! Frightfully inexcusable. Now what were we as we were talking, er, talking about? Look! Mary! Mary herself. Haven't seen her in years. Yoo-hoo! Over here! Er, excuse me, 'Mad,' we'll take up our train of dialogue later, I promise you."
The person makes sure that wherever he is for the rest of the evening, it's nowhere near Professor Bell, who at any moment is liable to start talking about his unreadable trilogy.)

Part of the problem is that Bell has no ability to create living characters. (Toussaint the hero is a statue; a self-flagellating liberal's dream of a black hero-- think Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?") Another part of the problem is that Bell smothers his complicated plot in words.

An example of Bell's difficulty connecting with the reader (forgotten him, haven't we, Mr. Bell?) is found in the well-written opening lines, when he should be grabbing us and saying, "This will be good!"

"Toussaint sat hunched forward, consumed by his shadow, which the firelight threw huge and dark and shuddering behind him on the glistening wall. He was cold, mortally cold, with his ague. Drawing closer about his shoulders the ratty wool blanket he'd taken from the cot, he thought of adding to the fire one of the three or four chunks of wood that remained in his cell. But his trembling would not permit this action. His teeth chattered with the vibration of his chill, so that the bad teeth in his injured jawbone shot a bolt of pain to the very top of his skull. The white flash seared away everything. He gripped the blanket closer. . . ."

Very well-written, no question. Toussaint in his blanket is likely to quickly take a nap, and so soon enough will we. Bell gives us the character from the inside; the man's feelings. (One suspects it's actualy Madison Bell inside that blanket.)

Contrast this to the opening of The Teutonic Knights by an author of historical fiction from 100 years ago, Henryk Sienkiewicz:

"At the Wild Aurochs, an inn belonging to the abbey at Tyniec, several men were sitting, listening to the tales of war and travel being related by a veteran knight who had come from distant parts.

The man was bearded, sturdy, broad-shouldered, almost gigantic in stature, but lean; his hair was confined by a net ornamented with beads, and he wore a leather jacket, dented by the pressure of his cuirass, and over it a belt made of bronze buckles; from his belt hung a knife in a horn sheath and at his side was a short traveller's sword.

Next to him at the table sat a youth with long golden hair and playful eyes, evidently his companion, or perhaps his esquire. . . ."

There is hardly a wasted word. Here, the reader thinks, could be the beginning of an interesting tale. The next several paragraphs confirm this as the knight and his nephew hear of a tournament in Cracow at which will contest the fiercest knights of the land-- including cold and fearless Germans from the dreaded Teutonic order. Before the short chapter is finished several beautiful women have entered the inn. The reader is transported to this mysterious tima and place; is there at the inn, at his own table, seeing all of it. He wonders how the aging knight and his callow nephew will fare at the tournament, and wants to know more about the women. He continues reading. . . .


Anonymous said...


"Well-written"? I'm sure you were joking. That's the most turgid, underwhelming hunk o' crap I've read from Bell since his Washington Square Ensemble, or whatever, or his Zero dB stories. Surely you're being too kind.

I'm currently reading Jamaica Inn, by the estimable Daphne du Maurier, and she runs circles around this ass-clown.


King Wenclas said...

By workshop standards it's "well-written." By using that term I'm trying to call into question their standards of what makes good literature. (Bell runs an MFA program, and has even written a turgid textbook on the subject. Yes, he criticizes such programs also! But still keeps them going, cranking out a mass of uninteresting paint-by-the-numbers writers.)

Jeff Potter said...

Jack Saunders has a powerful concept going with his mantra about "the 10,000 sneering writing instructors who killed Kerouac."


About the ULA working with other groups: I appreciate Tony (who has an MFA) mentioning us to ZNet and turning academic friends on to the action. I think it's only a matter of time before this whole effort catches on.

Adam Hardin said...

Bell's Textbook: "Narrative Design: An Improvisational Method for Apprentice Writers."

This is a good example of how Academia kills Art.

Anonymous said...

What is the need for a "literary rebellion?" Mainstream America is already anti-literature, anti-beauty, anti-anything that thinks, reflects, acts with thought or compassion or insight. If you want your attention "grabbed" at the first second, with absolutely no effort or intelligence on your own part, why not just stick to Stephen King, MTV and Hollywood action movies and be glad your in the majority....rather than searching out some truly great art in the little crevices where it still manages to exist, and ignorantly, fiercely attacking it for not being on your own mediocre level?