Prose vs. Plane

In the April 27th Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier reviewed The Second Plane, Martin Amis’ provocative new collection of essays on various aspects of terrorism. Although it’s clumsy in places, the piece is refreshing for the verve with which Wieseltier ridicules Amis’ self-important, self-indulgent worldview.

The bit that resonated most strongly for me was the following:

For all of Amis’s testimonies about the transformative impact of Sept. 11 — which “will perhaps never be wholly assimilable,” whatever that means — there is at least one way in which he has been thoroughly untouched by the atrocity: he is still busy with the glamorous pursuit of extraordinary sentences. What has to happen to shake this slavery to style? Amis is the sort of writer who will never say “city” when he can say “conurbation.” In his first article about Sept. 11, written a week after the destruction, he hoped that the American response “should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish,” as if retaliation were an aesthetic statement. When, in a trivial bit of reportage about Tony Blair, Amis observes that “the crouched policemen, in their Day-Glo yellow strip, buzz past like purposeful hornets,” this is merely good writing; but when he describes the second plane on its way to the south tower as “sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty,” the ingenuity of the image is an interruption of attention, an ostentatious metaphorical digression from the enormity that it is preparing to reveal, an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.

It’s that last little phrase, “an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane,” that so perfectly describes the most common pitfall of any creative endeavor.

Musicians, filmmakers, cartoonists, game developers — anyone who strives to communicate to a public beyond the dinner table, really — are already saying “pay attention to me, I have something worth hearing/watching/reading/playing.” A sense of self-importance is part of the job description, and may be why we’re drawn to the job in the first place.

The more disciplined among us are able to minimize that self-importance in service of the message we feel compelled to communicate; more often, though, an artist’s favorite subject is himself, and the message he ends up communicating is, “Look how clever/skilled/cool I am!”. This is so common in the world of comics as to be practically compulsory; artists and writers alike show off every chance they get. From the hyper-controlled structure of an Alan Moore story to the exploded ant farm of a Geoff Darrow page spread, comics is packed to the rafters with exhibitions of cleverness, skill, and cool, all begging to be noticed.

I have a reflexive aversion to this sort of thing, but in my better moments I’m able to a relax and enjoy it for what it is. It can be great fun to strap yourself in to one of Mr. Moore’s Wild Rides, or get lost in one of Darrow’s visual labyrinths. There is much enjoyment to be found in the recognition of and immersion in an abundance of talent.

And, not that I claim any abundance of talent, but I commit excessive acts of self-indulgence on a regular basis in my own work. Because I take great personal pleasure in being inventive with comics, I’ll often choose a showy bit of sequential flimflammery over a more modest approach.

I’m constantly telling my students, “If the reader says, ‘oh look at the cool thing the author did,’ you’ve failed,” because attention is being paid to how you are showing something as opposed to what you are showing. But as with all things, such instances should be judged on a case-by-case basis, according to the intended function of the work. If Martin Amis truly seeks to convince us that his worldview has value, he should use language that draws less attention to itself; on the other hand, if the whole of Geoff Darrow ‘s intent is to feed us eye candy, then all he needs to do is keep that sugar comin’.

4 Responses to “Prose vs. Plane”

  1. Alexx Kay Says:

    Even Alan Moore is less show-offy than he used to be:

    “These days, I would almost prefer it if nobody noticed my technical flourishes, since if they’re recognized as technical flourishes, to some degree they have failed to do their job of affecting the reader subtly and unnoticeably at a distance.” — Alan Moore in correspondence with Dave Sim about _From Hell_

  2. Jason Lutes Says:

    Now that is encouraging.

  3. Madinkbeard » Attention Grabbing Says:

    […] Jason. “Prose vs. Plane.” Coyote vs. Wolf. 2 May […]

  4. C.D. Vowell Says:

    “The more disciplined among us are able to minimize that self-importance in service of the message we feel compelled to communicate”

    Jason, it’s really impressive to hear you’re more disciplined than Martin Amis, and less self-important, too. This is going to catapult you and your funny pictures to the t-t-t-top!

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