The Ragged Edge

Lately, I’ve been reconsidering a lot of my preconceptions of story and of writing. Today, I want to talk about one of them, and that one is: control. 

Not long ago, I linked to a post by Justin Howe, where he discussed the necessity for control in one’s writing:

You can do whatever you want in your story. Write it lush or transparent. Climb Freytag’s pyramid or flip it on its peak and kick it in the rear. Anything goes as long as you’re in control.

As long as each word and sentence connects to the next word and sentence and the whole thing makes a pattern where there’s nothing more you can subtract from it. That’s control. Having pieces left in your hand at the end is control.

What’s not control is starting your story with a well-groomed hook and then piling on introspection, backstory, and/or setting details. What’s not control is leaving nothing out, but throwing it all in there and hoping for the best. Lush doesn’t mean overgrown or overwriting a story so thick it collapses under its own weight.

Every word must link together. They can be ugly or oddly shaped words, but they have to fit into the story’s overall pattern (and of course that pattern can be all freak-a-deak weird, but there has to be some discernable resonance there).

That’s it. Writing post number one is done. It’s all about control.

I linked that post approvingly, and I still agree with it… at least, in the sense I took it when I linked it, which is: control is a wonderful thing in a text, and it allows all kinds of magicalthings to happen, whether that sense of control gets across explicitly, or implicitly.

Learning control is about learning where you want your emphasis to be: if you try to throw everything into a story, or a scene, it will soon go out of control, and become unreadable. That’s why I still think the second writing etude I posted is worth trying and consciously mastering: it sensitizes you to an aspect of story you can consciously control, and provides you with choices you can consciously make to achieve that control.

But the more I go back and read things that really grabbed me in the past, or take note of what surprises me in current reading, the more I find myself wondering whether the reality might not be slightly more complex… after all, what is control, but a sense that those energies in a story that threaten to turn it into chaos, to an absolute ramshackle mess, can be held back, called to heel, or reined in… at least, just enough to make the story work, if not completely.

The point being, what if it’s the tension between control and something else–that looming threat of uncontrolled chaos–that generates a dramatic interest in a text?

This is certainly what I find in music. I mean, there’s no excuse for constantly squeaking and squawking on a saxophone, but I’ve noticed that some of the best horn players out there will sometimes squeak or screech–the kind of thing we considered horribly embarrassing in high school, a rookie mistake. I know better now: the odd squeak or whatever betrays a secret: that these players were playing hard reeds, sometimes on very open mouthpieces, because that was necessary to get the kind of tone and projection they wanted… and to play under those conditions can be a Herculean task.

In other words, they were constantly busy with maintaining control, but had also set things up so that total control was absolutely impossible. They embraced risk, along with control. And not just tonally, either: the musicians I’ve enjoyed best have often given me a sense that the music itself is constantly balanced on the knife’s edge between control, and irreparable collapse:

Hell, it doesn’t even need to be late, less-approachable Trane, either. Even a very approachable, look-at-my-virtuosity tune line Giant Steps demonstrates this:

I think because of the breakneck tempo and the way Trane plays just a touch behind the beat at times, one gets the sense of the tune being on the verge of breaking apart and exploding in a million directions, and of Coltrane as heroically holding that thing together till the end. One imagines him reaching the end of the tune not with a smile of calm satisfaction, but rather drenched in sweat, and desperate for a breath. Which is exciting. It lends the piece some drama, and suspense, that–however virtuoso his performance–I don’t find sax solos by, say, Scott Hamilton:

There will be those who will be quick to construe this as an attack on Hamilton, which it isn’t. There are, and should be, a multitude of ways to skin a cat. (Frankly, I’d love to have the fluidity and control that Hamilton has on the horn–and as a matter of fact, I’m working hard on getting better at that kind of playing right now, and have been since I picked up my saxophone in April. Technical fluency is a great thing, a respectable thing, and there are plenty of people out there happy to pay to see Hamilton’s gigs. More power to him.

But what I’m trying to emphasize here is differences in approach, and in effect. Hamilton and Allen (the other horn player in this clip) are playing with an emphasis on the control side, which highlights their “clean” virtuosity: not a note out of place, not a hesitation anywhere.

By contrast, in Coltrane’s music (and that of other “free jazz” musicians) there are out-of-place notes, and squawks, and hesitations all over the place, and occasional jumbles and messes. It is an experimental music, but what does “experimental” mean, really? I think finally it means that Coltrane (and others in the “free” school) made a conscious to play music with a much greater emphasis on the “risk” side of this push-and-pull dynamic between control and. risk… and the net result is far different: not only does it allow him to do more surprising things with harmony (which he explores and stretches to its limits, and beyond), to fit a lot more (sometimes, even the kitchen sink), and yet, at the same time, his music also often captures or expresses a prophetic intensity; it seems to burn with a sort of “holy fire.”

Here we see that "holy fire" literalized. Click the image for an article on the Church of St. John Coltrane.
Here we see that “holy fire” literalized. Click the image for an article on the Church of St. John Coltrane.

The thing is, remember, I’m not talking about two kinds of music. I’m talking about a ubiquitous tension that exists in all music: both of these tendencies exist, it’s just a question of which tendency dominates at any one moment, or in any one piece of music.

But I would argue that as music has increasingly become a product to be sold, instead of an organic, live experience, our aesthetics have slanted heavily away from risk, and toward control. (This, in fact, is something you can hear even in Coltrane’s work: his live concerts are far more ragged than his studio takes.) Risk, and raggedness, recede further and further away, so that even tiny amounts of raggedness sound off to us: out of tune, or weird, or like a “mistake.”

I think this is true in writing, too: we all walk the line between two kinds of writing:

  • The wild: the risk-taking, running amok kind of writing where you kind of go overboard, and the fight to keep the train on the tracks, and the fight gives it a kind of ragged edge
  • The controlled: the work that works like a brilliantly designed machine, hitting all the notes it should, visibly or invisibly an experience of conscious artistic control

These are not two different kinds of writing, by the way. People talk about them as they are, because some writers veer heavily in one or the other direction. For example, Christopher Priest’s description of Charles Stross’s writing, while complaining about the nominations for the Clarke Award a while back:

Stross writes like an internet puppy: energetically, egotistically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes affectingly, but always irritatingly, and goes on being energetic and egotistical and amusing for far too long. You wait nervously for the unattractive exhaustion which will lead to a piss-soaked carpet. Stross’s narrative depends on vernacular casualness, with humorous asides, knowing discursiveness, and the occasional appeal of big soft eyes. He has PC Plod characters and he writes och-aye dialogue! To think for even one moment that this appalling and incapable piece of juvenile work might actually be chosen as winner brings on a cold sweat of fear.

Stross Internet Puppy T-shirt
The official  response? An “Internet Puppy” T-shirt, available at

I actually like Stross’s books, or the ones I’ve read. (I haven’t read the one Priest was discussing.) It’s pretty clear that Priest gets a sense of Stross’s work as “out of control”–to the point where he uses not only the excessive eagerness of a puppy, but also its incontinence, the acme of a lack of control, to describe it.

Well, in reading this comment, my reaction was that his comment sounds to me a lot like what a lot of people used to say about Coltrane’s playing. He got plenty of good reviews in his day, of course, but also lots of ones like John Tynan’s (shorter) flat-out dismissal of Trane’s work (quoted in the liner notes for the Complete Live at the Village Vanguard album):

I happen to object to the musical nonsense currently being peddled in the name of jazz by John Coltrane and his acolyte, Eric Dolphy.

None of this is to say that Stross is an SFnal Coltrane, or that Christopher Priest is SF’s version of Scott Hamilton. It’s not even to note that Priest was, on the day he wrote that post, eminently grumpy; hell, I can relate, as that’s my default state, and I’d prefer not to mock a writer of Priest’s stature.

What I’d rather do is note the aesthetic difference from which I imagine this objection springs. What little I’ve read of Priest’s work was very accomplished, but, and this is more pertinent, it struck me as very controlled. It exuded a sense of complete authorial control, of literary artistry… control in the sense of a very taught dance performance, not in the sense of a lunatic doing entertaining backflips. I like Stross’s backflips, but that’s what they are: entertaining, multidimensional backflips. It’s a different approach. And in Priest I saw not so much of the ragged edge, or change that things might serve hopelessly out of control.

That suggests a very different aesthetic, an author for whom control wins out over raggedness and the kind of “risk” I’m talking about.

Again, that doesn’t mean Stross doesn’t exert control (obviously he does: loopy as it is, his novel Accelerando is a very controlled work in some ways). Nor am I suggesting that Priest never takes risks. If he didn’t, his writing would be dead boring, which isn’t my experience, or the experience of people I know who’ve read more of his work than me.

What I’m talking about here is how the this tension between two tendencies — risk-taking versus overt control —  balance out in different authors’ works and aesthetics. I’m talking about a very specific tension, and how an author chooses to allow to win out at any given moment, but also over the length of a text. Because probably, as in any other set of balanced tensions, we probably make slight (or not-so-slight) shifts in the balance as we go along, if not see-sawing between extremes.

Korea See-saw Moore National Geographic
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with see-sawing, sometimes. (Image by W. Robert Moore, 1931. From the National Geographic archives. Click for source page.)

This idea of balanced tensions–which I’ve borrowed from Darko Suvin, by the way; I’ll discuss in its original context soon–is one I’m finding very useful for thinking about writing. The more I look, the more I find it’s not about absolutes in one direction or another, but about delicate balances of tensions–and how balancing a tension one way or another is one of the ways authors distinguish their work from that of others.

One such tension came up in a recent post–but didn’t frame in this way–when I discussed the Australian horror film The Tunnel: in a story that involves the supernatural, you want something that is beyond our knowledge or understanding (ghost, monster, magic) but you also want viewers to understand the story in which the supernatural thing appears.

There’s a tension there. At one end of the spectrum, you have Buffy and her pals looking up everything in the library’s collection of arcane books; at the other, you have people in the dark, scrambling to survive a confrontation with something only barely glimpsed, and terrifying, and which should not exist.

Giles librarian Buffy
The librarian-hero: an emblem of the demystification of the supernatural.

I feel like, these days, we’ve swerved so much to the Buffy side, that mysterious, transcendent things have lost their mystery. Ghosts and demons and river monsters are all taxonomied and demythologized, they’ve hardened molds, and the game most of us play with them now is in changing the shape of the mold slightly. (Vampires in this world don’t fear crosses. Demons in this world aren’t all bad.)

Personally, I long for a re-mystification, which may be why I’m going back to older Weird stories, where things weren’t quite so nailed down. (Like, yesterday, Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and recently, rereading his “The Great God Pan,” where ambiguities abound, and many things are only hinted, where it’s not clear if something has sprung from the fae lore of Wales, or from Greco-Roman (pagan) mythology, or from some other dimension that science has allowed us to breach. There’s a raggedness, and sometimes a lack of control, in Machen’s work… but that’s part of the risk he takes in letting the mystical actually be mystical in his stories. They’re creepy, in part, because of the degree of tension between the reader, with his or her desire to make sense of all this weirdness, and the text’s insistence on not clarifying too much.

Somehow, it comes back to Stross; the monster on the cover is one of his creations.
Somehow, it comes back to Stross; the monster on the cover is one of his creations.

The fact that I find that refreshing suggests maybe we’ve collectively swerved in the other direction: that maybe AD&D’s various Monster Manuals and Buffy’s constant musty-tome-consultations have instilled in use a certain, specific way of doing the supernatural. I can’t blame the demystification of the supernatural on Buffy or on Joss Whedon, but it really does come to mind, as does the whole taxonomy of monsters and magical items in roleplaying games spawned by that first great ur-RPG, D&D.

As a gamer, I can see why that taxonomy of monsters and magic was created, and why it’s useful. And of course there has always been a bit of that: Van Helsing, in Dracula, is a very scientific sort of vampire-hunter, who reminds is that this tension is really tied up with the tension between science and superstition.

But I think the pendulum has swung pretty far in one direction, lately: we know what demons are like, we know what vampires are like, we know what all those things are like. This may even be why horror seems stuck: it’s hard to scare people when the tropes are so familiar and played out that, for every ghost, we readers or film audiences can foresee a whole set of likely story routes based on the “rules” that have developed around one or another supernatural.

Which I suppose is probably why there’s been a resurgence in the Weird Tale of late: I must not be the only one who hungers for a renewed mystification of the supernatural, or of “the unknown” to put it the way I did the other day. Right?


I wonder if this makes sense to anyone else out there…

If so, and if you’re like me, you may also want to consider that musical parallel I mentioned above just a bit more, in the light of one interesting comment I came across regarding Trane’s legacy:

[Terry Teachout] writes that jazz musicians today “regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music.” That goes with my experience attending several jazz performances in the 1990s and finding the headliners a serious lot who seemed more interested in their own playing than in the audience before them.

During the 80s, I caught Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey, and they were different. Each one kept up a stirring current of fun throughout the occasion even as they played hi-octane hard-bop classics. I haven’t attended any performances in several years, and I presume that hundreds of performers instill the spirit of entertainment in their acts. But in most people’s minds, jazz still signifies a cerebral, cutting-edge, challenging art form, and it is one of the things that prevent jazz from coming back as a popular form.

The problem is that an art form can’t thrive if its extreme figures, such as Coltrane, become a model for the rest. They shoot too high and far, and while others may repeat the motions of extremity, they don’t achieve the magic or beauty or genius — whatever is it that carries it into the realm of high art. The extremists secure an audience for themselves, but their many votaries do not.

Coltrane, with both his horns in hand.
Coltrane, with both his horns in hand. Click the image to see the source.

For someone like me, who tends towards the extremism, there’s another question raised by this observation: is it possible today for a literary extremist to secure an audience? Am I capable of achieving that magic of beauty or “genius” (whatever that means)? How can I make my writing more entertaining along with those transcendent strivings? And how much am I willing to give up (in terms of commercial viability and breadth of readership) to pursue the ragged edge that comes with risk, with a balance other than the dominant one today?

Oh, and since I linked Justin’s post, and talked about weird tales, I’ll add that you should read his “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street,” over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies which takes the (undefined, “polisomancy”) weirdness of Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness (a wonderful text) and maps it onto a Lankhmar-like city.

2 thoughts on “The Ragged Edge

  1. A lot to dissect, and I fear I won’t be able to get to it all. I don’t think the notion of “control” (and it’s a loaded word and might not be the best match, so lets not pile too many coats on it) precludes the jagged edge. The tension can exist between control and chaos, but its unlike a performance because you only see the end product. Those tensions that exist in the end, those weird frissons can be the exact thing you’re trying to achieve in the story, and it takes a controlled approach to get them that may or may not also resemble wile careening.

    And… I definitely think you should read some Algernon Blackwood to go with the Machen. Machen’s kind of a reactionary with an ultimately conservative outlook, whereas Blackwood reads more as an enlightened social radical. Also, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” recasts the Machen hero as a bumbling villain, and her “Kingdoms of Elfin” are something else entirely. They are clearly Andrew Lang style fairy tales, but she comes at them via Truman Capote or Angela Carter. (I have a copy… so when you visit the RoK remind me.)

    1. Justin,

      Yeah, I agree: after all, it’s the impression of control, and the impression of wild careening. For a lot of musicians, too: plenty of the people who play wild stuff have gotten there from a place of very solid technique. (Not all, and not maybe as solid as they’ve boasted, but solid enough for our purposes: they were able to–and in fact did–exert control even when they were playing crazy wild stuff.)

      But then again, I still sort of feel like there can be a raggedness to a text–an implicit raggedness–when the author is taking risks that jeopardize narrative control, if that makes sense. It’s hard for me to offer an example, so much as offering a counter-example: by the time I read to the end of that Carol Emshwiller book I was praising earlier this year, I felt like the ragged edge of risk was missing in a lot of it: it felt very comfortable and familiar, by which I mean, it felt like she was comfortable and familiar with everything she was doing… and thus it felt lacking to me. (Though a few stories in there were absolutely stunning.)

      I’ll definitely add some Blackwood… I guess I’m on a Weird kick, though I also keep having to remind myself to read the printed books I have on hand, you know? I’d swear I’ve read some of Blackwood’s stuff before. I saw your mention of Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” and was curious about it. Sounds interesting!

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