The Art of Writing No 43

I have just finished reading a couple of Joseph Conrad novellas; Heart of Darknessand Youth. What strikes me as instructive for the aspiring writer in both of them is how Conrad’s knowledge of the sea and the technology of ships, albeit in the early days of metal hulls and mechanical navigation, becomes a kind of mystical manual for the reader who has not and will never spend such time on dangerous water. I suppose Victorian and Edwardian times, the era of empire building, gave writers licence to provide an early superhero identification and escapism for the reader. But I am no literary critic!
What makes me turn over the experience in my mind is how expert knowledge can be presented in such a way that we are drawn into it as if being initiated into the mysterious rites of some exotic fellowship. The naming of parts, the special lingo, the daily round and the required practices of seafaring men all have a seductive appeal. Much of writing stems from such ingrained knowledge and it seems to me to be superior to that ‘researched’ backcloth to much of literature today. Why? Well, I would imagine that the telling of tales has greater power if expertise is implicit rather than explicit because it imbues every word we read and does not appear forced.
I remember Jorge Luis Borges’ satirical response to any crude writing which flaunts a writer’s expertise in a subject, in this case the taxonomical knowledge of the animal kingdom:
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies
What I take from this is that a novelist has an infinite set of possibilities at his/her disposal. Being keen to flaunt expert knowledge may restrict the flight of creativity. As Borges shows, we authors can be experts in fabulous taxonomies of the imagination.

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