My Pornography

A couple of years ago, a bunch of us BVC authors attended a conference down in Florida. At one point during dinner, the socially adept Jennifer Stevenson thought we should go around the table and confess our guilty pleasures. “What do we read or watch when no one else is around?” she wanted to know. “Something we know we shouldn’t be doing.”

Oh, they had quite a hoot with that. I can’t remember who all was there: Pati Nagle, Pat Rice, I’m pretty sure, but others, too, all revealing embarrassing secrets and deep, dark sin. When it came to my turn, I sputtered and faltered. I couldn’t come up with anything. I think I muttered “Saturday morning cartoons,” and left it at that. It was, unfortunately, a lie!

Jen’s question haunted me. Did I not have any guilty pleasures? Was I a mirthless pedant who never partook of anything frivolous or fun? Was there really no pornography in my life? I pondered those questions and searched for scraps of gaminess in my joyless existence. The search consumed me. The colors drained from my sky. My earth stopped spinning on its axis as I wracked my brain for a spark of deviltry.

Finally, finally, with unbounded relief and a gushing heart, I finally found my pornography: Robert Penn Warren.

His is the work I read under the covers with a flashlight. I will describe this work in a moment, but first please select one of the below.


Now then:
Robert Penn Warren’s writing is about 85% [gasp!] description. (Quick! Someone get the smelling salts; an entire phalanx of publishers has fainted.)

The sky, the heat, the brilliance of the sun spattering off leaden oaks, it’s all there in excruciating detail in a Robert Penn story. Each one is an escape to a place so well defined, set in such sharp relief, the real world pales. You prefer his world. You develop a nostalgia for Tennessee and Alabama, places you might never even have been to in your life.

Here’s a random sample:

“As you reach the brow of the ridge, and the valley and Bardsville fill your eye, you probably do not notice the little monument by the left of the highway. It is a single shaft of granite, about ten feet high, almost concealed in a riot of purple-tufted ironweed, flame-tufted milkweed, and sassafras growth. You have noticed, of course, the big road-sign to the right, advertising Carruthers House, ‘Southern Hospitality at Its Most Gracious,’ and a dining room recommended (before the war of 1941-45) by Duncan Hines, ‘Country Ham our Specialité.’ The sign stands on the old Sykes place, and the ruinous log-house up the lane beyond the sign, sagging and windowless, under the single scrofulous cedar, weathering to earth and surrendering to the clawing hands of vine and briar, is the old Sykes house, a refuge for field mice, a lone fox, and a couple of fat blacksnakes which like to sun themselves on the stone coping of the old cistern. Not even boys go there now.”

Let me tell you: boys may not go there anymore, but I sure as hell would. Did you see that “scrofulous cedar?” Guys’ got balls.

I can’t get enough of this dreck. I get hooked by the detail and happily consume more and more until I become numb to actual sensation. Bodily urges come and go without me seeing to them. I skip breakfast and lunch. If I’m lucky I’ll have tea biscuits served on a lace doily for dinner. Nights I lie awake, just me and Robert in the naked light of excessive word usage never meant to be seen by a modern writer. If you turned that kind of writing in today, your publisher would distill it down for you. Robert Penn’s paragraph would turn into a big stone in the ditch. “Be glad you get that much,” they’d say.

Not for nothing do they rein us in. Two thirds of a Robert Penn Warren story goes by before you encounter the precipitating event. And just what is that insertion of action, pray tell? That astounding mashup of accident and intention that starts the story proper? A child sees a model train set in the window of a store. Robert Penn’s world changes on that alone.

Can you believe someone has the nerve to write such drivel? In a Robert Penn Warren story, a gun gets introduced in the first act and it is not used in the third act. It’s not used ever. There isn’t even an ambiguous ending that might imply its use later after everything settles down. The gun simply sits there on the mantel next to the hand turned candlesticks while the family is in the kitchen disagreeing politely.

Penn’s got balls, that’s for sure, to put such slow-paced, dreamy reality down in black and white where all of us can see it and know what goes on in his twisted mind.

I know this stuff is no good for me. Stories where the main event is put off for too long, where no action beyond the snow falling on the back of a mule, black as iron, happens. I will be scarred as a writer for reading this junk. But it’s just. So. Effing. Good.

I told my friend Letty how much I loved description in writing. I described Robert Penn Warren’s work. His two-thirds of a story is backstory formula. She said she hates that kind of crap. That’s why I know Letty will one day become over-the-top successful. She’s a screenwriter. One day we’ll see her name as the credits roll by in films by Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino.

At any rate, discovering my indecent love for such…prose…has allowed my stalled earth to slowly take up its spin. My leaves are red, brown, and yellow now. My sky is blue. I can get on with my life, having identified my mirth.

Thanks for reading,
Sue Lange
The trailer for Sue Lange’s story, Princess Dancer (Beyond Grimm), is now available for your viewing pleasure.

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My Pornography — 5 Comments

  1. <…dreck…drivel…junk…crap…>

    You’re making a value judgement about something that is merely written in a different literary tradition; and readers who enjoy books with the qualities of the ones you describe – where so much of the story is nestled in the gaps of the description, in the unwritten lines, and ultimately, in the reader’s mind – can, and do, say the same about fast-paced genre stories where everything is flash!bang!wallop!, ramped up to the nines and one event chases the next without giving the reader time to breathe, because if they did, readers would notice how thin the story was.

    And it’s not as if genre readers didn’t have differing tastes, too, or as if there aren’t any genre writers who can write slow, rich-in-description openings that have you on the edge of the seat nonetheless. (CJ Cherryh, for one, to name just a famous example.)

    So yes, *please* let’s talk about different literary traditions and how they use their tools and when it is appropriate and when it isn’t – but let’s keep the value judgements out of that discussion and reserve them for bad examples of their kinds.

    A child sees a model train set in the window of a store. Robert Penn’s world changes on that alone.

    And writers like him makes you understand, at a deep visceral level, what that small event _means_. That’s bad how? Sounds like an awesome skill to me, whatever genre you’re writing in. You may not make much use of it, but that’s doesn’t reduce the awesomeness of it in any way. And it seems to me as if every writer could use a dose of that skill.

        • Sherwood & Nancy,
          in my experience, when reading anything at BVC it should be assumed that the writers are a) in possession of a sense of humour, and b) fond of literature and reading outside of genre.

          The point I was trying to make, and obviously didn’t efficiently, is that I don’t find a discussion on this level – whether humorous and self-mocking, or serious and couched in less blatant terms than used in by Sue – useful at all; the offensive, and somewhat antagonistic nature remains.
          (I slipped and should have used ‘you are _stating_ a value judgement’, which might have made things clearer… but on balance, probably still not clear enough.)

          Sorry about that. I’ll try and be less clever next time.

          • It seems to me that Sue’s piece makes the same point you’re making. By using the work of Robert Penn Warren — an author most readers respect — and discussing it in the terms people reserve for work they disapprove of, she is making the point that such criticism is deeply flawed.