A Precise Mess

I’ve been re-reading John Crowley’s Little, Big in the most demanding of ways–out loud, to my partner on our morning commute each day. It’s funny how well you get to know a book when you read it aloud. I loved it before, but reading every word with intonation and affect, never skimming or skipping to the good parts, as I confess that I sometimes do when re-reading a beloved book. So me and Little, Big, we’re on intimate terms these days, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about why it’s such an amazing book, and how what I admire about it relates to my own work.

The thing that continually slays me about LB is how precise it is. How elegant, without being particularly showy, as, for example, Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (treating of the same city and similar-ish subjects) often is. Crowley’s language is quiet, and perfect, and startling, like snowfall. Language is something of a fetish with me, so I pay attention to it, always.

I’ve always thought of myself as a messy writer. It’s not self-deprecation, I have also always enjoyed making a mess. My process is mostly: sit down and jack brain into computer, let self and life go to crap, get up three weeks or three months later. My first books were very Pollack-y in execution, paint all over the wall. And there is beauty in that, and I will always believe in it as a method and an aesthetic. Even in The Orphan’s Tales I feel that I have created a thing messily, with abandon, barreled through it with faith and need, didn’t take the right classes or shine my shoes quite right, in the end. Yet I have heard readers talk about its elegance or precision–which leads me to wonder if there is always a disconnect between how a writer feels they have executed a book and how a reader perceives that book’s execution. Maybe it’s just me–or maybe we all assume other writers have tidy offices, produce on schedule, and lay out every letter with the sparkling intent and exactitude of a rotary saw.

I am a messy writer. I have no idea what it looks like from the other end, but from where I sit it’s all a mess. A mess I love, often a gorgeous mess, but a mess. But I read Little, Big and I am stirred by precision and elegance and I have unnameable, unanswerable lusts towards achieving it. My style is and always has been baroque, but even the street wastrel with magenta hair and a bolt through her eyebrows can look at the uptown lady with her creamy linen and perfect shoes and say “Damn, girl!”

Do all our books do that? Sit on someone’s shelf in Seattle or Boston, peeking around the corners at their mates, secretly longing to wear their raincoats and lipstick, just for a minute?

And what does elegance mean, what does precision mean? Can I spike my witch’s brew with it, like rum? I don’t know, I don’t think anything with regards to style is that alchemically quantifiable, but as I start my next novel, there’s an imp on my desk with very clean fingernails, sniffing at my disarray and fighting with wastrels.

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Catherynne Valente

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