[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers and plot elements from Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.”]
First, my historical novella, “The Man Who Ran from God” is free today in the Kindle store. So, download it while you can. It’s a good way for you guys to check out my writing style. OK, enough self-promotion.
In other news, I finally finished reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I started reading it way back in October as part of my reading list. Throw in the fact that I moved, went to a wedding in California and that I’m a slow reader and you can see why I finished it just now.
My first impression and one that’s stayed with me is that it was a bit of disappointment. It was Poe’s only novel and I was expecting big things. But I found it long-winded, full of digressions and, frankly, boring.
Pym is a story of a stowaway that turns into a mutiny story that turns into an adventure/exploration saga of the South Seas. It’s set in the date of its publication, 1838.
A good examples of the writing sins that can be found in Pym are collected in Chapter 20 of the work. First, there’s a long digression on sea cucumbers. Yes, sea cucumbers. And yet, it’s hard to see why or how sea cucumbers are important to the plot or have any symbolic value. Poe, using a device that is effective in his shorts, where he includes important technical details to heighten realism, decides to include several paragraphs on the creature:
A description of the nature of this important article of commerce, and the method of preparing it, may prove of some interest to my readers, and I can find no more suitable place than this for introducing an account of it. The following comprehensive notice of the substance is taken from a modern history of a voyage to the South Seas…
Poe goes on for four paragraphs to describe the creature when one would have been more than enough. Why did he spend so much ink on a creature that is only ancillary to the story? I don’t know.
There is also an interesting instance of telling, not showing in this chapter. Now, 19th century literature does have instances of telling, not showing. I’m guessing we have the ‘showing’ mantra/cult/religion thanks to modern short story writers, starting with Chekhov. Anyway, Poe is describing the apparent good behavior of the “savages’’ they encounter as the ship travels further south.
A very short while sufficed to prove that this apparent kindness of disposition was only the result of a deeply laid plan for our destruction, and that the islanders for whom we entertained such inordinate feelings of esteem, were among the most barbarous, subtle, and bloodthirsty wretches that ever contaminated the face of the globe.
That little snippet was so disappointing to me that I wrote “Poe Tells! No!!!” in the margin next to it in pencil.
There are lots of other instances of bad novel writing in this piece: long digressions, suddenly-introduced characters, dairy entries interspersed with traditional narrative, sudden appearances of things or objects which have no later relevance. For me, it validates my long-held belief in the three types of fiction writers:
- Short story writers.
Poe was a gifted poet and short story writer. Reading Pym left me with the feeling that Poe was really struggling with the long form. It was as if he knew short story writing too well. He knew how to keep a short story terse, rich and taut. But when it came time to write a novel, he got a bit lost. There’s not that structure or character development you’d find in say, Dostoyevsky or Steinbeck. [It’s also interesting to note that poets can often be great short story writers, but usually make lousy novelists. Pushkin, Poe and Borges come to mind. And also, novelists rarely excel at poetry.]
But maybe it’s just as well. Pym didn’t do so well and Poe quickly turned back to his forte: short stories, poems, literary criticism. And in his last ten years he churned out some of his best stuff, including one of my favorites, Eureka.
As I’m turning my hand to short stories now, I’m finding the short form very, very challenging. As the saying goes: “Writing short is harder than writing long.” It’s nice to know that even the greatest writers, like Poe, struggled when they tried to tackle a new form. As I delve into shorts, I’m going to remind myself to cut down on the self-criticism and realize learning a new form takes time. It makes me wonder what might have happened if Poe had done the same.
PS. There is one great part in Pym. The end. Seriously. And I’m not just saying that because it was over. The end is the most famous part and the narrator doesn’t explain who/what the “shrouded figure” they encounter is. It’s a great moment, a great example of “showing” and not telling and one that stays with the reader long after the story is over. It’s illustrated above.