Those who inhabit the writers’ sphere of the Internet are generally familiar with the idea of the spork. At some point, we all encounter writing which is unusual in its offensive badness; some of us with more passion, energy, and general bad temper than the average take it upon themselves to exhaustively illustrate where these clueless scribes have gone hopelessly wrong. “Spork” has been adopted as a term for this process as being a fairly accurate descriptive of the material in question. Essentially, it can be argued that a spork tries to be both a fork and a spoon and fails at effectively doing the work of either – similarly, bad writing often fails on many, many different levels, which the conscientious sporker tries to explore as fully as possible.

(This explanation is cute and clever enough that I suspect I did not in fact invent it. Nevertheless, we plunge boldly on.)

To me it seems that the things that constitute bad writing have been relentlessly catalogued as far as they will go. However, and lamentably, the same careful attention has not been applied to good writing. This is partly because of what writing is – the expression in words of the psyche, of ideas, of emotions, of what is literally the deepest and most foundational essence of humanity. Take a step back and think about that for a second. So of course good writing is more difficult both to come by and to analyze, because good writing succeeds in capturing a fleeting, ghostly image of something beyond mere words. Break those words down, and the image disappears; however, I believe enough of the magic can be preserved with a careful treatment for some useful conclusions to be drawn.

Thus, I present you with the knork. A powerful tool, the unified might of fork and knife, capable of both cutting and spearing; in the same way this knork aims to cut out the individual elements that make good writing good and spear them so we can observe them more closely. As the extended metaphor is now screaming in agony, a heartfelt groan from you will hardly be noticed. Indulge yourself.

My library, being flooded with donations, is now in what I believe is the eighteenth consecutive month of a book sale. Recently I found six or seven titles I was interested in. I was informed at the desk that the price of my selection would be three fifty, but if I could fill out my stack of interesting reading material to be about yay high, it would be three bucks. No broke student can pass up a deal like that, so back to the shelf I went. I needed those two shiny quarters. One of the slim volumes I brushed off the shelf into waiting arms turned out to be Call for the Dead, by John Le Carre.

Le Carre has been an author on whom I hold mixed opinions. He is clearly a man of sporadic great talent, but his consistent quality (in my opinion) has not been high enough to firmly cement him as a Great Author (any book with his name on the cover is good). Russia House, for instance, I didn’t really like. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was much better. This book was excellent. It contains in the first twelve pages at least seven examples of really well-done description and character building, and I liked them well enough to try to share with you all.

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

This remark, which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew Smiley. Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.” And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince. Was he rich or poor? Peasant or priest? The incongruity of the match was emphasized by Lady Ann’s undoubted beauty, its mystery stimulated by the disproportion between the man and his bride. But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conversation. And so Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed luggage on the dusty shelf of yesterday’s news.

This passage is a joy to read. It’s quick, terse, packed with description, and bursting with clever, witty, and somehow sad asides. Let’s examine it in closer depth.

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.

An opening sentence is one of the most important ones in a novel as a whole. This one, though it contains evocative words like astonished and breathtaking, is not particularly intriguing. What is interesting, though, is that Lady Ann’s character is beginning to be defined from the very start. She describes Smiley as “breathtakingly ordinary”. Why? This combination of two words tells us Lady Ann is a flighty socialite – one of those people who see everything only in terms of its romantic and exciting potential and move on when they’ve exhausted that. He is exotically ordinary, strangely ordinary, a person whose alienness to her accustomed social circle makes him “interesting” to her. All this in two well-chosen words.

When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

This sentence is much more mysterious. The mention of the exotic, dangerous, thrilling Cuban driver confirms our subconsciously formed opinion of Lady Ann – but why couldn’t she have left Smiley? At this point we know nothing about him. The mention of the Viscount serves to frame the whole exchange in terms of high society, thriving on secondhand opinion and fabrication – but does he actually know anything about Smiley that the reader doesn’t? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to speculate. Not every loose end is worth tying up – and some are far more interesting as little mysteries.

Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.”

Here we get into our first description of our character – for first time readers, he comes across as a British academic, a classic boring, stodgy middle-aged man whose very name means boredom. However, if you’ve already read another book with him in it, you know that Smiley is a member of the British Secret Service, whose profession is anonymity. In this light his description serves to remind us that he knows how to appear faceless. This character and these words are well-rounded and internally consistent, while rewarding people with previous experience. Since we’ve already met that fountain of wit, Sawley, the author can insert this clever, funny little jibe without breaking the flow or the mood. Note that if it were presented straight from the narrator it would be inconsistent with the somber and careful tone already laid down, but as it actually is the apparent oddity adds to the melancholy, the sense of describing someone else’s long-ago life.

And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.

By taking this metaphor to its logical conclusion, the author gives us a very illustrative picture of Smiley’s movements, cementing him as overweight in our minds, and also makes a pretty funny though sour and cynical joke. All through here, my emphasis is on how these words can be made to have multiple meanings – made to carry as much weight as they possibly can. I have trouble with this (this essay is easily twice as long as the quoted material), so I focus in on examples of compact and double- or triple-meaning writing.

But gossip must see its characters in black and white, equip them with sins and motives easily conveyed in the shorthand of conversation.

This is a preachy aside which actually works. It uses words (gossip must), (sins followed with motives) that maintain a carefully neutral tone while managing to convey a tinge of the author’s disapproval of gossip. It’s also a penetrating, well-phrased insight into how people are simplified when described by others. You know you’ve found a good phrase when no other combination of words has quite the same meaning. In addition, this phrase is laying additional emphasis on the reader’s feeling that Smiley is not quite what he is presented to be.

And so Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed luggage on the dusty shelf of yesterday’s news.

This passage gives a sense of time, of distance, and of sadness from the events described through the use of negatives (without, without, without, lost, destined, dusty, yesterday). As well, this metaphor is interesting and unusual enough to stick.

I unfortunately can’t quote the entire novel, but on page 3 Smiley is described as having left university prepared for a Fellowship in the analysis of Germanic literature. He is drafted into the Secret Service. There’s a long description of his new work, which is selecting good candidates for spy work, and his emotions on the subject, which are mixed. They always are. There’s a beautiful bit of description about how he misses England, the pretty hikes, the mountains, etc.

Then we get this, about six hundred words from the first mention of Germany:

…he grew to hate the bawdy intrusion of the new Germany, the stamping and shouting of uniformed students, the scarred, arrogant faces and their cheapjack answers. He resented, too, the way in which the Faculty had tampered with his subject – his beloved German literature. And there had been a night, a terrible night in the winter of 1937 when Smiley had stood in his window and watched a great bonfire in the university court: round it stood hundreds of students, their faces exultant and glistening in the dancing light. And into the pagan fire they threw books in their hundreds. He knew whose books they were: Thomas Mann, Heine, Lessing and a host of others. And Smiley, his damp hand cupped around the end of his cigarette, watching and hating, triumphed that he knew his enemy.

This is brilliant exposition and character development. Note how Le Carre pulls no punches for the audience’s sake. The first sentence, if you are sufficiently knowledgeable about history, is clearly about the rise of Nazism, but done without the words Nazi, Hitler, Fuhrer, Party, fascist, or without the associations goose-step, heil, salute, and so on and so forth. The author could care less if you don’t get it. This kind of blunt, direct challenge is a hugely refreshing intellectual exercise – never forget how much fun it is to know you have to work to keep up. Also note how a familiar, tired subject can be made fresh and new by emphasizing parts of it that are not usually at the forefront, coming at it from a different angle. Smiley’s role in this is equally well-done. He is a superb reluctant hero – he doesn’t do this because it’s the right thing to do or to serve his country or because he thinks spying is cool – all justifiable motivations, but not ones that fit his character. He is in this because he is an academic, and no one can get more royally pissed off than an academic whose favorite subject is slighted and dishonored.
Word usage notes: The fire being described as “pagan” refers to the quasi-religious nature of Aryanism in the Nazi philosophy, as well as to how huge bonfires are perceived as being used in pagan religious ceremonies, and finally refers to how the students themselves perceive this fire as being a sacrifice of valuable things to their idealism and their vision. All that in one five-letter word.

One final example. On page eleven is this.

At Cambridge Circus he stopped the cab a hundred yards from the office, partly from habit and partly to clear his head in anticipation of Maston’s febrile questioning.

This minor detail would be useless and obtrusive here, were it not for the second “partly”. That last phrase ties it in to the events happening at this particular moment and makes it fade into the background where it can do its work. Part of writing a good spy novel is in constant repetition of and obsessive focus on the day-to-day complexities of spycraft, which slowly build up an idea of the painfully alert, paranoid, and fearful nature of its practitioners. So the mention of stopping the cab early, in order to approach on foot, unnoticed.

On page 18 is the following:

Smiley arrived there on foot just after eight o’clock the next morning, having parked his car at the police station, which was ten minutes’ walk away.

It was raining heavily, driving cold rain, so cold it felt hard upon the face.

This would not mean much without the page 11 excerpt, but in context with that it ties the whole narrative between together. It reinforces his cautious, careful, habitual nature – he’s been doing it this way for years and he’s stayed alive.

I find this fascinating material for thought. The relationship between words and thought is a powerful, deep, and strange one, and not to be taken lightly.

Of course John Le Carre did not write this as slowly and deliberately as I have taken it apart. The best writing is often done in a rush, when something clicks in the subconscious and everything comes pouring out tumbled together. However, in the off moments between writing I feel it is worth overanalyzing writing that you really like in order to find out how it works. This is known as engineering, and it is the reason we have machines that can fly without blowing up. Find out how it works, and then that information will be stored in your subconscious. What subconscious is that? The very same one from which your writing ultimately springs. If you study writing you like and understand how it is done well, the next time you’re banging along at fifty words a minute you will be incorporating those insights and ideas into your own work. The ultimate aim, as with practice in any skill, is to be able not to think about this stuff at all. Most writers here are at the level of no longer having to think about grammar or spelling issues – try to move to the next level of not having to think about style and technique issues, of automatically tying things in, reinforcing characters gradually, developing smoothly, keeping clues the audience will need dancing just before their eyes – then you will be free to focus on plot alone. It is one heck of a lot of fun to begin consciously progressing to this next level, so give it a shot.

FOOTNOTE ONE.
I was informed by Klutor the Ninth that a “spork” is a “spork” because it’s the ideal tool for digging your eyes out after finishing a particularly terrible example of bad craft. While this sounds logical to me, my metaphor falls apart with his version, so I blithely ignored it. I appreciate his review and edit of this article though – thanks man!

FOOTNOTE TWO.
Klutor also alerted me to the fact that not everyone has heard of this author. He enjoyed lasting fame as one of the masters of the espionage genre of modern thriller, along with Tom Clancy, although he has not written much lately. As I said, though, I’m only ambivalent on his ability – If you’re interested in a good spy novel, I’d first look at Tim Powers’ Declare, which is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

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Comment

  1. WiseWillow on 2 November 2011, 18:32 said:

    I read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I thought it was decent, but very, very depressing. I must admit, I didn’t read the entire article, but you had some excellent points, Inkblot :)

  2. Inkblot on 2 November 2011, 18:49 said:

    It was horribly depressing. That was why I didn’t like it. I must admit that the writing was pretty solid.

  3. BettyCross on 2 November 2011, 19:01 said:

    I liked “Spy.” Instead of feeling depressed, I closed the book feeling, “Hey,that was pretty damned good.”

  4. Inkblot on 2 November 2011, 19:08 said:

    I must admit, I am entertaining the horrible suspicion that my audience is skipping everything after that part.

    It was a very good book. However, I tend to dislike books which end evoking strong negative emotions, because then that’s how I’ll feel until I take some action to reverse my mood.

  5. Soupnazi on 2 November 2011, 19:17 said:

    Personally, I stopped reading after the first quotes from the book; I did not find them enjoyable, so I doubted I’d get much out of the article. Still, the article appeared to be good.

  6. Snow White Queen on 2 November 2011, 19:51 said:

    I really liked the focus of this article. Will you be continuing?

  7. Inkblot on 2 November 2011, 19:53 said:

    I may, depending on the reaction to it. It seems I need to choose a more universally popular book. :P

  8. lookingforme on 3 November 2011, 11:45 said:

    Wonderful article! I actually liked the fact that you didn’t use a popular book, Inkblot…it allowed me to focus more on the writing quality than how much I did/didn’t like the book when I read it. Speaking of which, I will DEFINITELY have to pick this one up!

  9. swenson on 3 November 2011, 14:26 said:

    Well, apparently all of our mileages vary a bit, but I did enjoy this breaking down of passages. Like you say, often good writing simply comes in a rush, not being carefully chosen, but when you look back at it, there is a reasoning and “engineering” underlying it. Very interesting to look at it in detail like this.

  10. Mnemone on 2 December 2011, 14:25 said:

    There’s a new movie coming out of Le Carre’s book TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. Are you going to see it?

  11. Mangraa on 13 April 2012, 09:03 said:

    This may seem petty, as it deals with the neologism and the suggested meaning of “spork”, but I am all for the overall intent.

    Ehhhh…“knork”? I like what you’re doing here, but the nomenclature feels like the definitions are being mega-shoehorned in. First off, the spork is the critique, not the original work which tries to do and just can’t. So the“meaning” of “spork” having so much to do with poor writing feels misplaced, as many sporks are pointing out the bad bits,, but doing so in a way that is well-written. Perhaps a spork can be thought of as the tool used to scrape out every last piece of a bad source text, getting at the nooks and crannies which are ignored by those merely reading it (analogous to using a fork), as the spork allows more digging, scooping, and revelation.

    As for the“knork”, I can’t even envision what it could look like and still be functional, not slicing one’s mouth apart every time it is used for eating. Why not just do a redressing of the spork, only now it is a “foon” when dealing with positive elements? The foon can scoop out the good parts and then be used to ingest them, or used as a way to ladle out the juices or sauce which adds that finishing touch, without needing additional food (filler) just to enjoy the extra flavour. Our something.

    I haven’t slept well for a few days and haven’t slept much at all in the last 22 hours, so if this is a bit overly nitpicky or otherwise pointless, please ignore. I don’t actually care THAT much, but figured I’d chime in. More opinions = more data = more growth :)

    I sleep now.

  12. May on 8 December 2014, 21:30 said:

    It’s an excert from Call for the Dead not Spy from the Cold. Come on.!