“Baroque” Writing

The other day I was reading a fantasy novel that had been recommended to me by someone whose judgment I trust.  I had to force myself to finish it.  It wasn’t that the technical aspect of the writing was bad.  The writer has a good command of mechanics and style.  It wasn’t that the plot was trite; it wasn’t.  The concept of the magic was good, and it seamlessly fused magic and post-Renaissance/early industrial-level technology.

So why did I have so much trouble finishing the book?

The plot reminded me of the worst in Baroque music, over-ornamented and excessively twisted and complex.  Now, I know… lots of readers like those kinds of books and their plots.  I’m not one of them, and probably the reason why is because I spent too much time in Washington, D.C., and national politics.

To put it bluntly, involuted and convoluted schemes don’t usually work in real life.  First is the simple problem that not even three people can keep a secret very long, let alone the number required to orchestrate a complex conspiracy.  Second, the more moving parts anything has, especially if those moving parts are people, the greater the chance that something will go wrong, in fact, that many things will go wrong.

Then there’s the problem that when things get really ornately complex, more gimmicks or gadgets are needed, especially if there’s an evil genius or power that wants to make people act against their self-interest (which there is in this book), and that’s also not the way matters work in real life.  People do shady things out of greed, the lust for power or sex, or because it gives them a twisted kick.  It’s dreadfully straight-forward.  The twists in life come from the interaction of comparatively direct motivations that don’t allow everyone to get what they want.

When an author over-complexifies, so to speak, he or she loses me.  Now, that’s just me.  I don’t dislike complexity, but when I write, I want the complexity to come out of the interaction of human motives and drives.

Maybe that’s why I also generally prefer Classical or Romantic period music, but I say generally, because far from all Baroque music is over-ornamented, unlike Baroque-plot books.

7 thoughts on ““Baroque” Writing”

  1. Grey says:

    This essay made me laugh out loud. I have a love/hate relationship with book series like this. You peel back layer after layer of the onion, only to be left with, well, a pile of onion peels and no idea what is going on. At least until the author has mercy and does a sort of conspiracy deus ex machina; I often think of Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle in “The Wicker Man” explaining to Sgt. Howie that he had been chosen and manipulated since before the film even began to reach his fate.

    Some offenders I enjoyed are Ken Scholes “Psalms of Isaak” fantasy series, which has conspiracies manipulating other conspiracies and in turn manipulating other conspiracies, in the “how ever is this possible to keep secret” in the vein of the post. Likewise, Steven Erikson’s “Malazan” decology, which is openly and intentionally complex. You can even carefully scrutinize all ten books, only to be told later by the author that he hasn’t actually provided enough information for you to figure out who a major character “really” is (for my book friends, I’m referring to Quick Ben of course).

    To each their own, but I’m like a moth to a flame here.

  2. Daze says:

    These things always take me back to how beautifully they were skewered/parodied in the Illuminatus trilogy – and the card game that came from it, wherein on one occasion I ended up with the whole world’s organisations being secretly run in a conspiracy led by the boy scouts.

  3. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Well put, as usual 🙂

    I’ll add my own saying, which I have come to after many years of observation of politics: “Never ascribe to conspiracy what can be explained by bureaucracy.” As I believe we are seeing right now, most conspiracies, as in Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, are poorly done and eventually leak like a sieve. Bureaucracies, however, tend to operate on their own momentum, doing things that seem to the paranoid as if they must be part of a conspiracy, but which are in fact the result of people following the rules without thinking of the implications. There isn’t some evil genius at the motor vehicle department trying to deprive you of your license; there’s just some overworked peon clinging to the rules because they think doing that makes them less likely to be fired. I give you full credit for including bureaucracy as well as conspiracy in your works.

    p.s. Actually, if you didn’t know about this, the recent “early music” movement claims that performance practice in Classical times, especially that of Bach, was to improvise baroquely around the basic melody, counterpart, and harmony. I’ve heard some performances that took that approach, and they out-baroque the Baroque, reaching almost the levels of jazz improvisation. I suspect you wouldn’t like it that much, as I didn’t.

    1. Wayne Kernochan says:

      counterpoint, not counterpart.

  4. Tom says:

    So all those Russian Chess Masters, sending Smersh agents to move the world their way, are unlikely to succeed because the plans are too complex and not because they are seen in a movie.

    So what has been the success of the Russians manipulation of the facets of life during the last several years with regard to western national democratic governing?

    I cannot be anything except uneasy when I read Putin’s Chief of Staff’s paper on “The Capitalisation of the Future” and look at his Nooscope diagram. Very Baroque. Creating chaos that serves a purpose and smacks somewhat of the Asimov Neuropsychohistory plans.

    Imagine what can be hidden in over decorated and detailed worlds. Not pretty but efficient none the less.

    Perhaps Baroque writing is best for governing.

    Is Baroque writing the problem with philosophy papers? May be not: it’s just my problem that I keep falling asleep.

  5. Ian Rowan says:

    Interesting. I found my classic music tastes run the other way, towards renaissance and baroque. Except for some works by the “masters” , I feel that too many of the classical and romantic pieces are trying to drown me in an indistinguisable wave of instruments, whereas I appreciate the polyphony, and other aspects, of baroque. I enjoyed Gould discussing it, and his descrption of the differences; namely baroque being a communication between man and the divine, a creator, something like that, whereas classical and romantic were more of a communication of man to man and see what wondrous things I have done. I am not doing his talk justice, but I thought it had merit.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Overly complicated plots where one person or group is pulling all of the strings and has everyone dancing like marionettes only happens in books and movies.

    Reality is that the person/group who has the better ability to bring substance from the chaos that is around them, who doesn’t lose their focus, and manages to keep edging towards their goal despite setbacks is the one who tends to end up on top. And even then, not always.

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