The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Writing in squares


In writing about Paris Lucas was thus working with an established grammar and set of clichés and stock motifs — to say nothing of established markets and expectations. All his work confirmed rather than challenged dominant narratives of Parisian lowlife, offering readers the beautiful cocottes and violence they would expect in an urban landscape that was cosmopolitan and edgy.

Lucas continued to find opportunities for personal transformation and social mobility through the shifting contours of interwar journalism and, in particular, the emergence of the crime reporter as a distinctive professional type…

Negotiating the commercial incentives of the marketplace… 

The flamboyant status claims through which he engaged in an ongoing process of self-fashioning…

These are all fragments from the chapter I have been writing over the past week. In many ways they are typical of how I work. They are also embarrassingly bad. My prose is too elaborate. Clichés rather than critical thinking drive my analysis. I fall back on familiar phrases and words rather than really trying to figure out what I mean.

In cycling there’s a common idea of pedalling in squares. It describes that moment when a rider is physically spent. Their head and shoulders begin to bob; their face is contorted with agony; their pedal stroke is jerky as the build up of lactic acid means they struggle to keep their legs moving. Pedalling in squares is contrasted to the elusive phenomenon of souplesse. Here the body remains still, the face impassive, and the legs transmit power smoothly and seamlessly throughout the whole of the pedal stroke.

I have been thinking about these terms while working over the past couple of weeks. In writing, as in cycling, fluency, smoothness and speed are things that we aspire to. Words come quickly, we imagine, and the idealized historian produces work that is original, engaging and insightful. How I wish it worked like that. Each word is a struggle; original ideas are few and far between; there is nothing engaging about the fragments of writing pasted above. Occasionally I think I have found that elusive moment of fluency and the words flow. Almost always I am wrong, and re-reading the next morning reminds me of the impossibility of souplesse in the activity of writing.

I know that I write in squares. My prose is jagged and full of the cultural historical jargon that means I go back later and annotate it as “bollocks” in the margin. I grind my teeth (a new and particularly annoying nervous tick, even for me) and screw up my face as I struggle to figure out what I want to say and find a decent way of expressing it. Stock phrases and clichés work as the jagged edges that make my writing awkward rather than fluent. Flamboyant status claims and mutually constitutive ways of apprehending the social call attention to points at which historical analysis and prose break down completely.

For me, at least, all of this is inevitable. I might strive after souplesse on the bike, but these days I’m more than reconciled to writing in squares. I now think of it as a vital part of the process of history. The clichés and buzz phrases that we fall back on might jar on re-reading, but they buy us time to think as we move on to complete a sentence or a paragraph—and the value of getting words on screen can never be underestimated. For sure, a phrase like the commercial incentives of the marketplace is lazy and imprecise. Yet it allows me to begin to isolate an argument and to clarify my understanding of the nature and effects of consumer culture in interwar Britain. Just as importantly, it gives me words to rework and refine. All writing is rewriting, in many ways, and that process allows us to move closer to something approaching clarity, precision, and smoothness in prose and analysis. Pedalling in squares and souplesse are very different ways of riding a bike. In writing, at least, we have plenty of opportunity to create the effects of souplesse, however illusory we might know them to be.


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