Friday, May 7, 2010

mauve luminescence that pervades the earth

I'd heard John Marsden speak before, once, when I was at high school. Editing, he told us. It's important. Cut. Trim. Limit your adjectives. Get rid of excess words. Look at this sentence.

The balloon rose up into the air.

He said: we don't need 'into the air.' If a balloon is going up then of course it's going into the air. It can't rise into the ground.

The balloon rose up.

If it rises then of course it's going up. We don't need up.

The balloon rose.


On Sunday he went after the same idea, but now he was describing a businessman at his desk telling someone they could come into his room.

"Come in," he shouted angrily.

If he's shouting we can assume that he's angry. Adverbs weaken a sentence, get rid of them.

"Come in," he shouted.

You don't need 'he shouted.'

"Come in!"

So he recommends, with the devout good plainness of a man whose vocation is teaching, cutting and trimming, and as I listened to him I thought of Elmore Leonard and his Ten Rules, which have become so well known that they were used, earlier this year, as the jumping-off point for a two-part Guardian article. Leonard would have us all using said said every time any character opened its mouth: nothing but said. No adverbs. Christina Stead, that Rodin of twentieth century literature, satirised Rules like this three decades ago in Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife).

The story, she was confident, conformed, as she had written it, to the set of rules she had extracted from various books on writing and from Mrs Beresford Banes's writing course. A well-typed* list of these rules hung above her table and read as follows:

Short sentences
Short paragraphs

'Ware adjectives!
Pare your prose to the bone

She had already rewritten her story "In the Morning" twenty-three times, arranging it differently for each "market" and repolishing it according to her rules. It grew simpler, clearer, more barren each time. She was unable to understand why she had no success with it, but she plodded sturdily on.

Stead was so impatient with the carefully-trimmed often-revised approach that she committed all kinds of sins -- she once lost a character. He was introduced then never mentioned again. She forgot he was there, and he wasn't. In The People With the Dogs she uses things three times in four sentences.

… a soft middle-aged dark man … was packing Vera's things into an immense brassbound steamer trunk. He brought out a few handfuls of delicate things in black, rose, white, and a few ribbons. They took up not more than six square inches of space. Vera still had a few things but, "No, no, there's no more, Simon," said she.

"Oh writing teacher," you ask, "should I use the same very ordinary vague word three times in a row? Things is just useful." "No, oh God, no, hideous, hideous," says the writing teacher, throwing a pen at you. "Never do that. Very amateurish. Think of a new word. If you write things things things the reader will notice and feel bored." But it was years before I noticed Stead's things. And she smacks aside other of Leonard's Rules too, she writes long descriptions, and she doesn't bother sticking to said. Skimming a single page of my Penguin Man Who Loved Children I see characters declaring, crying (twice), sighing (three times), and saying things "after a pause" and "impatiently." On the next page they speak "violently," "indignantly," and, twice, "suddenly." "Never use the words 'suddenly' or 'all hell broke loose'," say the Rules, and, "There are exceptions," writes Leonard, meaning that each Rule can be broken if the writer knows how to do it. Of all the sentences he's written there, this is the only true one. There are exceptions!

I want instead a writer who follows Ruskin:

No limit: it is one of the affectations of architects to speak of overcharged ornament. Ornament cannot be overcharged if it be good, and it is always overcharged when it is bad.

For "ornament", think of descriptive prose, adverbs, adjectives -- and run-on sentences! How many people have I seen online complaining about run-on sentences, happily, smugly, as if they've caught the writer kissing behind a shed -- that yowling tone of aha!** All of those posters seem to be American, judging from their references and spelling. Is there a writing textbook somewhere in the American school system that tuts at run-on sentences? Burn it. Burn the ones that tell you to throw away your adverbs. Burn everything that wants us to be small, stripped, tiny, juiceless, and confined to said. Write new books, write textbooks that show you how everything might be used well. Not no ornament but good ornament. Bring out Johnson and his majestick adjectives.

The compleat explanation of an authour not systematick and consequential, but desultory and vagrant, abounding in casual allusions and light hints, is not to be expected from any single scholiast. All personal reflections, when names are suppressed, must be in a few years irrecoverably obliterated; and customs, too minute to attract the notice of law, such as mode of dress, formalities of conversation, rules of visits, disposition of furniture, and practices of ceremony, which naturally find places in familiar dialogue, are so fugitive and unsubstantial that they are not easily retained or recovered.

Bring out Robert Hughes.

One cannot see the purple underlights in plowed furrows against the sunset without thinking of the strange, dull, mauve luminescence that pervades the earth in The Sower and helps suggest that this dark creature fecundating the soil under the citron disc of the declining sun is some kind of local deity, an agrestic harvest god.

Beautiful extravagance! Let things be said suddenly, if they need it. Say to students, "Now that we have practiced our trimming and cutting, I want you to write a long sentence and make it interesting. Use the trimming and cutting there." Show them how a long sentence can roam, roam, shuttling back and forth across the page, this physical thing, like the moment in a ballet when the ballerina launches into a series of pirouettes, going on and on until the audience, thrilled at the sight of another human being facing an obstacle and overturning it, starts clapping.*** Show them those Proust sentences that hook back on themselves at the close, finishing with a kind of sigh or shrug. I wish someone had done this for me. Annie Dillard told us that humans were alarmed by the fecundity of nature:

I don't know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.

But how impressed we are when some an author brings that fecundity into existence then exerts control over it! The tension there, between the life-force and the person moulding. Each long sentence is a bit of life born, controlled, and killed. There is the appearance of danger. The ballerina appears to be on the verge of falling over, the extravagant writer appears to be about to lose control of the sentence, their own words either running them over or eating them up. Each artwork claims some portion of the world for its creator, how good it is, how filling, when the creator lets it sprout prolifically, daring it to slip the leash and charge off . (Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling has the fecundity but not so much the control, and the book, in spite of its length, feels incomplete.)

* Stead was a terrible typist.

** There's an example of that aha! in the comments after this Metafilter post: "On the other hand, writers who are any good are students of language, and professional writers usually work run-on sentences out of their system by middle school."

*** I've used this comparison before. Thanks to wood s lot for drawing my attention to the Dillard excerpt. (Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek is a great piece of naturalist mysticism.) The Hughes quote comes from Vincent Van Gogh, Part 1, in Nothing if not Critical. The Ruskin is borrowed from Seven Lamps of Architecture. Johnson is writing about Shakespeare. The missing Christina Stead character is a boy in The Rightangled Creek.

My copy of Man is the one with the Alton Pickens painting of two distorted people torturing a doll on the cover. Turn to page 203 to see the characters crying and sighing.

(M. has just handed me a US high school textbook that describes a run-on sentence as a sentence needing punctuation between two ideas, eg, "It is easy to run the machine just turn the dial and press the button." He understood -- and I, from the online comments I've seen, was also understanding -- that the description, "run-on sentence," included sentences that were merely long. Not according to James F. Howell and Dean Memering of Central Michigan University, it doesn't.)


  1. I find it funny that you made a point of sending me the Guardian article that cites the ten rules along with many additional rules formulated by other authors. Fortunately, I'm learning to view rules more as guidelines that are situational.

    Regarding the run-on sentence and the American school system, it is indeed a deeply entrenched taboo to use such things. This is because the writing that they teach focuses more on making the reports that are given out as homework coherent and less on the creative side of writing. Many books on writing originating from America also include insistence on rules of grammar with the firm codicil that one may break the rules if one knows what one is doing. They caution the reader, though, that just because he thinks that he knows what he's doing doesn't mean that he actually does.

  2. Sent in accordance, sir, with the First Rule of gift-giving, which is, Give something you think the other person would like to receive, not something you'd like to have yourself.

    Re. They caution the reader ...

    But when do you know? When does writing stop being a process purely of damage management?

  3. Oh well said, Deane.
    Hemingway's plain and simple sentences are art. Most of the plain and simple writing we see today derives from a paucity of vocabulary and an inability to concentrate on sentences of any length. It is boring, boring, boring.

  4. Well -- it's not that we don't have long sentences any more -- we do, Malouf uses them, and David Foster Wallace would still be writing them if he hadn't committed suicide -- but Rules like Don't Use Adverbs and Only Write Said ask you to sit in antagonistic judgment over your own words as they come out of you, and I don't think that's in the same category as fruitful revision, it isn't free and it isn't healthy. As I think you're suggesting with "paucity of vocabulary," it encourages a kind of laziness. Why bother learning adverbs at all if you're going to cut them? Why bother with long sentences if you've been told that short and shorn is the acme of beauty?

  5. (Answering my own question: you bother because you've read books by authors who use adverbs, adjectives, and long sentences, and you say to yourself, "I like that. I want to do that too." So you get out your mental hammer and nails, sewing patterns, recipes, whatever, and set about learning.)