Thursday, July 22, 2010

a dispenser of bric-a-brac

In a post a little while ago at ANZLitLovers a rule was quoted, "Omit needless words" and another one "Murder your darlings" -- "Puritanical" said the writer who was discussing those rules, "As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits," which are my feelings too, "but," I thought, "what are needless words? What is a needless word?" Some people say that suddenly is a needless word, and others advise against really and very, or anything else that makes a writer seem undecided, but David Foster Wallace used really and very and all kinds of vagueness, and he -- see -- like this:

I felt unbelievably sorry for him and of course the Bad Thing very kindly filtered this sadness for me and made it a lot worse. It was weird and irrational but all of a sudden I felt really strongly as though the bus driver were really me. I really felt that way. So I felt just like he must have felt, and it was awful. I wasn’t just sorry for him, I was sorry as him, or something like that.

Wyatt Mason, quoting that excerpt, goes on:

The mix of registers here is typical of Wallace: intensifiers and qualifiers that ordinarily suggest sloppy writing and thinking (“unbelievably”; “really” used three times in the space of a dozen words; “something like that”) coexisting with the correct use of the subjunctive mood (“as though the driver were”). The precision of the subjunctive—which literate people bother with less and less, the simple past tense increasingly and diminishingly employed in its place—is never arbitrary, and its presence suggests that if attention is being paid to a matter of higher-order usage, similar intention lurks behind the clutter of qualifiers. For although one could edit them out of the passage above to the end of producing leaner prose—

I felt sorry for him. It was irrational, but I felt as though the driver were me. I wasn’t just sorry for him, I was sorry as him.

—the edit removes more than “flab”: it discards the furniture of real speech, which includes the routine repetitions and qualifications that cushion conversation. Wallace was seeking to write prose that had all the features of common speech.

Not only Wallace, but George Eliot and hundreds of others -- all speaking -- here's Felix Holt, the Radical:

It is so very rarely that facts hit that nice medium required by our own enlightened opinions and refined tastes!

Omitting needless words:

Facts rarely hit the medium required by our opinions and tastes.

Which "discards the furniture of real speech," and so Eliot's style is hamstrung. What is that style? She goes along talkingly and slips you sharp ideas along the way: she has a sage chat. Elsewhere in Felix she gives us a sentence about Mrs Transome's embroidery. The sentence starts with the kind of dimity that would get itself described as use of needless words: "A little daily embroidery had been a constant element in Mrs Transome's life" -- and then, without altering the essential furniture, she cools into something like anger, the whole temperature of the sentence grows colder and brighter, or else (depending on your inner reading-voice) sours -- "that soothing occupation of taking stitches to produce what neither she nor anyone else wanted, was then the resource of many a well-born and unhappy woman." And ah, we've gone from platitudes about this embroidery to what it really means for Mrs Transome: she is wasting her life, she is trapped. 'Soothing' enters like a transit station between the chirpy mood of the beginning and the more sarcastic and melancholy mood of the end. The needless words are needed, they're part of the journey from platitude to point.

Compare the feints and hesitations of a good actor. If the actor recited their lines from beginning to end without pause, without inflection, would we understand what the lines meant? Yes, but they would become unfelt and unthought, in other words, inhuman. The actor would not be an actor, and a writer who does not act is not a writer: writers act, it is one of their jobs. And they are the script too, and all of the scenery. 'Needless words' in Wallace and Eliot aren't the meaning: they indicate the thought behind the meaning. Humanity is the aim, not words or needless words.

Christina Stead, lover of folk tales and Arabian Nights and other richness, of course she can be trimmed --

The distribution began. Sam made himself a dispenser of bric-a-brac, with a pin pot here, a matchbox there, a napkin ring beside, and a snuffbox neighbouring, and again a pin pot, according to the choice of men and women.


The distribution began. Sam dispensed the bric-a-brac, with a pin pot, a matchbox, a napkin ring, and a snuffbox, and again a pin pot, according to the choice of men and women.

And there, the voice that bounced along in singsong time has been hobbled. Well done you. And as a reader I conclude, that there are no needless words, or: no category of needless words, no box containing very and really and other things that can be eliminated from sentences as if elimination were a magic potion swallowed or a juju worn with fidelity to make problems go away. It seems to me that the only answer for a writer is to find out what they should write like, and write like it, and then they will be able to use 'very' as much as they like; no one will care. Which is difficult, or I assume that it is, and it would be much easier if you could identify needless words in the way you register the presence of rats or possums in the ceiling and then have them exterminated, but it's not that simple, or it doesn't seem to be.

Geoffrey draws on his boots to go through the woods, that his feet may be safer from the bite of snakes; Aaron never thinks of such a peril. In many years neither is harmed by such an accident. Yet it seems to me, that, with every precaution you take against such an evil, you put yourself into the power of the evil.

says Emerson. The "trick" to writing, says Mark Tredennick, is

to heighten it with an art that’s true to one’s own nature; that makes your writing sound like itself, like someone speaking ...

In an essay I read recently in Spectrum, David Malouf reflected on the intimacy that grows in good books between a writer and a reader. He said something that a writer like me takes great comfort from; for I am a writer who gets bored fast with narrative—especially my own. There are readers like me, I’ve come to realise; David Malouf thinks they are the truest readers. What a reader really means, if I may paraphrase Malouf, when she says she couldn’t put the book down, is not, or not just, that she couldn’t wait to find out what happens next; what she means is that she couldn’t bear to break the spell of the writer’s telling—of the book’s voice. Great writing, even good functional writing, compels us more by how it speaks than by what it says. The real narrative of the best books may be how the reader is changed and moved by the music, by the enchantment of the voice of the work.

I don't have that Spectrum essay, but here's Malouf saying a similar thing on ABC radio:

Well I've come to the conclusion that in the end what people are actually interested in, in writing, is the actual writing. They may not necessarily say that to themselves but when they choose one writer rather than another, it's the particular music of that writer that they're responding to, the particular tone of that writing, the particular density with which detail occurs in that writing, the span of sensory stuff in that writing.

When is a word unneeded? When it's being used poorly. When is it being used poorly? When it doesn't contribute to meaning or to the illusion of thought. All this advice boils down to is: write well. Which is marvellously unhelpful.


  1. Beautiful. Deane, you're an inspiration. I loved reading this and will remember it when I write.

  2. Thank you. I've been tossing this one around in a Word file for a couple of days & finally decided to go ahead and post it. There was another Malouf quote that I almost used too:

    "I think of those afternoons, between the end of school and six o'clock teatime, as endless, their hours so densely packed with experience and events that time appears viscous. It rolls rather than flows, meeting a perceptible resistance, as those Victorian sentences, in their difficult unfolding, seem always to hold back from conclusion, suspending you, impatient for the end but breathlessly subdued, in the stream of your own attention, so that you grow light-headed and wide-eyed drowsy, as if the effort of listening had laid a spell on your limbs."