Archives for 7 March 2013

Paul Johnson on Auguste Comte’s prose style

Comte . . . has some claims to be considered the worst writer who ever lived, and his works read just as badly, if not more so, in French as in translation. In 1824, in reply to criticism, he insisted that style was of no importance. He said he wrote ‘scientifically’. Later, however, he laid down rules of style: no sentence longer than five lines of print; each paragraph to have no more than seven sentences; all books to have seven chapters; each chapter to have three parts and each part seven sections; each section must have a lead paragraph of seven sentences, followed by three paragraphs of five sentences each.

—Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern

Here, over a century before the New Criticism was ever thought of, we see the ultimate and sterile issue of the ‘sentence cult’. Once you consider a book merely as a ‘text’ made up of syntactic units, rather than a story or discourse made up of incidents and ideas, the idea will irresistibly suggest itself that literature consists solely of the manipulation of syntax, and has nothing to do with content.

A perfect book, according to Comte’s rules, contains exactly seven chapters, 21 ‘parts’, 147 ‘sections’, 588 paragraphs, 3,234 sentences, and therefore, not more than 16,170 lines of print. It need not be about anything at all. Indeed, it will help if it is not: for if you actually had something to say, you might be tempted to use an incorrect number of sentences to say it.

Patricia C. Wrede & Marie Brennan on epics

My own essai on managing the length of epic fantasy, ‘Zeno’s mountains’, appears to have incited Marie Brennan to write a piece of her own: ‘How to write a long fantasy series’. This, in turn, inspired Patricia C. Wrede to write a two-part essay on ‘preventing epic bloat’: ‘Epics, part 1’ and ‘Epics, part 2’. If you are interested in epic fantasy and the writing techniques that pertain to it, I can recommend them all.

(Mary Catelli has also been good enough to leave a comment to the second part of Ms. Wrede’s essay, pointing the way back to ‘Zeno’s mountains’. I thank her for her thoughtfulness, and hope that some of Ms. Wrede’s readers may enjoy my little screed, in the brief time that remains to us. You see, closing a chain of links so early, by pointing back to the first URL in the chain, could cause the entire space-time continuum to collapse on itself. Or at least the Internet. You have been warned. By the time I get to say ‘I told you so’, it will be too late.)

Reading too damned much—

—or at least, too many bits and pieces of books in an unfocused way.

At the moment, I want to quote a bit from Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, never you mind why, and I’m not sure where my copy is. It is not in my bookcases, at any rate. I went looking for it in my bedroom, and put away seventeen of the random books lying on the floor. There are still books on the bedroom floor, and I have not found the one I am looking for yet.

Sometimes I really annoy me.