‘Simplicity or style’

Over at The Passive Voice, Passive Guy has reposted a precious little peacock strut by a minor critic, entitled, ‘Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?’ The author offers one sentence each from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, 1984, Neuromancer, and other works – as if it were the presence of that single sentence in each novel that assured its place in the literary canon.

I found myself strongly moved to reply:


Ah, the Sentence Cult rears its ugly head. A novel is not made of sentences; it is made of scenes and récit, characters and plot elements – building blocks on the narrative level. The individual sentences are always replaceable – else it would be impossible to translate a novel into another language, or make it into a movie. Too often, the writer’s ‘masterpiece’ sentence marks a place where he ought to have followed the advice, ‘Murder your darlings.’

I can think of one notable exception. That is where the great sentence has special meaning and force inside the story. Perhaps it serves as a Leitmotiv; perhaps it is a bit of dialogue that the characters will recall later, and understand more of its import in light of later events. In any case, it must be possible for the reader to take it in stride. If you have to drop out of the story to pause and admire, the writer has manufactured an opportunity to lose you.

All this, of course, is lost on the pinchbeck critic raised on ‘close reading’, which requires one not to experience the interior drama of the story, but instead to remain carefully on the surface. Such a reader is like the nearsighted tourist who spends his whole day looking at pebbles on the beach, and never even notices the ocean.

Comments

  1. You might be interested in a book called How Fiction Works– it’s about how our idea of literary fiction was invented, and how unreliable it is as a guide to great literature.

  2. Ah, but if the writer makes a habit of these sentences, lovely words after lovely words, we call it style – and admire those who do it well.

    As long as there is plot and story and the characters are distinct and lovingly created (and not described like a laundry list) and the themes are there, but expressed subtly.

    The list of things readers look for in a book is long and individual, but just as there is right and wrong in the real world, and not merely ‘opinion,’ there is ‘better’ and ‘worse’ and ‘merely competent’ out there in book-land.

    It’s a package deal. If individual.

    • Generally, if the writer makes a habit of these sentences, lovely words after lovely words, we call it pretentious showing-off. You can have too much of that even in poetry: one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s early poems was criticized by a friend (one of those killed in the Great War) as reminding him of a lady who put on all her jewellery for breakfast. In prose, it is a killer for anybody except a close reader.

      What the Sentence Cult does, in effect, is to glorify bizarre diction, obscure phraseology, and opaque metaphors because they arrest the reader and demand his full attention. There is no room for the concept of story in all this; the Cult actively derides story, sniffishly dismissing it to the realm of genre (which is held to be categorically inferior). Recall what I said in ‘Style is the Rocket’: These writers are all rocket and no payload, and the heirs of the New Critics praise them to the skies for it.

      • Sorry, but I don’t call any of ‘bizarre diction, obscure phraseology, and opaque metaphors because they arrest the reader and demand his full attention. There is no room for the concept of story in all this; the Cult actively derides story, sniffishly dismissing it to the realm of genre’ lovely words. Those are horrible, pretentious words and a blot on the planet.

        Lovely words are the invisible ones that pull you in.

        • Ah, then we agree. But with the invisible words, it‘s the picture they paint in your mind that is the truly lovely thing; and that happens on the level of story. One wouldn’t praise the Mona Lisa because Leonardo used such pretty pigments.

          • “The Book Thief” is my favorite example of beautiful writing; Markus Zusak is the master of metaphor, and is richly evocative…

            …But the reason the metaphors are so wonderful is not because of the pretty words, but because they’re evocative – they point you towards something else.

            In other words – style is the rocket.

            Ditto John C. Wright in “Awake in the Night Land” his prose was so beautiful because it so finely crafted the sense and mood of an early era. It wasn’t beautiful because the words themselves were pretty; save that for Balderash. It was beautiful because of what it did – created rich atmosphere and striking, memorable imagery.

            Again – it was not the payload, it was the rocket.

            In other words – you’re both right. It all depends on why we’re calling the prose beautiful. Is it because it is florid or because it is brilliant at doing its job?

  3. antares says:

    Ms Jenny Davidson is to blame for that nonsense in Aeon. She wrote it.

    My take on the piece (I did not read it all. One need not consume the whole serving to know it is rotten.) is that her reading is shallow. In the excerpt in TPV, three of four example were taken from the first line of the book. She gushed over Gibson’s opening of Neuromancer. (I am willing to wager sizable sums that 1) she did not finish Neuromancer and 2) she never read another of Gibson’s works.

    I believe a paragraph from Gibson’s Virtual Light is far, far superior. In its entirety it reads ‘Key. Ignition.’ That is strikingly well done.

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