Monday, January 23, 2006

Caring about the quality of prose

Back in the mists of time, I was lucky enough to be taught by a schoolmaster who was interested in 'good writing' -- a loose term which I will leave undefined for the moment. At any rate, he had certain ideas about how sentences, paragraphs, and essays should all be constructed, and he did his best to din them into us boys.

Over the following decades I have done my own best to write 'good' prose, according to my schoolmaster's instructions: though it's a shifting target, because what works in one context and for one audience is going to offend another, and vice versa.

I mention this because a few days ago I reported that Thomas Melancholicus of The Anatomy of Melancholy had applied his critical faculties to the first few pages of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, and had found that he was not impressed by the quality of her writing.

Ever since that post appeared, there has been a spirited debate going on in the comments section about what does and does not constitute good writing. The debate has been passionate and not always good-tempered -- brothers and sisters in prose, let us not bad-mouth each other, please -- but the heart-warming thing is that people care deeply about how to communicate effectively. Would that there were more of them.


Ivan Prokopchuk said...

There is a theory going around and I hope no one takes offense:
Englishmen can't write; Russkies can.
But how can that be? There is the incomparable Lewis Caroll and he has the most apposite thing to say about good writing. Good writing is the product of kind of an eshtetic sneeze that no grammarian or teacher of writing can ever hope to describe oremulate. Not for nothing do the Beatles cite the Egg Man.

Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:
"Well, "outgribing" is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle; however you'll hear it done may be--down in the woods yonder--and once you've heard it you'll be quite content. Who's been repeating all that hard stuff
to you?"
Or, Norman Mailer (from memory):
Good writing is the setting down of powerfully felt emotion, on the printed page, through the application of elegance and tact.
I don't know of Thomas Melancholicus, but I'd be melancholy too if I tried to "doctor someone's literature" as our own late Stephen Leacock
laughed about all the time.
I can't get Humpty Dumpy's full remarks on this, since I'm only getting Dumpty's passage from the internet, but in one version of
eht Egg Man's speech, I think I read, "It's the sound." Good writing is a sound, the "outgrabe".
Once your hear it, there is no mistake about it.

archer said...

Of course the proper response to the question "What is good writing?" is "Who wants to know?" I am certain the fans of Judith Krantz will brandish her latest and say "This is great stuff," and at Borders their money is as good as mine.

John Barlow said...

I wonder if there any technical aspects of prose fiction which can be said to be ‘good’, irrespective of style, genre or whether the piece is considered ‘literature’? As others have noted here, abuse of adverbs is a contender and might figure on such a list. Another one that springs to mind is repetition of medium and low frequency words in too short a space of time (by low frequency I mean words which will, on average, occur seldom in standard text of a particular language); if a writer uses ‘autumnal’ on two adjacent pages - other than if this is a deliberate/stylistic repetition - then I feel that it is bad writing. Are there other such rules of thumb? Verbs used in dialogue? Did someone recently publish a list of ten such rules?

JodyTresidder said...

Technically, if the novel doesn't have "Tony Parsons" anywhere on the cover, it has a better chance of not automatically being a stinker:)

Thomas said...

John, your point is a good one: do the "rules" have any intrinsic value or weight? Probably not. Some of the best modern writing draws very little attention to itself. It can be very difficult to say what exactly constitutes good writing in this sense; it's more than an absence of those things we think constitute bad writing. The discussion here has really been about what is bad and what is merely adequate. How to rise above adequate and produce good, or even great, writing is another matter. (Perhaps Ivan's aesthetic ejaculation has something to do with this. But I don't think it's half the mystery he suggests.)

Your question is also important because asking it prevents us from repeating these "rules" without thinking about them. Why must we be so vigilant with adverbs? Why must we always "show, not tell"? At first, it's because someone told us to, or we read it in a writer's guide. Then we cross them out automatically, as thoughtlessly as we once put them in. It becomes a reflex.

But is there a reason? I believe there is, and it's organic, something intrinsic to the art form, not to the part of speech. I think it's because we're involved in telling a story, and we're concerned with action and character. I think character is ultimately the special domain of the novel, what it approaches better than any other art form, but it all rests on the foundation of action and story-telling.

If we're primarily concerned with action, then our strongest tool is the verb. A good, powerful sentence in a story is one in which someone does something. It's why telling you my character is nervous is not as vivid as describing my character's nervous behaviour.

Adverbs can be, and often are, crutches for the writer who doesn't want to (or perhaps doesn't know how to) create a vivid scene. Adverbs do some of the work a verb should be doing. Or even several verbs. If two sentences can do more vividly and with more specificity what one adverb does, then the two sentences are better. Our main concern is creating an image and a scene, not merely conveying information, so it's not a question of being economical.

In other words, if I read about a man sitting in a restaurant waiting for someone to come and meet him, and I read that he chews on the straw of his Coke until the end is flat and dented with teethmarks, and that he has taken a paper napkin and twisted it over and over again until it's begun to shred, I am more engaged and interested in his future than if I had read that he was sitting in a restaurant nervously.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Anybody who reads Borges (and I see thatyou do)--has my vote.
It is certatinly not all Greek to you, even if you live there.
Good summary.

John Barlow said...

Thomas, perhaps some readers in some situations have an instinct for these things, and know that an -ly adverb is an easy way out for the writer. So, it is might not be a matter of what is bad writing, but what is careful and/or conscious reading; it might be, perhaps, the difference between readers who simply extract info from a text - the story, the main character details etc - and those who have a continuous inner response to the very medium that is holding their attention. The two reading styles are not in conflict, the difference simply has to do with why and how you are reading. A Barbara Cartland novel, in this sense, is efficient because it doesn’t seek to supply the reader with a ‘quality’ reading experience because the reader couldn’t care less, just as today, as I skim the internet news sites for interesting stories, I don’t mind very much the style of the writing. Adverbs welcome. Whether a careful reader, responsive to the medium of the written word, is driven by a natural instinct only, or whether there are some learned ‘rules’ which s/he has internalised, I think is also interesting. Split infinitives spring to mind as a case of a learned rule which is currently withering (i.e. was never a ‘natural’ rule).

Thomas said...

John: Another interesting point, echoing what Archer said, as well. Have you read C.S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism? This is the opening paragraph:

"In this essay I propose to try an experiment. Literary criticism is traditionally employed in judging books. Any judgement it implies about men's reading of books is a corollary from its judgement on the books themselves. Bad taste is, as it were by definition, a taste for bad books. I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process. Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another."

I made the point in the comments to GOB's other post that writers like Krantz and Steele and Cartland aren't pretentious. But Kostova attempts something else, and invites another kind of reading.

Each of us chooses which reader we're going to write for. But I don't think a reader needs to be specially trained or educated to appreciate the kind of good writing I'm talking about -- good in dramatic sort of way (and by that mean in terms of presenting action). The example I gave above, of the nervous person, will work for them just as well, even if they don't demand such things. It should have its effect and create the intended image.

Criticism is an empirical science. We learn what good books are by observing what good books do. The lazier writers get, the lazier readers get. If most writers described vividly, then the ones who rely on adverbs would stand out more. One could also say that a good writer is one that is not willing to let the reader call all the shots, and is willing to push the reader in less complacent direction.

Bernita said...

Rules ( like laws) are made for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.
So there.

JodyTresidder said...

You say: "Criticism is an empirical science".

Surely, this is not so?

Criticism fails the test of objective reproducibility with a loud thump.

Observing the same data (the page of a novel, even a sentence)two critics may reach very different conclusions about its value.

The question then becomes: which conclusion is the more plausible, which more persuasive?

This is not to say that the search for objective standards hasn't been a thrilling or rewarding study.

I remember the great - if sometimes blinkered -critic I. A. Richards' certainty that modern science would eventually "prove" the superiority of one text over another. (We are still waiting for that one).

You also write "The lazier writers get, the lazier readers get" as if there were a litmus test for effort expended and the quality resulting!

I see that you and John Barlow have reached some agreement on the issue of expectations of a work. The "how" and "why" we are reading. There's the dog show element here, in that we apply different standards to mongrels and pedigrees.

But I'd also add "when" we are reading as an important consideration. We all know "important" authors who drift in and out of favorable consensus for a fascinating variety of reasons. Which suggests a most unscientific element to the discipline of criticism.

archer said...

Criticism an empirical science? No. As George Bernard Shaw put it when attacking the idea: "The critic who is unable to interest the public in his real self has mistaken his calling."

Thomas said...

Jody and Archer, I agree (although I can't see the relevance of the Shaw quote). I was being hasty. I'd like to modify the statement, but I don't know how. I'll keep "empirical", but it's "science" that's problematic. Discipline? Soft science? Something like that. I think criticism should be descriptive. And I actually disagree with C.S. Lewis on one point. I don't think criticism -- least of all his -- is primarily concerned with evaluating, but elucidating. The evaluating is a by-product.

So while I agree that "observing the same data ... critics may reach very different conclusions about its value", I would change the last word. But, point taken.

JodyTresidder said...


And you have me bang to rights, too.

"Value" was also the assumption that tripped up I. A. Richards. He took it as a given about "art"; he didn't remotely consider it might be open to question.

It's a silly word to fling about when one hasn't thought it through, as I hadn't.