by Stephen Parrish
The advice to eschew extraneous language and keep details to a minimum is ubiquitous, and dates back at least to Hemingway. Although Joyce, Faulkner, and other influential contemporaries embraced stream of consciousness writing, it’s Hemingway we heed today:
When in Doubt, Cut it Out.
But is that right? Novels such as Elegies for the Brokenhearted, by Christine Hodgen, who writes as though she never heard of Hemingway, suggest the answer is “It depends.”
Book description: “Who are the people you’ll never forget? For Mary Murphy, there are five, eulogized here in an utterly unforgettable voice. Mary tells the story of her own life—her childhood spent trading one home and father figure for another, her efforts to track down her rebellious sister, and her winding search for purpose—through her experiences and encounters with the people who shaped her path.”
Here’s a sample:
Every family had one and you were ours: the chump, the slouch, the drunk, the bum, the forever-newly-employed (garbageman, fry cook, orderly, delivery truck driver) and the forever-newly-unemployed (I didn’t need that shit, you’d say), the chain-smoking fuckup with the muscle car, an acorn-brown 442 Cutlass Supreme named Michelle, the love of your life (Let’s see what this baby can do, you’d say, all six of us cousins piled in the back, and how we screamed when you rolled down the windows and put Michelle’s pedal to the metal on Route 20, how we flew past those strip joints, those 24-hour diners, those squalid motels and scrap metal yards, behind which, in a sunken valley, our neighborhood of two-bedroom cinderblock houses sulked and cowered), the bachelor uncle with the bloodshot eyes and five-day beard come late to holiday dinners, rumpled shirt and jeans, breath like gasoline—Michael Timothy Beaudry, for a time you were ours.
The seventies: Nixon and Carter, culture and counterculture, two roads diverged in a wood. You were twenty, then twenty-five, then thirty, and all that time it always seemed you were fresh out of boyhood, it seemed your proper life—as a schoolteacher or a fireman, as a husband and father, as an upstanding, tax-paying citizen—would begin directly. Although, what was the point? You had a bad heart, a weak valve that threatened to kill you at any moment, as it had your mother when you were only three.
I’ve cut this off in mid-paragraph to stay under 250 words. Since these are the opening paragraphs of the novel, you can continue reading by using the Look Inside function at Amazon.
I’m not normally a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing or run-on sentences. It usually feels like mannered writing to me. Okay, it always feels like mannered writing, but usually in the worst way: like the author is trying to impress me. “To hell with story, marvel at my werd skillz.”
However, Christine Hodgen isn’t channeling Joyce, she’s depicting a character, and the presentation isn’t so much run-on as breathless. Given the nature of the character, breathless seems appropriate.
The way to make long sentences work is to vary the rhythm. Notice how four one-syllable nouns contrast with a compound noun:
And of course precise details always make me swoon: “an acorn-brown 442 Cutlass Supreme named Michelle.”
But the entire point, of course, is the character Michael Timothy Beaudry. We’re taught as writers, some of us, to minimize descriptions, to select as few elements as necessary to let the reader take over and create an image in her own mind. That’s why reading provides more mental exercise than watching TV. Reading isn’t passive; we have to work, we have to form images in our mind, given scant detail. Too much detail is boring because we’re fed, we’re not engaged. In this case, knowing Michael Timothy Beaudry is “the chain-smoking fuckup with the muscle car” might be enough for us to fill out the rest.
However. In this case the author chose to create a detailed portrait, to use the little brushes and paint the small details. It works if the details are interesting, if the presentation is well written.
What do you think?
Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.
Bonus exercise: see if you can identify the author of the following piece before I name him at the end:
There are some simple maxims . . . which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology:
“Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behavior-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.”
Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: “All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.” This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.
—Bertrand Russell, “How I Write,” reprinted in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell.