“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exclusion Clauses

Over at Kill Your Darlings, Emily Bitto has an excellent piece on the disappearance of long sentences from contemporary literature, touching on two issues I've written on before: 1) the formal conservatism of contemporary Australian--and, by extension, Anglophone--prose (see here, for example), and 2) the relationship between minimalism as an aesthetic doctrine and creative writing programs (and for my thoughts on CW programs, see here and here).

As someone who has tended towards the long sentence in my own fiction, I agree that there is a bias against the long sentence; I've lost count of how many literary editors I've encountered believe that good editing entails turning every long sentence into a series of shorter ones. I'll also just note two other points that weren't mentioned in the piece, which I think add to Bitto's argument:

1) The long sentence is actually the preferred vessel for English Lit. over its long history. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British and U.S. writers consistently use sentences with multiple dependent clauses and the like. In fact, it is the preference for a journalistic, "economical" prose--as promoted by Hemingway, E.B. White, and, later on, William Zinsser (although their ideas can be useful!)--that is actually the exception. The long sentence, historically speaking, has been the rule.

2) Having taught and studied creative writing in the U.S. and Australia, I don't think that minimalism is "officially" promoted as the writing style. Rather, there's a subtle pressure, or a predisposition towards minimalism. Just as most English Literature departments will have a de facto preference for Continental Theory over Analytic Philosophy (a preference I share), few CW programs actually foist minimalism on students as a requirement. Aside from one absolutely horrendous CW instructor, all of my teachers were very supportive of my own work with long sentences.

1 comment:

Pierz Newton-John said...

I agree. I have had to fight for long sentences with editors, even when it was completely apparent (or should have been) that the length of the sentence was a deliberate, carefully chosen stylistic device. Whether long or short sentences are appropriate is a question of voice, not of the absolute value of one or the other. In Peter Temple's eviscerated prose, the short, brutal sentences match the tough milieu and its hard-headed characters. But where would Lolita's HH be without those vast, curlicued sentences, expressing a mind grown cancerously elaborate?

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