June 08, 2009

a really not-a-rant about the so-called transparency of language

A strange thing happened to me when reading Flannery O'Connor last month. While I generally love her stories, characters, symbolism, and plot construction, I nonetheless felt a bit hollow, incomplete, because I was unsatisfied by her use of language. Granted, there are many good reasons why O'Connor uses the language she does. Nonetheless, because I have been reading so much fiction lately that turns "accepted" conventions of fiction on its side, I am starting to wonder if the conventions of the story and/or language are too normalized. As with 99.9% of the fiction we read, O'Connor prioritized plot, character, symbolism, and tension - language is, to a great extent, transparent, if by transparent I mean sentences that do more or less what we expect them to do.

Last week, more of the same: Toni Morrison read from her latest book,
A Mercy, here at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (sponsored by the John Adams Institute). Toni Morrison is often rightfully praised for her lyric sensibility, and I'm a massive fan of her work, but - and this shocked me - I became frustrated when I heard her read sentences like, "Her face was hard." It wasn't simply that some of Morrison's choices were easy or cliche. It was more my sensibility that while we live in a weird, crazy, complex, paradox-riven world, we expect - and, for many, demand - language to function in very standard ways. Perhaps certain uses of language function as necessary anchors when delving into difficult content, but too many authors seem content to write a decent sentence and get their characters round.

At that moment, listening to Morrison, I realized that I'm having a sort of crisis of writing. Or of aesthetics. Perhaps I'm no longer interested in characters and plots, no matter how insightful or interesting, if the prose isn't similarly interesting. And by similar, I don't mean that content and form run in parallel, because I'm not sure they should - why should form "enact" story? I just don't want language to function as a delivery mechanism for story.

It strikes me that, as gross generalization, poetry has license to disturb language (or syntax, or page placement). But for fiction, especially if you only have access to mass-market (if still literary) fiction, expectations run in precisely the opposite direction. You specifically don't mess with language because it gets in the way of story. By letting prose function seamlessly, you can focus on arc, tension, point of view, and other elements of "craft."

As case study, take the use of the second person. Why do most people hate it? It's too easily argued that it's pretentious (Bright Lights, Big City) or confrontational (uh, Bright Lights, Big City, or much of Lorrie Moore's Self-Help), but that doesn't explain why many people just think it's a bad idea. Unliterary. Granted, I'm not planning on writing an opus in second person, but I would consider that its intrinsic scariness and the tension in its implicit, in-your-face contradiction (you simultaneously try to inhabit the "you" and find that you cannot) opens up possibility spaces. Besides, doesn't the first person do the same thing? That "I" on the page is, at once, the narrator and the reader, but most people don't get cranky about the first person. Somehow, first person is considered authentic, while second person is gimmicky. Hmmm.

What does it mean for my own writing, or the writing I want to publish in Versal? Can the writing space I crave, one in which interesting stories are told in interesting ways, with interesting words and unusual syntax, not be considered experimental or self-reflexive or pretentious? Must the structure of a text "follow" the dictates of the content? How can our words train people how to read - or expect - differently?

Conspirators in possible disruption,


PS: if you want a gory, disturbing, crazy, literary, and very good read, take a look at Brian Evenson's horror-noir
Last Days...


  1. Firstly, you seem to assume that the Flannery O'Connor style is easy to achieve, which it isn't.
    Secondly, you call Morrison's sentence "Her face was hard" cliched, which is highly subjective and dependent on context. Wouldn't the sentence be disruptive of the passage as a whole if she had written something self-consciously 'original': "Her face rioted under its motionless pallor."
    Thirdly, the adjective 'pretentious' has no use in discussing art or literature. If I'm illiterate, 'The Famous Five' is pretentious.
    Fourthly, an interesting prose style (Nabokov) is great if its married to interesting characters, suspense and all those conventional things which make people want to read on. But I don't keep reading novels because the prose style is fancy. Reducing the criteria by which you judge good writing to prose style is self-defeating and unrealistic, and will ensure that you're writing to a very small audience.

  2. It just goes to show, you can't be too careful.

  3. I agree with almost all of Mr Crowe's comments, and thanks for helping me clarify/articulate what to me is very difficult to express. I'm not here to diss some of the writers I love most, and I'm not interested in reducing the criteria for good writing to prose style. Flannery O'Connor's style isn't easy to achieve; indeed, for me it's exemplary work, especially in terms of its deceptive simplicity and symbolic registers. And the Morrison sentence I mentioned isn't by definition a cliche, although it did, to my ear, stick out in the context of surrounding paragraphs.

    In these posts, I hope to illuminate how my experience of reading what one might call "innovative" or "experimental" work expanded what and how I consider the relationship of form/structure/prose to the topical. Moreover, it helped me realize what paradigms currently hold weight in the stories (both Versal submissions and purchased books) that hit my virtual desk. Reading Beckett, for example, or Nabokov, helped me understand that their notion of character (as representative of a "person", which is already a fiction) is not necessarily what Freud understood as the human subject. Yet much fiction understands deep character in Freudian terms, and understands epiphany or change in literature as the act of "talking it out" or learning about one's past. Again, I'm not stating here that books that do this should be abolished, or even that I don't and won't derive pleasure from them, but simply that there are other options and this is the one that seems to be prevalent at this historical moment.

    The point isn't to shut down possibilities, but to open them up. I am not advocating for fancy prose styles without wonderful, disturbing or gripping content, nor I am calling for writing to refuse plot or character. I do, however, think they can be differently imagined. As editor, I see far too many stories where, it seems, virtually no attention is paid to sentence, syntax, or style. That, to me, diminishes the pleasure of the text. Opportunity lost.

    What I want, then, is for writers not to "invent a fancy style," but to continue to explore how form, structure, or style interact with content to make a more meaningful narrative. I'm asking for as much attention to be paid to prose - if that turns out like O'Connor or Coetzee or Morrison, I'm all for it - as to plot. Many writers certainly do this, and I would love to hear from people their favorite examples - later I'll do the same.

    Partners in crime,


  4. Thanks for your response. I enjoyed reading it.

    It's an obvious one, but David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest' is a great example of what I understand Joyce to be saying when he said he wanted 'Ulysses' to be like a 'phone directory': an attempt to imitate and record the different forms, styles and dialects prevalent in a particular country at a particular moment in time. Even the stretches narrated in the third person make use of the ever-more-ubiquitous phatic 'like'.

    His use of footnotes as a method of multiplying the narrative in different directions and creating the illusion of an infinite quantity of information underlying the world of the novel is perspicacious vis a vis the emergence of the internet.

    Is this what you are describing?

    Jonathan Safran Foer's 'A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease' is a great marriage of content and form. He explores heredity through a series of family anecdotes ordered as if they were examples used to illustrate 'silent' punctuation marks in a grammar textbook.