Thursday, October 16, 2014

Misplaced aggression

In the 19th century, writers were sometimes paid by the word by periodicals. This led to what can only be called "padding" by some writers, as they laid on parenthetical remarks and lists of adjectives. Even those who weren't induced by money were influenced by the style, and almost any writer of prose you can think of from 1850 to 1890 had a style that leaned at least a little bit in the florid direction. (Mark Twain comes to mind as a possible exepction, but even then, he was willing to let characters run off at the mouth in imitation of the style, and a reader of Twain does get some enjoyment out of Twain's permissiveness to his characters.)

Some folks find this style baroque and unappealing. I have always envied the world they lived in that had time for such rhetorical luxuries. We don't write that way now. One specific injunction all fiction writers face is to avoid overuse of adjectives. One reason is that writers are supposed to use verbal economy now (how is it that in the 19th century, when paper cost money, writers were encouraged to use a lot of it, while now, when digital space is essentially free, we all need to be sparing with our words?) The main reason, though, is that adjectives are not considered to be anchored enough to reality, and can thus be a violation of the "show don't tell" policy. Don't tell us that Cindy is loquacious, show her prattling on a lot. 

I think that writers are making up for being restricted from using all their fancy adjectives by using nouns that no normal human being knows. I'll use The Road by Cormac McCarthy as an example, but I can find examples in almost any literary journal. McCarthy's style, if you've never read the book, is almost unbelievably plain. Many of the sentences (most?) are only fragments. The book is compared to a dream often, because the brevity of the sentences leaves everything only roughed out. There is no artifice at all.

Except for the nouns. Depending on where the characters are, you can end up getting three nouns on one page that I have to look up. What's a macadam? Mastic? I don't know. I see this all the time--writers using nouns in their writing to identify a very precise item that hardly anybody would recognize without looking it up. This isn't a bad thing. I think it derives from a similar impulse to that which once made writers call characters "loquacious." Those writers wanted to give the impression that they knew all the people in their stories with godlike precision. So they had a name (adjective) for each of them. Modern day writers want to give the impression that they are truly in command of their dreamscapes, and so they make a point of showing that they know the proper names of everything within them.

I don't really object to this. I did it myself recently in my flash fiction attempt. I looked up the type of grasses and trees that would have been native to an Illinois prairie. I DO think that writing like this runs the risk of giving the impression that it was written ten minutes after a Google search. (Mine was.) That can spoil the illusion that the precision of nouns was meant to create.

No comments:

Post a Comment