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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Short Sentence–Or, Faulkner Was A Dummy

I have an acquaintance who, despite his education at one of America’s premier institutions, never learned to control his prolixity.  Despite the sobering influences of literary lions like Harold Bloom, Robert Penn Warren, Jan Kott, Alvin Kernan and many others, he can’t help using ten words when one would do.  His sentences, even when discussing contemporary politics are verbose, flowery, and painfully recherché.

It is amazing to me that no teacher, professor, or teaching assistant ever stopped him in his tracks and righted his literary ship before it foundered on the shoals of excess. He was probably a precocious child – or at least convinced so by doting parents – and was encouraged every time he used a Thesaurus-type word in his speech. “‘Elegiac’”, his mother would say. “Such a nice word, Bobby.  And ‘desultory’ is even better.”  Little did they know that both of these words would show up decades later in little Bobby’s political criticism:

Elegiac, bounteous, effusive, transformative, fulsome and elegant was the speech by Democratic candidate Henry as he regaled his sycophantic supporters with his hypertrophic similes.  Even in his desultory references to the aphasic former President, he was eloquent….

Letting this adolescent writer out into the world was a big mistake.  Occasionally he has a good idea, but it is usually lost in the filigree of his baroque imagery; and few editors have seen fit to trim his luffing sails.

My nephew had fallen into this trap until he was whipped into shape by a demanding English teacher.  My sister’s boy was very smart, and it was to his credit that he read exhaustively and had a very impressive vocabulary by the time he was 12; but it took Mrs. Roberts to give him an ‘F’ on an essay in which he threw in just about every adjective he had learned, turned every fact into metaphor and simile, and gave every sentence a flourish.

“You don’t have to limit yourself to ‘See Spot Run’, Michael” she said; “but then again you do not have to say ‘The burnished evening sun cast an effulgent glow on the setter’s  coat as he set off into the glistening wet meadow’”.  Somewhere in between would be good.”

Roy Peter Clark, writing in the New York Times (9.10.13) has written about the power of the simple sentence. :

“If you ever have a preposterous statement to make [said novelist Tom Wolfe] … say it in five words or less, because we’re always used to five-word sentences as being the gospel truth.”

The five-word sentence as the gospel truth.

Granted, Mr. Wolfe was being a little cynical, but the truth of what he was saying still applies. Express your most powerful thought in the shortest sentence.

Yes, but there are some notable exceptions.  Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner, the greatest American novel ever written, begins with some of the longest, most complex, and powerful sentences in the English language.  In one page of his compact, intense prose, Faulkner has told the entire story of the odyssey of Thomas Sutpen, captured the feel of a late summer Mississippi afternoon, and explored the emotional depths of Miss Rosa Coldfield.  His telling and retelling of the Sutpen myth seen through many eyes – again in long, complex, and intricate prose – is evocative and compelling.  Thank goodness no old maid one-room schoolteacher in Oxford ever rapped his knuckles and said, “William, write in five-word sentences”.

The same can be said of John Milton.  His blank verse goes on and on, but once you release yourself from the prison of ‘economic clarity’ and immerse yourself in the most dramatic telling of the most famous Biblical story of all, every word in Paradise Lost is necessary.  James Joyce, despite being educated by nuns never known for their tolerance, emerged unscathed with no more than a few bruised, red knuckles to show for his ordeal.  Not only did he write long sentences, he jettisoned punctuation and threw logical grounding out the window.  A new literary form was born.

Prof. Clark defends his thesis by citing Shakespeare (who can argue with that choice?):

Using short sentences to their full effect is a centuries-old strategy, found in opinion writing, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and plays. It works in a formal speech or in a handwritten letter. Shakespeare had a messenger deliver the news to Macbeth in six words: “The Queen, my lord, is dead,” a message that could fit easily inside a 140-character tweet.

No doubt, but then again Shakespeare wrote some mighty long sentences:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to?

There may well be some short sentences in that masterful speech, but those five-word punctuations are not the point. 

Prof. Clark observes that short, declarative sentences at the end of a series of longer ones can have impact.  Here is the last soliloquy of the teenage hero of A Clockwork Orange:

Oh, it was gorgeosity and yumyumyum. When it came to the Scherzo I could viddy myself very clear running and running on like very light and mysterious nogas, carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cut-throat britva. And there was the slow movement and the lovely last singing movement still to come. I was cured all right.

Unfortunately such punchy, meaningful sentences got entirely lost in Burgess’ later works where he wrote long, baroque novels apparently only to hear himself speak.  Although the point is well taken, and one can cite many examples from literature and music, they do not trump the necessary longer, more intricate, and more evocative and unrestrained expressions of Molly Bloom, Rosa Coldfield, or Stephen Daedalus.

Some writers, most notably Kurt Vonnegut, took the simple sentence to the extreme. “So it goes” is perhaps the most famous three-word utterance in all American literature, and most of what Vonnegut wrote was deliberately simplistic.  It was a comment on the insanity of the world, and how the grandiose ambitions of mankind didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  In time, this Second Grade writing became parodied, and Vonnegut’s books are no longer assigned reading.

The English Department at Yale in the Sixties studiously excluded Hemingway from its undergraduate courses.  “You will read him anyway”, said one snotty professor, dismissing him and turning to the complexities of – you guessed it – Faulkner.  We didn’t read Fitzgerald either, but he was a master of combining the simple and the complex, and was an elegant writer for it.  Here is the opening few lines of The Great Gatsby:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.

The first two simple, declarative sentences are followed by the more intricate and complex expressions of character and observation.  Brilliant.

But for the writer with good intent, [says Prof. Clark] the short sentence proves a reliable method for delivering the practical truth. With punch.

Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald all had ‘good intent’; and none of them were trying to convey ‘practical truth’.  By confusing fiction with non-fiction, Prof. Clark’s argument is diminished.

Non-fiction is another story altogether, and I couldn’t agree more with Clark’s stern advice to be short and sweet.   In my long professional career, I read page after page of contract proposals that, despite thousands of words, said absolutely nothing.  I tried in vain to get writers to start with an Executive Summary in which they had to lay out goal, objectives, means, time, and money in 500 lean words or less.  If they could do that, I said, then every sentence of every subsequent section would have the necessary grounding for logical argument. There would be no need for additional words.

My task was made much harder because of government jargon. Bureaucratic-speak did more to dumb down Washington than any half-educated Congressman. 

We will ensure an inclusive, participatory environment which will empower women through a gender-friendly, respectful dialogue which will conform to the cultural realities of their world.

That one meaningless, thought-empty, inane sentence was repeated almost verbatim in every proposal somewhere, somehow.  Jargon replaced logic, proof, justification, and principle; and the more embellishment, the better the nonsense sounded.  When I asked a proposal-writer exactly what she meant by an offending, vacuous paragraph, she could only answer in the same jargon-laden blank verse.

So, I am all for terse, five-word sentences in proposals, company reports, and Instructions on drug labels.  With Faulkner and Joyce as my heroes, however, I could care less how many sentences a writer uses or how many words in a sentence; whether he uses punctuation or not; whether he goes in and out of consciousness and reality; whether he invents words and strings them together for rhythm.  I care only that he makes ultimate sense.

Far too few writers of fiction and non-fiction make any sense whatsoever; so perhaps we should all use the tried and true literary prescription:

Take one tablet every four hours. Take after meals. Do not exceed recommended dosage.

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