I will admit I have a love/hate relationship with so-called “prose stylists”. I, like many editors, have a soft spot for literary fiction: I admire a well-turned phrase, am tickled by metatextual playfulness, and am impressed by striking imagery, but more often than not, beautiful prose styling is simply not enough.
I’ve often read submissions (and the occasional published novel!) with exquisite prose, but whose beautiful writing eventually becomes its biggest burden. For me, good writing exists to clarify things: human emotion, philosophy, imagery. It doesn’t matter whether or not its as blunt as Hemingway or as florid as Joyce; good writing should illuminate the story, not obfuscate it. Often these novels are so enamoured of its own prose that it fails to provide a compelling story to ground it. Something may sound pretty, but it may not actually say anything.
I have always been careful with my own diction. Perhaps it’s because English wasn’t my first language, or perhaps it’s because I’m inherently a niggling little word-tinkerer, but I prefer people to wield their words carefully. My personal aesthetic philosophy when it comes to prose style is like that of a master swordsman: strike with precision and accuracy and truth with an economy of movement (words). I will allow the occasional virtuoso flourish, but for the most part, keep it simple, keep it spare. Every movement (word) must have purpose, otherwise it is superfluous.
Part of this personal aesthetic philosophy comes from years defending my own word choices in college writing workshops. “Why did you pick this word?” If I couldn’t answer why aside from “it sounded pretty”, it had to go. Poetry is a great learning tool for honing your own prose style: rhythm, repetition, alliteration, consonance, assonance…these are all tools a master can utilize to make a point. I also used to have to orally explicate poems for my English classes and while I hated it then, I appreciate it now. Language is a weapon to be wielded, for good or ill, so choose wisely.
Below are a few of what I consider excellent examples of expert language-wielding:
A well-starched man named Briggs.
– Stefan Bachmann, The Peculiar
Briggs isn’t even a main character in Stefan Bachmann’s novel; he’s superfluous, he’s extra, he’s a non-speaking role in the prologue. Yet, in three words, Bachmann has provided a complete picture of just what sort of man Briggs is: uptight, fastidious, a bit stiff, and most likely a stickler for rules and regulations. A starchy, rigid sort of man, the sort of man who probably irons the ruffles on his shirt. An economy of words, yet richly evocative.
As he read, I fell in love with him the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
– John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
There’s always one gem of a sentence in John Green’s novels that shines so brightly it almost diminishes the brilliance of his other sentences. Green’s particular strength is in describing a feeling with exact precision in language that is both simple and true. No fancy imagery, no frills, no fuss, no muss. Spare, simple, and elegant. We all know what it feels like to fall asleep both slowly and then all at once, and with this sentence, we also know what it feels like to fall in love.
In reality I was a pencil drawing of a photocopy of a Polaroid of my sister–you could see the resemblance in a certain light, if you were seeking it out because I told you first, if you were being nice.
– Nova Ren Suma, Imaginary Girls
“A pencil drawing of a photocopy of a Polaroid”. There’s a lot to unpack in that phrase, not the least of which is its rhythm, repetition of ideas, and subtle alliteration. Suma could have easily written “In reality I was but a pale shadow of my sister”, a cliched phrase that also makes no sense (how can a shadow be pale?), but instead she offers something concrete. A Polaroid is an imperfect photograph of the real thing, a photocopy degrades the original image, and a pencil drawing is only an approximation. In one phrase, Suma is deftly able to accurately convey Chloe’s relationship to her sister, both physically and “spiritually”.
We are the sons of Adam. It is in our nature to turn and face the faceless, to name the nameless thing. It drives us to greatness; it brings us to ruin.
– Rick Yancey, The Isle of Blood
I could try and dredge up some of the literary terms I didn’t learn in high school and college (allusion, anaphora, epistrophe, juxtaposition, etc.), but I’m 7 years removed from school now and my brain doesn’t retain anything useful, except, apparently, the dates of the Hundred Years War. (1337 to 1453, if you want to know. 1453, by the way, is also the year the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks and…I should stop now.) Instead I will talk about how Yancey’s protagonist Dr. Pellinore Warthrop is making an observation about the nature of humankind to confront the unknown. Yancey’s ease with rhetorical schemes borders on Shakespearean at times, and he doesn’t need to resort to forced figurative language to convey what he means to say.
All these examples are YA (or in the case of Stefan Bachmann, middle grade) and they span every genre: from historical fantasy (Bachmann) to contemporary (Green) to magical realism (Suma) to horror (Yancey). For me, “literary” is not a genre. It is a qualifying adjective, and these writers all earn the right to call themselves literary in my book.
And your bones have been my bedframe,
And your flesh has been my pillow.
– Ani Difranco, “Both Hands”
And then sometimes, some phrases need absolutely no explanation.
What do you guys think? Are you as much of a language nerd as I am? Or do you not care?