Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Well, I've managed to accidentally overread myself again: all of a sudden, I seem have reached chapter 8 in both Moby-Dick and Great Expectations. So I will stack the books on top of the piano and try to forget about them for a few days, or at least until you tell me you've caught up.

In the meantime, however, I want to talk about writing style. In his comment on my September 10 post, David spoke fervently in favor of Dickens's style; and I, too, find it hard to imagine arguing that Melville's prose comes anywhere close to matching Dickens's fluent, artful sentences. I can think of no other writer who can be both screamingly funny and intensely sad at the same time, and Great Expectations is a particularly fine example of Dickens's unique stylistic control. Of course he wants us to recognize that his character Pip is an abused child and that Pip's sister is a monster, and of course he wants us to feel--and to feel deeply--the child's fear and resignation. Nonetheless, his comedy will not be squelched.

Consider, for instance, Pip's parenthetical remark about getting his face washed: "(I may here remark that I suppose myself to be better acquainted than any living authority with the ridgy effect of a wedding-ring passing unsympathetically over the human countenance.)" The sentence is rhetorically driven, full of clausal balance and theatrical cadence. It is a delight to read aloud. But it also depends a great deal on precise adjectives and adverbs. To hell with today's fashionably stupid creative-writing manuals and their generalized hatred of modifiers. The problem isn't writers' use of modifiers; it's their clumsy use. As I've asserted before, contemporary writers could learn a great deal from studying Dickens's eloquent adjectives and adverbs.

For instance, look back at the Dickens line I just quoted. Diction-wise, "ridgy effect" is a tour de force: by attaching a precise, physical adjective to a milder, less tangible noun, he manages to both exaggerate and understate the action of face washing. We meet "ridgy" well before we get to "wedding ring," so the action is drawn out. Then we have the mild verb form "passing"--a bland, repetitive-motion sort of word--which is then modified by the long multisyllabic "unsympathetically." And all of a sudden we understand that this is not only a drawn-out action but a common, apparently endless one. We have a sense of automatic cruelty . . . roughness as a substitute for thought, as a daily chore. . . .

This is what Dickens does, in sentence after sentence after sentence. The mind boggles. At least mine does.

Tomorrow I'll perorate on Melville's style. In the meantime, weigh in with your own thoughts about Dickens.

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