Friday, June 7, 2013

Like Carlene, I was intrigued by preponderance of plain verbs in all of yesterday's examples. Given that most contemporary creative writing manuals celebrate vivid verbs and deride adjectives and adverbs, I think these five women novelists prove that so-called writing "rules" are often nothing more than fashion instructions.

In this same vein, note that both Woolf and Spark turn to passive-voice constructions. Such constructions essentially invert subject-predicate sentence order. A sentence in active voice reads "The dog bit the mail carrier," whereas one in passive voice reads "The mail carrier was bitten by the dog." Most academic publishers specifically instruct their copyeditors to delete as many passive-voice constructions as possible. The reasoning is that (1) passive voice is unnecessarily wordy and (2) it allows the sentence's "doer" to avoid taking responsibility for the act.

In academic prose, which has an unfortunate bent toward jargon, pomposity, and clotted repetition, these preferences make sense. In art, however, the passive voice is a very useful and, I think, overlooked tool. It can (1) quietly highlight or shade certain actors and actions, (2) transmit tonal irony or narrative detachment, (3) intensify the beauty of a sentence cadence, and so on and so on.

Now tell me what you think of those stacked prepositional phrases . . . or the lack thereof.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Fashion instructions indeed, Dawn.

Which is exactly what I meant by "wardrobe malfunctions that work" in my comment yesterday, and which are, of course, the sine qua non of all fashion as much in writing as in haute couture. How much you put on can be just as fashionable as how much you take off whether you're on the runway or at the reading, and indeed at both venues you're likely to be more in the money if you can figure out how to be infamous!

Oscar Wilde in his hey day, even Charles Dickens, the most popular reader ever but hated by F.R.Leavis!

The history of creative writing is full of styles that have been much admired at one time but are unreadable today, from minimalization through mystification to bombast, and I mean all the way from Euphues to Edgar Albert Guest at the one extreme, and from Laurence Sterne to John Foster Wallace at the other. And, of course, just the opposite can be true too -- writing that is condemned as undisciplined and even inartistic by an earlier generation that becomes all the rage in another. Leaves of Grass. Moby Dick.

Which I suspect is part of what you meant by "period," Carlene. -- I'd love to hear more on that.

Finally, I'd like to say that I was educated in literature way back in the 1950s and 1960s at the best academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, and I never encountered a Writing Workshop at any of them, nor was I handed a manual of style other than Fowler's. I came from a classical background, of course, and partly as a result I wasn't taught how to write, ever. It was just assumed that I did, otherwise I wouldn't be there, like oratory is assumed in the Houses of Parliament even when in most of the U.K. the English language is going under. And indeed, my style was like the necktie and jacket (black gown at Cambridge, on a bicycle!) without which I would have felt naked.

I even wore a necktie digging my garden!

What you, Dawn and Carlene, are doing is cultivating literary sensibilities in students in an entirely different age, one in which style is no longer in your genes, so to speak, no longer part of anybody's heritage.

And now even paper's almost done!