Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Too much prose

It seems that some light can be shed on the Tiger Woods fiasco by an interview he gave to GQ back in 1997. An article by Charles P Pierce portrayed Woods as a vulgar and libidinous frat boy, who cusses freely and makes dubious jokes about well-endowed black men. The story goes that after this interview a Tiger Team of PR goons seized control of his image to ensure that he would henceforth be indistinguishable from the character in his Playstation game, and so he was until the whole phoney structure caved in last year.

You can read the piece by Charles P Pierce here. Or at least you can try, and if you manage to get to the end you deserve some sort of prize, because Pierce must be one of the most mannered hacks in print. The prose is, for me, literally unreadable. The hammered repetition of “Is it blasphemy? Is it?” reminded me of something which I eventually remembered to be a Steve Coogan bit on The Day Today (see below) and overall it recalls the ghastly self-consciousness of Chuck Palahniuk (‘Annoying’ isn’t the right word for his book Choke, but it’s the first word that comes to mind) or even worse, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, one of the few books I’ve been tempted to throw across the room before the end of the first chapter.

Over at Ragbag Gaw links to some authorly tips. I particularly like this pair from Elmore Leonard:

- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

These are fine rules and should only be broken for purposes of irony or bathos (eg. “If you do that I’ll break every bone in your body, rip your head and limbs off, bury the body parts and dance on the grave,” he explained helpfully).

It's difficult not to write too much prose. Re-writing largely consists of deleting. God knows what Charles P Pierce’s first drafts look like but he should read more Jane Austen and Michael Wharton. Well, everyone should.


worm said...

"Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, one of the few books I’ve been tempted to throw across the room before the end of the first chapter."

It's probably the only book I can think of that I'm tempted to throw across the room before I've finished reading the incredibly annoying title

regarding your writing tips- this is the very thing that I've struggled the most with when I did writing classes - turning my prose from the purple rubbish mentioned into something bare and lean and 'writerly'. I look at the spare, skeletal prose of someone like Steinbeck, Hemingway or Waugh with great envy

Willard said...

Writing tips usually result in you writing prose like the person giving the tips. It doesn’t really teach voice. And the thing with Leonard’s tips is that he usually breaks them himself anyway.

Brit said...

Also, a lot of people presumably like Eggers, Palahniuk and even Charles P Pierce, so what do any of us know?

Gaw said...

If everyone wrote like Elmore Leonard where would that leave Elmore Leonard? Anyway, I'd probably stop reading if all I could look forward to was hard-boiled plot.

I think Willard touches on it. The only rule is to find an engaging and artful voice - and there really are a lot of them about as everyday observation will confirm.

BTW Brit, imagine Earthly Powers written by Elmore Leonard. It would probably be half the length! And yet it's hardly a bad book...

Brit said...

Indeed. There are no rules for the best, but most should follow the "said" rule.

worm said...

And where does this leave Dan Brown and his ilk? (aside from being multi-millionaires)

Brit said...

Of course the master of sparse prose is the mighty Steve Bruce.

Gaw said...

Brit, I don't think so: asked, greeted, continued, cried, urged, explained; wistfully, cordially, hopefully, indulgently, reverently.

Two minutes browsing of Scoop by E.Waugh, surely one of the best-written books ever.

Gaw said...

(I was referring to the use of 'said', which nevertheless should be the common default usage).

worm said...

Yes! The Bruce is a cold-hearted prose cyborg, sent from the future to mock us with the vast windswept emptiness of his sentences. As you posted:

"Then my mobile telephone rang. I did not curse the interruption. A mobile phone is a necessary instrument of modern business."


Anonymous said...

"Don't ever use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue", he blogged emphatically.

Brit said...

Gaw - Waugh counts as 'the best'. He knows what he's doing. But Leonard's rules are for people who need to read lists of tips about writing in the Guardian.

Nothing is worse than exchanges like:

"What?" she demanded, angrily.
"I'm afraid it's all true," he replied, coolly.
"You won't get away with this," she fumed, breathlessly. etc

Gaw said...

I think it's about balance. In any event, it's preposterous to inform every budding writer that they have to use Elmore Leonard as a model. A wannabe Leonard is probably as likely to write badly as a wannabe Waugh. They'll just use fewer words doing it.

Less is more. But more can be more. And sometimes about the same is more. Who the hell knows?

Brit said...

A more common literary divide would put Waugh on the same side as Leonard, along with Austen, Hemingway, Ishiguro, etc - ie. the Plains. As opposed to the Purples (Burgess, Joyce, Amis, Rushdie). You can have good Plains and bad Plains (Dan Brown); and good Purples and bad Purples (Dave Eggers).

I'm reading Peter de Vries at the mo, since he gave us the motto for our times. An outrageous Purple, sailing awfully close to the wind.

Frank Key said...

I recommend the "How To Write Badly Well" blog. It keeps me entertained on dark and stormy nights.

David said...

Ah, yes, Charley Peirce. A wanker of the first order.

Brit said...

Excellent, David - it's heartening to know we've both independently trashed Pierce in blogs.

You've gone much deeper of course - I couldn't get past the prose style.

Hey Skipper said...

I took a stab at writing prose once.

Hmmm. How did I fare with the Elmore Leonard test?

Out of roughly 100 lines of dialog, five "saids", 1 "asked", 3 "goes".

I guess I passed.

Shame about the rest of it, though.

David said...


Also, surprising no one, I have more of a taste for purple prose than you do.

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