Stones hurled from a glass house

Bangkok Noir is enjoying favorable review, both locally and abroad. But I’d like to critique the second sentence of my own contribution to that story collection, “Hot Enough to Kill.” In fact, I suggest that readers take a pen and revise it.

Here’s the printed version (not mine—I swear that some gremlin on my computer vandalized the sentence; I have two copies of the story that read the way I wrote them, and two more corrupted versions):

Eyes are filled with disquiet; street dogs slink panting from shade to shade.

Here’s the way it should read:

Eyes filled with disquiet, street dogs slink panting from shade to shade.

Okay, maybe. But like, whatever, eh?

Style? I don’t need no stinkin’ style.

This is my point. Friends and others have said why worry? It reads okay the way it is. “Nobody’s going to notice.”

What? A writer labors over every sentence, every word, and nobody’s going to notice? What the hell are we talking about, here?

Here’s Laura Miller’s fourth tip for writers (A reader’s advice to writers: A word to the novelist on how to write better books,” Salon, Feb 23, 2010, emphasis mine):

Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much. Believe me, I wish this were otherwise, and I do urge all readers to polish their prose and avoid clichés. However, I’ve seen as many books ruined by too much emphasis on style as by too little. As Leonard himself notes at the end of his list, most of his advice can be summed up as, “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Or, as playwright David Hare put it in his list, “Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.” But whether you write lush or (please!) transparent prose, keep in mind that in most cases, style is largely a technical matter appreciated by specialists. You probably don’t go to movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don’t come to books in search of breathtaking sentences.”

Miller is an accomplished critic and journalist (see her bio, below). But I believe she has muddled “style” proper with “voice,” which too often amounts to little more than affectation or literary idiosyncracy. I’d argue that style refers to the mechanics of accomplishing what a writer intends in a way that makes the reader’s job as easy as possible, and that competent writers will always do everything they can to respect rules of style. (Though competent writers may break any and all rules of style in a good cause, as I’ve suggested in an earlier post.)

But Miller first sentence (my emphasis) could be interpreted as confirming an ever-more prevalent attitude that prose style is no real issue. It’s all “like, whatever; let’s just get on with the story.”

That attitude suggests the difference between a potboiler, e.g., a ripping good yarn nicely plotted, but one best read aboard a lurching bus somewhere in upcountry Burma, where you enjoy the advantage of catching no more than every fourth phrase or so—making do with the gist of things—plus, in a country short on toilet paper and long on stomach bugs, you can apply  finished pages to emergencies. It can be a mistake to stop and actually read the prose. Attention to the cardboard characters and wooden dialogue reveals apparent contempt for the reader—a blithe assumption on the part of author, editor and publisher that it doesn’t matter, no will notice anyway.

With writers such as Robert Bolano or David Foster Wallace, no mention just two currently popular “literary” authors, every phrase, every sentence, rewards attention. Or stop to consider a V.S. Naipaul story, where the prose is all but invisible, a minimalist prop for this magician to conjure characters and settings. Elmore Leonard’s prose is similarly transparent. This master of style aims to do no more than entertain, and that he does, in spades. However much I’ve enjoyed his books, though, they disappear from my mental palate the moment I finish reading. Naipaul’s stories can remain with you forever after, coloring the way you experience you world.

Anyway, here’s a parting word from Elmore Leonard.  “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard 

Bio from Miller’s page on Slate:

In 1995, Laura Miller helped to co-found, where she is currently a staff writer. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the Last Word column for two years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” (Little, Brown, 2008) and the editor of “The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors” (Penguin, 2000). She lives in New York.


6 thoughts on “Stones hurled from a glass house”

  1. To me, the biggest danger of the current e-publishing model is the lack of concern for style. I don’t mind so much if a poor writer publishes his own work, but the idea that a generation of readers will grow up being satisfied with that mediocrity saddens me.

  2. Is “Eyes filled with disquiet” a full sentence or is it a noun modified by a phrase? Do you mean to say the eyes, they filled with disquiet? Or these are eyes that are filled with disquiet?

    • I find your query disquieting. Nevertheless, I am going to bed now, hoping to quiet my unease and, come morning, awaken to a world wherein I don’t have to think about such matters. Good night.

    • The latter, of course. If that isn’t “of course,” then I suspect a failure of style and a lesson in humility. If the latter, then how would this ride:

      “Disquieted, street dogs slink panting from shade to shade.”
      “Street dogs slink from shade to shade.”

      Arguably, “slink” includes the notion of disquiet, in this last draft.
      I shouldn’t have worried about it in the first place. Nobody would have noticed and, now that they have I’ve been exposed as stylistically tinny.

      And now that I think about it, the last draft of the sentence contains too much alliteration for my taste, eh?

      • Ah, I get it. I think because I read the first sentence (the way it got published) first, I was totally confused. I didn’t associated the eyes with the dogs, I thought they were people’s eyes. I don’t think that’s a question of style. The way it got published is wrong, or at least I take away a different meaning than you intended (though maybe the context around it explains it. I guess I should read the book! It’s on my list.)

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