Two Words Where One Won’t Do: Against Conciseness

Dylan Taylor | 25 July 2017.

The dawning supremacy of M.F.A. writing is well observed and disparaged by many. Arguably, this ‘homogenized, over-workshopped writing’ has become increasingly content to follow prevailing literary models, making much contemporary English literature unambitious and conservative. Rather than push boundaries, many modern writers seem content to contribute their own version of a story that has been told a thousand times before: a story typically of love, of coming-of-age, of examining identity, in middle-class London or New York. Overwhelmingly, the stylistic cornerstone of such a story is prose that is polished and clear: all unjustified adjectives must go.

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George Orwell on brevity, 1946

What has happened to the inventiveness of the run-on sentence of Henry James, the disjointed, punctuation-free rambling of Joyce, or the all-encompassing expansiveness of Woolf and Proust? Where is the philosophical richness of Conrad, of Borges, of Beckett? In poetry, where the self-discipline of T. S. Eliot, of Dickinson and Yeats?

Unfortunately, I would argue, they have been eliminated by a culture of conciseness – the modern literary establishment’s worship of form over content. It is a culture in which writers and critics look to guides such as the famous Elements of Style for advice on how to craft the perfect sentence, a culture in which Hemingway tends to be more often quoted than Mann. In such an environment, it seems that many of the great literary innovations of the last century, metafiction, fragmentation, experiments with stream-of-consciousness, a deeply informed reshaping of western myth, a favouring of theme over plot, have been largely overlooked or ignored. People look, instead, to the writers of omission, writers of the lucid, well-crafted sentence. But have the more applauded writers of the current generation – George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, etc.—really expanded upon the work of their predecessors: Pynchon, Morrison, and Saramago?

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The front cover of The Elements of Style

Controversial and questionable as many of his views may be, the academic Harold Bloom does a good job of summing up the modern problem: “Contemporary writers do not like to be told that they must compete with Shakespeare and Dante”. And so the writer, instead, looks to the clean competence of an Alice Munro or a Joyce Carol Oates for inspiration. While the more experimental writers work on the margins, a concise “lyrical realism” reigns.

Great prose, however, often demands something more. Conciseness, in the aesthetic, Oscar Wilde sense of the term, has almost always been more concerned with packaging rough observations into general, neatly-gifted aphorisms than about searching for more complex truths. This has always been its flaw.

When we look to the great Modernists and beyond we tend to see, rather than a focus on conciseness, an at-times chaotic verbosity that threatens to break the very structure of the sentence itself. These writers sometimes include sentences that go on for a paragraph at a time, incorporate ideas seemingly unrelated to the topic at hand, devote chapters and sections to asides, and often use, not one word in place of two, but two in place of one, to paint their picture as wholly as possible.

One might not think that such quantities of specific information are necessary. Why, for example, have people felt the need to defend the necessity of Melville’s chapters in Moby Dick devoted to whaling? Writing that at first glance may seem superfluous—an in-depth description of whale heads, for instance—often later acts as a springboard from which deeper insights can be flung.

When one’s entire style is built upon the principle of “less is more”, it embodies a problematic philosophy that often fails to measure up to its own hypothesis. Any omission of even a slight shade of meaning can risk changing the precise tone that an author wishes to convey. Let us look at an example sentence: “a violent gust of wind swept the streets”. The use of “swept”, some would argue, makes the inclusion of “violent” unnecessary. But there is a subtlety to the differences between similar words that is often overlooked in such critiques. With the use of “violent”, the picture painted suggests, more sharply, an atmosphere of aggression, of something sinister; “swept” used alone makes for a less jarring sentence.

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‘Shoe’ by Jeff MacNelly

 

If a writer is to be careful with the words chosen, then it is equally important to be careful of the gaps and omissions one allows. Good writing, I would argue, rather than depriving the reader of “long-winded” explanations, should add a good deal of flesh to the skeleton of the original idea. Adding adjectives, or using more clauses, is not a sign that one does not know how to edit. Such constellations of words are circles which, as in a Venn diagram, can be layered slightly on top of each other to bring out a more nuanced meaning.

It must be noted here that this disapproval of conciseness only applies to the rules contained within creative writing; it is a reaction against conciseness not in and of itself, but as a doctrine or dogma. Conciseness is a tool like any other in a writer’s arsenal and should be used only when it is at the beck and call of the idea being described. We have enough Dickensian novels of plot to last several lifetimes. There is no need—no space, truly—for any more commonplace, stripped-down catalogues of events and emotions. In an era after modernism and postmodernism, traditional forms of storytelling are no longer enough. Modernists like Woolf discussed this very problem one-hundred years ago. They did so in order to validate their reaction against the form of the Victorian novel, which had become, as the Modernists saw it, irrelevant and archaic in the age of technology, mechanisation, and secularism. If the form was irrelevant then, what could be its use in our ever more globalised, digital age? It is now, more than ever, that an expansive, cacophonous voice of insight is needed. The prose of careful precision had its day; I say it is time, now, for a more mainstream return to the freewheeling depth of the long sentence.


About Dylan

Dylan Taylor is currently working towards his MSc in Literature and Society at the University of Edinburgh, and received his BA in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include the relationship between literature and philosophy and the history of ideas.

Article edited by Scheherazade Khan.

5 responses to “Two Words Where One Won’t Do: Against Conciseness

  1. A thought-provoking piece of information here! It makes us rethink of the latest trends in fiction and the current fixation on minimalistic sentences. It should be the content that dictates the form and not the other way round- thanks for reminding this to us!

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  2. This ‘article’ is guilty of such gross and inaccurate overgeneralization so as to render its contents meaningless. There are swathes of contemporary authors employing the aesthetic style(s) you purport to be absent in today’s fiction. James Kelman, J.M. Coetzee, Joshua Cohen, Peter Carey, Mark Danielewski, Julian Barnes and perhaps even Haruki Murakami come to mind.

    You have chosen to focus on a few select writers upon whom posterity has bestowed positive praise an critical acclaim. Is the fantasy here that everyone writing during the high modernist period was attempting to achieve the same literary ends as Joyce, Woolf and others?

    Further, people should feel free to write in whatever style they deem fit without fear of academic snobbery. It is a miracle that there are as many people reading and enjoying whatever sort of literature is out there today as there are.

    Anyone with the arrogance to suggest that one style is superior to another confirms the supposition that they themselves have never tried to put pen to paper creatively.

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    • Of the authors you mention, I am only familiar with Coetzee, Murakami, Barnes, and Danielewski; I think that this partly validates my point that the more interesting writers are often pushed to the margins. These first two (or perhaps three), it is true, are big names. Murakami, however, is Japanese. As I noted in the beginning of the article, I am addressing the problem as it appears within the English-speaking world. Conciseness can be immensely powerful when employed for a certain purpose, and not as dogma—I think this is the case with writers such as Kawabata and the modern short story writer Lydia Davis. In this sense, I partially agree with what you say at the end: that people should feel free to write in their chosen style.

      However, I would not agree that the freedom to write in any style is inherently valuable. It has for the most part not proven beneficial to the current marketplace. It calls to mind what has happened to the market for modern art house cinema: since the rise of the blockbuster in the 1970s, studios have become more reluctant to finance smaller films that make less money. Today, in cinemas outside of major cities, smaller films are quite rarely shown. One style, in other words, has endangered the survival of the other. When The Hunger Games or The Goldfinch is what sells, it becomes difficult to sell an experimental, existential, theme-driven novel. The two styles actually do not tend to coexist peacefully, and typically it is the less obviously salable work’s loss.

      It is true that there was plenty of bad fiction during the era of modernism (most of which is now, unsurprisingly, not remembered). My point is not that Joyce and Woolf represented the quality of all writing of their time, but that they innovated the form of fiction, and thereby rendered “realistic” fiction which reverts back to a Victorian style outdated and uninspired. It is the equivalent, in a sense, of using oil lamps in place of electricity. It is fortunate people still read, but books, as with anything, are not inherently beneficial. “Beach reads” are often considered the junk food of the literary world, and as with junk food, sometimes consuming nothing is the healthier option.

      I think it is inaccurate to imagine that respectable writers have been in most cases free of snobbery. Almost every writer of note had his or her own precise ideology regarding what constituted “proper” fiction. The modernists were some of the biggest snobs of all, and their writing, I would argue, was made the better for it; it allowed them to discern between good and bad writing, and made them ambitious and aware of the centuries of tradition that preceded their own ephemeral moment. I would still argue that such awareness is rare in the literature of today, even when considering some of the bigger names.

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  3. …Proust, Borges, Saramago…these are authors you cite as examples who were very much not writing for an ‘English-speaking’ audience…In fact in countering my example of Murakami, you mention Kawabata…also Japanese…

    And the authors mentioned are all recipients of awards/internationally recognized. I hardly think we can say that they’ve been ‘pushed to the margins’. Carey and Kelman have both won the Booker (Carey twice), and Cohen’s work has and continues to appear in The New York Times, Harper’s, The London Review of Books, etc.

    Novels like ‘The Hunger Games’ have always been ‘what sells’. Huge amounts of people seek escapism through reading. Who is to say that this is for better or worse? Though I am in agreement with you, I believe, to the extent that I, personally, would reach for Henry James or Virginia Woolf over Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyer, I don’t see that my experience engaging with literature considered by the academy to be of a higher quality should be valued any more than someone else’s who may not share my tastes. And if, as you yourself say, ‘bad fiction’ was very much present in the modernist period, yet Joyce and Woolf are what posterity have preserved, then how can it be said that only now more experimental writing is in danger? If anything, this should confirm in our minds that history will repeat itself and posterity will, as it always has, select the superior work produced in this period over the lesser work which you fear eclipses it.

    You mention that you do not think it is ‘inherently valuable’ to be free to write in any style, but go on to provide numerous examples of styles and authors that you see the value in emulating…is everyone meant to write in the style of these select few? Surely writing in the style of past authors is anything but experimental. Also, writing in lengthy and verbose sentences and departing from realism/naturalism does not constitute experimentalism in literature, necessarily. We could call Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway very experimental for their time for doing exactly the opposite.

    Of course a writer is entitled to their opinion as to what sort of writing they prefer, or believe to be superior or inferior, but you’ve still provided no way to qualify what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing. The entire experience, as with any artistic medium, is subjective, and hence any attempt at such qualification reductive and asinine. What one writer, including the well regarded writers you mention, sees in a piece of writing another might despise, or vice versa. There is no consensus, and that is why I find articles like this that attempt to lay groundwork or hypothesize as to the parameters surrounding what constitutes the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ so superfluous.

    As to the what is ‘inherently valuable’ – surely any desire to write should be lauded rather than decried? Why would we seek to prevent others from any creative pursuits? Who has the arrogance or authority to be the arbiter here?

    For the record, we probably have quite similar tastes in literature. I just don’t think there’s any point in the exercise of deriding the tastes of others and the works of contemporary authors.

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