multi-storied #12: Life sentences

I’ve been reading Brian Dillon’s “Suppose A Sentence” and wondering why we write the way we write.

In 27 essays, Dillon vivisects 27 sentences, beginning with Shakespeare and ending somewhere in the present day. He makes it his mission to examine why these sentences work so well, and how they were emblematic of their authors’ styles, and the contexts in which they unfurl. The most obvious thing about the progression of these sentences through the ages is also the most interesting. They get cleaner and easier. There’s less yeast in sentences as the years go by; they rise and puff up far less. Digest this, from George Eliot:

Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze; and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.

This sentence is guilty several of the cardinal sins modern writers are told to avoid. It’s long, and it evokes too many images in too brief a time. An editor today would surely expunge the first part-sentence, before the semi-colon, deeming it too whimsical and irrelevant, and wanting to “get to the action.” She would also mark up the words “excited intention” in red and comment: “Can garments have an excited intention? Can cut.”

Here’s a more recent sentence, from Claire-Louise Bennett:

They’ll probably rock up with hash and breadsticks, and quite possibly a dim jar of drilled out green olives, and people who stay late will horse ino the breadsticks and the following day there’ll be shards of breadstick all over the floor, ground to a powder in places, where people have stood on the bigger shards while talking to people they don’t usually talk to, or even when dancing about perhaps.

The words are shorter, and none of them are difficult or uncommon. There is, at most, one image: the delightful use of “horse" as a verb to describe people champing at breadsticks. And there are no writerly asides, of the “Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze” kind. These are both sentences from fiction; in non-fiction today, the “rules” are even more ruthless. A non-fiction editor would cut “horse.” Not quite clear, he’d say, so best to leave out. Substitute with “will eat breadsticks,” maybe?

It’s hard to say if there was a hinge in the history of writing, on which the turn from one kind of sentence to another occurred. Noticeably, in Dillon’s book, there are no sentences by George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway—two writers whose devotion to “clean” writing has been elevated to a kind of moral purpose. Orwell wanted good prose to be “transparent, like a window pane.” (Which always reminds me of a remark by John Banville, who is famous for his difficult sentences. English writers try to follow Orwell’s instruction, Banville said. “Irish writers think of prose style as a distorting lens. We love that ambiguity; we love that a word can have three or four meanings at the same time.”) And Hemingway’s compulsive spareness—his “muscular prose,” to use the most-perpetrated cliche—was so celebrated that the writer Joan Didion used to type out long passages from his books on her Royal typewriter as an exercise, as if to train her fingers in his lean habits.

Except: What a eye-glazing bore Hemingway was.1 What is there to love about a writer who doesn’t want to joyously2 spend the riches of his language? Why do we still fetishise his style today? In my experience in writing non-fiction for magazines, at least, there seems often to be a premium placed on the absence of voice and style, in the way that there used to be a premium placed on the presence of them. If you’re a regular reader of such magazines, think about how often you might be able turn at random to the midpoint of an article and know, from the tenor of the prose, who the writer is. Editors don’t just err on the side of caution when it comes to bland sentences; they positively prefer them.3

The impulse to do this is perhaps a democratic one: a belief that the information in this kind of writing is important and should be understood by as many people as possible, that language shouldn’t bar the way to comprehension.4 But there’s something anti-democratic about it as well—a whiff of conviction that the most beautiful language can best be enjoyed by the very elite, and that other readers will not enjoy the flexions and extensions of the imagination that surprising phrases or elaborate sentences demand. Worse, the sameness of prose from article to article, from essay to essay, ends up being the very obstacle to understanding it aims to avoid. So often, I’ve begun a piece and grimaced at the boilerplate in the opening paragraphs—the kind that Get To The Point Immediately, rather than trusting that I’ll follow a brief, inventive thread of writing and let the point reveal itself eventually. Then I stop reading, and the ideas in those pieces remain forever closed off to me. Enough with the spareness; I want to horse into the breadsticks.


Most of the time, anyway. No, scratch that. Nearly all of the time.


Ed: "Cut the word ‘joyously’? The fewer adverbs, the better. Plus you’ve split an infinitive.”


Standard caveats apply: #NotAllEditors, #NotAllMagazines. And there is, of course, plenty of bad, overwrought writing that is the enemy of clarity and understanding. I’m not talking about that kind of writing.


A nod here to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is mandated by law.