Monday, January 31, 2011

The art of good writing

The Inky Fool points to an article that exactly captures the quality that attracts me to literature. I can't and won't summarize it, so just go read it yourself: The art of good writing by Adam Haslett.

Seriously, go read it. Right now.

Every English essay I ever wrote -- and also the essays on opera, and Vietnamese culture, and maybe even one history paper -- was about how "the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not." And of course the aim of such studies is to become conscious of these various interwoven levels of meaning.

I wish I could write with this level of control. "That ability – to graft theme into syntax – is what makes great writing a pleasure to listen to." But I am no great writer. My field does not foster this careful wordcraft, this intricate interplay between meaning and message. More value is placed on naked ideas than on the words that clothe them; indeed, some value is placed on obscure, overly technical, abstruse, recondite, difficult writing.*

As both Forsyth and Haslett point out, we inhabitants of the internet live in a constant barrage of writing and reading. "This is the age of the word." I have yet to observe a tweet that is constructed with such verbal artistry; emails and blog posts seem to me to be written for brevity and "declarative masculine hardness." I worry. What I read influences how I write and speak and think, and Haslett describes my fear: "minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem."

I leave you with this quote. I love David Foster Wallace's writing, and Haslett's analysis highlights exactly why I find it so engrossing and effective.
Take the first sentence of David Foster Wallace’s story, “The Depressed Person”: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.” By mixing heightened feeling and unrelenting repetition (“pain”, “pain”, “pain”) with a Latinate, clinically declarative voice (“component”, “contributing factor”), Wallace delivers his readers right where he wants them: inside the hellish disconnect between psychic pain and the modern means of describing it. The rhythm of the sentence is perfectly matched to its positive content. Indeed, from a writer’s point of view the two aren’t separate. If we could separate meaning from sound, we’d read plot summaries rather than novels.
Let's all read more novels.

This post's theme word is rhopalic, "having each successive word longer by one letter or syllable." I do not know about making awkward rhopalic sentences (rhetorical machination! oooooooooooh!).
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

*Sorry, I don't get to use "abstruse" and "recondite" often. I get excited when a chance arises. My other idea for this sentence involved the phrase "pissing contest" and was generally at the wrong level of diction.

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