Saturday, March 10, 2012

The post I wrote

Another verbal habit of some writers:
"I fired two shots that sprouted into big red blossoms across the white cotton shirt he wore."

— "Carrera's Woman" by Ed McBain
writing as Richard Marsten, Masters of Noir: Volume One
Why not "his white cotton shirt"?  What does "he wore" add? What could the victim have been doing with his shirt except wearing it? If yesterday's writing quirk was common in American pulp stories of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, I associate this one with writers of the '40s and '50s, often when describing the attire of an attractive woman. But "the dress she wore" (rather than "her dress") always takes me out of the story, if just for a moment.

Why would Marsten/McBain/Hunter/Lombino use "the white cotton shirt he wore" rather than "his white cotton shirt"? Does one convey something the other does not? Was he merely using the words that came naturally at the time (1953)? If the fashion in words changed in favor of brevity, when? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

Labels: , , ,

36 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Theoretically, the white cotton shirt could have been lying over the back of a chair, and just happened to have some ketchup packets in the pockets.

March 10, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Picky.

March 10, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

But "the dress she wore" (rather than "her dress") always takes me out of the story, if just for a moment

It wouldn't take me out of the story, Peter. But I think any sensible writer, that is, one who cares about concision, would happily accept the change you suggest.

Such attention to detail is not pickiness, but punctiliousness.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, theoretically, yes. In practice, no, as casual reading in crime fiction of the time will reveal.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you're not the first writer to mistake careful attention for pickiness, to mistake curiousity about language for criticism, or to feel threatened by a copy editor who asks questions.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, you may be right that any writer who values concision would accept the change I suggest. And all I would do is suggest it. Editing programs today make it exceedingly easy to reject suggested changes.

The point? Concision is more highly valued in popular writing now than it was fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago. To say so is not pickiness but rather observation.

March 10, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Editing programs today make it exceedingly easy to reject suggested changes

Forgive my ignorance, Peter, but I have no idea what an editing program is. May I request a little elaboration?

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sorry. I meant Microsoft Word and comparable computer programs from other makers. They have an editing mode that highlights each change an editor makes and allows a subsequent reader to accept or reject each change with the click of a button.

March 10, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I see you're getting mad at me for disagreeing with you, Humph.

I should point out that "the dress she wore" has a certain rhythm that "her dress" doesn't have.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"(T)he dress she wore" has a certain rhythm that "her dress" doesn't have.

That's disagreement, and it lays the groundwork for fruitful discussion.

Picky.

That is petty sniping. And it's no mere pickiness to point out the difference.

March 10, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Confess, Peter, Ed McBain was famous for the rhythms of his prose. McBainiacs talk about little else.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe they do get together over beers to discuss the rhythms of McBain's prose, but I haven't heard them do it. The one McBain novel that I read and very much liked, I remember for its skillful plotting rather than for its prose style.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger May said...

That's a really interesting observation.

If it was isolated, I would assume that it was a matter of rhythm for that one particular sentence. But if you're saying that the structure was common in many of that period's books and for many authors, well, then, it's that period's style. Fashion and music are marked by periods, why not writing?

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, I can say with confidence that the construction is period style, or at least in American pulp crime writing of the Black Mask school. I have said often just what you did: that fashions change in writing just as they do in clothes, food, music, or politics.

March 11, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"the white cotton shirt he wore" vs "his white cotton shirt"

Maybe he owned more than one white cotton shirt?

Adding "he wore" seems more vivid, poignant to me than "his white cotton shirt." My God, the man's wearing it! He's dying! He's dead!

But then, don't pay any attention to me; I'd rather read 1950s crime fiction most days than 2012's.

I read "Carrera's Woman" in my 1953 Manhunt anthology this weekend.

March 12, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Hey, read that Fletcher Flora (gawd, that's gotta be a pseudonym, huh?) ss in your Noir e-book anthology. He's one of my "discoveries" from that 1953 Manhunt anthology.

March 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But "his white cotton shirt" could be read as connecting the shirt and its wearer more intimately that does "he wore." And that demonstrates that, to a large extent, one draws the effects that one will from the syntax one is accustomed to.

"Fletcher Flora" sounds like something you'd see before "Collection" in a natural history museum

March 12, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Honestly, Peter, I know better than to try to argue a point of grammar, syntax, etc. with you. I'm just saying I prefer the addition of "he wore." And maybe it's a microexample of why, on the whole, I like period (1920s-50s) crime fiction more than contemporary crime fiction.

March 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This would be a good one to argue because it's not as if one way is wrong and the other right. I really did mean what I said about preferring one or the other, and only then coming up with rationalizations for it. I suppose this a similar, though on a much smaller scale, to the switch in fashion for verbal fusion in the Victorian age to our modern rage for concision

March 12, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Perhaps "his white cotton shirt" is more efficient for a newspaper article or non-fiction tome, and "the white cotton shirt he wore," is more forgivable in fiction for reasons of style, writer's individuality, creativity, editorial license, etc.

In news stories where word count is supreme above all else, it's good for sentences to be tight with no extra verbiage. However, varying styles in fiction differentiate writers, and hence, the reader's experience.

This is the difference between, say, Dashiell Hammett and, say, any number of Scandinavian crime fiction writers, except Sjowall and Wahloo, and maybe Hakan Nesser.

P.S. Blogger is going to send me to the eye doctor's to get my eyes checked and get magnifying glasses in my own glasses! How does anyone read these new word verifications? They approach hieroglyphics.

March 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Blogger's brother-in-law must be an eye doctor or an optician.

It's hard to judge the aptness of a given grammatical construction out of context, but it's interest you should happen to mention Nordic crime writers. Arnaldur Indriðason has said that his prose style was influences by the spare style of the Icelandic sagas.

March 13, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Lulu's 'My Rowing Boat' wouldn't quite have the same snap to it as 'The Boat That I Row', either
although it might not have been her boat, just as the shirt he wore, in this instance, might not have been his

March 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, "the shirt (or skirt) that he (or she) wore" never really distracts me to takes me out of a story, but it does strike me as odd. And, once again, this need mean only that verbal fashions are different know from what they were stories were written.

March 13, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Fletcher Flora sounds like the name of a margarine

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or of a new, more palatable brand of laxative.

March 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Shame on me... Fletcher Flora is (was) his real name.

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aye, caramba! That's a humdinger of a moniker.

March 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I wonder was he usually addressed as Flora(,) Fletcher, (sic) or Fletcher Flora during roll-call?

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect he was addressed as "Flora (Flora?), Fletcher."

March 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Speaking of “Flora Fletcher” and roll call… This reminds me of a story that actor Charlton Heston told on Johnny Carson one night. Perhaps the conversation began with something like “How did you get the name Charlton?” Anyway, Heston recounted one time in grade school when a new teacher began roll call and when she got to him she called out “Charlotte Heston.” No answer; snickers from fellow students. “Charlotte Heston!” Ditto. Finally, “Where’s the little Heston girl!!” Heston sank lower and lower in his seat at this was greeted by loud guffaws from his fellow classmates.

I can sympathize as my first name has a somewhat unusual spelling and is often confused with a similar, but masculine name. I get golf catalogs and other “gender-targeted” junk mail. No one EVER thinks my middle name, which I prefer anyway, is a man’s name…

March 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

If 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' was a film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, what could a film called 'Flora! Flora! Flora!' be about?

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your first name, with the mistake that people often make with it, plus your last name make a good, rugged moniker, the sort of thing that the Fletcher Floras and Charlotte Hestons of the world should use as aliases.

March 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know bout that, TCK, but a movie about where I am now could be called "Torah! Torah! Torah!"

March 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if that movie disappointed Orthodox Jewish filmgoers once they got inside the theater and saw what it was about.

March 15, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

probably not as much as those Orthodox males whose parents had chosen to 'christen' them Flora!

March 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, not too many Floras walking around Jerusalem, I'd wager.

March 15, 2012  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home