Sunday, December 02, 2012

In praise of long sentences

I've been accused of prejudice in favor of brevity, and the accusation is just. I love Dashiell Hammett, and I live by Strunk & White's injunction to omit needless words. Some writing is so bad that chopping it down to size is an act of mercy.

But now I'm reading two books (rereading one, actually) that go in the opposite direction. Their long, baroque sentences are both gorgeous places in which to get lost, and fine settings that emphasize the punch of the brief sentences that surround them.

Here's the protagonist of That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda:
"Of medium height, rather rotund as to physique, or perhaps a bit squat, with black hair, thick and curly, which sprang forth from his forehead at the halfway point, as if to shelter his two metaphysical knobs from the fine Italian sun, he had a somnolent look, a heavy, lumbering walk, a slightly dull manner, like a person fighting a laborious digestion; dressed as well as his slender government salary allowed him to dress, with one or two little stains of olive oil on his lapel, almost imperceptible, however, like a souvenir of the hills of his Molise."
And here's just part of the first sentence of  Declan Burke's Slaughter's Hound:
"It was a rare fine night for a stroll down by the docks, the moon plump as a new pillow in an old-fashioned hotel and the undertow in the turning tide swushing its ripples silvery-green and a bird you’ve never heard before chirring its homesick tale of a place you might once have known and most likely now will never see ... "
If I tell you that the novel's second sentence is "It was that kind of evening, alright," you'll know what delightful fun long sentences can be.

Long sentences: Good or bad? Discuss.
*
I go crazy when novels are described as "plot-driven" or, more usually these days, "character-driven." Among other things, such odiously simplistic shorthand neglects the possibility that a novel may be language-driven, that its effects and a good bit of its meaning may lie in the way the author tells it. That's the case with David Peace and also with the two examples cited above. Call the Gadda excerpt "character-driven," and you miss a good part of the point.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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34 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Effective long sentences are a sign of virtuosity, not unlike the violinist playing a concerto at a fiendish pace. It takes a lot of talent to from wandering off, and too many of them can make a work ponderous. Placed judiciouly and written with talent (the opening of SLAUGHTER'S HOUND is a perfect example), a reader can get part way in before realizing the eye has not had a break, a smile growing as you wonder where this sentence will take you, never breaking its spell.

Another comparison might be a long, long tracking shot in a movie. 9GOODFELLS comes to mind.) We get used to cuts and different angles, so there's a point where fascination sets in. "How long can he run with this?"

Of course, it takes a lot of chops. Burke has them.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

Somewhere along the line Elmore Leonard’s famed rules of writing became carved in stone for a genre that already worshiped at the altar of transparent prose. So, in general, I like 'em, I like stumbling across them.

Two favorites (notice how both of them follow up with a short sentence):

1) At some point Tom or Jerry began feeding the juke, and eventually Jimmy found himself slow dancing with one Nicole Braddock, dark-haired and olive-skinned, the shapely daughter of a BMW dealer in Palm Springs and who was an absolute dead ringer for Jimmy’s high school sweetheart, Jean Page — the same hair, eyes, mouth, skin — and in his arms Nicole felt like the stamp to his envelope, her head on his shoulder, Jimmy taking in the smell of her hair as they moved, Jimmy remembering all the make-out sessions with Jean, both of them seventeen, the universe running under their skin, and every necessary truth found in tongues and fingers and the sweet ache of breath, Jimmy dancing with a COD boner, and Nicole right there, not leaning away from it, Jimmy whispering in her ear, the music pouring around them, Jimmy not hearing the bass notes, only the melody line, and with Nicole pressed tight against him, Jimmy could conveniently ignore the arithmetic of passion, the very real fact obliterated by the false dawn of six rounds of tequila sunrises that the twenty-year-old girl in his arms could technically have been his daughter if Jean had run off and married him like he had asked her to instead of going along with her mom and old man’s plans for her, Jimmy following the music instead, matching his moves to Nicole’s, Jimmy leaning over and putting his lips on her neck, lightly kissing kissing her hair, tasting perfume and the warmth of her skin, Jimmy whispering that it was a beautiful night for a ride in the desert, they could catch some stars, Cassiopeia is on the rise and a new moon out there, just the two of them, Nicole shuddering under his touch and Jimmy closing his eyes, it taking him longer then he should have to realize the shudder came from her trying to stop laughing, because that’s what she was doing, laughing, even while she kept her breasts pressed against him, she was laughing, Jimmy lifting his head and looking over at the table of friends, all of them toasting Jimmy and Nicole and laughing, too, and that’s when Nicole did it, put her hand gently on his cheek and in a low breathy voice told him that he was the genuine article, a true anachronism, one a girl like her found hard to resist, Nicole keeping her eyes locked on his, letting that little purr run loose behind her words, and Jimmy could see how much she was enjoying herself, how certain she was that someone like him wouldn’t know what an anachronism was, the college girl toying with and putting one of the local yokels in his place, the whole thing a big joke, and Jimmy got pissed, leaned in and whispered, “This is your Local Color Station with a late-breaking bulletin. One day, honey-pie, you’re going to wake up and discover those firm Tahitis you’re now so proud of are sagging and chasing your navel, and you’re going to panic and look around for that young Republican you married, but he’s going to be on the seventeenth hole of the Scottsdale Country Club wielding his nine iron and working on his second coronary, and right then, when you’re absolutely alone and up against it, you’re going to remember this dance. It’s going to ghost your bones.” Jimmy kissed her cheek, then stepped back and walked out. -- The Long Fall by Lynn Kostoff

(post was too long, continued in the next comment)

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

2) YOU’RE NO ANGEL, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it’s three or four Sunday mornin’ and you ain’t slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain’t had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they’d taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, ’cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin’ to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.

That’s how it happens. -- Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

December 03, 2012  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Well, sure, but I still like a long guitar solo and a long drum solo....

December 03, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Oh, I am not so dismissive of plot and character. As a teacher of literature, I persist in telling students that their understanding of literature is enriched when they can understand and critique the separate but combined elements of fiction: plot, character, setting, point of view, style, and theme. Different writers, of course, get reputations for writing that is "plot driven" or "character driven" or otherwise. Now, as for sentence length, which is properly discussed within the element of style, when I meander for long periods of time through the sometimes Byzantine sentences of Faulkner or Joyce, I take comfort in the relief offered by the more precisely brief sentences of Hemingway. I also take comfort in the discovery of the lyrical precision of some sentences. Consider, for example, this sentence that I recently encountered in William Kent Krueger's new novel (Ordinary Grace): "In the simple way of the wild daisies that grew in the grass of the pasture behind our home she offered the beauty of herself without pretension." While the editor in me would insist upon inserting a comma after the prepositional phrase, between "home" and "she," the reader in me swoons at the nearly perfect pace, balance, diction, and style of such a sentence. Now, though, in more direct response to your question, I will rummage through my cluttered memory in hopes of recovering some long, lost, long sentence.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Yeah, I know this isn't detective fiction, but consider the second sentence from Joyce's _Finnegan's Wake_:

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrvied from North Amorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war” nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerate themselse all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thusartpeatrick: not yet, though venison after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Now if that doesn't set your mind to staggering, what does?

December 03, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

POSTSCRIPT: In spite of your rant against "odiously simplistic shorthand," I would continue by emphasizing the essence of your argument: all novels are language-driven. After all, without language, there is no novel. Here, though, is a harsh fact of life in modern publishing: too many writers (and editors and publishers) do not understand the importance of using language that is clear and correct. But, of course, we have previously discussed that trend. The bottom line is this: long live Strunk and White!

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, the comparison to a long tracking shot is good. Quite naturally I thought of the famous opening shot from Touch of Evil. Imagine that as a sentence.

Long sentences take chops, and they demand readers' attention.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I would guess that American hard-boiled crime fiction's allegiance to short, snappy prose owed something to its roots in the pulps. I would imagine that, you buy magazine for ten cents, stick in your pocket to take out and read in shirt bursts while being jostled on the subway to work, you don't sentences of Faulknerian length.

I did notice that both those examples were set off by short sentences, just as Declan Burke's was.

My CAPTCHA verification word was apparently written by someone who no longer has hairy legs. It's usednair.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I'm not sure the long drum solo is one of the glories of our generation, and I saw John Bonham in his prime. Maybe I did too few drugs in my youth.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I don’t dismiss plot and character. To do so would be to descend into mere linguistic games, and that is so late-twentieth-century, not to mention spiritually unsatisfying. Rather, I dismiss the shorthand that reduces plot and character to slogans, as if plot, character, and language could be isolated, like elements of a chemical compound.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I know this isn't detective fiction, but consider the second sentence from Joyce's _Finnegan's Wake_:

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrvied from North Amorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war” nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerate themselse all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thusartpeatrick: not yet, though venison after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Now if that doesn't set your mind to staggering, what does?


Piece of piss!

Next.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, in general, I like 'em, I like stumbling across them.

Brian: Right. Long sentences, that tell a story as much with their rhythm as their content, are a nice change of pace in our genre. Just don't get any of the reporters at my paper know.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

...too many writers (and editors and publishers) do not understand the importance of using language that is clear and correct.

RT: And they think they do understant. Or else they don't care.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

This follows the semicolon in your excerpt: "dressed as well as his slender government salary allowed him to dress, with one or two little stains of olive oil on his lapel, almost imperceptible, however, like a souvenir of the hills of his Molise."

A student who submitted such a sentence would be reminded--in the form of red pen and point penalty--that all the follows a semicolon should be a complete sentence. In your excerpt, that which follows the semicolon is a fragment.

So says yours truly, Wackford Squeers, the curmudgeonly teacher.

Yes, professional writers have freedom to break the rules, but when they do so, they usually commit the violation without knowing they have done so.

Long, complicated sentences should at least still be sentences.

More to follow.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

POSTSCRIPT: I recall a professor when I was a grad student who cautioned me and others in a literary theory and criticism class that we would be forever ruined as readers; we would no longer enjoy reading because we would be too busy being critics and theorists. Well, he was almost correct. The more ruinous experience was a course in advanced grammar. I then became a rabid Strunk and a merciless White when reading all writing, including work by students and professionals. Alas, I cannot set aside the red pen that my mind wields without mercy. Can you, as a copy editor, manage to overlook errors involving grammar, punctuation, syntax, and spelling?

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Squeers:

Some publications will permit a semicolon to separate units that would ordinarily be separated by commas in cases where those units themselves contain commas. Thus:

He is survived by his wife, a brother, a sister, and two children.

but

He is survived by his wife, who wrote two crime novels; a brother, who wrote no crime novels but spent seven years at San Quentin; a sister; and two children.

Perhaps the translator and editor allowed the semicolon as a way to let the reader catch his breath. Or maybe they just overlooked it.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I agree with (and chose not to focus on) the alternate use of the semicolon, which I like to see when too many clauses with commas threaten to derail the sentence.

I was just in a nitpicking mood.

Now, back to grading end of term essays. Yikes!

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Such errors make me angry because I think of what I do not as a special talent but rather as the minimum equipment a civilized person ought to have. There is not enough bandwidth on the Internet to accommodate the mistakes I find in my reading every day both at work and when reading for pleasure.
See, for example, my post about Marlaine Delargy’s translation of Anne Holt’s not-bad novel 1222

I am sensitive to nuances of punctuation, so incorrect punctuation can throw a sentence way off for me.


December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here are a few more examples that have come to my desk in recent days, written by reporters and OKd by assigning editors:

On Friday, at least 71 people who were within proximity of the crash ...

Councilwoman Cindy Bass said Mr. Schwartz, who lived near her in the Eighth District, was a supporter of (Why not "supported"?) her campaign.

Neighbors reported hearing a “very loud verbal argument” between Blubt and an unknown man inside the second-floor apartment in the minutes before the shooting.

They need greater amounts of rest to be alert

The university is in the process of settling civil claims by victims.

The students’ petition ... will continue to move forward in the Office of Administrative Law.


December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd suggest that I correct your end-of-term essays and you copyedit the stories I'll get at work, but I doubt such a switch would leave either of us feeling any better.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Those samples are more coherent and less annoying in what students write in their essays. I used to keep a collection of their horrible sentences (and collections of words passing themselves off as sentences), but I ran out of paper and time.

Here is a solution. Let's make ourselves grammar czars for the world, and then we can impose a few rules:

Use prepositional phrases only rarely.

Use adverbs even less often, which means the first rule is in trouble.

If you have written a sentence that contains a certain number of words, you probably could have written with half as many words, which means this rule is too long.

Or--ignoring the ironies in my rules--we can just have everyone read and obey Orwell's famous essay that I think was entitled "Politics and the English Language."

'Nuff said.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

And Peter, the Tomato Red sentence is the opening sentence. It's worth noting because of the crime fiction readers obsession over opening lines (you and I are both guilty of writing about them).

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe the new generation of crime writers who write long opening sentences can look to The Last Good Kiss at their formative text.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I do keep collections of offensive sentences that I preiodically have to e-mail to myself then delete from the system because the files get too large.

The first and best piece of advice in my newspaper's stylebook is: USE YOUR EAR. Unfortunately, too many people have crappye ars. (And have you ever heard anyone admit he or she is a bad writer?) Students just need to read good books from a young age. They they'll learn to write.

I used to say that Struk & White were wordy, Why write "Omit needless words" when "Write shorter" would serve just as well. I also have rewritten Polonius' dictum in headlinese:

"BREVITY SOUL OF WIT"

December 03, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'm not sure the long drum solo is one of the glories of our generation, and I saw John Bonham in his prime.

Being guys, you don't understand the real purpose of Bonham's (and others') drum solos. They were devised to allow women to use the limited toilet facilities in large arenas without missing any essential elements of the performance (Page's guitar solos, Plant's vocals, etc.).

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not thought of the sonic assault quite that way, but Bonham's drum solo did take the place of an intermission the night I saw Led Zeppelin. And has there ever been a worse place to hear music than an arena? Probably, but I've never been to a stadium show.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., here are a few more highly typical examples:

These changes will allow Rutgers the opportunity to offer online courses …

At the NCAA’s request, Penn State will put the first installment in a money market account while a task force develops policy recommendations for distribution of grants

But Kenny said entering ARD would mean the Garcias would be placed on probation for a period.


I would not want you to think my paper does nothing about mistakes like this, though. Sometimes I will be scolded for correcting them.

December 08, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I tell student writers to read aloud whatever they have written, making that part of their revising and editing process. However, too few follow my advice.

Sometimes, though, writers (including yours truly) just run out of time, and the draft--whatever its merits or flaws--must be submitted because of a deadline.

Most good writers should try to be like Hemingway. According to an anecdote, he could spend an entire day writing and revising a sentence. I suspect a bit of hyperbole in that story. The truth probably includes some distractions for women, drinking, and macho diversions.

In any case, thanks for sharing the writing examples. Perhaps I should return to collecting and blogging my classroom examples. I could entitle the blog, "Damn it, revise this sentence!"

December 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fight a bull, get drunk, agonize over a punctuation mark. That's our papa.

Perhaps I can offer you some consolation in the face of your students' bad writing: In the real world, by which most people mean on the job, good writing does not matter.

December 08, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Alas, I am not consoled.

Moreover, I can never let students know that good writing will not matter in the "real world."

In my "real world" experiences--a 25 year career in the Navy, finishing up as a non-lawyer office in the JAG Corps--good writing really did matter. Plenty of careers were curtailed because of sloppy writing.

Of course, I know that was an exception. And I believe you about the state of writing on the job in 2012. Still, though, I will NOT give in to all those students. As long as I haunt the classrooms, the students will be haunted by the ghost of grammar past.

December 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Geez, next thing, you'll be insisting that universities should be more than just vocational academies.

Interesting you should have had experience in the JAG Corps. I was asking one of our sources of cheap labor (officially they're called interns) what she hoped to be doing in five years, why anyone would study journalism these days and why, having chosen such a field, why anyone would want to do copy editing, which is being de facto or de jure eliminated or downgraded at every newspaper I know of. Yes, that includes the New York Times.

She said she hoped to learn skills here that she can put to use in law school. So yes, writing still may matter, but not at newspapers.

December 08, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

As for the JAGC experiences, I had advanced through the enlisted ranks, obtained a commission (limited duty officer), and worked in the administrative side of the JAGC. I retired in '94, and I began teaching in '99.

As for teaching, I used to collect, copy, and distribute the students' most grotesque sentences, and we would have an "intensive care" session to determine whether or not the diseased sentences could be saved.

I enjoyed the experience, a few students might have learned something from the exercise, but most students saw it all as just another annoying step in their single-minded, empty-headed goal: the degree. The notion that someone ought to learn something along the way is not embraced by many students at my university. When I argue that a university education is part of a moment-to-moment, lifelong process rather than an endgame involving only a piece of paper as a segue to a job, I come across as a curmudgeonly, irrational, mind-numbed Wackford Squeers (and not a soul in the classrooms has the slightest clue about that allusion).

December 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't want to seem too superior to today's students. I once compiled a list of my favorite books. I don't remember much of the list, but I do remember that all but one of its items were books I'd read since graduating from college. And students today are bombarded far more than we were with the message that getting s job is all that matters. Those lucky few who make it big as entrepreneurs are celebrated in the popular media while the fates of the rest are greeted with an awkward shuffling of the feet and a polite cough.

So I can't blame students too much for not listening to the argument that university is small part of lifelong process. In the fullness of time, some small number of them will realize that. The rest, meanwhile, if they read at all, will continue to believe that Steig Larsson or his successor of the moment is the apotheosis of crime writing.

December 08, 2012  

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