Thursday, February 22, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 10: Joyce Carol Oates

So much happens in Joyce Carol Oates's sentences. Take these two from the first paragraph of her article "Kid Dynamite: Mike Tyson Is the Most Exciting Heavyweight Fighter Since Muhammad Ali" (Life, March 1987):
If Tyson takes away the World Boxing Council heavyweight title from thirty-three-year-old Trevor Berbick, as he promised to do, he will become the youngest champion in the sport's recorded history. He will fulfill the prophecy made by Cus d'Amato, his boxing trainer, mentor, and guardian, that he would one day break the record of another of D'Amato's prodigies, Floyd Patterson, who won the title shortly before his twenty-second birthday in 1956.
Oates makes a lot of rhetorical choices with these 75 words. Here are just five of them:
  1. She writes long sentences (33 and 42 words). Forget about the so-called experts who tell us to limit sentence length to 15 words. They have not written enough to issue such an order, and if they have, they continually break their own rule. Oates's sentences are pretty.
  2. She uses a colloquial verb instead of a more formal one apparently befitting a writer of her stature. Oates writes If Tyson takes away the World Boxing Council heavyweight title, instead of If Tyson wins or attains. But she is writing about the "sweet science" of boxing, which is loaded with hyperbole and slang. Ayn Rand admonishes writers to let their subject matter dictate their word choice.  
  3. She suspends the base clause of the first sentence by 21 words (he will become the youngest champion). Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, and others created an Eight-Word Test, which basically says that a clear subject and verb should arrive no later than eight words into the sentence. Those authors violate the very tip they endorse in their explanation of it. Oates is fearless in letting 21 words pass before her subject; she correctly trusts her readers can follow her narrative. 
  4. She gives possession to a nonliving thing (sport's recorded history). Narrow-minded grammar snobs will tell us that we can give possession only to people and animals, but not to inanimate objects. They would tell Oates to write the recorded history of the sport, but this is why she is a great writer and they are narrow-minded grammar snobs.
  5. She uses 33 words of that second 42-word sentence simply to qualify D'Amato's prediction. She suspends the sentence at mid point to add greater value to Cus D'Amato, not only as a foreseer but as a force in Tyson's life. Of course, Oates could have written, "He will fulfill the prophecy made by Cus d'Amato that he would one day break the record Floyd Patterson, who won the title shortly before his twenty-second birthday in 1956. D'Amato is Tyson's boxing trainer, mentor, and guardian, and Patterson is another of D'Amato's prodigies." But now we have a longer 45 words in 2 sentences and a sequencing problem that slows down the narrative line. Her sentence shines in its depiction of history and human relationship.
If you want to develop your writing skills, study the sentences of Joyce Carol Oates, who has her singular way of starting with what matters.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 9: T. S. Eliot

"What I have to say is largely in support of the following propositions: Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."
This opening sentence from T. S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature" reminds us that we lose nothing by getting to the point with our premise in our first sentence, as long as we skillfully support that premise.

Here Eliot argues that literary standards alone are not enough to judge a work of literature; a moral standard is necessary, one that coheres with an ethically sound relationship with society. Eliot's proposition is arguable, of course, but the high quality of his trenchant style is not. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 8: Ernest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. 
With these 26 words, the first sentence of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway plainly summarizes old man Santiago's lonely present (who fished alone) and unsuccessful recent past (he had gone eighty-four days now). Some fishermen might actually enjoy fishing alone, taking such an activity as a sign of success. But Hemingway quickly intensifies Santiago's misfortunes and loneliness in the next two sentences by mentioning how a boy, whose parents forbade him from fishing with the old man, pitied him, helping him onshore at dusk to carry his fishing gear whenever he could. The last sentence of the paragraph, describing not Santiago but the sail of his skiff, epitomizes his failure:
The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The word the preceding flag in this sentence is especially striking. If Hemingway had used a, he would have generalized Santiago's malaise, but the makes clear that only one flag of such futility can possibly exist. 

Such simple words, rendered powerfully by the imagery they convey, are what made The Old Man and the Sea a great but sad adventure story when I read it at age 14, and a tale of a man's existential defiance in the face of certain defeat when I reread it as a college student at age 21. Recalling this passage, I urge writing students to use plain language because the subject matter they need to deliver is complex enough.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 7: Robert Penn Warren

Why do we read fiction? The answer is simple. We read it because we like it. And we like it because fiction, as an image of life, stimulates and gratifies our interest in life. — Robert Penn Warren, "Why Do We Read Fiction?" The Saturday Evening Post, October 20, 1962
By the time Mr. Warren wrote this fascinating essay, he had already won two of his three Pulitzer Prizes, one for fiction (in 1947 for All the King's Men) and one for poetry (in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1956). He had already co-authored with Cleanth Brooks Understanding Poetry (1939), Understanding Fiction (1943), and Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric (1950), textbooks used throughout American universities. Most editors of nationally published magazines would not grant writers the license to write the first three sentences of an article with 5, 4, and 7 simple words. But those writers are not Robert Penn Warren. Then his fourth sentence, at 18 words, more than doubles the length of the paragraph with more sophisticated verbs (stimulates and gratifies) and complex ideas (image of life and interest in life). 

Warren might have justified using such plain language by saying that the article ruminates about children's fascination with literature and that he had a younger audience in mind. I prefer to think that he chose to open with such an uncluttered style because, with his reputation as an author and English professor, he could.  His transparent approach here is a good reminder to all of us who need to write at work or for publication. Get to the point; keep it simple.