17 September, 2010

Why Style Matters

I've always been rather profoundly disgusted with much modern fiction. Let me express a caveat: I have certainly read very little of it in its entirety. Generally I pick up a book, read a few chapters, and then have to close it in disgust--the style is abysmal.

While digging around in the archives of First Things, I came across a mildly dismissive mention of this article from the Atlantic Monthly by B.R. Myers. Apparently back in 2001, this article provoked a barrage of criticism; no surprise--the entire thing bashes the literary establishment, particularly the tendency of critics to moon over "literary" writers at the expense of all others. I am not enamoured of the basic thesis of the article. Myers is expressing little more original thought than the classic Marxist criticism of elitist literature. He wants Stephen King's horror novels and such to be accorded an equal place in the developing canon of literature as the works of Proulx and McCarthy.

I think there's some merit in being stylistically excellent. The interesting thing is that despite his basic thesis, Myers clearly does as well. In fact the truly interesting part of the article (and the bulk) is devoted to incisive analyses of the prose styles of these darlings of the literary world. He's quite good at this.

In fact, the portion of the article that I most appreciated was the section entitled "Muscular" Prose, referring primarily to Cormac McCarthy. Now McCarthy is something of a sore spot for me. I've read so many snippets of high praise of his work from Catholic websites (particularly First Things), and yet despite giving him a fair test this summer, I found his prose little less than nauseating. One sentence that Myers quotes, in fact, I went around quoting in mild rage to anyone who would listen for at least a week after I read it: "He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her." (The Crossing) Saints preserve us! (No, really!) Have you ever come across such a gratuitous use of repetition? Some writers use repetition to effect something--an emotion, for instance. This instance displays the sort of repetitiveness that, according to my first instinct, and now to Myers' article, seems aimed only at showing off how literary the author can be. I wouldn't take it from Myers either if I hadn't found the exact same thing happening for the five chapters before I had to put it down.

Another caveat: generally speaking, I rather despise arrogant young critics who think that their opinions must become literary doctrine merely because they are their opinions. Even the most revered T.S. Eliot gets annoying when he does that. But that's what I'm doing with McCarthy. So be it. It does at least have some basis in textual reality.

And again, I must admit that I've never managed to complete anything of his. The high praise I read is invariably focused on the Old Testament centric-ness of the work, its Christianity, etc. That may well be; I wouldn't know--my testimony is necessarily one-dimensional. On the other hand, my family has always strongly adhered to the idea that a bit of Biblical imagery and a dash of God language doesn't make something a Christian work of art. A Christian something maybe, but not art. (There are worse examples than McCarthy that I'm thinking of now. Especially various didactic items of childrens literature.)

Another amazingly irritating bit:

He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold ... Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal ... Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing. (All the Pretty Horses)

I started this book too. Didn't get up to this point. But read it. Ignoring the kind of painful abstraction that McCarthy seems to regularly allow free rein in his descriptions of anything whatsoever (interrupted only in appearance by the sort of mundane "realistic" detail of the previous example) consider the fact that John Grady is a cowboy. My understanding of character in fiction is that the language of the character should be suited to him. I think that's a fairly classical, Aristotelean view. Now, I understand that John Grady is a pretty unusual cowboy. He thinks a lot. He's "deep". But to suggest that he is speaking in the sort of convoluted syntax more appropriate to bad Cavalier poetry, and in terms more appropriate to an advanced philosophy class...that's a very poor use of free indirect discourse. For someone like Jane Austen (brilliant at the technique, by the way), free indirect discourse is indicated less syntactically (:"John Grady asked him..." ) and more by the tone that the narrator's prose assumes (see Austen's passages on Mrs. Norris' reactions to Fanny in Mansfield Park). Nothing that I saw in the first few chapters indicated that John Grady ever had a tendency to sound like that. In fact, one of the things that rapidly turned me off about the novel was just how banal and quotidien the dialogue was...sure cowboys may talk like that, but do you need to torture the readers with their "Nice day." "Sure is." "Goin' somewhere?" sort of exchanges, which far too often seemed to be there as scenery rather than plot-movers.

So, having just written a bit of an invective on the poor man's style, I do think that the derision in which Myers holds his work (and even his character) in is unwarrented. I'm willing to believe that he has nice Biblical themes. I can see justification for his use of Biblical language as the default narrative tone (although that's not helped much by his hyper-realism à la Zola). The first sentence of his that Myers quotes is entirely unobjectionable. Quite good, in fact. And I have heard that "The Road" is excellent.

The real point that irks me about it is simply what Myers put his finger on. It's too self-conscious. Too "artsy," while not being genuinely artistic. And that goes for so much contemporary prose. Perhaps I'll get past that one day and be able to give some of these writers the sort of thematic or plot-centered reading they may or may not deserve. Until then, such vaguely evocative sentences as "War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner" will be to me as Zola or Gide: rather clever in their own way, but dreadfully disappointing as a whole.

Also, it is not inherently literary to despise punctuation.


Anonymous said...

I can't agree with you on this one; Cormac McCarthy's one of my favorite living writers.

I'm not going to try to defend the stuff about the souls of horses; I remember finding that part a bit over the top when I read /The Crossing/ this summer. But you have to suffer stylistic lapses in even the best writers. I can try to defend McCarthy generally but that seems better suited for a conversation than a short comment.

Also, more specifically, I think Myers is, and you are, rather missing the point w.r.t. the sentence "He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her." The repetition isn't gratuitous at all. In fact, it struck me as rather brilliant when I first read it. What it communicates, and what would have been impossible to communicate without such repetition, is how complex a seemingly simple action really is, and thus how much skill is required to do even simple things. I would elaborate, but doing so is starting to seem like it would take a long time, so I might just make a post on my own site...

Greg Piv said...

So, are you saying that McCarthy's attempt to give a blow-by-blow account of different lifestyles, with his run-on repetitious sentences, is not good art?

It's hard to word what I mean by that. I think I mean that even if an artistic creation is very true-to-life, so to speak, it could actually fail at being artistic, precisely because life, and art, are not exactly the same thing.

For example, you could really give an accurate account of your day by saying everything you did in the day, or you could actually write an excellent story that focused on the most important things in the day that tie together into a coherent whole. The former would be poor art, and merely a journalistic and emotionless rendition of the day, where the second would actually focus on the artistic, while not being entirely accurate as to the facts.

Hope this makes sense.

Gentle Gardener said...

I was reading a novel by Dorothy Sayers the other day. In it one of the characters makes a distinction between an "artist" and a "painter". It struck me at the moment that the same could be said of the "artist" vs. the "writer". It gives much food for thought.

Anyway, I, too, have tried to read McCarthy, and found him...can I safely say cloying? I say this with a wince since I know that as an American with Irish ancestry, it is near blasphemy to find fault with those Irish authors like Joyce, McCourt, Binchey, or McCarthy.

Thanks be to God, therefore, for the realm of opinion, where men (and women) can still be friends while having differing views on the arts. It makes life exciting, does it not?

Anonymous said...

Well, there is a certain metronomical rhythm to that "eggs and tortilla" sentence. There is a certain poetry in the act of eating, and the gratefulness of the eater to the provider of the sustenance, and all that jazz... It may work for some...

"But to gain a perfect view, one must go yet further, over a curving brow to a slight shelf on the extreme brink." - John Muir