My kingdom for an elegant phrase

7 June 2002

Anyway, since I've gotten myself to the state I was in yesterday (mmm, yesterday), I'm going to pick up that copy of NYPress and find my scribblings. Thing is - it's on cheap newsprint (mmm, soy ink, black fingers) - and I was slightly drunk - and it's in pencil. So I won't necessarily be able to transcibe this in a coherent way, as I didn't in the first place.

So here it is:

Truly great prose should stand up under adverse conditions. In my English class, we were often given short sentences about the same event/object/etc. -- on the other end, out would pop our compactest rendering, chock full of commas, semicolons and relative clauses. We were never asked to do the inverse operation -- tease apart a clause-heavy, clunky sentence into more digestible chunks.

My inspiration? Trying to read an article under the influence of a pint of stout and white russian. In particular, this sentence: "More investigations might show, for example, as the Phoenix and Rowley correspondence indicates, that existing guidelines on fighting terrorism, hammered out over decades to provide a balance between protecting civil liberties and pursuing criminals, are not the problem as much as communication, mismanagement and people asleep at the switch at the very top of the FBI are."

Beg pardon? I mean, I understand it, but ugh. If you're going to have that many compound phrases, have the decency to create some obvious parallelism for those swaying from a pole on the subway. A person reading a tabloid format paper, a person being jostled and annoyed by loud conductor annoucements, a person who happens to be a standard New Yorker cannot keep backtracking in a sentence to make sure they understand what the verbs apply to. In English, the standard is to put the verb in the middle - not at the end. This isn't Japanese, you know.

Look - let's just forget the matter of content (esp. in the matter of NYPress, as I disagree with almost all the writers, and definitely disagree with the editor-in-chief Russ Smith (probably because he's an unremitting Bush Booster, and spends way too much time bitching about media personalities)). It's not so much that most people are idiotic, shallow, pedantic, or derivative (or all four - I won't preclude the possibility), it's more that I have to suffer for the lacks of these shitty stylists who decide message and medium makes up for a tacky text.

Yes, I'm an ardent admirer of alliteration; it is our native poetry, and gives a punch to trite treacle.

Consider Charles Dickens, who, even when sticking to the barest hint of a plot, was sure to litter about linguistic gems and perfections of descriptions. One sentence I've mentioned before, from the little-read Barnaby Rudge: "On the skull of one drunken lad -- not twenty, by his looks -- who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax." His allusions, similes, and metaphors are little playgrounds; I can't forget Todger's lodgings, with its ever-lasting smell of greens, the glass cucumber frame where professional men come and wilt. Then the accountants ledgers, looking as if cricket balls beaten flat.

Though his characters lacked full humanity, though his plots were ridiculous in coincidences, though in many novels he seemed not to care one whit for plot, Dickens was a master stylist. It's a pty that so many people cannot rememer more than "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

I certainly don't claim to any particular eloquence or fluency, but I'm not trying to make my living as a professional writer. As well, I know that textbook writers and manual writers are supposed to worry more about clarity than style, but I've read some real clunkers at RFBD lately; the business books are the worst offenders. I'm hoping these are cranked out at inhuman speeds, which would explain the apparent lack of editing (hideous mistakes in the tables and extreme redundancy of phrasing).

I'm just saying we need some excellence. Please send some my way.

Time to read Austen again.

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