Thursday, September 18, 2008

The More I Think About Short Sentences ...

... the more I realize I have more thinkin' to do.

Here's the first sentence of a novel I just started reading. (The name of the character has been changed.)
The play—for which Jane had designed the posters, programs and tickets,
constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and
lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day
tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

Now, if this landed on my desk as the first sentence in a feature article, I would rip it to shreds. A 32-word insertion between the subject and the verb? That whole insertion teetering on the past perfect verb "had designed"? A list separated by commas ("posters, programs and tickets") WITHIN a list separated by commas within that insertion? Then, after working through the insertion, finally getting to the main verb of the main clause to find it's passive ("was written by her")? Then, just for measure, a participial phrase tacked on the end ("causing her to miss ...")?

But see, here's the thing. This is not the work of some hack writer schelepping $200 feature articles for an advertorial section of the Polukaville Post. It's the first sentence of a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Booker Prize finalist.

Swap out "Jane" for "Briony" and you have the first sentence of Ian McEwan's "Atonement."

I haven't read enough yet to assess whether McEwan's mastery of the language in general and the sentence in particular is, overall, good or bad. But I have a feeling he didn't get all those prizes for nuthin'.

So, what does this tell us about the adage "short sentences are best"? I haven't decided yet. I still greatly prefer short sentences. But I can see a clear difference between the long sentences constructed by novice feature writers and long sentences like the ones I see in the New Yorker and ones written by Cormac McCarthy, Truman Capote, and Ian McEwan.

Some hacky stuff I come across might read like: "After realizing that the walking of the dog had already been done by her mother, on this particular Sunday after getting out of school, Beulah happily informed her family of the impending visit of her beau." There's a real difference between crap like this (which I just made up as example) and those masterful long sentences. But I'll be damned if I can sum it up in a neat little package—yet.

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Joel said...

All I have to say--he exclaimed gleefully, trying not to gloat or do anything otherwise unseemly in his inordinate enthusiasm--is "Yay for long sentences!"

When you do discover that difference, I doubt it'll fit in a tiny sentence. ;-)

June Casagrande said...

Yeah, I guess that whole post is vindication for something you've been saying all along. Still. Short. Good. Me like. Why long, McEwan? Why no speak like Tonto?

LL Blackwell said...

But at the very least, why did it have to stay *passive*?!? To emphasize the play? Why not emphasize June? Give her the credit she's due!

Of course, I haven't read the book, so I can't really say more than that.

Oh, except that I finally bought *your* books! (Isn't that sad that I'm such an avid reader of your blog and couldn't get my act together enough to buy your books?) I am very much enjoying Grammar Snobs and will probably incoporate bits of Mortal Syntax into my lessons.

June Casagrande said...

Yeah, of all the choices in that sentence, the passive was probably the weirdest.

I still haven't read any of the damn book, either. I read one single sentence then got distracted -- like a teenager on 'shrooms who spots something shiny. It's ridiculous. (Do the kids still do 'shrooms these days? I don't even know. I went to look it up once, but I got distracted.)

But a commenter at had some interesting stuff to say about it -- that Ian McEwan is part of a negative force in the literary world and not all he's cracked up to be. Me no speaky high falutin' literary stuff, but she certainly gave me something to think about (see Rosy's comment):


(If my HTML hyperlink thingy doesn't work:

P.S. Thanks for buying my books!

Joel said...

Not having read the book (or the link), I'm surely treading on dangerous ground, but the passive makes sense to me here as a way to emphasize the play, express its power. I think your reaction of indignation (or at least minimal astonishment) at Jane's plight is precisely the point. The play is the thing and Jane merely does its bidding.

If anything, I think one might change "causing" to "and caused." But that maybe gets a little awkward. In any case, as I read it, the force of the sentence is that the play deprived Jane (Freudian slip there, Blackwell--and I almost repeated it--it was Jane and not June) of her daily sustenance.

That's what should concern us. That play is an evil bastard (um, perhaps literally, assuming Jane had no help in its conception or rearing).

June Casagrande said...

Darn it! Stop being so convincing!

: )

Seriously, you make a good point.

But couldn't the same effect have been achieved through any of a thousand different active structures.

"The play consumed her for two days -- a tempest of composition that caused Jane to miss a lunch and a dinner."

"The play was born of a two-day tempest ..."

"The play took two days to write ..."

"The play was the product of ..."

"The play was 'the thing,' and Jane did its bidding as she birthed it during a two-day tempest ..."

"A better sentence continued to elude June, sending her into what she hoped would not be a two-day tempest of revision, causing her to miss a relaxing Saturday and Sunday."

Joy-Mari Cloete said...

That book bored me. *She yawns*

I didn't get it, either and had to google to find out what exactly happened.

June Casagrande said...

Thanks for the heads up. I haven't decided whether I'll finish it. To date, I have read exactly one sentence. A pretty distracting sentence, but still ...

Anyway, you may have saved me some time if I start reading more and wonder, "Is this boring or is it just me?"


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