Sentences — February 16, 2009, 4:29 pm

A Timeless Story, Beautifully Told

Dear Mr. Mason,

As an avid reader of literature and an aspiring writer, I would like to think that I have a decent grasp of the elements that are common among good novels. And while I would agree that well written sentences are certainly important in any masterly work of prose fiction, I must question the level of emphasis placed on the quality of sentences vis a vis other aspects of good writing in today’s criticism. As I consider you to be within the vein of criticism I have described (your blog, after all, is called “Sentences”), I thought you might be able to enlighten me on this matter.

My point is this: when I think of the most powerful and impressive aspects of my favorite books, the well-written sentence is not usually one of them. For instance, while undoubtedly Proust’s meandering sentences were highly original and necessary to his work’s overall effect, I would argue that it is the amazing detail with which he draws his characters, as well as the sense of time passing that he creates in the reader’s consciousness, that are the most remarkable innovations of In Search of Lost Time. Similarly, the most affecting moment in all literature for me is the death of Anna in Anna Karenina, a scene which is the product not so much of any given sentence, but rather of the accumulated emotional pressure built by Tolstoy throughout the book, which is then released at the critical moment. This is a masterful feat the analogue of which I find in few books written today.

Authors must make a thousand choices on every page. One is sentence construction, but more important, I would argue, is the choice of images and ideas and the order in which they are presented. The difference, I think, is that sentences are somewhat like puzzles in that there are essentially a limited number of ways in which they can be put together. Conversely, the choice of images is potentially infinite and thus is less amenable to elucidation through a scientific style of literary criticism.

So I must wonder why we hear so much in today’s criticism about how great an author’s sentences are and so little about how lifelike her characters seem to be, or about the atmosphere conjures by the writer’s imagery. The whole situation reminds me of some hipster friends of mine when they discuss music. They are constantly going on about “textures” of sound and whatnot, but they rarely ever note whether the songwriting or lyrics are any good on a given album. It seems as if literary critics have become such “experts” that they feel too important to discuss what real readers care about most passionately in literature. There is a reason why so many of us keep going back to Bennett and Darcy over tepid but critically-acclaimed works like Tree of Smoke: because it is a timeless story, beautifully told, with unforgettably real characters.

Best,

David Zonca


Dear David Zonca,

Thank you very much for your letter. What you say made me think of a time some years ago when I was taking classes in Paris at one of the university campuses there. I was taking an intro course to French literature for first year university students and struggling to keep my head up. We were reading Racine, Molière, and Montaigne and the level of the texts kept me having to do the mental equivalent of standing on tiptoe the whole time: I was looking up dozens of words per page and was lagging very far behind the native French speakers in the class, and was generally feeling not so much challenged as half out of my mind with exhaustion. My teacher was very patient, though, and took extra time to explain things I was missing, and within a few months I was getting the hang of reading and studying in a very foreign literary landscape.

What I began to notice, and for the first time, was how my professor went about teaching these plays and essays and novels, in a way very different from what I’d known before. Often, we’d spend hours on a single scene, ripping apart exchanges in Phaedra or tearing down paragraphs in La Princesse des Cleves. Once again, I was confused, but for a new reason. For it seemed that we were–if not wasting our time, because the close readings were interesting–never quite getting to a discussion of the book. And so I asked my professor just that: Why don’t we ever talk about the books? His reply was very useful to me then and remains a clarifying distinction that I often think about.

What he said was, essentially, that there are two ways to read a book: as a writer, or as a reader. Always, he explained, when I first read a book, I do so as a reader. I respond to the how the characters live, and how the places in which the story is set look, and the emotions that the story prompts. But, he said, when I’m done, and particularly if I’ve liked the book, I’m always curious about how a writer achieved her effects, how those characters managed to be lifelike, how atmosphere was created and how emotions got evoked—and out of a staid series of symbols that get fused into words and phrases and more. And, my teacher said, when I come to class, what I want to do is to spend time teaching you how to read like a writer. I don’t need to teach you how to read as a reader: it’s what got you into the study of literature in the first place.

My teacher’s point has never been lost on me, but I’d be lying if I said that the very clear distinction he drew is one that I’ve either been able to or have wanted to apply wholesale to my reading or writing life. What I did take from it is that one of the responsibilities we have, whether as a readers or writers, is to notice the “madeness” of a work of literary art. For the effects that a story in prose has on us are produced, always, by a heart in connection with a head. It is not a scientific process, as you say; rather, at its best, it’s a strangely organic one: great works of literary art feel not like life but equal to life. How one discusses a living thing like a great novel is complicated, however, by the fact that novels are made up of pieces that did not rise out of the humus of existence (Herman Broch’s big phrase) but out of the mind of a writer. That writerly mind manufactures a way for a page not merely to approximate a world but to enact one. The critical mind, inevitably, will maintain a curiosity about how that thing came to be, a curiosity no different, maybe, from any of our curiosities about what happens behind the closed doors and shut curtains of public life.

Any good piece of literary criticism about a great novel should, I agree with you, be able to balance, as it were, both the public and the private view of the work of art, its humanness and its artfulness. As such, the literary critics I enjoy reading most are those who, like Frank Kermode, Denis Donohogue, and James Wood at their best, manage–often on very short deadlines–to do the double work that is the singular task of criticism, to open a book to a reader, in all its variety and substance.

As to why too much criticism disappoints you for what you suggest is an over-attentiveness to sentences at the expense of what you consider to be more important—”images and ideas and the order in which they are presented,” I suspect the reasons are manifold. An Anna Karenina isn’t published every decade, for one, leaving the critic to talk more often than not about novels that aren’t Anna Karenina. Rather inevitably, when faced with an Anna who isn’t Anna, the critic must resort to a conversation about why and how the book doesn’t give you an Anna. There are many ways (in this rather toothless hypothetical) to go about such a discussion, but sensibly, and, to my mind, scrupulously, a critic should attend to the sentences that offer some particular insights into why the characters on the page remain, well, only the page, and do not vault into the reader’s heart. Alas, that’s work the head must do, banging itself against sentences.

And, I should say, not entirely “Alas.” I happen to feel, more often than you do, that critics disappoint me for failing to offer enough specificity to bear out their claims that a book does not move them. Too often, a critic will see fit to dismiss a book in frustration without pointing adequately to the source of that frustration. Balance, as in everything, is needed, and infrequently maintained. And so, ultimately, I can’t believe that it’s as you say, that “literary critics have become such ‘experts’ that they feel too important to discuss what real readers care about.” Rather, I’d say that the best literary critics feel properly astonished before works of literary art, and aspire, once that astonishment briefly clears, to attempt the (one hopes) interesting task of discussing the particulars of that astonishment, however often they fall short of producing such an astonishment themselves.

With best wishes,
and thanks again for writing, reading,

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