Saturday, February 26, 2011

Unselfconsciousness in writing. I'm in the middle of copy-editing a PhD thesis, and I just stopped for a quick procrasto-break to read some blogs. And there was this one blog post that seemed so mannered and self-conscious in a way I have really come to dislike. (Don't worry; it wasn't one of yours.)

It's so hard to explain this particular writing style I dislike without feeling vulnerable to being accused of my own pretentious stylings, but here goes: it's heavily first-person, highly aestheticised (lots of adjectives, especially voluptuous ones), self-consciously wry and arch, and balanced precariously between the retro and the right-now. It jumbles up deliberately anachronistic expressions and admiring evocations of old-fashioned pleasures with subcultural argot, pop-cultural references and jocular, internet-tinged slang. You dig, gentlepeeps? Totes!

Also, to me it's a feminine blogging style. The best American lady-bloggers can do it quite naturally, and I blame Australian writers' fawning adoption of American literary styles for its insidious spread here. Personally, I think it fails when it no longer seems like the writer's own voice but rather a 'voice'. You can see the effort it's costing the writer to make it work – like when the water goes clear and you can see the little duck-legs frantically paddling away to create the serene glide across the surface.

Take, for instance, this history of the death ray from The Awl. The writer, Becky Ferreira, has an entertaining style at first, but to me she seems to lose her authority over the material and resorts to making silly, unconvincing jokes. Here's a sampler:

So, yikes! The Allies began to catch wind of all these proto-fascist countries using their geniuses to build electromagnetic warfare, and that wind sure smelled like scary World War Two farts.

But never fear, Allies, because as it turned out, you’re had one hell of a coil yet to shuffle off: Nikola motherfracking Tesla.

Tesla was the bestla. He just was. If you disagree, you are wrong and stupid.
What bothers me about this writing style is that the writer seems deliberately out to impress. A quick glance through these blog archives will tell you I've written some pretty tryhard things in my time (and I know I have a problem with being longwinded and parenthetical, with crappy metaphors, and with stringing together long, involved necklaces of adjectives), but as an editor – and also as a writer – what I aspire to now is the clear, compelling expression of ideas.

I see serious, unselfconscious writing as the definition of elegance. When I say 'seriousness', I don't necessarily mean density, pomposity or humourlessness; seriousness emphasises the act of communication and displays a certain assurance that one's ideas will be respected.

And when I say 'unselfconscious', I mean eschewing the act of performing oneself as a writer. Not pre-empting an imagined reader's criticisms; not using clichés, memes and stylistic quirks for rhetorical effect; and most of all, not refracting everything you write about through the prism of your own experience.

It seems as though many writers believe that once they develop a distinctive 'voice' they will be hired for that voice, rather than for what they write about. Dispiritingly, this often turns out to be true – but I am endlessly frustrated to see writers mistaking self-consciousness for elegance, when I think elegance lies in unselfconscious clarity of expression.

Of course, there are writing gigs where the house style is 'young', or 'ironic', or 'persuasive', and you bend your own style to that. I respect the challenge of working within these constraints. One of the toughest stories I've ever written, tone-wise, was an exegesis of hipsterism and hipster-hating for an audience of 18-25-year-old music magazine readers.

And let me be explicit that I don't seek to iron out the lyrical possibilities of language. I'd be alarmed to find myself in the joyless corner of people who protest that good writing 'shouldn't call attention to itself'.

I've been reading with interest the reaction to Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Fish's book urges us once again to delight in a perfectly crafted sentence, and to develop a feel for the wildly different ways in which a sentence's form and rhythm – not just its content – can speak to us.

As Adam Haslett notes in his Financial Times review of the book, the "vigour" and "brevity" prescribed by influential American editing bible The Elements of Style had the effect of making the terse style of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver (whose prose was notoriously pruned to the point of ghostwriting by editor Gordon Lish) come to define 20th-century 'realism'.

"This is a real loss," Haslett argues, "not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to “omit needless words” (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem."

It seems ironic to me that what began as an urge for bold, muscular prose should now inspire limp dullness; and as Zsuzsi Gartner writes in Canada's Globe & Mail:
…there are so many 'literary' authors who take no evident joy in the sentence, whose assemblages of subject, verb and predicate are barely living things. Their sentences are drones on a death march, ankles shackled together, one plodding foot in front of the other. Or their drones are perfumed nightmares. Or their drones have a tin ear and, like white men, can’t jump.
My feelings on poetry are not especially generous; however this week I watched the movie Howl and was struck by the way that Allen Ginsberg's poetry depended so much on its rhythms, and on the startling incongruity of his word choices. In the film – which was scripted from interviews with Ginsberg and transcripts from the work's obscenity trial – the poet explains how he came up with some key phrases, notably "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows".

I am getting off course here, but I mention Howl to bring up that I do appreciate the glamour of the phrase, and that whatever you think of Ginsberg's style, it has a confidence – an energetic, urgent quality – that you just don't find in certain simpering blog prose.

It is difficult to express how much I AGREE with everything you've written here. I am endlessly frustrated with people more in love with their writing than what they have to say.

I also have an admittedly irrational hatred for internet speekz. I find it infantile and moronic.
It's partly for this reason that I've started publishing my zine, every edition of which has the most longwinded editorials possible, full of ramblings, and digressions, and expansions, and irrelevant puns.

I could never devise a rule for writing without breaking it anyway. With the possible exception of writing formal poetry - though one of the reasons that attracts me is so many of the rules seem counter-intuitive, and actively encourage digression, and repetition, etc, which would normally be discouraged.
Sorry, this is what I was referring to:

"This is a real loss," Haslett argues, "not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to “omit needless words” (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem."
Your posts aren't ever self indulgent! They're always of the time and exploring something relevant-and the whole point of a blog post is that it's an "in the moment" piece of writing. I do agree with you about critiquing the blogs though; and how easy it is to make the mistake of using a voice that isn't really authentic. I am often quite harsh about published Australian fiction for the same reason; not so much the voice but the fact that just because it's written in a literary manner doesn't make it interesting to read... I like it to be both!
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