Friday, March 28, 2014

Great Sentences

This is a link to an article in The Guardian that made me crazy. "What are the great sentences in genre fiction?" I guess I had missed the concept of great sentences. They are the ones that really stand out, like the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice or the ending of The Great Gatsby. I said on facebook:
Most of the sentences listed in the article and its comments draw attention to themselves. They are finely wrought, often elaborate, often clever. Which is okay, but a lot of very good writing does not have flashing neon arrows that tell us, "Art! Art! Art."

Sentences belong in the texture of a story, and many sentences in a story are not going to be -- should not be -- examples of tour de force writing. I'm sure it's possible to write entire works of fiction with tour de force sentences. Most likely it has been done. But Jane Austen didn't do it. Yes, she has written some amazing, witty sentences -- the opening to P&P is the most famous. But a lot of her beautiful, clear, precise writing simply describes her characters and their actions. You say, "What beautiful writing." But you don't remember the individual sentences, except the opening to P&P.

The comments to the article gave some good examples of tour de force sentences in SF. But I don't think this kind of writing is necessary for good fiction. I was trying to think of great, memorable sentences in the Icelandic family sagas. Everything I came up with was a line of dialogue, which does not display the skill of the writer, but the personality of the character. When Bergthora says she will go into the house with Njall and die with him, when the family's enemies burn the house to kill Njall and Bergthora's sons, she says, "I was given to Njall young, and I said that our fates would be the same." That does not draw your attention to the writing, but to Bergthora, her toughness and loyalty. You can't pull a line like that out of context and marvel at its beauty. It only works if you know the story.

Or when Grettir and his brother Illugi are making their last stand on the island of Drangey and Grettir says, "Bare is the back with no brother behind it." Sounds lofty and heroic, doesn't it? Well, by this time we know that Grettir has a nasty mouth on him and likes to quote Viking proverbs sarcastically. What he is saying is, "You asshole, someone just got behind me. You get back there and defend me." Which Illugi does and does well. I love that line, because it shows us Grettir's character so well. At this point, he is dying of gangrene and can't even stand up to fight, but has to fight on his knees. He knows he's going to be killed in a few minutes, and he still manages to be sarcastic; and Illugi still manages to be loyal to his difficult, even impossible brother.

The people commenting on the article are right: there are a lot of tour de force sentences in P.G. Wodehouse. The family fight with "aunt calling to aunt like mastodons across a primeval swamp." He was a terrific stylist. I have read him for years looking for serious content and not found any, which may reduce his chances of being called a great writer. But what a stylist!


Blogger Russell Letson said...

I see it took 20 Guardian commenters before somebody mentioned Jack Vance--though the example was a particularly good (and fairly well-known) one. Alfie Bester didn't show up until the second page.

Many of the examples (in the first couple pages anyway) strike me as a bit precious--even some of the Chandler snippets, though I do like the "big sleep" passage.

But anyway--my notion of good writing is less about the extractable snippets (to which I will return) than consistent precision, clarity, balance, and whatever it might be that we call "grace." It's like music: not just the "good parts" (= loud/exciting/fast passages) view that I suspect kids start with (I know I did) but the way structure and texture and pacing interoperate.

Nevertheless, SF produces plenty of extractable examples, and I try to include one or two in every review to give readers a taste of the book. (If I neglect to do so, Cezarija makes me go back and find one.) Some writers offer so many candidates that I could fill the entire review space with passages--what I sometimes call the "read out loud" parts: Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, John Varley, Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, Neal Stephenson, Iain M. Banks.

I notice that the writers on this (very partial) list are good at the rhetorical devices of catalogue and register-change (as distinct from, say metaphor), which probably indicates something of the way my tastes are inclined.

And, on reflection, there are writers who do not invite a "good parts" approach but whose prose I admire for the qualities listed above and for whatever it is that makes for "voice": Kathy Goonan, C. J. Cherryh, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, and you, Eleanor. (Does the gender distribution signal anything? What would an audit of the pull-quotes from my 250 Locus reviews reveal about me?)

10:03 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

I'm interested in prose style, but primarily in service of story. Being able to produce complex, varied prose is a great tool to have in your tool box, but its value is largely contextual.

10:48 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home