Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Prose Stylists

As is my modus operandi whenever I want to know something, I punched "Best Prose Stylist in the English Language" into Google. What I got were a series of discussion boards, which seemed like the best place to start. It's a subjective evaluation anyway, and I figure self-appointed literati on the internet should be a good mix of what's taught in schools and what resonates with enthusiasts on their own time.

There did seem to be a lot of agreement.

James Joyce came out as the de facto winner, with most of his supporters not even bothering to argue his case past a "well, of course, Joyce."

Here is a bit from the first chapter of Ulysses:
  Warm sunshine merrying over the sea. The nickel shaving-bowl shone, forgotten, on the parapet. Why should I bring it down? Or leave it there all day, forgotten friendship?
He went over to it, held it in his hands awhile, feeling its coolness, smelling the clammy slaver of the lather in which the brush was stuck. So I carried the boat of incense then at Clongowes. I am another now and yet the same. A servant too. A server of a servant.
In the gloomy domed livingroom of the tower Buck Mulligan's gowned form moved briskly about the hearth to and fro, hiding and revealing its yellow glow. Two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor from the high barbicans: and at the meeting of their rays a cloud of coalsmoke and fumes of fried grease floated, turning.

Also enthusiastically represented was my man Vlad, which is to say Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. Here's a bit from the infamous Lolita:
“And I still have other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain. Once, in a sunset-ending street of Beardsley, she turned to little Eva Rosen (I was taking both nymphets to a concert and walking behind them so close as almost to touch them with my person), she turned to Eva, and so very serenely and seriously, in answer to something the other had said about its being better to die than hear Milton Pinski; some local schoolboy she knew, talk about music, my Lolita remarked:
'You know what's so dreadful about dying is that you're completely on your own'; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate - dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions...”  
Joseph Conrad also got several points, plus bonuses for English being his third language. Here's a bit from Mirror of the Sea (I know, I should have put in something from Heart of Darkness, but I found this first):
Between the crowded houses of Gravesend and the monstrous red-brick pile on the Essex shore the ship is surrendered fairly to the grasp of the river. That hint of loneliness, that soul of the sea which had accompanied her as far as the Lower Hope Reach, abandons her at the turn of the first bend above. The salt, acrid flavour is gone out of the air, together with a sense of unlimited space opening free beyond the threshold of sandbanks below the Nore. The waters of the sea rush on past Gravesend, tumbling the big mooring buoys laid along the face of the town; but the sea-freedom stops short there, surrendering the salt tide to the needs, the artifices, the contrivances of toiling men. Wharves, landing-places, dock-gates, waterside stairs, follow each other continuously right up to London Bridge, and the hum of men’s work fills the river with a menacing, muttering note as of a breathless, ever-driving gale. The water-way, so fair above and wide below, flows oppressed by bricks and mortar and stone, by blackened timber and grimed glass and rusty iron, covered with black barges, whipped up by paddles and screws, overburdened with craft, overhung with chains, overshadowed by walls making a steep gorge for its bed, filled with a haze of smoke and dust.
Also well mentioned were T. C. Boyle, Evelyn Waugh, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rudyard Kipling, and about five times someone looked around and said "Why hasn't anyone mentioned Ernest Hemmingway yet?"

Anyway, I do believe in vivisecting prose. I'm going to be looking at these and more by these authors carefully, pulling off legs and seeing what makes them scream. I will learn how it works if I have to carve the life and magic out of every syllable. I will cut until it bleeds true.

Happy reading.


  1. The first two excerpts are difficult to see. Actually the second one is invisible on my monitor; I had to highlight it with my cursor as if I was cutting and pasting it in order to see it.

    For me all three of these excerpts had the same quality to them; they aren't in sync with my natural reading rhythm. So to me they feel clunky and awkward and are difficult to read.

    As a contrast, this excerpt from Nora Roberts' "Vision in White" doesn't feel awkward or clunky when I read it. And it fits my natural reading rhythm.

    By the time she was eight, Mackensie Elliot had been married fourteen times. She’d married each of her three best friends—as both bride and groom—her best friend’s brother (under his protest), two dogs, three cats, and a rabbit. She’d served at countless other weddings as maid of honor, bridesmaid, groomsman, best man, and officiant. Though the dissolutions were invariably amicable, none of the marriages lasted beyond an afternoon. The transitory aspect of marriage came as no surprise to Mac, as her own parents boasted two each—so far.

    If you can figure out the difference between this one and the three you have posted, you will answer one of the mysteries of the universe and win a gold star.

    1. Just to add. I'm not being a smartass. I really do not understand why what I read is "bad literature" and why the ones you posted are "good literature." So if you will wield your vivisectioning tools on this and figure it out, then I would be interested in your take on it.

    2. Wow, you're right, those totally aren't showing up. Lemme fix that right quick.

    3. Aside from that, I feel I need to make the point again that nobody on the forums or in the post above actually mentioned Nora Roberts. I don't think there's anything wrong with what you posted above. Like you said, it's clear, serviceable, funny prose. Of the four above, I'd honestly say the Conrad is my favorite (I need to find a better Joyce, I basically just opened up Ulysses at random). It's got a very distinct rhythm to it, especially in that last bit, that, as corny as it probably sounds, really feels to me like waves lapping at the side of a boat. There's a repetition not just in form but in sounds of words (not just over, over, over, in that last bit, but several places where the Ss, Ws, and OU sounds bunch up nicely), but I think rather than being to its detriment, it gives it a nice flow and feel.

      Hang on, I'm going to do something for you here. I'll be right back.

    4. That is just an example of popular fiction. They all have the same quality: they fit my natural reading rhythm. I suppose I could go get one from Dan Brown as he gets slammed a lot. I don't understand why.

  2. Actually, that's what I was doing. I ended up not posting it last night so I could give it one more look over.

    Most of the prose forums I found pointedly avoided talking about bad prose, and a few actively shut down discussions on it. Those that continued mostly seemed to drift off topic after one or two names were dropped. I did find a lot of links to the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest for deliberately bad prose.


    Dan Brown got a mention for terrible prose.


    Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

    Philip K. Dick got a mention for the following orgasm scene:


    A long silence, then. Then, “Oof.” She leaped, galvanized as if lost to the shock of a formal experiment. His pale, dignified, unclothed possession: become a tall and very thin greenless nervous system of a frog; probed to life by outside means. Victim of a current not her own but not protested, in any way. Lucid and real, accepting. Ready this long time.

    People sniped about Stephanie Meyer a couple of places. I can't say I remember her prose being per se terrible, just garden variety not good. Didn't find a quote to post, but apparently you'll die of alcohol poisoning if you drink every time she uses the word chagrin.


    Aaand for older authors, Amanda McKittrick Ros came up. Apparently she has a reputation for being one of the worst prose stylists of all time.


    Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?

    Here's a book specifically about bad authors.


    I'm sure popular fiction has a range of prose talents working in it, the same way literary fiction does. There's less of an emphasis on the language, but I believe you've said that's a draw for you; whereas I like word play enough to forgive a manuscript in which less technically happens, but it happens prettily. Heck, even within the "literary community" there's dissent about what constitutes good prose. Nabokov famously thought Dostoyevsky was a barking imbecile, but a lot of other people would tell you he's the greatest Russian writer ever.

    I don't know what I'm going to have to say here to convince you that I'm okay with you liking popular fiction.

  3. I'm not sure there's much value in taking a context-free paragraph or two from a longer work and asking, "Why is this good writing?" because ostensibly what makes it good is how it fits into the whole, what is conveyed about that particular moment and how it relates to the story overall. The prose is not separate from plot, setting, character, structure, etc.; it's just the smallest building block of those things.

    The same is presumably true of asking "Why is this *bad* writing?" But Dan Brown's legendary "Renowned curator" paragraph is so obviously absurd that I'm not so sure.

  4. It's because you're okay with me liking popular fiction that we can have this conversation. If you were looking down your nose at me, then I would keep my mouth shut.

    Dan Brown is the only author here that I am familiar with. The excerpts you've given for the rest, I agree that is really bad prose.

    I read the article you linked to about Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. Sigh. It's tirades like that which has me generally keeping my mouth shut when I talk to writers. It's neither analytical nor fair. To me, Pullum comes across as a little bit dim. (Gasp! I just called a professor at U Penn a bit dim.)

    Pullum's first criticism is about the words reknown and curator. He says those details have no relevance to the action sequence being narrated. But they in fact do tell the reader that Sauniere is not a thief and does have a legitimate reason for being in the Louvre after hours. Reknown is also important in informing the reader that Sauniere is high up on the food chain at the Louvre not an entry level curator at the museum. A museum of that size has a huge staff of curators not all of them will be well-known. Of those first four words that Pullim has a problem with reknown curator tells me more about the character than Jacques Sauniere. If you were going to take two away then take away the name not the description as Pullim suggests.

    Pullim says he can deduce that Sauniere is a well-knowned curator simply because he works at the Louvre, but he can't deduce that someone is chasing Sauniere who is staggering around pulling paintings off the wall. Really?

    And then he says that a man can't fall into a heap. Well I can, but then I fall down all the time. I can fall onto my hands and knees or flat out on my stomach or flat on my back or curled into a ball or with my legs twisted under me or in a heap. Into a heap tells me exactly how Sauniere landed.

    And he goes on and I won't dissect his criticism further. But it is statements like the following that make people feel bad for liking popular fiction:

    I asked hopefully what it was like. She scowled and said something about the Hardy Boys. My heart sank; I understood her to mean it was pathetic but possibly of interest to the 11-year-old market.

    I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this.

    It has the ring of utter ineptitude.

    Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.

    I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better.

    Never mind the ridiculous plot and the stupid anagrams and puzzle clues as the book proceeds, this is a terrible, terrible example of the thriller-writer's craft.

    Thriller writers must have a code of honor that requires that they all praise each other's new novels, a kind of omerta that enjoins them to silence about the fact that some fellow member of the guild has given evidence of total stylistic cluelessness.

    And he writes like the kind of freshman student who makes you want to give up the whole idea of teaching.

    Sigh. I read stuff like that all the time. While I don't feel bad about what I like to read, I do keep my mouth shut around literary types. Who wants to deal with this kind of mindset?

    And yes the difference between literary and popular fiction is that literary fiction is how the story is told and popular fiction is what the story is.

    Prose in popular fiction has a rhythm and flow to it. It's not about word choice so much as it flow. Both the Dan Brown selection you gave and the Nora Roberts selection that I gave have that flow to it.

    And now we get back to what I have said before put the two together awesome choice of words in a way that flows and BAM! you've got a literary bestseller. You can do that. I know that you can do that.

  5. Brady- I do think it's possible to isolate a sentence or two and deconstruct why it works or doesn't work on that level. I think you're right that I can't take a paragraph at random and say "this is why Lolita is a good book"- or ignore the larger bulk of the author's prose in favor of a couple of random samples.

    But, I do think there's value at looking at things on the level of rhythm and sound, and while I think there's a lot of overlap between prose, plot, and character, I think there's a lot of discreet skills that go into each, and can be viewed analytically in isolation.

  6. Sure. I didn't mean to say that I don't think close reading isn't a great exercise. It's crucial. Picking text apart word by word is mega-illuminating.

    I was trying to respond more to the idea that you place a paragraph from one book next to a paragraph from another and explain why one is good and one is bad. When prose is good (I'm about to make a huge generalization that I probably don't 100% believe), it's doing a lot of things at once, and a lot of those things probably aren't visible if you've only got the micro. Conversely, when prose is bad, it's shallow, providing information but no meaning (or worse, the totally wrong meaning), but without context, a lack is kind of difficult to spot.

    As an aside, just for clarity: I'm not differentiating between "commercial" and "literary" fiction at all. That's all marketing stuff that I don't care about. Whether or not something is good has nothing to do with whether or not the title is embossed on the cover.