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October 22, 2004



I am more of a reader than a writer. Actually I am a songwriter. But I read about 3 novels a week. My answer to your question is that it is not a matter of how literary, basic, beautiful or whatever is the language of the writer. It is his or her voice, which is unique to every human being, writer or not.. If the writing is truly that writers voice, it communicates to me. If they are faking it or trying to be someone else or some current hip style or what they learned from all the critiques at writing group or the MFA program, that bothers me, the reader. And yet, having written that last sentence, I would still say that if the story is good and has truth in it, I would forgive the writer and keep reading his or her books.


i would never be able to choose between plot and language. sometimes one is more important than the other.sometimes it isnt. one thing tho: i used to love lawrence durrell: the alexandria trilogy? for his use of language then i read a very funny parody of his style and the magic was lost forever. so what does that say. and hemingway's spareness can be a bit phony too at times. oh well


Excuse me for being the rat in the cathedral, but I think theories are a disservice to literary appreciation especially ehen they profer either or choices. Judy (see above) has the right idea. How to explain why one likes Raymond Carveresque writers and Cormac McCartyites?


Count me in with Birnbaum and pass the pepperjack. The easy dichotomy suggests that one is separate from the other in developing an auctorial voice. Sometimes, as a writer develops, the twain merge mid-career. A current example of this is Richard Powers, who has become better at plotting with his last two novels, while honing his language so that it's more interwoven rather than whole strings of elegant variations. The novel, with its ambiguous medium, is more flexible to experimentation. Whether it's Joyce, Frederic Prokosch, or David Markson, You make the assumption that the human heart can only fall in love with a novel if driven by a plot. While plot is certainly important, I don't think plot matters nearly as much if the emotional impetus is there. And that's when some writers bust out the linguistic chops.

christian bauman

One should never have to choose (either a reader or a writer) between language and story. Entwined, entwined, betwixt and betrothed.
And, to agree with some above but add slightly different spin on it: Close your eyes, use the Force, Luke, and find the differences between Cormac and Ray slipping away, dropping like imaginary flies. The soul, the soul, is all there, and all the same. Your accent is Texan and my accent is Yankee but, but, but... you see, the soul is all the same.
And what of Annie Proulx, who can pull off being both Cormac and Ray at the same time.


I'm with Ed: Plot is much less important if there is something else to read for (though not necessarily an emotional something). The later David Markson works being a perfect example.


I have really been taken in by some of Cormac McCarthy's novels, and equally impressed by Raymond Carver's stories. I doubt anybody who's given much thought to their reading would suggest that a certain style is preferable, independant of the author's success at creating something compelling. If you don't take a work at least partly on the author's terms, there's little chance you'll find something of value in the writing. With poetry, that's a given. There's no reason it shouldn't be true of fiction.

T. S.

Can anyone imagine a Carver novel? His style doesn't seem plain to me as much as mysteriously dense, too compacted to unspool into something like a 300-page narrative. I guess my point is that I don't think of Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver as opposite endpoints of a "technique yardstick"--they are both emphatic stylists, much more so than most writers. It's clumsy or style-less writing that is boring, no matter if it's trying to be fancy or plainspoken.

As for the MFA thing, I did one of those, and the only thing I can say about that is despite rumors to the contrary, all kinds of styles, forms, and experiments in structure were explored by my workshop mates (and encouraged by our faculty). It seemed to me that generally, the youngest among us were most interested in finding a unique way to say something, while the older writers were working backward from that--trying to put complex ideas into elegant but straightforward prose. But every workshop is one-of-a-kind, so I would hate to say that that is universally true.


i fucking hate labored-over prose.

David Long

I just read the debate over language in fiction.

The real issue is voice. Every story comes with its unique sound--it represents the mind behind the story, it's how that mind enters, or shows itself in the world. No two minds sound the same.

Some of us hate overlabored prose. But good prose never sounds overlabored--it sounds light and effortless, whether simple or complex. Some of us find ourselves trusting simpler, more straightforward sounding voices like Carver's. Some of us like our fiction cooked more. A matter of taste. But, speaking for myself, I like really austere stripped down music sometimes, indie bands, and so on, but also Dave Brubeck, Bach, and a hundred other things. You can take delight in in vastly different sounds if you can hear what they're up to.

Anyway, I thought you'd like to see the following, from French novelist Robbe-Grillet, from FOR A NEW NOVEL [1963]:

There are not, for a writer, two possible ways to write the same book. When he thinks of a future novel, it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind, and demands his hand. Her has in mind certain rhythms of sentences, certain architectures, a vocabulary, certain grammatical constructions, exactly as a painter has in mind certain lines and colors. What will happen in the book comes afterward, as though secreted by the style itself.

As a novelist myself, I couldn't agree more.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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