Examining Pro’s Prose Part 1


If you read any modern book on writing or editing, you’ll find the same sets of rules to follow over and over. These rules come out of an aesthetic known as minimalism and is the type of thing you’ll be taught to do if you go to one of the big name MFA programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The idea of these rules is to produce tight, clear writing. Some people go so far as to say they teach you to write like John Cheever (though I find this a bit unfair as Robert Coover was faculty at Iowa, and I don’t consider his style to be minimalistic at all).

The idea of this series is to take people famous for their excellent prose and look at whether they follow some of the most common rules. I’ll also try to pick writers from at least 1950 onward, because before “modernism” there were some factors which messed with prose (Dickens was a master, but when you’re paid by installment …).

Rule 1: Avoid repetition. This is vague, but it means at the word level (I saw a saw next to the seesaw), repetition of an idea a paragraph or two later, or repetition of themes/concepts across the whole book. The reasoning is often called “1 + 1 = 1/2.” A technique or word or idea is most effective when done once. The next time it is done, people have seen it, and both lose their punch.

I’ll start with Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer in 2001, which is the novel we’ll examine. It has “rapturous passages” (Entertainment Weekly) and “sharp language” (The New York Times Book Review). I don’t point this out sarcastically. The novel is excellent, and if I ever made an X books everyone should read, it would probably be on it.

I’ll admit, this is not the easiest rule to start with. A rule like “don’t use adverbs” or “don’t use passive voice” is much easier. Luckily, after some scanning, I think I found something. Here’s the start of Part II Chapter 4:

Sammy was thirteen when his father, the Mighty Molecule, came home. The Wertz vaudeville circuit had folded that spring, a victim of Hollywood, the Depression, mismanagement, bad weather, shoddy talent, philistinism, and a number of other scourges and furies whose names Sammy’s father would invoke, with incantatory rage, in the course of the long walks they took together that summer. At one time or another he assigned blame for his sudden joblessness, with no great coherence or logic, to bankers, unions, bosses, Clark Gable, Catholics, Protestants, theater owners, sister acts, poodle acts, monkey acts, Irish tenors, English Canadians, French Canadians, and Mr. Hugo Wertz himself.

As you might have guessed, the technique that gets repeated here is making a long list. The first list contains the reasons that the Wertz vaudeville circuit closed. The second list contains what Sammy’s father blamed losing his job on.

The intended effect is humor. There is no doubt, reading that second list brings a smile to my face as I visualize someone blaming such an absurd list of things. The way it morphs as it goes on is brilliant: sister acts, poodle acts, …

It is hard to see the first list as intended humor. It is more a statement of fact. One could argue that the repetition of the technique in such close proximity is fine here because it is being used for two different purposes, but I’m not so sure.

The first list primes you for the second. Imagine if the first list only contained “the Depression” or “a victim of Hollywood,” and then all the rest got thrown into the second so it morphed from more serious blame to the absurd. My guess is that this would increase the comic effect, not having already just seen a list.

This might seem nitpicky, and I’d agree. I wouldn’t have chosen this example if it ended there. The next paragraph:

The free and careless use of obscenity, like the cigars, the lyrical rage, the fondness for explosive gestures, the bad grammar, and the habit of referring to himself in the third person were wonderful to Sammy; until that summer of 1935, he had possessed few memories or distinct impressions of his father.

I think this is where it crosses the line. Yet another list right after those first two becomes tiresome. This is almost certainly what an editor would tell you if you wrote this book and got it professionally edited. The rule exists for a reason, and if you do a quick mental re-write, you’ll see that the passage becomes much tighter and easy to read with only one list.

But it’s kind of weird to blindly critique a passage out of context like this, so let’s talk about some reasons why such a great writer broke this rule. The narrator of the book has an erudite and exhaustive style. Part of the charm of the book is that it breaks from clean minimalism to present fascinating (but possibly unnecessary) details to create a rich texture surrounding the story.

In the context of the narrative style, these lists fit perfectly. The narrator is so concerned about not being exhaustive with them that he feels the need to qualify with a parenthetical, “And any of the above qualities (among several others his father possessed) would …”

This brings us to the first Golden Rule, a rule that supersedes all others. The problem with these exceptions is that you will often trick yourself into thinking you are allowed to break a rule where you aren’t. These are not excuses! If in doubt, follow the rule.

Golden Rule 1: You may break any other rule in order to create a unique and consistent narrative voice.

This is where the book shines. The narrative voice itself provides so much entertainment independent of the plot. Note that once you break a rule for this reason, you are locked in. You have a long, bumpy road ahead of you. It will take hundreds of times more effort to keep that voice consistent than to keep to the rules.

If it ever falters, you risk giving up the illusion and losing your readers. The end result can be spectacular if you pull it off. Go read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay if you’re interested in an example where it succeeds.

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