Sunday, December 23, 2007

Who is teaching this?

Alicia said:

Atlantic Monthly critic BJ Myers asks a similar question, Theresa, quoting Denis Johnson's "spot on" imitation of Annie Proulx broken-up description: "She waited in a dirt-floor café. Tin-roofed, straw paneled. Sat at a table drinking hot tea from a tin can...."

Who is teaching this, he (she?) asks?

To me, it sort of sounds like the writer is making it up as he goes along, not bothering to go back and make a real sentence of his occasional thoughts. I think the problem is that this technique is wasted on minor, trivial moments-- the character sitting and waiting-- when if you're going that way, you ought to save it for moments when the character is so emotionally distraught or mentally distracted that it's clear that it's she the character, not you the writer, who can't form an English sentence. :)

To have that sort of staccato rhythm regardless of who is the POV character-- in most scenes, for example-- means that it will have no weight at all. It'll set up a sort of jagged rhythm, yes, but it won't give a glimpse of the inner life of the character, or that character's voice or perspective, or even what's going on at this particular moment.

For example, let's say that a writer doesn't bother with punctuation in order to create a sort of stream-of-consciousness flow. The trouble is, then, that when, during a sex scene, maybe, or a moment before death, she goes into that period-free flow, it won't have any emphasis. Here's a classic erotic moment, with the eroticism shown by the inability of Molly Bloom to focus when she's aroused--

...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Now some will point out that Joyce uses stream of consciousness throughout Ulysses, and that's true, but notice that the characters have their own ways of streaming. Molly goes for repetition (yes) and flow, while Bloom goes on and on and then suddenly erupts into UPPER CASE letters, and Stephen Dedalus has the careful controlled constructions of the truly but cautiously insane.
That is, each character's character still controls when she/he is narrating-- each narrates in a particular way. And notice that each reserves the most ferocious streaming for the most important moments.

Selection is all. What works at a particularly emotionally fraught moment can be incomprehensible and annoying anywhere else. I am a natural editor, and get very irritated at inadequate punctuation (made even worse this semester by a group of students who seem to think that their emails to me their professor should resemble their text messages to friends, that is, telegraphically-- boy, am I showing my age!-- spelled and unpunctuated). But that Molly Bloom excerpt worked wonderfully for me. It "sounded" like she felt. But you know, if every character felt that way all the time... well, I bet they wouldn't get much done in Dublin. :)

So... I guess what we're saying is-- don't be annoying all the time. Be annoying only when it's essential to convey your meaning and enhance the reader's experience.


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