Sunday, July 19, 2009

Over-modification that's really cool

Just want to point to one of my favorite over-modified phrases, just to show I'm not a fuddy-duddy:
...the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts...

That's Faulkner -- Absalom, Absalom. I have always loved that "garrulous outraged baffled ghosts," and loved how he did it without commas to create that propulsive effect.

Why is that okay and "towering high mountains" isn't?

1) It's not redundant. None of those adjectives are synonyms, and none of them are obvious connections to "ghosts".

2) Each modifier adds something new and surprising. Garrulous ghosts? Outraged ghosts? Baffled ghosts? Those are some cool ghosts.

3) "Ghosts" itself is a modifier, or at least a descriptor, a metaphor (the people in the south aren't actually dead) for the lost and angry white Southerners who just couldn't believe they could lose the war, or especially that they SHOULD lose the war.

4) The modifiers are interesting words, and well-chosen (though when I recite it, I often reverse the last two because the rhythm sounds better to me). None of them clearly lead to each other, but together they resonate-- garrulous but baffled, and of course they'd be outraged if they are garrulous (expressive, loud) and baffled, and especially if they find themselves to be ghosts.

5) The phrase expresses something interesting, something meaningful. There's no triteness there in that phrase, no slackness. It's taut and thoughtful; it expresses the anguish and fury that powered the vicious actions of the post-war century.

6) It sounds good. I'm not sure why. I like the garrulous/ghosts alliteration. Also there are several a-sounds, but notice each is a different a-- gAHr, rAYged, bAAff. And several O sounds, also each different -US, OU, OH. I think it has all those sound links, but also profoundly different sounds, hard-g and fricative f and the plosive B. I'm a sound slut. If it sounds good, I don't care about sense or meaning or depth.

But there is meaning and sense and depth. This is over-modified with purpose, as so many of Faulkner's great sentences are-- piling on the power and the meaning with each word. Can't you just hear one of those ghosts? "I'm garrulous! And I'm outraged! And I'm baffled, goddamnit!"

That's voice. That's taut and meaningful and reflective of the situation. The over-modification forces an accumulation of emotion and theme that adds great depth.

You have control over your sentences. You can make meaning by combining words. And you can break the rules whenever you like-- as long as it adds to the meaning-- and the reader gets it. (So often, frankly, writers say, "Oh, I did that comma splice or sentence fragment to convey XYZ," but if the reader doesn't immediately get it or feel it, you haven't done it right.)

I just love that. Garrulous outraged baffled ghosts. They're still there. I was just in Richmond (my family is there), and those ghosts are roaming Monument Ave., still grumbling because Arthur Ashe was given a monument on the boulevard of Confederate generals. I just hope Arthur is a triumphant happy serene ghost. :)



Wes said...

Very interesting.

Adrian said...

"... if the reader doesn't immediately get it or feel it, you haven't done it right."

By that rule, Faulkner didn't do it right. At least not for me. I re-read that quote three times and still didn't grok it until you explained it. I couldn't even parse it because of the missing commas.

Patience-please said...

I'm hoping that Frank McCourt is a soaring joyful serene ghost.

Laurel said...

I adore Faulkner and always think of him when people lament overuse of modifiers and verbiosity in general. On the other hand, I doubt he would get published today.

Faulkner was also quintessentially Southern. We have raised hyperbolic vernacular to an art form here and engage in it for both comedic and dramatic effect. It's impossible to turn it off. Faulkner just did it with a much better vocabulary than the rest of us.

Riley Murphy said...

You, a fuddy-duddy? NEVER! But um, after reading this post I might be rethinking my take on the 'old haunted gate' back at the cemetery.;)

Anonymous said...

Adrian, well, by the time you reach that passage int he book, you'll have gotten kind of used to his peculiarities. :)

I remember he was in love with the word "immutable," and he used it all the time. Every chapter if he could.


Laurel said...


THANK YOU! I have been trying to pin down the source of my fascination with that word. It keeps cropping up in my writing and it stands out. Not really a word you can use six or seven times in an MS and not notice.

Anne Rice does the same thing with "evince". Great words are better when used judiciously.

Wes said...

Laurel, your comment about Faulkner and southern vernacular really struck a cord with me. I'm shopping an historical novel set in New Mexico in 1821 in which the characters speak and think in southern vernacular of the time. I get a lot of grief about the language from agents and editors. I've watered it down quite a bit so readers don't have to struggle with it, but it still isn't PC. Life wasn't PC then. Besides a major theme of the MS is slavery as practiced in the southwest.

Laurel said...

Good luck, Wes! I hope you can make it palatable and authentic.

It seems absurd to try and ignore ugly realities of our history and past but I'm sure people are just terrified of alienating the audience if word gets out that the language in the book is offensive.

Tricky, that.

Edittorrent said...

Laurel, I love "evince" too. I love all sorts of words that stick out like sore thumbs.

"Opprobrium"-- love that word.


"Phalange." Don't ask me why. It's actually sort of an ugly word.

"Lingering"-- only the participle. I don't like "linger".


And "darkling," which I bet John Keats just made up. Darkling, I listen.

Oh, and "listen."

I like "L" words. (And I'm straight. :)






I think it's a good sentence when I can use one (or all :) of those.

Laurel said...

"Lingering" actually lingers longer than its non-participial counterpart.

It's practically an onomatopoeia! How could you not love it?

How about "sussurations"? One of my all time faves!

Edittorrent said...

Well, how come "abbreviation" is such a long word? :)

Where did I read that? Some novel had the hero's father listing questions about the weirdnesses of English. It was funny. I wish I could remember.

Laurel said...

Okay, how cool is this? And then I swear I'll stop bugging you about the words, I swear.

Last night we popped in BBC's "Jeeves and Wooster" and Jeeves used the word "oprobrious!"

Leona said...


AS many agents have mentioned in their blogs, their opinion is just that - an opinion. If it goes against what your gut is telling you about your story, stick to what you know. You will eventually find the right agent who is willing to keep your voice, and will help you make it 'palatable' for today's readers.

Personally, I don't like it when an historical isn't historically correct. Call me crazy.

I know a lot of readers who don't read historicals because of too many inaccuracies (not to be mixed up with artistic license) that drive them up the wall.

Also, using the venacular of the day is part of how a writer gets the reader into the correct time period.

Maybe I'm steering you wrong, but, in my opinion, if you spend too much time trying to please everybody, you'll please nobody and your book will lose its power.

(I've been out of loop for weeks due to lots of circumstances. Currently stranded in Roswell, New Mexico. Transmission blew. Prob be here 2 more days, but... I have internet!!! LOL)