Problems with Prose

We seem to be living in the age of over-writing, and I’m growing fatigued by it. The advice given to new writers is just the absolute worst it can get, and it is even leading publishers to seek out novels which follow this bad advice. We need to stop this nonsense once and for all because it means that great books actually do not get published anymore- works by those I would call truly misunderstood geniuses. Misunderstood at least by the industry. Aside from the general lack of depth, and the contrivances of most plot building, etc, the biggest problem is with prose. The use modifiers these days has reached a point where, in books such as City on Fire, there are approximately three layers of modification in a typical sentence. Let’s take a look at the first paragraph of the prologue-

In New York, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West Sixteenth Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a Mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in forty minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man- younger, I should say- you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.

-City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

This is nowhere near as bad as it gets, and yet this book was sold for $2 million! Now, some of you may be wondering what exactly is wrong with the prose, you may be so used to writing like this that it doesn’t faze you. Okay,  observe how Hallberg adds details that are ultimately superfluous- even though this information can be conveyed in a more graceful manner besides. There are better ways than this. There are also run on sentences with multiple clauses: which are, not only confusing, wordy and awkward to boot. But then you see some of the reviews this word-vomit got, oh boy-

A symphonic epic… A big, stunning first novel and an amazing virtual reality machine… Captures the city’s dangerous, magnetic allure… A novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power- a novel that attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.

-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

I would have to quote Kakutani, wouldn’t I? Her BS is always the most entertaining.

Now, if you still don’t get why I think COF, and writing like this in general, is plain bad, I’ll ask you a question: where is the voice of the book’s first-person narrator? Does it sound like a person, or does it sound like a pretentious ‘writer’ trying too hard to come across as sophisticated? ‘Mesozoic half-stick of butter,’ are you kidding? The guy wrote over 900 pages of this shit during his 30s and he’s lauded as both prodigy and genius!

I apologize for getting riled up about this and believe me, I’m not doing it for views. My best-received content is low on negative criticism. People just don’t want to hear it. The problem is not Hallberg, but the entire establishment of lit and lit criticism. If you search ‘how to write descriptively’ into Google, the first video that comes up is a titular piece [of crap] by Nalo Hopkinson, which was produced by TED. Now, I ask, anyone who dares lose brain cells watching it: do you really consider what they gave as exemplary of great prose to be so? Is it not just a bunch of clichés, and over-modified clichés? Such metaphors as are so out of touch with reality that, had they not provided the simple, to the point sentences at the beginning, would you even have a clue, say, that Billy was Nauseous? The first is so ridiculous a ‘description’ that it actually gives one nausea just to hear it read aloud.

Now, the other thing wrong with descriptive writing today- this I’ve mentioned before- is the over-use of sensory data. It’s following the ‘show don’t tell’ rule, or so people think. Actually, this rule has nothing to do with trying to draw a picture of every little thing and make you viscerally feel what the characters feel. This took me a long time to figure out. It was when I was a kid and first learning to write, something of a mystery to me what use books were when movies existed. What use are the Hunger Games books if the movies exist, aside from having a slightly different plot, or containing more stuff within the plot? It turns out, the novel as a form is a highly versatile thing because it uses language, something that taps into every part of our minds. But that’s just the thing novels are without equal in their ability to access the mind. Okay, they might not be as efficient as poetry, but novels have many elements that poems simply do not, which can make it hard to find the balance between poetic and other- such as filmic- techniques.

There is an obsession with characters running, jumping, struggling. fighting. The reason for this, I believe, is that people think the more visceral the better. Well, this is simply not true. It’s an offshoot of over-saturating fiction with visual details. Unless details are important, you are better off building character and moving things forward. Minimal visual data is best, as no matter how well you describe someone’s features or attire, no two readers are going to have the same mental image. It is not essential anyway. More important than the characters appearance is their mind, outward expression, and actions. It is often just a way to show off the writers ability to string words together, and also perhaps a case of writer’s block in disguise, which makes authors think they have license to tap away at the keyboard and say nothing. You should oscillate between showing and telling, but you need to learn how to do both of these very well, and this is not an easy task given resources. Read Moby Dick, which is the best primarily told novel in print. One of the greatest primarily shown novels in print is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Work hard, do something creative with the form. Over-writing- modification, and saturation- only serves to make all fiction read the same. Get to the core of what matter, and beautiful, unique prose, will follow of their own accord.


    1. I don’t even know how I made that mistake. I must have been thinking of Kazuo Ishiguro.

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