Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Sentence

I have often said that the most important thing for me in reading a novel (or indeed in reading anything) is the writing.  A good sentence can make up for a bad plot twist.  This is, of course, a gross generalization.  A novel with a bad plot is a bad novel.  But a novel with a good plot is not, in my view, necessarily a good novel.  A good novel needs a good plot and it needs good characterization, but mostly it needs good writing. 

But I never get any farther in that analysis because it is hard for me to define what I consider good writing.  Today I found the transcript of a speech given by the short story writer Gary Lutz to the students of Columbia University's writing program last September.  In the speech he talked about how he evolved as a reader and eventually learned to love reading and he said, far better than I ever could, what he was looking for when he read:

As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.

Yes.  A novel with sentences that are works of art in and of themselves, even when separated from the rest of the work.  That is my favorite kind of novel.

The rest of Lutz' speech was about sentences.  I found much of it interesting, although I am not a writer. 

The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish. But too often our habitual and hasty breaking away from one sentence to another results in sentences that remain undeveloped parcels of literary real estate, sentences that do not feel fully inhabitated and settled in by language. So many of the sentences we confront in books and magazines look unfinished and provisional, and start to go to pieces as soon as we gawk at and stare into them. They don’t hold up. Their diction is often not just spare and stark but bare and miserly.

This is how I feel about much of what I read.  That the writer has a good idea for a novel but hasn't spent nearly enough time and effort on the sentences that make up the novel.  As Lutz goes on to describe, even if the syntax and grammar are correct and the sentence conveys the idea that the writer wants to get across, it will not be a great sentence without more.  

These writers recognize that there needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words. This intimacy is what we mean when we say of a piece of writing that it has a felicity—a fitness, an aptness, a rightness about the phrasing. The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other—the way people and their dogs are said to come to resemble each other, the way children take after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech. A pausing, enraptured reader should be able to look deeply into the sentence and discern among the words all of the traits and characteristics they share. The impression to be given is that the words in the sentence have lived with each other for quite some time, decisive time, and have deepened and grown and matured in each other’s company—and that they cannot live without each other.

I buy books that I hope will make me a pausing, enraptured reader. I am disappointed when I find, instead, that I have purchased a page-turner. Lingering over a poetical sentence is my idea of heaven.   At last, someone has described my heaven for me.