13 mar. 2008

Maybe I should have a feature on good prose, to balance the "scourge of bad writing" thread. It's not as much fun, maybe, but it might have some utility. I think Reginald Shepherd has enviable prose chops; let's see how he does it:

I have always had a fondness for verbal extravagance in poetry, for rhetorical splendor and a fine excess.

Strong opening: direct and eloquent, but just a little pleonastic: end the sentence after the word poetry, and something would be missing. I would have credited Keats for the "fine excess" phrase, but maybe he's counting on his readers to know the origin of the phrase: "Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity, it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance." .

One should be suspicious of such excess to a certain extent (Eliot wrote that a poet should always be suspicious of language), lest it descend into mere self-indulgence.

A reversal of direction, an apparent qualification of the first statement. Eliot against Keats? Note that that the first sentence has no qualifiers, and the second one has "to a certain extent" and "mere."

But ours is, in French novelist Nathalie Sarraute’s phrase, an age of suspicion, in which intensity of feeling and expression is an embarrassment, at best an admission of lack of discipline and self-control, at worst an invalidation of whatever one may have to say. “You’re being so emotional,” people say, as if to feel strongly cancels out the worth of one’s thoughts, arguments, or positions. .

These two sentences constitute another reversal, going back to the first idea. Rather than affirming the value of emotionality directly, the writer disparages suspicion, pointing out that it, too, is excessive. There concludes the paragraph. I like the "at best... at worst" construction; it has both clarity and balance. Notice how the longest sentence of the paragraph does most of the heavy intellectual lifting. The concluding sentence brings it home with a concrete example.

All the sentences in the short paragraph attribute opinions to someone or other. First the authorial "I," then Eliot, Sarraute, and "people." The effect of this is to establish an intellectual conversation among multiple voices. Maybe it would be too much to bring in Keats in the first sentence after all.

There's a little bit of slippage between verbal and rhetorical excess, on the one hand, and emotionality, on the other. Not at all the same thing. The rest of the essay will explore those issues so that's not necessarily a flaw.

Is this how I would have written this paragraph? Not at all. I would have made a different set of choices, but I doubt I could have done it better.

The point of fine-combed analysis like this is this: you have to learn to do it to your own prose, because that is how good writers learn to write.