So call me Ishmael

If you spend any time on websites designed for would-be writers (or reading “how to be a brilliant writer” books) you’ll have noticed a new orthodoxy has taken hold.
Advice, directives, and critical feedback on manuscripts always includes the following dictates:
– Avoid adjectives and adverbs
– Never use passive voice
– Show don’t tell.
These are pronounced endlessly with that stultifying tone of the pedant. The writing police patrol with their grammar-checker baton. Sometimes they teach courses or even write books about it.
Yet the first rule is ludicrous in every sense. Granted, adjectives and adverbs aren’t fairy dust to be sprinkled at whim, but the oft-repeated injunction to avoid them at all cost is … Pardon me while I search for an adjective to describe it.
The second two rules are based in perfectly good advice, but have become ludicrously over-stated, especially since most zealots (and Microsoft Word) seem unable to tell passive voice from past tense out of context.
Voice is pivotal: to create a voice, a writer plays with language, with sound, with tense – with everything at her or his disposal.
Here’s what the original style gurus, Strunk and White, had to say:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable.

Let’s address this deadening imperialism of style that calls for every writer, regardless of the effect they seek, to sound the same as everyone else. The object of this exercise is to turn everyone, no matter what their natural style or genre, into a B-grade Hemingway (or sometimes Mailer) read-a-like.
Someone I’ve never met recently posted comments on this blog. He later visited my website for kids, found an extract from my book, and rewrote it according to these rules so that 12-year-old Lily Swann sounds just like Jake Barnes. (“I warned you”, he commented, furious at me for suggesting there were illiterate people in the US. Thanks for sharing.)
Melville’s first line of Moby Dick is often quoted as the best example of this most direct narrative style. “Call me Ishmael.” Ignore the rest of the book, with its metaphysical meandering, not to mention all those superfluous adjectives. Just stick with the first short sentence.
So how about some of those other famous first sentences?
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a good wife,” really ought to read: “Rich men must marry – everyone knows that”.
I’ve written before that Dickens would never get away with the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities nowadays: too much telling, instead of showing.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Here’s another obvious travesty:

He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which hung from the rafters.
– Orlando

The writing police would issue a ticket to Miss Sackville-West, and rewrite it as: “A Moor’s head hung from the rafters. He sliced it.”
How about this blooper?

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
– The Bell Jar.

Two adjectives! Sylvia, you should be ashamed.
(By the way, one of my favourite first lines is: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” from Dodie Smith’s probably far too lyrical I Capture the Castle.)
This is how we’re all supposed to sound:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

It’s spare, dust-dry writing (pardon the adjectives) aimed at a certain effect which it achieves, of course, perfectly. Few people can achieve that precision. Few people can get away with it. No punctuation at all. No adjectives – unless you count “late” – although the second sentence includes some adjectives and commas:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

Sure. I wanted to be Hemingway when I grew up, too. But the world is not full of Hemingways, all books are not A Farewell to Arms, other writers either can’t or don’t wish to replicate his style, and people write who (amazing though it may be) are not American men. Bad Hemingway impersonations, which are legion, are a great deal worse than an original passive voice dotted with adjectives.
Hemingway, funnily enough, would have hated this new regime. Fitzgerald would have laughed. Then they would have had a drink.
Most importantly, writing before and after Hemingway is filled with myriad possibilities and precedents.
Without that multitude of voices, styles, character, imagination and cultural differences the world would be a dusty plain indeed.

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