Monday, January 16, 2012

In Praise of Long Sentences

I was glad to find Pico Iyer, in a recent issue of the LA Times, singing the praises of the long sentence, something I regularly do with my workshop students, even if they are puzzled or turned off by sentences (like this one) that seem to ramble, like speech, even if they fear that a long sentence like this might be ungrammatical, which it ain't, or worry that such writing is artificial, which it might be if it isn't done carefully, with balanced phrases and clauses that pile up to amplify a main point.

I am grateful to Mary Ann DiStefano of Mad About Words for today's weekly newsletter, which provided a link to Iyer's piece.

Iyer likes the long sentence, balanced, of course, with shorter ones, because he sees it as a protest against the speed of information that comes at us from all sources. He wonders if telegraphic writing is "a way of keeping our thinking simplistic." Well, it can be.

The long sentence is expansive in the way it opens the reader to various levels of meaning and ambiguity, enabling him or her to descend deeper into herself and into complex ideas that "won't be squeezed into an either/or."

The longish sentences I share with my students come from fiction (T. C. Boyle, among others) and non-fiction (Gay Talese, among others). As I struggle with my own piece of fiction, I find myself using shorter sentences than usual because I want to capture the speech of my anxious narrator, and I wonder if the longer sentence is not more suited to "long form journalism" or discursive non-fiction. It all depends.

Some of the really long sentences I have collected have been pretentious or unreadable (as in Henry James), but most are wonderful ways of listening to writers as they take us, in Iyer's words, "further from the predictable and normal and deeper into dimensions I hadn't dared to contemplate."

Of course, everything depends on the writer's subject, but writers need stylistic options. They can write trailing, expansive sentences that tell the reader, like a dentist, "Open wider," so I can probe more thoroughly; but they have to be careful not to overdo these and to balance them with shorter sentences so that readers can catch their breath. Writing just one such sentence can be fun.

If anyone reading this has a long, expansive, descriptive sentence (written in the last 20 years or so) worth sharing, send it to me at my e-mail:

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