Sunday, March 18, 2012

Life Sentences

I was happy to see in today's New York Times an article by Jhumpa Lahiri, "My Life's Sentences," on the importance and beauty of sentences.

This is a topic I explore with my writing students each year. Like Lahiri, I save memorable sentences, and I agree with his summation: It is "a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a person, a place, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do."

He and I share the habit of fussing with sentences until the meaning or character emerges; I am not one who writes a draft, then revises each sentence so that it is as polished, mature, and expressive as I can make it. The joy in writing comes with shaping each sentence and discovering new, maybe even transcendent things.

Can this art be taught? That's a question I have long wrestled with. Wide reading and the absorption of the work of many great stylists can certainly affect one's emerging style, but this assumes years of reading that many would-be writers are unable to bring to their work. Imitating the work of others can be futile and counter-productive.

Sometimes too much education inhibits good writing. I am thinking of academic writing and of a piece by Bruce Cole I recently read. He laments the fact that few academic scholars "survive the tyranny of their doctorates" to reach a wider audience. I remember how my own dissertation had to conform to the director's ornate, almost pretentious phrasing and how my articles and reviews on 17th century literature, aimed at other experts, had to sound equally artificial, slightly inflated, and trendy. And I learned in the university that writing intellectually challenging material in clear prose for the general reader, as David McCullough and Garry Wills admirably do--despite Wills having a Ph.D.--is not good for one's career.

Barbara Tuchman once confessed that, if she had gone for a Ph.D., it would have ruined her writing capacity. She went on to produce numerous award-winning historical studies. I wonder how many graduate students who want to be writers see that scholarly writing is not in their best interest. I admire storytellers like Tuchman and McCullough who do solid research but keep an eye out for the wider culture and audience. Alas, there are too few of them.

In the postmodern world of academia, scholarly articles and books are often so deadly in their style--impersonal, passive, wordy, pretentious--that they become almost parodies of themselves. The language of the social sciences has infected literary criticism, which has been dominated by issues of race, gender, and class for the past two decades. At least in this country. English academics (at least when they write journalistic pieces) are more readable and fresh.

The main problem with academic jargon is that students, encouraged to read such articles, pick up this disembodied, overheated language in an effort to sound more impressive. The ordinary, direct beauty of an English sentence disappears. Here is an example of a sentence a former university colleague shared with me recently from one of his honors students:

"It can be theorized that the emergence of the modern femme fatale archetype was valorized as an integral, even essential, part of the bourgeois culture in nineteenth-century Europe." Can you imagine 20 pages of this sort of thing? The student apparently thought this imitation of what he or she had read was good writing.

Yet if I were to tell the student who wrote this to "use your own language" and avoid "imitating the academic style of what you have read," he would probably be puzzled and/or offended, assuming I was implying plagiarism.

Is there a chance of bringing such ambitious students back down to earth, immersing them in The New Yorker and other journals in which writers produce memorable, witty, or descriptive sentences that make a difference both for the writer and the reader? I would like to think so--if the teacher values good prose style, which begins with respect for the magic of the individual sentence, as well as research. That is, if the teacher remains human.

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