How to Read Fiction by Terry Eagleton.
….We may begin with a sentence from John Updike's novel Rabbit at Rest: ‘A shimmery model, skinny as a rail, dimpled and square-jawed like a taller Audrey Hepburn from the Breakfast at Tiffany days, steps out of the car, smiling slyly and wearing a racing driver's egg-helmet with her gown made up it seems of ropes of shimmering light.’ Apart from one rather careless near-repetition (‘shimmery’, ‘shimmering’), this is a highly accomplished piece of writing. Too accomplished, one might feel. It is too clever and calculated by half. Every word seems to have been meticulously chosen, polished, slotted neatly together with the other words and then smoothed over to give a glossy finish. There is not a hair out of place. The sentence is too voulu, too carefully arranged and displayed. It is trying too hard. There is nothing spontaneous about it. It has the air of being over-crafted, as every word is put fastidiously to work, with no loose ends or irregularities. As a result, the piece is artful but lifeless. The adjective ‘slick’ springs to mind. The passage is meant to be a bit of detailed description, but there is so much going on at the level of language, so many busy adjectives and piled-up clauses, that it is hard for us to concentrate on what is being portrayed. The language draws the reader's admiring attention to its own deftness. Perhaps we are particularly invited to admire the way it propels itself through so many sub-clauses, all draped around the main verb ‘steps’, without for a moment losing its balance.
There is a lot of such stuff in Updike's fiction. Take this portrait of a female character from the same novel:
Pru has broadened without growing heavy in that suety Pennsylvania way. As if invisible pry bars have slightly spread her bones and new calcium been wedged in and the flesh gently stretched to fit, she now presents more front. Her face, once narrow like Judy's, at moments looks like a flattened mask. Always tall, she has in the years of becoming a hardened wife and matron allowed her long straight hair to be cut and teased out into bushy wings a little like the hairdo of the Sphinx.
‘Like the hairdo of the Sphinx’ is a pleasing imaginative touch. Once again, however, the passage draws discreet attention to its own cleverness in the act of sketching Pru. This is ‘fine writing’ with a vengeance. The phrase ‘in that suety Pennsylvania way’ is rather too knowing, and the image of the pry bars is striking but too contrived. ‘Contrived’, in fact, is a suitable word for this style of writing as a whole, as Pru herself threatens to disappear beneath the density of detail with which she is overlaid. The passage has the effect of describing an object rather than a person. Its style freezes a living woman into a still life.
Contrast Updike's prose with this extract from Evelyn Waugh's short story ‘Tactical Exercise’:
They arrived on a gusty April afternoon after a train journey of normal discomfort. A taxi drove them eight miles from the station, through deep Cornish lanes, past granite cottages and disused, archaic tin-workings. They reached the village which gave the house its postal address, passed through it and out along a track which suddenly emerged from its high banks into open grazing land on the cliff's edge, high, swift clouds and sea-birds wheeling overhead, the turf at their feet alive with fluttering wild flowers, salt in the air, below them the roar of the Atlantic breaking on the rocks, a middle-distance of indigo and white tumbled waters and beyond it the serene arc of the horizon. Here was the house.
It is not a passage that leaps from the page. It has none of the self-conscious sculpturedness of the Updike piece, and is surely all the better for it. Waugh's prose is crisp, pure and economical. It is reticent and unshowy, as though unaware of the skill with which, for example, it manages to steer a single sentence from ‘They reached the village’ to ‘the serene arc of the horizon’ through so many sub-clauses with no sense of strain or artifice. This sense of expansiveness, of both syntax and landscape, is counterpointed by the terse ‘Here was the house’, which signals a halt both in the story and in the way it is being delivered. ‘A train journey of normal discomfort’ is a pleasantly sardonic touch. ‘Archaic’ might be an adjective too far, but the rhythmic balance of the lines is deeply admirable. There is an air of quiet efficiency about the whole extract. The landscape is portrayed in a set of quick, deft strokes which brings it alive without cluttering the text with too much detail.
Waugh's prose has an honesty and hard-edged realism about it which show up well in contrast to Updike. They also compare well in this respect with the following extract from William Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom!:
In the overcoat buttoned awry over the bathrobe he looked huge and shapeless like a dishevelled bear as he stared at Quentin (the Southerner, whose blood ran quick to cool, more supple to compensate for violent changes in temperature perhaps, perhaps merely nearer the surface) who sat hunched in his chair, his hands thrust into his pockets as if he were trying to hug himself warm between his arms, looking somehow fragile and even wan in the lamplight, the rosy glow which now had nothing of warmth, coziness, in it, while both their breathing vaporized faintly in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four, the two who breathed not individuals now yet something both more and less than twins, the heart and blood of youth. Shreve was nineteen, a few months younger than Quentin. He looked exactly nineteen; he was one of those people whose correct age you never know because they look exactly that and so you tell yourself that he or she cannot possibly be that because he or she looks too exactly that not to take advantage of the appearance: so you never believe implicitly that he or she is either that age which they claim or that which in sheer desperation they agree to or which someone else reports them to be.
This kind of prose, much favoured by some American creative writing courses, has an air of spontaneity about it which is almost entirely fabricated. Despite its casual way with order and convention, it is as artificial as a Petrarchan sonnet. There is something fussy and affected about the way it strives to sound natural. Its air of artlessness is too self-regarding. What is really a kind of clumsiness (‘where there was now not two of them’) is passed off as having the rough edge of real experience. An attempt at impressive intricacy in the final lines comes through as pedantic cleverness. The lines know nothing of tact and reticence. They sacrifice elegance, rhythm and economy to a kind of writing which (as someone once remarked of history) is just one damn thing after another. The passage is too garrulous by half. This is the kind of author whom it would be ferociously hard to shut up. And how on earth can one look exactly nineteen?