There’s a great article in The Atlantic entitled “A Reader’s Manifesto” that takes contemporary American fiction to task. It’s from 2001, but it’s a must-read for anyone who writes fiction, as the author takes on many trends that we are all guilty of participating in at some point. Here’s a quote regarding Annie Proulx:
The short stories in Close Range are full of this kind of writing. “The Half-Skinned Steer” (which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, in November of 1997), starts with this sentence:
“In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.”
Like so much modern prose, this demands to be read quickly, with just enough attention to register the bold use of words. Slow down, and things fall apart. Proulx seems to have intended a unified conceit, but unfurling, or spreading out, as of a flag or an umbrella, clashes disastrously with the images of thread that follow. (Maybe “unraveling” didn’t sound fancy enough.) A life is unfurled, a hustler is wound tight, a year is spooled out, and still the metaphors continue, with kicked down—which might work in less crowded surroundings, though I doubt it—and hinge, which is cute if you’ve never seen a hinge or a map of the Big Horns. And this is just the first sentence!
Read the whole thing.
Please take note: this was written in 2001, and I still see this kind of writing all the time, especially coming from writers with “an MFA from [X University]” in their bios. It’s forgivable in junior high writing, but aggravating in adults whose job it is to tell a damn story.
Metaphors and similes should mean something. When Faulkner writes, “Caddy smelled like trees,” there’s a reason: Benjy needs Caddy to smell like trees because he relies on it for his emotional security, and he becomes upset when she doesn’t.
We’re all guilty of a purple phrase here and there or a weird metaphor, but I agree with Myers that this type of writing has become a signifier of a serious artist rather than clumsy experimentation.
My job is to communicate with the reader; if the reader is confused, it had better be because that was my intent. If not, I have failed, and it’s not just because the reader is too unsophisticated to get it.
(Hat tip: Vox Day)