This is by Pico Iyer, courtesy of "The Passive Voice" and offered here merely for consideration that writing comes in many forms and with many aims:



"No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the “gaps,” as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind)."

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Long sentences are definitely not lowest common denominator writing. Not all readers wish to be mentally challenged to hold more than one thought in their head at the same time. Not all enjoy the nuances of the English language. But I must say as a novelist that I'm having more fun writing long sentences--the narrator of my WIP is a Victorian-like stuffed shirt in love with the sound of his own voice--than the shorter ones (on average) that I've written in the past. 

Even those of us who write trashy, grocery store novels can sneak in bits and pieces of language intended to make the reader's experience with our words soar beyond the mere escape from the daily doings of our predictable lives, and glimpse that which could be and that which exists beyond the edge of our cubical or the tug of our tool-belt, to see that which refreshes the soul and mollifies the temper, taking us to a sacred place within and raising the hope that the next scene, the next chapter, the next book in the series will again deliver an exquisite moment to savor.

You know I like long sentences, too.

I'm with Elmore Leonard: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

The goal with fiction is not to show off your command of the English language. The goal with fiction is to entertain readers. If your novel reads like some kind of textbook, you're probably not going to have much of an audience.

I think it's possible to have commercial success despite lots of long sentences. Faulkner comes immediately to mind. A contemporary example might be Ian McEwan perhaps?

And within the mystery/suspense genre? Maybe John le Carre?

Other examples?

The thing is, Jude, some readers ARE entertained by a beautiful metaphor or turn of phrase, even a well crafted, tortuous sentence. (They are in the minority, no doubt, but you can make a living serving minority populations.)

Jude, that depends on the reader.  The reaction "it sounds like a text book" is what many of my students would have said.  The trouble was that pretty much anything beyond a sports magazine sounded like a textbook to them.  They did not have a very good vocabulary because they hadn't read very oftwen in their lives and that brought up the second complaint: "I don't understand it."  The third complaint was "it doesn't relate to me."


But you are quite right.  There isn't a very large audience for books with long sentences out there.  Still that doesn't mean the fiction is synonymous with light entertainment.

What are you making them read? Try some Hemingway or some Steinbeck or maybe even (gasp!) Chandler. Or dozens of other fine writers who were also popular and who require no dictionary to read. If they still have the same complaints, they probably need to start over at about the fifth grade.

And the primary goal of fiction is to entertain. If you're not doing that first, then nothing else you're trying to do is going to matter.

I don't understand why anyone would want to alienate 99% of their audience just to show off some fancy syntax and hundred dollar words (they've gone up since Twain's time). Writers need readers. The more the merrier.

And I already defined Ordinary reader: one who is not an editor or fellow author.

I don't understand why anyone would want to alienate 99% of their audience just to show off some fancy syntax and hundred dollar words (they've gone up since Twain's time).


The short answer is there are some authors who don't write for the philistines, er, the average reader, but for the intelligentsia, or they write only for themselves, art for art's sake.

What I find most interesting and encouraging is the way authors have begun to meld popular art and high art. Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, for example, works as literary fiction AND as a mystery/suspense novel.

The best crafted sentences are the ones that don't call attention to themselves, IMO. I notice "great" writing, and I notice poor writing, and they both tend to take me out of the story. Writing should be as invisible as possible to the ordinary reader (as opposed to the editor or the fellow author, who will probably recognize the beauty of its simplicity).

On craft, Elmore rules, but Eric's point is well-taken. I think of "literary fiction" as a sub-genre -- like zombie romance.

Forgot to say that I recently read some good historical fiction, and longer sentences and a formal, even poetic way of speaking seemed well-fitted to the characters and the story. It worked, and I'm sure it worked better by skipping some of Elmore's rules. 

Define "Ordinary reader."


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