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)."
One day, I'm going to swing for the commercial fences and just write short sentences that increase readability in order to cater to the widest number of people. Then, after I get the money coming in, I'll push the arts/craft stuff.
I call it the Radiohead effect. Make some money, then get weird.
:) What if you lose your touch or fall in love with the money, Benjamin?
Impossible. I will always love money. And my touch will forever be...measurable.
My computer broke, so I'm barely back, having lost all sorts of good stuff in the transition. Sorry for not posting sooner.
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.
That's fine, if it's honest and deliberate and it makes you happy. But I've never met a writer who wouldn't rather have a million readers than a thousand. I guess they're out there...
I'm reminded of that old Maria Muldaur song "It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion." Thomas Wolfe, the great Southern author, wrote beautiful prose in mostly long sentences of depth and meaning. His narratives aren't particularly satisfying, though, because he used the same sentence patterns, length, and structure over and over. Here's my point: the rhythm of one's writing should be appropriate to the scene and what is sought to be accomplished. Varying the length and structure of sentences keeps readers engaged while accomplishing the writer's purpose.
the rhythm of one's writing should be appropriate to the scene and what is sought to be accomplished. Varying the length and structure of sentences keeps readers engaged while accomplishing the writer's purpose.
I agree. But there's a tipping point, I think, in modern literature anyway, where a sentence becomes too ambitious and should be broken in two. If you can't read it out loud in a single breath, it's probably too long. If your eyes glaze over and you start thinking about what you need at the grocery store, it's probably a bloated mess that needs to be crossed out and revised.
Don't know about the single breath test, but otherwise agreed
With straight commercial genre fiction I think the breath test serves okay; on the other hand, it's taking a tool out of the chest, and super long sentences even in straight commercial genre fiction can be made to work if there is an effect in mind.
The time of the story and the action of the scene are both relevant. Historical fiction is not served well by short sentences throughout. And action scenes require a certain choppiness. However, I've seen absolutely galloping action in, say, Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series rendered by sentences that were long, but crammed full with individual action shots following each other without pause. So Jackson was quite right that it is a matter of the rhythm. Sentence structure is very important because the rhythm of the sentence can render the mood, atmosphere, or rapidity of events.
So I think that, for guys like James Patterson and Dan Brown and Harlan Coben, etc., the breath test is followed by and large. But get just a bit literary in the mystery and suspense category and you'll run into sentences no one could utter in one breath:
Just before the sun broke above the Gulf's rim, the wind, which had blown the waves with ropes of foam all night, suddenly died and the sky became as white and brightly grained as polished bone, as though all color had been bled out of the air, and the gulls that had swooped and glided over my wake lifted into the haze and the swells flattened into an undulating sheet of liquid tin dimpled by the leathery backs of stingrays. [From James Lee Burke's Sunset Limited]
They parted the crowd milling near the doorway as they pulled the cooler over by the table against the dining room wall, and Celeste noticed that the entire room turned to watch them place it under the table, as if the burden between them suddenly wasn't an oversize cooler of hard red plastic but the daughter Jimmy would bury this week, the daughter who had brought them all here to mingle and eat and see if they hade the courage to say her name. [From Dennis Lehane's Mystic River]