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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James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane are literary geniuses. They're the exceptions. Even so, I bet you'll find that most of their sentences can be read in a single breath.

They're not exceptions. There are plenty of authors with skilz who do the same thing.

From the southwest corner one step to the bathroom, one step from the bathroom to the bed and night table, one step from the table to the northwest corner, two steps to a pair of single-paned windows looking out on Twenty-ninth Street, three steps across the windows to the side table with the phone, half a step to the northeast corner, one step to the hall door, one step from the door to the sofa, two steps from the other end of the sofa to the southwest corner, half a step to the closet door, half a step from the door to the bureau and another step from the bureau back to the southwest corner. [From Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park.]

I turned away from the house and picked my way around the construction debris in the failing light until I was back in front of the mansion, in the forecourt, near the broken fountain, where Susan's Jaguar had once sat and where she and I once stood, in a picture-perfect setting, like an ad for something good and expensive, and I fancied I saw Susan and me standing there waiting for someone to answer the door on that spring evening. [From Nelson DeMille's The Gold Coast.]

Like shooting fish in a barrel, Jude. 

But of course you're right in that most sentences should be read in a single breath. If that wasn't true then exceptionally long sentences wouldn't have as much impact.

I should add that when I agree that "most sentences" should be capable of being read in a single breath that might mean 95% for some books but only, say, 60% in others, such as with some works of historical fiction, as Jack has already mentioned. And the voice chosen to tell the story is another key determinant in the mix.

Those aren't nearly as nice as the first two. I would have edited the hell out of them. ;)

Here's one of my own, from Crosscut, a run-on really, done for effect. I originally had the entire paragraph as one long stream-of-consciousness sentence, but my editor recommended I break it up. So I agree long sentences do have their place, but for the most part I think the single breath rule is a good one.

By the time I dislodged the knife he had rolled onto the floor and I went at him overhand knowing this was it and I was going to open him up like a melon but then there was an explosion and another and another and another and the world got hazy and dim and I dropped the knife and fell to the floor.

Much of that would get very tiresome very quickly, IMO.

Lehane's is the only sentence that doesn't need editing, IMHO.

Very true, Jackson.

By now, this has become distanced a long way from Jackson's post.

My thanks for the quotes.  I enjoyed all of them.  And I think that proves the point that we read for more than the story and sometimes we want more than bare bones.  James Lee Burke does stunning descriptions.  Alas, description is also often banned from genre novels.

I like Elmore Leonard--he's great at story--but his prose is often so skeletal that it can feel like he's just phoning it in.  I think if you're good at description, go for it!  If you're good at writing elegant prose, go for it!  If you want to make a gajillion dollars as a writer, though, then the Lee Child approach of writing at a 7th grade level, or whatever, is probably a good bet.  Also, porn!  And vampires!!  I'm not interested in dumbing down the prose in order to reach a broader audience, personally.  For me it's a question of integrity, but mostly I'd just get bored.  Ultimately I write to entertain myself, which probably explains my current sales numbers.  I may not be getting rich, but on the other hand I have a body of work that I'm proud of--I can honestly say it's the best writing of which I was capable at the time.  I'd be a little embarrassed to have gotten rich by writing adult-themed prose at a 7th grade reading level.  Of course, between the hookers, blow, and villa on Lake Como, I'd get over it eventually.


I'm not interested in dumbing down the prose in order to reach a broader audience, personally.

I wouldn't say that writing economically necessarily equates to dumbing down. It actually requires quite a bit of skill and effort. Maybe even more than what is required for the rambling fat wearisome textbook prose we see in some books, with all the dashes and commas and semi-colons cluttering up the page like dusty old figurines. Ask Cormac McCarthy if he dumbs anything down. I know I certainly don't. I try to write lean and clean because, in my opinion, it's a purer way to tell a story. Not because I'm worried about the education level of my audience.

I don't like Cormac McCarthy.  I see absolutely no reason for the hype there.


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