The Dea(r)th of Good Prose


Okay, here's my chance to give equal opportunity offense, but please stay with me through this, it may or may not have a point.

I belong to two reading groups--one catholic and one noncatholic. Our noncatholic group tends to read a lot of contemporary stuff along with a good mixture of older prose. Recently I've noticed a really depressing trend in literature. The books that the critics are touting as "great" "worth reading," and so on tend to a prose style that verges on the prose equivalent of McDonald's. To take two recent examples, Bel Canto, and The Lovely Bones.

Now understand, I am speaking only of the quality of the prose, not the characters, plot or characterization. But I have noticed that these two highly touted novels suffer from a surfeit of Hemingway (who single-handedly managed wreaked the greatest damage on prose since Thomas Peckett Prest [who at least had the benefit of being lurid]). The prose is flat, emotionless, and uninteresting. I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that The Lovely Bones begins in heaven with a dead 14 year old girl. Would that she had learned something in school about what makes narrator's voices interesting! Would that she had not fallen into the pit of countless repetitive and dull sentences.

On the other hand Bel Canto is. . . dull. The prose does nothing interesting. Perhaps the story line dictates this. But I think it's another abominable critical trend. I look at Ha Jin's Waiting (I read it almost a year ago and I am still waiting). Not only is the prose flat, something that is probably forgivable in someone who is writing in language not his own, but the story is interminable. When i was finished with it, I was certain that I had been through War and Peace at least twice.

None of these writers has the sheer prose sparkle of a John Updike or a Tom Wolfe. As much as I found Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections pretentious, and the antics around its publication deplorable, the prose was at least supple. The author took chances with language, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but at least playing and trying things out--stretching the limits of what can be done in a novel intended for the mainstream.

You know you're in a bad prose situation when translations are presenting some of the very best English. The books of Perez-Reverte and the abominably post-modernist predeconstructed Corelli's Mandolin both sport prose that sings--it is lush and evocative, carrying the reader on the wave of language.

Yes, I know, most people want this quality in their poetry, but would prefer prose straight forward. Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for the new Henry James producing sentences of such length and tortured convolution they require five or six readings just to make sense of them. But I would like more writers like Franzen, Updike, Wolfe, and, if she could ever get past her anti-American political agenda, Barbara Kingsolver. As unlikable as V. S. Naipaul may be as a person, A Bend in the River is remarkable, supple, and evocative prose.

I realize that I have committed the cardinal sin of simply espousing opinion without any real proof; however, the proof is in the books themselves. All of these books are worth reading and worth a careful reader's attention. But then compare them to the careful, ringing, and lovely prose of a Mariette in Ecstasy. Most of our novelists have eschewed true cultivation of language for the telling of story. The two need not be mutually contradictory, as centuries of writings prior to the present day show. Moreover, one breath of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O'Connor would show that vibrancy of prose had survived the transition to the 20th century.

Prose need not be dull, wooden, gray, or emotionless to tell a story. I'm afraid some of our very best story-tellers have not yet happened on to this fact.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 19, 2002 5:51 PM.

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