In a provocative post at The Smart Set, Elisa Gabbert proposes the satisfactions of “writing that sounds like writing.” These days, readers—and writers, but I’ll get to that—are mostly told that prose shouldn’t call undue attention to itself. At the extreme (think Hemingway here) advice would have it that writing should be stripped of anything that announces itself as more than the everyday yakking one might hear on the street.
“Overwritten” is a harsh criticism. Like overripe, she says, the term has “judgment baked in.” (I’m not talking about amateurish overwriting, larded with unnecessary detail or trite observations here.) For my part, I enjoy being swept away in mind-stretching analogies and complex metaphors. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, fearlessly explored metaphors up to and sometimes beyond their full potential, a high-wire act teetering on the calamitous.
Here’s a nice one: “Hopes were wallflowers. Hopes hugged the perimeter of a dance floor in your brain, tugging at their party lace, all perfume and hems and doomed expectation. They fanned their dance cards, these guests that pressed against the walls of your heart.” And another, “I came to hate the complainers, with their dry and crumbly lipsticks and their wrinkled rage and their stupid, flaccid, old-people sun hats with brims the breadth of Saturn’s rings.” As a reader, I’m attracted to multilayered images like these. They make me stop and consider the challenge another mind has laid down. They are important to the story. They “sound like writing.”
Worse than work that is overwritten, Gabbert suggests, is that which is underwritten. Authors who don’t go to the trouble, whose work inspires “the sense that the author has low-balled me.” The occasional New Yorker short story has this arid style. Such prose offers nothing more than the words on the page, inspiring no images or connections for my mind to chew on.
From the writer’s perspective, coming up with a juicy and apt image is immensely satisfying. If it isn’t quite right, it isn’t good enough. I spent many hours refining the following sentence from a novel set in Rome: As the bus “skirted the huge Cimitero del Verano and approached the last turn, a cloud of diesel exhaust ballooned forth, and new motes of grit wafted toward the unblinking eyes of the cemetery’s stone angels.” Overwritten? Maybe, though it has a purpose in the story. Its aim is to spark in the reader a strong contrast between modern (bus) and ancient (stone angel); transient (a bus ride) and eternal (death). Even if readers skim that sentence, it may establish a mood, a picture.
Gabbert refers to Elmore Leonard’s famous “10 rules for good writing,” which he sums up by saying, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” This is a pretty good rule for his particular genre, crime fiction, but even he occasionally broke it with delicious metaphors, like “Wonderful things can happen,” Vincent said, “when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.” Or this conversation: “A: Anyone who looks like she does has to be somebody…” “B: What does she look like?” “A: An ice cream. I had a spoon I would have eaten her.”
Most of us can’t think fast enough to come up with such words in everyday conversation. They are writerly statements. At bottom, Gabbert says, “I like writing that knows what writing is for; it can express things you would never say.” In deviating from the well traveled road of everyday speech and thought, such writing steers closer to the truth.