I keep coming back in my mind to a passage from Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree about writing that gets praised for being “spare”:
Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone.
Hornby uses J.M. Coetzee to illustrate what he means by the “spare tradition” and it turns out that while he admires Coetzee, he’s actually not a fan of super-pared-down language. The passage above comes at the beginning of a long celebration of Dickens, the most un-spare writer there is, and Dickens clearly comes out ahead in the comparison. Here’s what he says about pared-down writing:
There’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process that I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words — entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty, if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that?
As I was typing this passage, I realized that I don’t like it, although I think I share Hornby’s taste for wordy, talkative fiction. Working toward spare, pared-down language doesn’t mean one is working toward nothingness, of course. This is Hornby being churlish and unfair.
But I do love long novels and digressive, wordy prose; while I also admire writers in the “spare tradition,” I tend not to love them. Prose that begins to veer toward poetry begins to feel like work to me, and while I’m often happy to do that work, I’m not going to get absorbed in the story. Here’s what it is — I often read novels with that spare, poetic, pared-down prose and I enjoy the experience, but it’s not quite as visceral or thrilling as a novel that isn’t overtly drawing attention to its own language.
But then Hornby gets even more annoying:
The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming or logging.
The first line is fine; I agree that fiction isn’t utilitarian in the least. But then we’re back to the gendered language I’ve complained about before. Okay, he’s joking, but still — writing as wussy? My feeling is that people’s desire to write in a simple, pared-down manner has nothing to do with whether writing is a “real job” or not. Hornby seems to be reading his own uncertainties about the seriousness and manliness of writing into other people’s aesthetic tastes.
But I really didn’t mean to turn this into a pick-on-Hornby post. I’m interested in these passages because I’ve felt ambivalently about the “spare tradition,” which leads me to thoughts about what I look for in a novel. Am I looking for a story so absorbing it makes me forget I’m reading, or do I want to be immersed in language itself, aware of the ways an author is using it? Do I want a flood of words on the page, or do I want carefully-measured, crafted prose that suggests more than it actually says? All of these things, obviously, at different times and to suit different moods. But I feel most comfortable with the Dickensian tradition, and I wonder what that says about me as a reader.