I spent much of yesterday in an online conversation with Dani dissecting what I mean when I say I enjoy the way P.G. Wodehouse plays with language. (You can find the conversation in the comment trail for this post.)
This morning, while I was still thinking about the intentional playfulness with which P.G. Wodehouse twists our perception of cliches, I came across this essay in the New York Times in which Verlyn Klinkenborg argues that experienced writers must carefully consider the literal meaning of their sentences in order to succeed at the craft.
Does the writer know what that sentence actually says? The answer is routinely no. After years of teaching creative writing, I still find this amazing. It means that, despite themselves, writers are often engaged in acts of unwitting self-contradiction.
Imagine how it works. A writer speaks the language, knows the vocabulary, and tries to honor the rules of grammar and syntax. Yet he regularly produces sentences of whose literal meaning he’s completely unaware. In its own way, this is fantastic, like setting out to knit a cardigan, producing an armoire, and wondering why it’s so loose in the shoulders.
Sentences are wily and multifarious, secretive, mischievous. Language is inherently playful, eager to make nonsense and no-sense if it gets out of order. Inexperienced writers tend to trust that sentences will generally turn out all right — or all right enough. Experienced writers know that every good sentence is retrieved by will from the forces of chaos.
So don’t be blinded by what you think you’re saying. The sentence you make won’t give you the benefit of the doubt, even though the reader may. And don’t assume that the literal meaning of a sentence is the least important one. It’s the only important one. Without the accuracy of being literal, there’s nothing to build on. Even metaphors — the best ones anyway — are literal-minded. But that’s a story for another day.
I’m not entirely certain how I feel about this man’s argument. On the one hand, being aware of the literal meaning of what you’re writing will prevent you from making flubs like the poor writer in Klinkenborg’s class who wrote that she kept hiding her father’s thick fingers under various people’s thighs. Presumably that is not what she intended to say.
On the other, too much slavish devotion to the literal meaning of sentences would have made this rather fun bit of prose from Wodehouse impossible:
“[Jeeves] shimmered out, and I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes… Indeed just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head–not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.”
From P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, p. 7
And that would be a shame, because as I said to Dani yesterday, I find Wodehouse’s improbable use of words highly entertaining. “Jeeves shimmered out” — really? How likely is it that a full-grown man could shimmer? Yet, I can see how it might appear that way to a Bernie Wooster in the throes of a rather monstrous hangover.
Can I write like Wodehouse? Of course not. But I confess, I’d still really like to.
Why didn’t the writers catch these mistakes? Probably because they were looking at their intentions — what they meant to say — not the words they put on the page. The sentence, as written, was invisible to them. Readers also fail to catch such mistakes because they’re good at guessing what the writer really means. It’s not that they’re under-reading — skipping past the problem in a sentence. They’re nearly always over-reading, alive to the writer’s intention, as if the writer were somehow immanent in the sentence, looking over the reader’s shoulder, expecting the benefit of the doubt. We do this all the time in conversation. And so the sentence ceases to be a sentence — a verbal construct of a certain length, velocity and rhythm with, at bottom, an unambiguous literal meaning. It becomes a sign instead that telepathic communication is about to commence.
Klinkenborg considers this “telepathic communication” as some sort of flaw. I call it the “magic of reading.”
What do you think?
I’m sure the NYT writer would consider poetry a different beast (although, I did not read that explicitly in your excerpts), but poetry would not exist if writers only wrote literally.
Eh, I find people more and less tolerant of playfulness, whimsy, abstractness, and absurdity. I’m a big fan, but I know it grates on other people. Also, I’m probably the wrong person to ask. My profession is born out of realizing that there are very few unambiguous statements. When people say things like, “He owes me $500”, “He’s a jerk”, “You aren’t following the rules”, my job is to say, “Tell me what you mean by that.”
Language rarely conveys the idea of the writer to the mind of the reader in its exact form. Maybe that’s the NYT writer’s idea of the author’s job – slave over language, so it’s as precise as possible, but I’m just not a fan of that type of tortured writing.
There’s some artist – I think it’s a director, maybe – that when interviewed, will rarely talk about what he thinks something (that he’s created) means because he understands that the purpose of art (I’d say literature, too) is that people are able to take away what is meaningful for audience, and that will be different for different people.
Plain speaking is certainly essential in technical writing, as anyone who has tried to assemble a child’s toy or an Ikea bookshelf can tell you. But I’m not entirely certain that it is – or even should be – the ultimate goal in literary writing.
The author doesn’t mention poetry at all in his essay, and I assume wasn’t thinking of it when he advocated so strongly for unambiguous literal meaning. I think having that as a goal might actually break poetry. But then again, I haven’t picked up a book of poems willingly since the night I met Michael 15 years ago, so I wouldn’t be the best judge of what would or would not break the genre.
I fear the author’s enthusiasm for ridding prose at large of zombie fingers and other literal mishaps has blinded him to the fact that his advice taken literally would rob fiction of much of its delightfulness and creative force. I do not believe, as he does, that the best metaphors are the literal-minded ones.
But then, it’s entirely possible that his sentences have simply failed to convey his actual meaning to me, and I’m just missing his point. In which case I may have to submit the entire question to the nearest underemployed Derrida scholar for parsing.
I’m chuckling because I envisioning how Michael has impacted your relationship with poetry. It’s been very much on my mind as I’ve been re-reading the Raybourn/ Lady Julia Grey series, and all the chapter headers make me think because of their non-literalness, which I’m really enjoying.
My brain is old and creaky when it comes to reading that sort of thing. Trinity Rep is doing Lear which is supposed to be very well done. I want to go, as it’s been so long since I’ve seen or read Shakespeare.
I just think of so many examples of literature that I love – Harry Potter, Peter Pan, A Wrinkle in Time, The Blue Sword, etc., and this seems like an attack against the literature that I love. Boo!