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Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Misery of the Sentence

I'm going to be posting examples of prose that is (1) superb, (2) merely serviceable, or (3) self-defeating. The most entertaining examples lie at either end of the spectrum. Here are Kenneth Dauber and Walter Jost explaining why a certain style of writing just will not do. We've all felt that, but I myself feel that their own prose is self-defeating, tying itself into unnecessary knots. English professor, heal thyself:

Perhaps we ought to say, "You do not say what you mean or mean what you say, for you have not attended to the saying of it." Except that, too often lacking conviction ourselves in the efficacy of attention to words, we hear instead, over our own shoulders, voices remonstrating at us from the marketplace of critical theory, and we grow impatient. For how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear? How do you demonstrate such mattering except by giving examples, by patiently showing it to yourself and to students so caught up in the skepticism you have taught them that they have lost the faith necessary for working their skepticism through?

Introduction to Ordinary Language Criticism, xiv-xv.

How indeed? I can decipher what they are trying to say, but only with considerable effort: It is hard to demand that students write with precision when certain trends in literary theory (presumably deconstruction) promulgate the value of ambiguity and thus undercut our faith in this precision. I don't really understand the need for the angst-ridden tone. It is hard to picture a doubt bearing the burden of a labor. And what's wrong with giving the students concrete examples of what you want them to do? Why not give them the example from Sorrentino I quoted yesterday and contrast it with over-wrought prose like this?

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