Sunday, February 12, 2012

"Weak Statement. Stonger Statement."

I often fear I’m destined to be a conservative. Many of the breaking points that I look forward to are reversals of modern trends. They’re usually not political, but they are conservative in more of a personal, romantic, yearning-for-an-imagined-past sort of way. In all probability, I’m just cynical. I have a habit of looking with scorn on things that are new and seeing the worst examples with particular clarity. Meanwhile, I tend to focus almost exclusively on the best elements of things once they are comfortably in the past.

I know it’s a flawed way of engaging with the world. I don’t think it’s altogether incorrect, though, only skewed. I’m just more optimistic about legacies than about trends. I like to believe that my perceptions of good and bad are still accurate, even if they aren’t counterbalanced in either case.

I can be quite unforgiving with the negative observations that I make of culture and the arts. I’m sure that history will vindicate the best that music, literature and film currently have to offer, but while I’m living amidst it I see so much more dreck. It gives me the impression that our collective standards are getting lower. The least sophisticated works of art gain the greatest popularity. Perhaps it’s always been like that, but such beautiful things have grown out of the past; how did they avoid being corrupted by pablum?

I don’t read what seems to be bad literature. There is far too much excellent literature to read for me to waste my time, and I don’t read enough anyway. So I don’t have a thorough sense of what linguistic or stylistic features are characteristic of bad artistry, beyond what is apparent on the surface. But as a result of reading modern writing more generally, I worry about the trajectory what is accepted as literary language.

I am fairly proud to admit that I’m rather snobbish about grammar. I’m probably prone to error, but I am the sort of person who will stop and correct myself in mid-conversation if I end a sentence with a preposition. (I know that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and I know that my third clause in this post ended with a preposition.) So I’ve noticed some trends with which I am snobbishly uncomfortable. One of these is that sentence fragments seem to be commonly accepted, even encouraged in published literature these days.

I was reading the most recent issue of Creative Nonfiction, and I found in one article several examples of short, declarative, ungrammatical phrases, which decidedly limit how seriously I can take the writing. Early in the article, the author writes:

“California is among the states that require judges to divide the community property perfectly equally between the divorcing parties. No matter what.”

Now, I recognize that the author is trying to give particular weight to that latter phrase by isolating it from the rest of the sentence, but I think that that’s a lazy way for a writer to evoke the intended response from his or her audience. But this author does it again later:

“She followed and shot him again. And again.”

(Nice phrase, let me re-use it.) And again:

“Maria got revenge. And six years in state prison.”

Thinking about it now, I’m quite sure that I’ve seen numerous other examples of this in published work elsewhere. I am uncomfortable with a literary landscape in which this sort of cutting of corners is considered effective and is widely accepted by editors.

Writers are different from spoken word artists. We should be able to convey our ideas and leave an impact upon our audience by more nuanced means than pausing for dramatic effect. If an author wishes for there to be strength in a subsequent observation, he should convey it with the strength of his language, and his words should punch his audience in the gut or grab it by the testicles, not merely slap it on the ear.

I’m sure that I have little cause to worry and that these trends will fade in the history of modern literature, but so long as I’m in the midst of it, I’ll demand better from the here-and-now. Perhaps it is the persistence of those demands that keeps the worst of our culture and art from being as visible in retrospect as it is in the moment.

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