24 March 2004

Against Functional Prose

Daniel Green has stumbled upon one of the more obtuse and idiotic critiques of a book I've read in a while -- Debra Fitzgerald writing in Writer's Chronicle about "What Scientists Can Teach Fiction Writers About Metaphor". I'm sure plenty of scientists can teach plenty of writers about plenty of things, including metaphor (we all might do well to at least familiarize ourselves with the ideas of George Lakoff), but Fitzgerald shows herself to be unfit to tell any writer how to do anything. Green quotes a truly hilarious commentary she makes on a passage from Jonathan Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn:
It's a passage full of nonfunctional, decorative metaphors, a good example of writing that is all style, no substance.
Green does a good job of showing why this is, frankly, an idiotic statement, the sort of criticism a hopelessly tone deaf person might make against Bach. What I'm more interested in is the term "nonfunctional" that Fitzgerald wields against Lethem's writing.

Not having any sense for theoretical mathematics, I wouldn't pretend to be able to say whether one mathematical theory was more coherent or elegant than another; it's beyond my capabilities or desires. What I can see is that there is more to math than arithmetic, and I expect most people, regardless of how "literary" they are, can see that there is more to language than denotation.

Based on her critique of Motherless Brooklyn, Fitzgerald seems to be the sort of person who wants language to stand still, keep its chin up, and stick to one task at a time. Rather than "functional", we might call such language "developmentally disabled".

Functional is a sad, flaccid term for writing. The sense is of writing that has a pragmatic purpose, the way functional pottery holds your soup or flowers. Memos and newspapers are functional; they get thrown away when their work is done.

Rather than limit itself to one clear, unquestionable, stupidity-defying meaning, great prose should aim to be so full of meaning that it could burst into nonsense with one false move. (Let's not forget, too, that nonsense can be fun.)

This is not to say that great prose has to be oblique. I occasionally like oblique prose, but not in large doses. Though I doubt I'll ever read all of Finnegan's Wake, I do like dipping into it now and then. Even at an early age, Joyce had a command of English superior to almost anyone's, as the famous last paragraph of his story "The Dead", written when he was in his mid-20s, shows:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. it was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
It's a beautiful, moving paragraph, where the syntax and rhythm evoke as much as the words themselves. It's also been argued over for years by critics, because no-one is sure exactly what it's saying about the major characters in the story. Wallace Gray says of this paragraph:
The reader will have to make a choice or, in the spirit of contemporary literary theory, decide that there is no choice, that the contradictions render the sentence meaningless. On the other hand, one can accept both meanings, revel in the ambiguity, attempt to hold two contradictory interpretations in the mind at the same time without trying to resolve them.
"Revel in the ambiguity" -- yes, indeed, a perfect phrase for what great prose can offer us: an opportunity to revel, and in revelling a revelation of life and literature's possibilities.

Many of the writers whose style I most revere write remarkably clear, sharp, uncluttered prose which Fitzgerald herself might even term "functional", though I would throw my glove down to anyone who did so and demand satisfaction there on the spot.

At the moment, I'm reading Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee, a writer whose sentences seem miraculous to me. Consider:
At least it is not cattle he is slaughtering, I told myself; at least it is only chickens, with their crazy chicken-eyes and their delusions of grandeur. But my mind would not leave the farm, the factory, the enterprise where the husband of the woman who lived side by side with me worked, where day after day he bestrode his pen, left and right, back and forth, around and around, in a smell of blood and feathers, in an uproar of outraged squawking, reaching down, scooping up, gripping, binding, hanging. I thought of all the men across the breadth of South Africa who, while I sat gazing out of the window, were killing chickens, moving earth, barrowful upon barrowful; of all the women sorting oranges, sewing buttonholes. Who would ever count them, the spadefuls, the oranges, the buttonholes, the chickens? A universe of labor, a universe of counting: like sitting in front of a clock all day, killing the seconds as they emerged, counting one's life away.
I don't know how Fitzgerald would react to Joyce or Coetzee, because her blindness to what literature does may keep her from appreciating anything other than basic instruction manuals and police reports.

I hope, though, it is clear that while the two paragraphs I have quoted have purposes within their texts -- many purposes, not one, and some of them ambiguous and contradictory -- they are far more than merely functional agglomerations of words. The metaphors they employ, while perhaps not scientific, are, nevertheless, glorious and terrifying.

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