08 June 2005

In Praise of Long Sentences

I've just begun reading Lucius Shepard's short novel Viator, and even though I'm only 35 pages in, it has already worked its way close to my heart by being constructed primarily (so far) of long, luxurious sentences, sentences that bloom with modifiers and clauses and details, sentences that are seldom awkward, because even though Shepard's prose has often been impressive since he first came to prominence in the early 1980s, his skill with language is now so polished and apparently effortless that sentences that feel remarkable on a first reading become even more astonishing when experienced a second or third time, and the cumulative effect of such stylistic high-wire acts being repeated page after page is to create a richness and density that many stories don't have at twice (or more) the length.

Of course you'd like an example. Here, then, is the first paragraph of the book:
Wilander had grown accustomed to his cabin aboard Viator. Small and unadorned, it suited him, partly because his aspirations were equally small and unadorned, but also beause it resonated with dreams of a romantic destiny, of extraordinary adventures in distant lands, that had died in him years before, yet seemed to have been technically fulfilled now he was quartered aboard a freighter whose captain had steered her into the shore at so great a speed, she had ridden up onto the land, almost her entire length embedded among firs and laurel and such, so that when you rounded the headland (as Wilander himself had done the previous month, standing at the bow of a tug that brought mail and supplies to that section of the Alaskan coast, big-knuckled hands gripping the rail and long legs braced, the wind whipping his pale blond hair back from his bony, lugubrious face, the pose of an explorer peering anxiously toward a mysterious smudge on the horizon), all you saw of Viator was the black speck of her stern, circular at that distance, like a period set between beautiful dark-green sentences.
(Actually, I think there's a slight problem of parallelism with big-knuckled hands gripping, the wind whipping, and the pose of an explorer peering [the hands grip, the wind whips, but the pose doesn't peer], but it could perhaps somehow be argued that it only looks like parallelism, and isn't, really, so the fault is no fault. I still like the paragraph, regardless.)

A friend of mine sometimes speaks wistfully of "lovely 18th century sentences", the sorts of things written by writers who intended to do with writing what could not be done with speech, and sought therefore to take advantage of writing's inherent, unique qualities -- the sentence as its own art. She is a devoted fan of Joseph Williams's various books, such as Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (which has an entire chapter on length), and shortly after we had met she said to me, "You must use more summative and resumptive modifiers. It's only civilized." Williams's advice tends to be aimed at technical and business writers, but his attention to the minute details of style is helpful, even if it sometimes causes his own style to be occasionally less than graceful. I do like the first paragraph of his "Length" chapter:
The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range. Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to prune a long one to readable length. But a competent writer must also know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.
I like, too, a quotation from Gertrude Stein he begins the chapter with: "A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it."

Reading Viator, I've found myself having to reread whole pages because I let myself get lost in the sound of a long sentence and forget to pay attention to the information it conveys. Some readers, I'm sure, find such an effect annoying, but for me it increases the pleasure of the book -- any putz off the street can tell a story; it's how the story is told that matters most, and that includes the sentences. Long sentences aren't appropriate to every sort of story (for instance, I just finished Shepard's Floater, where the sentences and pacing are generally more hardboiled), but it's nice to read a writer who has the skill to know when and how to employ them, and doesn't just do so for the now-cliched reason of stream-of-consciousness*.

*It's especially cliched when the sentences roll along without adequate punctuation. Faulkner did it brilliantly in his best novels, though later it seemed to become a mannerism. Joyce of course had the Molly Bloom soliloquy. Etc. etc. It can still be an effective technique, but not when used by default because the writer couldn't be bothered to think of another approach.


  1. Absolutely. I loved Viator for the elegance of those sentences, and I'm totally with your friend on the idea that writing can and should do what cannot be done in speech. You don't have to limit each sentence to one breath after all, so make the most of it, goddamit. With clauses modifying clauses modifying clauses, sure, there's a limit at which the reader will lose track of which this is doing what to whichever that; but allowing a sentence to change direction mid-way through, to go careening off into a field of colourful images and reflections, pausing here or there to examine one or other of them before moving on, even if it almost makes the reader lose the thread -- well, if you can pull it off, it makes for more involved (and therefore, I think, more involving) prose. Shepard's Viator -- or anything by Samuel Delany, maybe? or Guy Davenport? -- shows you can do long, intricate sentences without simply reading like a pastiche of a Victorian essayist.

    Personally, I'm thinking of starting a Campaign For The Semi-Colon. It feels like such a waste when you see these paragraphs built out of tight, clean-lined sentences which are in themselves perfectly-well constructed, and yet the prose comes across really flat and matter-of-fact simply because some of those sentences could benefit from being combined... jointed... when a semi-colon rather than a period here or there would function as a a hand-off of sorts, casually passing the reader over from one sentence to the next, rather than dropping them dead and leaving them there for the next sentence to pick up.

  2. >any putz off the street can tell a story; it's how the story is told that matters most, and that includes the sentences. <

    Thank-you. :)

    The best writing comes from people who know that stories begin at the level of words, and work up.

  3. The explorer peers. Not parallel enough?

  4. It would be if it were "the explorer peering", but that's not what it is. Put the pieces next to each other and this is what it looks like:

    big-knuckled hands gripping
    the wind whipping
    the pose of an explorer peering

    It's that "the pose" that knocks it off for me, causing me to read it first as the pose doing the action. The expectation is created that the subject of the phrase gets the first placement (hands gripping; wind whipping), but that's not what happens then with the third phrase, because the pose isn't doing the peering, the explorer is.

    One argument against this, I suppose, is that within the context of such a large sentence, a pattern isn't created by a construction being repeated only once, but I notice it every time I read the sentence.

  5. If the sentence is meant to be read in the sense that the explorer is peering, then the implication is that there is a special way in which only explorers peer, and what is more that this 'peering pose' is only struck by those explorers when they are looking "towards a mysterious smudge on the horizon".