26 December 2010

The Length of the Gimmick

J. Robert Lennon points to an essay by Ed Park in the NY Times from a couple days ago, "One Sentence Says It All", which I missed until now, but which obviously appealed to me, an avowed lover of long sentences, because it concerns books that are written as a single sentence.

Park's focus is primarily on what "really" makes something a one-sentence novel, a kind of purity test, while Lennon mostly just seems grumpy, declaring the whole idea to be "the kind of fake formal experimentation that a writer is more likely to use as cover for his incompetence than for any kind of genuine insight into character, situation, or language".

I think Lennon's opinion is noxious, and I'm skeptical of any use of the word "gimmick" for a writing technique, because it seems to me a particularly prejudicial and generally inaccurate term -- in a broad sense, any literary (as opposed to purely pragmatic) way of writing is gimmicky, because any writing that is not so conventional as to be invisible draws attention to itself. Anything in the plot of a narrative that draws attention to itself is, then, a gimmick, any word that is not banal is a gimmick, etc.

It may be that Park's focus on what a one-sentence novel actually is inspires some of this annoyance from Lennon, because it moves the focus away from the purpose and effect of what are, in fact, different techniques employed by the various writers; but Lennon's grumpiness comes, I suspect, from deep-seated assumptions about what writers should do -- the sort of assumptions that are useful for writers themselves, because they can be fuel for writing, but are dangerous when elevated to the level of absolute statements for everybody else. I'm all for writers saying, "I'm going to write this way because I don't want to write that way," but I'm ferociously suspicious of writers who say, "My way of writing is the best and your way of writing is wrong." (It reminds me of when somebody once saw a t-shirt that proclaimed, "My God is an awesome God," and pointed out the subtext: "Your God sucks.")

When talking about writing, people don't usually use gimmick to mean just a technique that draws attention to itself (the way a performer would say, "You gotta have a gimmick"); instead, it's usually meant to point to something considered by the word-wielder to be inauthentic or artificial. It's sibling to the wheezy old canard about non-mimetic fiction: it's a game, it's a trick, it's not real fiction. Real fiction provides, as Lennon says, "genuine insight into character, situation, or language". Note the word "genuine", highlighting the idea that gimmicks are the path to fake insight. Real insight, apparently, comes from pretending that fiction is true, from relying on verisimilitude, from suspending disbelief. This is residual Victorianism, the continuing belief that the 19th Century British dominant novel form is the single goal toward which writers should aspire. I like plenty of novels written that way, but I don't think they should be given a special place of honor above novels using other approaches.

If we assume (and it really is an assumption) that we should read fiction for "insight into character, situation, or language", then I fail to see how a single-sentence novel doesn't at least have the chance of providing insight into language, nor do I see how the one-sentence technique itself must inevitably lead to false insight into character or situation. Perhaps what Lennon means is that such a technique distracts from where the reader's attention, in his scheme, should be: on thinking about character and situation, and not thinking about one writing technique in particular. But this idea is contradicted when he asserts that "the writer generally finds new ways to separate ideas and establish rhythm, and the reader quickly gets accustomed to them." If that's so, then the technique is not distracting, and therefore there shouldn't be anything getting in the way of the proper, legitimate contemplation of character and situation.

The problem, the gimmickry, seems to come from what Lennon assumes is the writer's over-exertion, or misplaced exertion. "[N]obody's really being challenged here--it's all proof-of-concept," he says, adding yet another generalized assumption. "If you're going to break it up with conjunctions or semicolons or what have you, you might as well restore the periods, indentations, and chapter breaks, and devote more of your energy to evoking the wrinkles in grandma's forehead or the smell of jasmine wafting over the piazza." Thus, sensory description is, to Lennon, a legitimate activity for a writer to expend energy on, but punctuation and sentence style are not. (I expect he would reply that what he was trying to communicate was the idea that a writer should, of course, pay attention to punctuation, but they shouldn't do so at the expense of evoking sensory details. That equation proposes a see-saw act between style and sensory detail that seems absurd to me: sensory detail is a result of stylistic choices about punctuation, rhythm, diction, etc. Writing is language first.)

I also think it's flat-out inaccurate to say that the breaks created by "conjunctions or semicolons or what have you" are the same as those created by periods. I certainly don't read periods the same way I do conjunctions and semi-colons. A hugely long sentence is a totally different reading experience for me than a bunch of shorter sentences, and I have an almost physical reaction to some types of punctuation -- works composed primarily of short sentences are just about unreadable to me; lots of short sentences make me feel like ants are crawling all over my skin.

What interests me here is not so much that Lennon is wrong (no, not THAT!), but rather the offense that he seems to take from Park's essay. My own rather strong response to his response may also seem a bit odd, because Lennon's post was clearly an off-the-cuff statement of preference, so why did I feel impelled to put everything aside and analyze it? It's not like there are lots of one-sentence-novel writers who are now going to become destitute because J. Robert Lennon said he thinks they're just hiding their incompetence -- which means, of course, that they aren't real writers, and don't deserve to be taken seriously, especially not by such a prestigious mainstream outlet as the Times, castle of the competent.

No individual statement like Lennon's is particularly meaningful or effective, and such statements might even be useful in inspiring contrary-minded writers to prove the asserter wrong. My own concern comes not because of Lennon or any other proselytizer, but because the assumptions that Lennon's post appears to embody are ones I see a lot, ones that promote what seems to me a narrow and unadventurous idea of what is or isn't an appropriate, legitimate, authentic way to write. Continued expression of such ideas creates a consensus and solidifies a prejudice about what should or shouldn't be valued.

Next thing you know, people will be trying to contact the nearest politician to propose a Defense of Multi-Sentence Novels Act...