A very brief illustrated explication of and examination into the provenance of and inspiration for my prose style

Approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes

I like to make regular and passing allusion to my tendency to write at great length about just about anything. Friends and loved ones (inevitably one and the same) obligingly and conscientiously acknowledge what is possibly a character flaw, by skirting around what might easily be interpreted by someone as thin-skinned as I can be at times as a personal injury. They point out that not many people can write, never mind spontaneously respond, as volubly, with the added ability of typing incredibly fast, faster than some people allow they are comfortable thinking about something they would then have to commit themselves to putting into words that could be repeated back to them.

Though I am mindful, somewhere in the back corridors of my mind, of the hazards of what is commonly called “popping off” or “venting” I nonetheless invariably proceed, seemingly heedlessly. In actuality I make a splint-second split-second decision, usually electing not to act at all, rather than to speak, invariably at painful length. If I decide to write something, I don’t look back. And invariably I do so, using the same, or seemingly same, convoluted, discursive, complex-structured, Latinate, digressive prose. I use every device I am at all familiar with, rhetorical or grammatical, including all the ways of setting off clauses and phrases, independent and dependent, so that sentences grow and grow, seemingly mindlessly, sometimes in a variety of directions, or with that appearance, to what looks like will be indeterminate length until they loop back and come to a conclusion, logically complete, if having all the air of a chaos demanding to be deconstructed to see if it will surrender any meaning, much like the rag-tag collection of stalwarts holding the Alamo against Santa Ana’s army of 5,000 men under arms, refusing to surrender their small redoubt even as the chapel belied a kind of vulnerability to easy assault.

Now I would never offer as a defense for the way I choose to express myself the style of much greater masters of the language than myself, or, if they prove not greater, because I prove to be none the lesser, in the long run—the run not likely to end until the regrettable day that I am no longer around to be challenged to defend myself—then at least they have proven to be more enduring, and more deserving of tolerance and dedication to the onslaughts of followers seeking to quarry sense from the deep mines of writing they have excavated, though at least, for their good sake, they don’t seem to provoke the anger and frustration that I do (from a very much smaller audience of admirers and devotees). Hence, I am mainly challenged for the length of my little exercises in rhetoric, which I humbly and modestly call essays, for that is what they are, in a great tradition, purely and simply because I do not, as the repugnant common saying goes, “getting down to cases.” I am never asked who my nobler predecessors might be, whom I, presumably, either mimic or to whom I pay homage. Surely there are none so erudite, knowledgeable and at the same time engaged in a serious way, worthy of spending their time, by my prose, to venture theories as to my possible inspirations. It would be too much to ask not only that such readers lend any of their valuable attention to my modest and undeserving efforts, but that they accord it enough seriousness of purpose, such dignity, as to embody a reflection of, dare I use the term? literary forebears.

Other than suggesting, defiantly, with a certain air of pity, that those who complain are free, in all events, not to read it, and having already acquainted themselves with the daunting task of extracting sense, if not pleasure or edification, out of my outpourings, and having persuaded themselves that whatever else they might stumble upon from me will simply be more of the same, they should altogether, henceforth ignore anything with my byline, I say nothing. Just to be safe. I abhor physical abuse.

In the earlier years of my putting my writing out there to be consumed, or having been, to be regurgitated into the metaphorical toilet, half-eaten or, more likely, merely tasted with a bite or two—notice I speak not of “digestion”— I did suggest to those who seemed even moderately literate that, clearly, they were not familiar with the work of Henry James (not that I want to make favorable comparisons between that master and my lowly self; not that my writing is remotely Jamesian, for style, not that anyone, as it turns out, is remotely knowledgeable about style and willing to engage me in conversation about it; I do have to make clear, at this point, that both conditions are absolutely necessary, as I do know people more than adequately knowledgable in the arena of style to go on, more expertly I would guess than I could) and I did that only because he was, at the time, the most recognizable of writers within the canon with a reputation for verbosity (which your garden variety reader could not see justified to any purpose, that is, to say with no appreciation for that elusive and sometimes incomprehensible quality of the written language called “style”). But there are such readers as know style and know James and at least one or two of them have done me the good grace of actually reading through an entire essay of mine. They have simply preferred not to talk about it.

It happens that, in the fullness of time, others have appeared in the literary firmament, far better illuminated, than me for certain, but also, alas for the slightly younger of the two sons of the elder Mr. William James, than Mr. Henry James, and these new constellations, for sure, studied, and usually studied assiduously, seriously, and in dedicated fashion, the subject of scholarly theses and earnest debates. A school of writing in a particular style, such as the one I have fragmentarily defined as typical of my own, has been discerned, the chief practitioner, the ascendant avatar, especially as he did his literary reputation the favor of offing himself as a very young man (48), and quite recently, which has given his canon a lift, and increased it by some multiple as his canonization (he seemed to have to endure the briefest of beatifications, but then we live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, and patience, as a concept, has been delegitimized, as there is nothing worth waiting for that can’t be had right NOW, goddamnit) is a man who, when he walked the earth, was called David Foster Wallace. There is a whole assembly of writers, essentially mainly young (let’s say under 60) males, white, and all of whom seem to go by three names, much like a whole gaggle of a new generation of female movie actresses that, by definition, excludes or stops at Ms. Natalie Portman, who apparently has eschewed her middle name. It is also typical of the current lauded sensibility, which glows around the school of style in question, like an aura, that some of the most approachable—Mr. Wallace and his works were and are not always wholly approachable, as nearly as I can figure because he was a genius, unquestionably, and could speak of philosophy and higher order mathematics with equal facility, if nearly impossible accessibility to the visitor, and it is mainly his writing in these disciplines, which apparently somewhat opaquely actually purports to be about more universal and humanistic matters, more like literature, but merely in the guise of philosophical inquiry and/or mathematical analysis—of the contemporary practitioners might as easily be recognized a nominal very ordinary combination of a singular forename and unhyphenated or compounded surname. So for every Jonathan Safran Fore, there’s a Michael Chabon, indeed, for every Brett Easton Ellis, there may be half a dozen: Jonathan Franzen, Orhan Pamuk, etc., though this begins to trespass beyond the boundaries of consideration I’ve set, which is to say, the practitioners of what has come to be called a form of postmodernism, the greatest living practitioner of which, within the parameters of gender and age I’ve set, is David Eggers. Be that as it may, let me remind the reader that I am, in fact, talking about me. It’s about me, and my style. And the exemplary practitioner of that same opaque, convoluted, discursive, digressive, every technical typographic, rhetorical, scholarly, grammatical trick in the book or whatever you like to call the vehicle as long as it is constituted of typography represented technologically upon a substrate, actual or virtual is the self-same deceased individual formerly known as David Foster Wallace.

However, not really wishing to be disruptive to the reputation of formerly living geniuses, or to cause any ripples in the time-space continuum—which seems a fitting concern for anyone who takes the notion of postmodern writing styles seriously—I nevertheless finally come to the really rather simple point I wanted to make about this still living author, with no claims to any extraordinary powers of intellect or sensibility, but who has done all right, is that there is, indeed (and who else would know, but me?), a conscious predecessor. Way precedent to Mr. Wallace, or any of his tri-named or even nominally nominal confréres, or any American writer (for the idea of America may have existed, but the nation we know as the United States was not to form for 18 years after the death of my literary exemplar and inspiration) was a man named Laurence Sterne, and, more importantly, his sadly singular novel (though he wrote other important prose works), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It was published sequentially in slender nine volumes from 1758 to 1765, in which latter year, the Reverend Sterne died. It could have been, was intended to be, and should have been, of much greater length, especially when we consider—for those who have not read the work, as who has save for a relative handful of living souls in any one generation—that the novel opens with an account of the conception of the titular hero and subject (and narrator, off and on) and ends several hundred riotous, raucous and digressive pages later, in an aggregate volume with typographical tricks, printing devices, and tropes that have come, only lately, to be labeled “meta-” without our hero even having been born as yet. And so the story ends, for all eternity, or until the sun we know as Sol goes super nova and evaporates our little planet, whichever comes first.

I won’t belabor all the inspiring aspects of the novel, philosophically and otherwise. Save for this stylistic note, and my one gloss and point of observation is simple and rather brief: two sentences I can honestly say I chose randomly, these from Chapter 37, quite early in the novel as we have it, as it turns out. Don’t ask what these mean. They won’t make whatever sense they may unless you read the entire novel. But then, I write in similar fashion, however feeble and poor are my contrivances by comparison, for what I understand to be the same reasons. To keep the reader paying attention and thinking, and to read the whole bloody thing!

And so, here’s the quotation:

The doctrine, you see, was laid down by Erasmus, as my father wished it, with the utmost plainness ; but my father’s disappointment was, in finding nothing more from so able a pen, but the bare fact itself; without any of that speculative subtilty or ambidexterity of argumentation upon it, which heaven had bestow’d upon man on purpose to investigate truth and fight for her on all sides. —- My father pish’d and pugh’d at first most terribly, — ’tis worth something to have a good name.

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5 thoughts on “A very brief illustrated explication of and examination into the provenance of and inspiration for my prose style

  1. Howard..
    SF has lots of “fake females”, including the actress kind. A club called Finocchio’s used to exist and that was their ONLY type of “show business”. So, upon a deeper look….”female actresses” is not always a redundancy..
    I have not heard of that director named Olin. I will investigate.
    I am so taken with the original “Wallander”, that I cannot yet watch the Brannagh imitation…
    I think it is supreme chutzpah of Brannagh to essay that role. As played by Krister Henriksson, it is brilliant. It absolutely draws the casual viewer in, to each episode’s conclusion.
    I bet that, somewhere, there is a college course that dissects “The magic of Wallander”….
    Going back to your current theme…. I think of your style as that of “The Gordion Thought”. and I steel myself to wrestle with each issue of it…
    ….. no matter how much I favor the sparser style.
    Happy Winter Solstice.
    ps: think of the screenplays resident in you, if you worked in that Mankell style.

  2. Chris, yeah yeah. I wonder, with your having denied pickiness, just exactly what quality you would ascribe to this fact-checking of yours. You can get back to me on that.
    It doesn’t help me, in addition to my saying, lamely, that yes, I know the sun isn’t going to go “super” etc., it also doesn’t help me–just by the way, having already had the redundancy of “female movie actresses” pointed out to me by another sharp-eyed friend–to have my readers go to such lengths to prove to me that they, indeed, do read every stinking word I put in these essays. You are to be credited for having spotted this grievous solecism so late in the text. I mean, Natalie Portman appears barely two-thirds of the way through. Jack probably spotted that and figured he could knock off for the rest of his shift.
    I did refer to this miserable, diminished, increasingly parched satellite of said sun as “little,” but that’s not enough for super cynics. Picky super cynics. But let me ask you, Mr. Science, gazing purely at the scansion (so to speak) of the prose, and understanding the basic underlying ignorance of science of the nonetheless over-educated typical lay reader, which reads better? “when the sun we know as Sol goes super nova…” or “when the sun we know as Sol goes mediocre nova…” I put it to you, as I put to anyone any and every chance I get, T.S. Eliot said, “human kind cannot stand very much reality.” I mean it’s all going to go “pffft” in the end, and before you can say “pffft” and we’ve all turned to cinders and flinders which in turn spontaneously gassify and then are reduced to elemental particles, you’ve got a lot of depressed people on your hands. And you want me to rub it in, by pointing out not only how meaningless, but how unimpressive it’s all going to be at that last moment?
    Finally, let me say, now that you and Jack have made it impossible both to include your persnickety comments AND to correct the mistakes you luckily stumbled on, without causing people to think ill either of you or of me, I have left things as they were when you found them, messy and ill-kempt, purely on the strength of how gratifying it is to know I will have something substantive to correct when it comes time to go over page-proofs when and if these ever see print.
    And Merry Christmas to you Chris.

  3. Not to be picky, Howard, but the sun is NEVER going to go super or hyper nova. It is, fortunately for us, a mere garden variety star which will eventually end in a mediocre nova, incinerating us with a singular lack of fireworks, probably missed by most extraterrestrial astronomers.
    And while we are on a cosmological bent, I noticed the term “splint-second”; now I know you never make typos,so one has to assume that you were referring to repairs to a fracture in the space-time continuum that would be the result of over-fast writing.
    Happy holidays and hope all is well with you.

  4. Jack, I did write the Gettysburg
    Address… When I got done, I had titled it the Gettysburg Phone Directory. The man was a genius for editing, but couldn’t write an original word to save himself. Fortunately, as always, I overwrote (he didn’t tell me he had another two speaking engagements that day and was short for time…), and he thereby was the beneficiary. He got the Emancipation Proclamation and the Second Inaugural Address out of what he cut from my Gettysburg.
    I agree with you about female movie actresses. Those male poseurs in drag are awful.
    I also agree about Swedes. Especially Lena Olin, whom I’m surprised to see you don’t mention.
    I think you may have misread any implied assessment of Ms. Portman, as she is a fine actor, or actress (I await her first cross-dressing role).
    As for Henning Mankell, again I agree, especially if we are talking about the adaptations of the novels slowly being filmed with Kenneth Brannagh as Wallender (I prefer them to the Swedish series versions, which are more than good enough, but not nearly as dark or neurotic or angst-laden… you know I get weak in the knees for angst). I mean we
    read the novels in English translation–at least i speak for myself; I have not the Swedish–so why shouldn’t the BBC do a better job?
    If Lasse Hallstrom had left it at My Life As a Dog, I would agree, yet a third time, with you. Its always a mistake to try to make anything timeless and enduring out of any of the literary monstrosities penned by John Irving, who makes Stephen King look positively impoverished imaginatively in the realm of the perverse.
    Thanks for the inspiration, Jack…

  5. Well, Howard…. One can only think of the result if Lincoln had asked you to pen “the Gettysburg Address” for him…
    …and, I do prefer female movie actresses to male movie actresses, in defense of Ms. Portman.
    You write for your own pleasure, as I “liven up” parties with my own stories, and laugh BEFORE i come to the punch line, so as not to be deterred by the yawns of my audience.
    I still refer to D.F. Wallace by that name, not knowing what he is currently known as, and would love to know his new “nom de reference”..
    On a separate point, what is it bout Swedes?
    They are thought of as repressed, shy, etc, but they have the best ability to “strike the emotional Gong” in their character portrayals.
    I refer to Henning Mankell, creator of “Wallander”, the best “cop story” series ever….
    …and of Lasse Hallstrom, the director of “My Life as a Dog”, and “Cider House Rules.”…
    These two Swedes are in a league by themselves as “evokers of the emotional side of life”..
    Is that not a conundrum? Does repression of an instinct make one expert in delineating it?
    I bring in this divergence….as food for a new Epistle!
    Happy Holidays.
    jb in SF.

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