Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cozzens Castaway Drawn Out & Dull Or Masterful?

In the act of remembering a great book, I looked up other readers' responses to the memorable James Gould Cozzens' novel, Castaway.

In our online world, it's very easy to access scholarly articles, literary criticism, and round it out with endless blog posts and social media commentary.

One such post I came across was from a reader who did not like Cozzens' style and struggled through Castaway. Reading about his experience, I came back to what is most important about that grand little novel.

Here is a snippet of the reader's thoughts:

It's a sort of book that one reads as a challenge and struggles with, rather than enjoys. It's one of those rare works that crosses Literary Significance with genre content. Still, I have to say I didn't like it much. It often was rather dull and drawn-out for my tastes, even for such a brief work (in hardcover, just over 100 pages). to survive and make sense of things like firearms and cooking would be good grist for their mill.

That part about the dull, drawn-out style was what worked so well for me as a writer reading another writer. The play by play, the drawn out description of each of Mr. Lecky's movements served the narrative so well by heightening the suspense. 

The purpose, whether conscious or not on Cozzens' part, was to give the novel that slow-down affect one gets in a time of panic, when you can feel your heartbeat in your ears, and every footfall seems thunderous when you need to be silent.

Quite brilliant, it seemed, in how the style fit the content, and a lesson for novel writers to really dig deep into why their style and peculiar uses of language or form complements the narrative.

I detailed this effect much more in my article on Cozzens' Castaway. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Don't Make Your Reader Suffer in Adverb Hell

I was immediately caught by the opening to E.B. Vandiver's story "Forcing Bowl" in an old edition of the Kenyon Review. The short sentences, mysterious at first, suddenly giving way into realization that what was being described is a very common experience.

But that already had me hooked. Seeing the familiar in what was first unfamiliar. What an opening. Yet, the writing style quickly wears thin, irritates me, and I begin mentally scratching out adverbs. I didn't even read the rest of the story. I'd seen the markings of a story I should avoid.

Time is precious after all. And I mention this not to tear down Vandiver, but to first of all remind myself, and then you, that the reader doesn't need every moment handed to her, every sense qualified, because that dissipates the same pleasure I had just begun to enjoy at the beginning of the story -- the piecing together and sensing of the scene lightning quick.
They bring him home and stare. Their quiet house. Though he says nothing, hardly cries, they are deafened. When he nurses, he twists his head wildly, latches on off-center. He stares vacantly at the pushed-up flap of Elizabeth’s bra, slowly curling and uncurling his fingers, making mewing sounds. Elizabeth can see the corner of his jaw pumping methodically as he gulps audibly, clacking his tongue. In three minutes he will fall asleep, mouth going slack, colostrum dripping from the corner, soaking Elizabeth’s gown. There are deep red marks around the nipple, bruises where his mouth has been (Summer 2011).
You wouldn't think it would be so cumbersome, but it is. Leave out "methodically" and leave out "audibly". I want to hear it, see it, imagine it without the baggage. On the upside, the endings of the two words do go well together.

Just imagine what the rest of the story might be like. Save the adverbs for the moments that absolutely need to be handed over to the reader.