your inflammatory writ

Reading at the desk while eating somen noodles with eggplant in garlic sauce: a perfect night

To prepare you for a blog post I will post tomorrow, I’d like to share a few thoughts from Nick Hornby on the subject of lean versus fat prose. My preference is usually to read the former and write the latter – and I used to think that meant I should change my writing style, except I love my writing style, so oh well.

Since I left college and broke free of an English major’s tightass tidy prose, I’ve been enjoying finding my own comfortable, lazy, loopy, bloggy way of writing. Hopefully it doesn’t annoy you too much. I’m not sure it’s pleasant for the reader, but I love clauses and commas and dashes and prepositions and starting paragraphs with “So anyway” to bring the panting reader back around to the point I was starting to make before a bunch of other interesting peripherally related things entered my head concurrently.

To wit: My mother just taught me that you shouldn’t use a hyphen after an adverb. Who knew? I tend to be a bit of an over-dasher and over-hyphener, I know that. I also never bother to make my hyphens into em dashes when they should properly be such because it’s too bothersome (note to self: write blog posts in Word, which does it for you). Instead, I put a completely incorrect space between the hyphens, which any good editor will tell you is crap. Hopefully this horrific punctuational faux pas doesn’t make you too crazy.

So anyway, the article is below, but first, a bit of ephemera.

Whenever I don’t talk to my travellin’ sweetheart for a day, I begin to obsessively search for news items on the band he works with, in case they are all caught in a festival mudslide or something. That’s how I came across this pair of articles, one from Salon and one from the L.A. Times. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I pretty much agree with both. And it was interesting to read them while Nick Hornby’s thoughts were fresh in my mind, because C.O. is so well-known for his rambly you-know-who-esque lyrics. Does any songwriter embody the more-is-more aesthetic more than Conor Oberst? The thing I like about Conor is that his heart is always open and his lyrics, the bloated ones and the spare poetic ones, the angry ones and the depressed ones, are always real. I’ll take real over fake fat or too-cool too-skinny any day.

And now the article, which is just an excerpt because you have to pay to read it all, which reminds me: I should really get a subscription to The Believer. My friend Katy says it’s good, and she has taste coming out her ears. I think enough time has elapsed from my intense dislike of that Dave Eggers book everyone loved (I’ve never met anyone that disliked A Staggering Pile O’ Heartbreaking Crap I Should Love You For, But Don’t, And That Makes Me Feel Weird – please let me know if you didn’t care for it either so I feel a little less alone) for me to go back to the McSweeney’s crew. A friend writes for them once in a while (I just love this one of his), so does an old, old school fan, Douglas Wolk (whose book I keep meaning to read), so I feel comfortable in the McSweeney’s world, and should fully embrace it.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading (May 2005)

A Monthly Column

by Nick Hornby


* Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
* What Narcissism Means to Me—Tony Hoagland
* David Copperfield—Charles Dickens (twice)


* David Copperfield—Charles Dickens

Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different. “Coetzee’s spare but multi-layered language,” “detached in tone and spare in style,” “layer upon layer of spare, exquisite sentences,” “Coetzee’s great gift—and it is a gift he extends to us—is in his spare and yet beautiful language,” “spare and powerful language,” “a chilling, spare book,” “paradoxically both spare and richly textured,” “spare, steely beauty.” Get it? Spare is good.

Coetzee, of course, is a great novelist, so I don’t think it’s snarky to point out that he’s not the funniest writer in the world. Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you’re doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they’re the first things to go. And there’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process that I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words—entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty, if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It’s also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers—treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind! Have you ever looked at the size of books in an airport bookstall? The truth is that people like superfluity. (And, conversely, the writers’ writers, the pruners and the winnowers, tend to have to live off critical approval rather than royalty checks.)

Last month, I ended by saying that I was in need of some Dickensian nutrition, and maybe it’s because I’ve been sucking on the bones of pared-down writing for too long. Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where. (Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town! If you want to talk about books in terms of back-breaking labor, then maybe we should think about how hard it is to write a lot—long books, teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy. I’m sorry if that seems obvious, but it can’t always be true that writing a couple of hundred pages is harder than writing a thousand.) At one point near the beginning of the book, David runs away, and ends up having to sell the clothes he’s wearing for food and drink. It would be enough, maybe, to describe the physical hardship that ensued; but Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like “Oh, my lungs and liver” and “Goroo!” a lot.

(Buy it to finish reading!)

6 Responses to “your inflammatory writ”

  1. Dustin Rhodes

    Well, this won’t be of any real consolation since we don’t really know one another, but I despised that book, too. I read all of it until about the last 10 pages, and I didn’t care enough to finish them (don’t ask me why I read that far; I couldn’t tell you). That book, and Goat: A Memoir by Brad Land, are two of the most annoying books I’ve ever been told to read by everyone I know. I haven’t forgiven anyone for either.

  2. Marla


    I have not read the Eggers book (perhaps intuitively I knew that I would be annoyed) but have you ever read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? It is easily the most annoying, self-satisfied, smug and predictable novel I’ve ever read. Seriously, I only read half of it, but when I was reading it, I had one hand holding down the page and the other hand flipping it off. I was SO annoyed by his superior, rude tone I can’t believe I read almost half of it. Just thinking about it makes me mad now. How silly is that? Seriously, though, do NOT read this unless you plan to read it aloud with a bunch of snarky feminists, which might be fun for a little bit.

  3. lagusta

    Yay, Eggers dislikers! Dustin, I will stay far away from Goat – I trust you!

    Marla! First of all, what a lovely blog, I don’t know why I just found it now.

    Second, out of sheer obstinance (spell checker is saying I’m spelling that wrong, but I’m not, wtf??) and nothing else, I had been avoiding all young writers named Jonathan (Franzen, Safran Foer, etc), but then I read something cute in The New Yorker by Franzen, and I was thinking about listening to the audio book of The Corrections. Thank you for saving me from wasting a precious download! I will take your advice and skip it, as I had originally meant to do. Phew!

  4. Katy

    Yay for embracing the more is more maxim!

    And I read Everything is Illuminated and it was okay. I don’t know if it was too built up for me (probably) or what, but it just didn’t hang together. A few brilliant, poetic moments and a lot of wading through the rest. I bought his second book at the same time and should return it. In fact, now that I think of it, I will. I can’t think of anyone I would give it to.

    I’ll be sending the rest of that article tomorrow. I just love Nick Hornby (originally based on this alone, now for more reasons) but I’ll be honest, I liked the Believer when I had a subscription, but it did seem a bit hit or miss, vacillating between fascinating and just plain obscure.

    I’m tempted to just add the next paragraph of that essay as a comment because it really gets to the crux of it in that easy-going Nick Hornby tossing nuggets of wisdom over his shoulder and discussing the weather sort of way. Here I am, breezing along, and I suddenly freeze, realizing he’s just succeeded in changing the whole way I was thinking about whatever it was he was writing about.

    I think I’ll trade my Safran Foer book for one of his tomorrow…..yes…..

  5. danielle

    I second (or third or fourth) the not having read the Eggers book. But I never even picked it up so maybe my opinion isn’t to be trusted. I read a little about him and hated the idea of it. So it’s not like I can even say it was bad, really. I’m just turned-off by it.
    Also, I’m not terribly well-read anyway (well, I’m working on it). I do love rambling prose over ‘spare’ any day. I love to get lost in a book and it’s hard to do that when it’s one of those ‘spare’ ones.

    Re: The Corrections. I tried it after he turned down Oprah (yes!) (and my best friend recommended it) but quit halfway through for the same reasons Marla mentioned!! is my new obsession, the new highlight of my iphone and the best part of long pubic transportation rides.

  6. lagusta

    I love too! Well, kind of. After two years of being a member, I can never find any good books these days – I think I’ve listened to them all. The kind of books I want to listen to are just never made into audio books – Emma Goldman biographies, Noam Chomsky, etc. Alas.


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