Beauty in language

Nice post here.

But I disagree with Chris’s main point, which he makes here:

I agree with [Jonathon] Carroll that beautiful prose and solid story-telling should not be mutually exclusive. However, I object to the use of the term “beauty” as a way of describing prose in any critical sense because it tells us more about the speaker’s literary tastes than about the text itself. It is an over-broad term, useful in colloquial, casual discussion (or in interviews), but useless in exploring how fiction actually works.

Oh, no, it isn’t.

It’s perfectly true that sometimes beautiful lyrical prose is just right for the story (Patricia McKillip, anyone?) and sometimes plain, stark prose is just right for the story (Stieg Larsson, for example, in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO).

Sometimes you want invisible prose, which I think Robin McKinley often achieves, thus allowing her readers to fall directly into her stories. Sometimes you want weird prose, like in Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD.

But none of that is bad prose. Obviously. Unfortunately there’s lots of bad prose out there, and nothing will make me put a book down faster. Clunky, awkward phrases are never okay. Boring, predictable sentences that are built of cliches are not okay. Even if some readers don’t consciously notice cliched phrases or clumsy sentences, they’re still bad. So I think Chris is completely talking across Carroll. What they mean by “beautiful” or “bad” prose is completely different

The point is: we may not necessarily need to focus quite so strongly on the genre/literary divide (as Carroll does) but Carroll is right in that many books are written with prose that is clumsy, boring, clunky, or cliched. And I’m totally with Carroll in this: along with a great story, I want great writing — the kind of writing that complements the story being told. And this is true even though Chris is perfectly correct in pointing out that, in prose, lyrical is not a synonym for beautiful.

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1 thought on “Beauty in language”

  1. I think there’s a variety of types of beauty in prose, just as there is in everything else. A room can be beautiful because of the elegance of its furniture, the exquisiteness of material and design, the skill of its craftsmanship; it can also be beautiful because of the worn warmth in the wood-grain of a well-scrubbed kitchen table, the light falling through the windows to catch a spray of wildflowers in a mason jar, the kids clamoring for cookies by the counter. There’s beauty in simplicity AND in elegance, in something doing exactly what it’s meant to (and doing it well) as well as in something that is created simply to please the eye. But prose that is badly constructed is clunky rather than beautiful, just as a table that’s shoddily built of scrapwood isn’t as beautiful OR as functional as a table lovingly made with skill and care, no matter whether it’s made for a farmhouse kitchen or an elegant drawing room.

    I’ve now lost myself in my metaphor, but: Yes, I agree.

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