Tag: prose quality

I’m very much in the minority on this, I know

I don’t quite like the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, Viking, 1959). It feels melodramatic to me. The rest of the book is so much more subtle and so damn good.

So many people have written praise for this paragraph. Benjamin Dreyer has written some wonderful commentary on it. But I don’t like the talk about sanity and insanity; I don’t like the doors being “sensibly shut” (why shouldn’t they be? I don’t like that sensibly, somehow); I’m not sure I like the image of silence lying steadily against anything (how could it, being immaterial?); I don’t like that dramatic “whatever walked there, walked alone” (although I agree with Dreyer that the comma makes for a good rhythm). I don’t even like the use of semicolons—too dramatic for me—although I adore semicolons generally.

I do like “larks and katydids,” and the idea that they dream.


In defense of semicolons

“Any number of celebrated writers who ought to know better—I’ll name no names—have said any number of foolish, disparaging things about semicolons. [Shirley] Jackson uses them, beautifully, to hold her sentences tightly together. Commas, semicolons, periods: This is how the prose breathes.”

—Benjamin Dreyer (x)

Short story: “Mr. Try Again”

“Mr. Try Again,” by A. Merc Rustad

Appeared in Nightmare Magazine, March 2018, issue 66 (read or listen)

4,338 words, though it feels more substantial than that

The prose is dizzying. I feel like this story is about survivor’s guilt? Though there’s a sense of quasi-complicity that goes beyond everyday survivor’s guilt.

On prose quality

“Sometimes [what draws me into a story is] a matter of style, but not always, since a compelling world can survive clumsy or awkward writing, as in Poe or David Foster Wallace (in Wallace’s case the awkwardness is deliberate, of course). “

—Iain Higgins, member of The Malahat Review‘s fiction board

Short story: “Eva Is Inside Her Cat”

“Eva Is Inside Her Cat,” by Gabriel García Márquez, as translated by J. S. Bernstein

Appeared in the collection Eyes of a Blue Dog in 1972; found in Collected Stories (1984), which was reprinted by Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2008); online here and supposedly here, though I couldn’t get the latter link to open

8 pages (?), 4,280 words (though it feels shorter—my estimate was embarrassingly far off)

I officially don’t understand magic realism. Márquez’s work is beautifully written (at least in translation) and seems psychologically believable, but what’s going on? Perhaps this is not so much a magic realism story as a story that’s deliberately ambiguous about its reality: the protagonist may be dying and becoming a ghost, or she may be experiencing an extreme mental state and hallucinating.

As this commentary on The Reading Life remarks, it’s worth wondering whether a beautiful woman ever really thinks of her beauty this way—whether any beautiful woman has ever written of a similar experience. I feel like fiction by men contains an improbable number of beautiful women who are universally attractive to hetero-attracted men, as though men’s tastes never vary.

At the end it seems (spoilers) that she’s been dead for a long while, death having distorted her sense of time.

I don’t understand the title, since she never seems to get inside the cat. She may already be inside the cat without knowing it, but her experiences don’t seem tinged with catness or with the physicality of the cat.

Short story: “What a Wolf Wants”

“What a Wolf Wants,” by Nikki J. North

Appeared in Three-lobed Burning Eye #28, October 2016

3,404 words

I’m not sure I understand the plot of this story. The main character seems to be on a quest in a simulated world that connects her brain to a “patient,” but I don’t get how that relates to the loss of her sister or who’s using her sister to distract her. I think I do understand the bittersweetness of the ending.

The prose and atmosphere are excellent.

Flash fiction story: “The Canary”

“The Canary,” by Mario Aliberto III

Appeared in Every Day Fiction, February 21st, 2018

932 words

I liked this. Nice prose too.

On fictions as machines

“What the would-be writer of ‘serious’ fiction (who would relegate plot and story to a place at the end of a long line headed by diction and that smooth flow of language which most college writing instructors mistakenly equate with style) seems to forget is that novels are engines, just as cars are engines; a Rolls Royce without an engine might as well be the world’s most luxurious begonia pot, and a novel in which there is no story becomes nothing but a curiosity, a little mental game.”

—Stephen King in Danse Macabre

“I like William Carlos Williams[‘] description of a poem: ‘a small (or large) machine made of words.’ Often I’m not sure what kind of machine I’m building until I start putting the thing together and fire it up. Sometimes I find I’m trying to cram toaster parts into a particle accelerator. Sometimes it works and I end up with a kick-ass toaster. Sometimes it’s a disaster and I make a super-slow accelerator.”

—Jason Marak (x)

 I’m pretty sure Roald Dahl said something about writing a long sentence axel followed by the cogwheel of a short sentence—and making it twirl. Can’t find the quote though.

On interestingness as a driving force in fiction

“Proust succeeds, in my opinion, by being interesting on every single page. [In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past] is one of the few philosophical novels, for instance, that actually has something to say. Proust’s ideas on art, on society, on love, on politics, are fascinating. It’s like going to dinner with the most interesting person you’ve ever met.

“And there’s also a certain moment to moment ingenuity. Unexpected things happen. People change in odd and striking ways. And, of course, the sentences are amazing. I hesitate to call them good or beautiful (because no one except Proust should ever attempt to write like this), but they are an experience. The nearest thing I can compare him to, in English, is Samuel Johnson: a writer who says, in page-long sentences, the kind of thoughts that can only really be expressed in page-long sentences.

“But none of this is any good to the aspiring writer of fiction, of course. And by giving writers the notion that they don’t need story—they just need to be interesting!—I’m pretty sure Proust has harmed many more writers than he’s helped.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

Short story: “Think”

“Think,” by David Foster Wallace

Appeared in Conjunctions issue 28, spring 1997, alongside another Wallace story; collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

About 2 pages in the book; 738 words (my guess was gonna be 1,000)

When I first read this it felt slight and excerpt-ish, but on a reread I find it excellent. A single scene implies a plot in which the main character’s soul or honor hangs in the balance, and Wallacianly, he has to make himself a bit hokey and ridiculous—in this case, he literally humbles himself—to earn his right to that soul/honor.

I really like “snaps clear” as a description of what your forehead does when you suddenly realize something.