‘It’s one of those places that are supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.’
So says Holden Caulfield of good ole’ Pencey Prep (still my favourite ever school name; Malory Towers a close second) in The Catcher in the Rye.
I’m a writing teacher. Most of the people I teach are beginners. A few have raw talent that just needs the edges hemmed, and a few have a talent that’s medium-rare to well-done (though they still mightn’t have the discipline for the long slog of drafting again and again) and a few are so good I do wonder if they should be teaching the class instead.
But the things I see oftenest, as a teacher of novices (briefly visualised myself as a nun there, just for a second) is writing that’s meant to be very sophisticated and all but ends up being merely phony.
If I was a different sort of teacher (i.e. a bitch) I might award badges.
But I’m not. So I don’t.
Not least because I’ve been guilty of phoniness myself on more than one occasion and, anyway, these are beginners. You don’t sit down for your first piano lesson and come out with this:
But neither can you ‘allow’ people to carry on writing like phonies without at least pointing out that, hey, there’s another way. And that way is actually lots more fun. It allows you to write with your Own Goddamn Voice, as Holden might put it.
‘Never use a long word where a short one will do, said George Orwell very sensibly (and English-ly) in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946). He also said:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I part company with Orwell somewhat on the word ‘barbarous’, which no doubt was less of a sore-thumb sixty-something years ago when the essay was written. But otherwise:
- The fewer blankets of snow, and skies of gun-metal grey, and light flooding through windows, the better.
- If it is possible to cut a word out without spoiling the sentence’s cadence, cut it out.
- Use a passive occasionally for particular effect. (Penelope Lively’s Next Term We’ll Mash You has a perfect example: a schoolboy being borne away by a headmistress)
- Anglo-Saxon all the way.
- To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you are free to do whatever you can get away with. But no one in fiction has ever gotten away with much…
Curiously, since these six rules seem ruddy good to me, and fairly inoffensive, Will Self got his knickers in a twist in The Grauniad a couple of months ago, with an article declaring Orwell ‘the supreme mediocrity’.
The comments, of course, are rife with ‘smug git’s and ‘takes one to know one’ and a reference or two to Self’s affliction with the most socially acceptable of the diarrhoea family: the verbal variety. In Self’s eyes, Orwell seems a Michael Gove-like repressor of young minds, rejecting the language’s tendency to mutate, a bit like a virus, and telling us all we’ll be shot in the face if we dare to use words of more than one syllable.
Talk about making a drama out of a crisis. Or indeed a mountain from a molehill (she says, offending against the first of Orwell’s rules). I was reading, t’other day, about something called ‘outrage porn‘: intellectuals enjoy being irritated as much as Disgruntled of Norfolk in his/her letters to the editor of the local rag about disrespectful youths on skateboards, and Will Self has whipped himself into a froth about Orwell in much the same way. What he’s basically saying is:
Oi, Orwell, your wheels are too noisy, you’re going to trip someone up in a minute, and get yourself a haircut, boy.
Self can’t subscribe to the Orwellian way of writing because it isn’t his way. And that’s fine. You only need to catch a clip of Self on the telly, talking the talk, to know that Self is naturally verbose, and erudite, and borderline-pompous. That’s his voice. It works on the page, as it works in person. It isn’t quite enough to make you want to shout Park Life! at the end of each sentence
but that’s only because Self drawls and pauses and generally talks at the pace of a snail in one of those dreams where the floor’s turned to syrup and forward movement becomes an impossibility – but Self, like Brand, wears his vocab on his sleeve, and why shouldn’t he? Nothing wrong with that.
But the chances are that Orwell’s ‘rules’ were intended for novice writers. And, speaking as someone who teaches novice writers, there’s nothing wrong at all with encouraging people to write simply.
Hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for instance. (Even if you don’t think you know it, you definitely do.) Watch the green notes in this piano tutorial:
and note how stunningly basic the tune is, moving in steps up and down the keyboard. And yet, how memorable. And how well it lends itself to development…
I love a short word, me. I’m Orwell’s bosom bud in that respect. A favourite exercise of mine is to write a scene using words of only one syllable: the result is always tight, clean prose, and it’s most of all useful for those who must first insert a poker into their derrière before commencing the transference of their thoughts from brain to paper, as if they’ve never actually heard themselves speak and have no clue at all what their own voice is like. Of course I understand that certain of your characters may care to describe the lowering of their denim-clad derriere into the ready embrace of a chintzy armchair whilst relieving a curved fruit of its indigestible yellow skin, but ‘she sat down, peeling a banana’ is a perfectly decent sentence and not to be sniffed at.
The ‘hot meat’ of the title has nothing to do (thank God) with the contents of Self or Orwell’s trousers. I gave my most recent class of beginners the task of writing a scene in single syllables – and, because it’s Christmas, the scene was ‘cooking Christmas dinner’. Straight off, turkey’s out the window of course. (Not literally. Although that might have been an interesting way to go…) So immediately your brain’s got to find a host of short, sharp words that it wouldn’t ordinarily have looked for. One student (lovely and smiley, and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her if she ever reads this) was forced to return ‘the smell of the cooking turkey’ to the Shelf of Mediocrity, and instead wrote the rather joyous sentence:
The cat smelt the hot meat.
Something, of course, that a child could write. But the same argument that applies to modern art (‘I could’ve done that myself!’ ‘Ah yes, but you didnt…’) applies in spades here: yes, a child could write that, but we, as adults, with all our fancy long-syllabled crayons on the table, so often forget that simple can be beautiful. What did the cat do? The cat smelt the hot meat. I understand all those words perfectly, immediately, and my brain doesn’t have to perform an obstacle course in order, BANG, to grasp that image straight-a-bloody-way.
I’m not saying you can’t play with long-syllabled crayons: of course you can. (Occasionally, sparingly, or all the fricking time if that is your natural voice – or the natural voice, of course, of your first person POV… or third person free indirect… yada yada.) But don’t neglect your hot meat either, because here’s the thing: the most beautiful, lyrical prose has to do with the way – like musical notes – those words are joined together, the music they make on the page, in the ear, for the eye. Even Will Self would agree with that. And if he doesn’t… just flip him the bird as you rumble by on your skateboard.