23 Apr 2014

On Turgid Prose and Carrot Juice Fiction

Some Terms to Know

This is going to be quite a long post—should I say sorry for that?—and I am going to be using some terms which you may well not be familiar with. This little section will give you a heads up; and maybe a laugh, too. (One can only hope.)

Carrot Juice Fiction: This is a term I’m going to be using to refer to pieces of literature that are extremely boring, have pretentious and tiresome characters, and a plot that is... lacking, to put it politely.

They also tend to use excessively large words, excessively long sentences (with excessive punctuation), and have a propensity to use various metaphorical and poetic devices that add very little to the actual story.

The term goes about because of carrot juice and what it actually is: an unsavoury drink consumed solely because it is meant to contain magical vitamins that you don’t get anywhere else. (Unless of course, you actually like the stuff, but that’s a different matter altogether.)

Anyway, like carrot juice, people read this type of literature in order to ‘gain’ something from it—insight, creative writing technique, whatever—and likewise, they can find the same stuff in books that are far more interesting (in orange juice, to continue the anecdote).

Logorrhea: An unusual little noun that refers to an excessive flow of words.

Turgid: Why do I need to tell you this? You do have a dictionary, right?

On to the Good Stuff

(And no, I’m not talking about porn.)

First off, let me introduce you to what I call the carrot juice novels: the Great Gatsby (perhaps the most famous one in this category), Chimanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (a more modern one), as well as Wuthering Heights et al.

What these books have in common is that they are known as ‘Classics’ or ‘Literary Fiction’. You will find that most proponents of such fiction cannot even really define what the hell ‘literary fiction’ actually means.

I propose that such novels are Carrot Juice Fiction. They are extremely tedious to slog through, with their ridiculously long-winded, turgid and sometimes even meaningless prose. Here’s an example:

Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon—for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.

I guarantee you’ll have to read that passage at least twice in order to understand what the author is actually going on about.

And you shouldn’t have to do that.

I won’t bore you with a tedious analysis of what the quote is saying (which it shouldn’t do anyway, since a novel should present its message within the story and not so directly). I won’t even bore you with how it can be shortened; and make no mistake, it can.

What I will tell you is that if a book—any book, no matter how good—forces you to re-read sentences, then there’s a problem.

The whole point of Creative Writing (and indeed all writing) is to communicate the author’s intent. Writing just to string words together is an exercise in pretentiousness. In this world, if a reader doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, you’ll lose them.

You can argue that such readers aren’t supposed to read literature. To this, I say: sod off. Literature is not an exclusive club reserved solely for the upper echelons of society; in fact, that is the very antithesis of literature—art in all its forms is meant to be accessible; it is meant to change the outlook of many, not a select few.

Logorrhea just gets in the way of things. One can say ‘it is the nature of mankind to follow persuasive leaders, the way sheep follow the shepherd; but in the necessary process of deciding leadership and accepting law and order—something which must be present in all successful societies—things are lost: the minorities, the victims of political gambles, all must suffer the oppression of their voices; that is the weakness of democracy.’

The above sentence is disturbingly long. And while the content is certainly of intellectual merit—arguably, anyway—the way in which it is presented is not.

Say I were to write: ‘People follow persuasive leaders. They do so in the same way sheep follow the shepherd. The necessity of this is apparent: a productive society cannot exist without leadership and order. But in this process, something is lost—the voices of the minorities, the cries of political victims, of the oppressed. It is the great weakness of democracy.’

Now, this paragraph—notice it is no longer a single sentence—sounds almost is important and eloquent as the above. But which would you rather read?

And even if you answer otherwise, you must still consider the majority (ironically). Jane down the street—you know, the one who works in that supermarket—is, sadly, unlikely to read either; but, I know which version I would want to have to market.

The same applies to fiction. The issues raised by the Great Gatsby would come into far more scrutiny if the book had been written and marketed with a serious storyline and understable writing. Pretentiousness won’t just get you criticised by the likes of me; it will harm your career as an author, and it will undermine your efforts.

But Surely the Message is Still Important?

Yes and no. The age-old oxymoron. Yes, in the sense that (with a bit of effort) you can gain something valuable; no, in the sense that I’m going to elaborate on next.

Now, Northern Lights has to be my all time favourite novel—although the Amber Spyglass (the last book in the series) might just beat it out.

Northern Lights is also a book that is deeply inspirational to me; it instilled a love of physics in me (you’ll know why if you’ve read it), it gave me a love of literature, it gave me a real perspective on my view of religion; and it was a cracking read.

I can tell you that Pullman’s Northern Lights—or the works of other comparable authors—have made a much bigger impact on our lives than any classic you care to name. This is for no other reason than the fact that it is widely read; and because the people who do read it (unlike those forced to study it in English) will actually, really, comprehend it.

If Lights had been written in the same manner that the Gatsby and its ilk were, then it is likely I would never have read it—and couldn’t have understood as much as I did even if I had.

Now One More Point

Another thing I would like to mention is the fact that, by upholding a work of pretentious literary fiction, you are not only annoying the heck out of a lot of people; you are also giving authors a message—that convoluted writing and expositionism is okay—and, most importantly: you are distracting readers away from better books.

That is the crux of it all, at the end of the day. It is not about complaining that the prose is difficult and obtuse; it is not about whining that the characters are impossible to emphasise with; or that the plot is aimless and confusing.

The problem is that, in a world of books, lavishing praise on the not-so-good detracts from the ones that are really-good.

To Conclude

You’ve read a book. You don’t really understand it all—some bits especially. You think it’s good though. You have read what the critics say; surely, if they say it’s this and that, they must be right? Maybe you’re not clever enough to ‘get’ it? Now you’re going to give it 5 stars?

Well, don’t. Not to sound contumacious, but just because the guy with his degree from Oxford and the Cambridge girl who mastered in some obscure subject say it’s good; that doesn’t prove anything.

Education about literature these days is focused on symbol-hunting and metaphor-making (if it ever was any different). Use your head. If you can’t bloody read the thing, it probably doesn’t merit five stars.

Hope I’ve gotten the point across. Care to leave a comment?

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