The Audacity of Prose

June 8, 2015 | 5 books mentioned 55 8 min read

In one of his essays, the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated that “no one be fooled by the fact that we write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” That “we” is, in essence, an authoritative oratorical posture that cast him as a representative of a group, a kindred of writers who — either by design or fate — have adopted English as the language of literary composition. With these words, it seems that to Achebe the intention to do “unheard-of” things with language is a primary factor in literary creation. He is right. And this should be the most important factor.

Achebe was, however, not merely speaking about the intention of his contemporaries alone, but also of writers who wrote generations before him. Among them would be, ironically, Joseph Conrad, whose prose he sometimes queried, but who embodied that intention to the extent that he was described by Virginia Woolf as one who “had been gifted, so he had schooled himself, and such was his obligation to a strange language wooed characteristically for its Latin qualities rather than its Saxon that it seemed impossible for him to make an ugly or insignificant movement of the pen.” That “we” also includes writers like Vladimir Nabokov of whom John Updike opined: “Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written: ecstatically;” Arundhati Roy; Salman Rushdie; Wole Soyinka; and a host of other writers to whom English was not the only language. The encompassing “we” could also be expanded to include prose stylists whose first language was English like William Faulkner, Shirley Hazzard, Virginia Woolf, William Golding, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and all those writers who, in most of their works, float enthusiastically on blasted chariots of prose, and whose literary horses are high on poetic steroids. But these writers, it seems, are the last of a dying breed.

cover The culture of enforced literary humility, encouraged in many writing workshops and promoted by a rising culture of unobjective literary criticism, is chiefly to blame. It is the melding voice of a crowd that shouts down those who aspire to belong to Achebe’s “we” from their ladder by seeking to enthrone a firm — even regulatory — rule of creative writing. The enthroned style is dished out in the schools under the strict dictum: “Less is more.” Literary critics, on the other hand, do the damage by leveling variations of the accusation of writing “self-conscious (self-important; self-aware…) prose” on writers who attempt to do “unheard-of” things with their prose. The result, by and large, is the crowning of minimalism as the cherished form of writing, and the near rejection of other stylistic considerations. In truth, minimalism has its qualities and suits the works of certain writers like Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and even, for the most part, Chinua Achebe himself. With it, great writings have been produced, including masterpieces like A Farewell to Arms. But it is its blind adoption in most contemporary novels as the only viable style in the literary universe that must be questioned, if we are to keep the literary culture healthy.

cover One of the insightful critics still around, Garth Risk Hallberg, describes this phenomenon in his 2012 New York Times Review of A.M Homes’s May We Be Forgiven with these apt observations:

The underlying problem here is style. Homes’s ambitions may have grown in the quarter-century since The Safety of Objects was published, but her default mode of narration remains mired in the minimalism of that era: an uninflected indicative voice that flattens everything it touches. Harry gets some upsetting news: ‘Two days later, the missing girl is found in a garbage bag. Dead. I vomit.’ Harry gets a visitor: ‘Bang. Bang. Bang. A heavy knocking on the door. Tessie barks. The mattress has arrived.’

Hallberg goes on to describe, in the next two paragraphs, the faddist nature of the style:

Style may be, as Truman Capote said, ‘the mirror of an artist’s sensibility,’ but it is also something that develops over time, and in context. When minimalism returned to prominence in the mid-80s, its power was the power to negate. To record yuppie hypocrisies like some sleek new camera was to reveal how scandalous the mundane had become, and how mundane the scandalous. But deadpan cool has long since thinned into a manner. Its reflexive irony is now more or less the house style of late capitalism. (How awesome is that?)

As a non-Western writer, knowing the origin of this fad is comforting. But as Hallberg pointed out, context, not tradition, is what should decide or generate the style of any work of fiction. Paul West noted in his essay, “In Praise of Purple Prose,” written around the heyday of minimalism in 1985, that the “minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy — the human bond with ordinariness.” This rationale, I dare say, misunderstands what art is and what art is meant to do. The essential work of art is to magnify the ordinary, to make that which is banal glorious through artistic exploration. Thus, fiction must be different from reportage; painting from photography. And this difference should be reflected in the language of the work — in its deliberate constructiveness, its measured adornment of thought, and in the arrangement of representative images, so that the fiction about a known world becomes an elevated vision of that world. That is, the language acts to give the “ordinary” the kind of artistic clarity that is the equivalence of special effects in film. While the special effect can be achieved by manipulating various aspects of the novel such as the structure, voice, setting, and others, the language is the most malleable of all of them. All these can hardly be achieved with sparse, strewn-down prose that mimics silence.

cover The sinuous texture of language, its snakelike meandering, and eloquent intensity is the only suitable way of telling the multi-dimensional and tragic double Bildungsroman of the “egg-twin” protagonists of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Roy’s narrator, invested with unquestionable powers of insight and deliberative lens, is able to maintain a concentrated force of focus on a very specific instance, scene, or place, or action. Hence, the writer — like a witness of such a scene — is able to move with the sweeping prose that will at once appear gorgeous and at the same time be significant and memorable. Since Nabokov’s slightly senile narrator in Lolita posits that “you can always trust a murderer for a fancy prose style,” we are able to understand why Humbert Humbert would describe his lasped sexual preference for Dolores while in bed with her mum in this way: “And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowths of dark decaying forests.” Even though the playfulness of Humbert’s elocution is apparent, one cannot deny aptness — and originality — of the description of Humbert’s response to the pleasure his victim is giving him is.

cover It is not, however, that the “less is more” nugget is wrong, it is that it makes a blanket pronouncement on any writing that tends to make its language artful as taboo. When sentences must be only a few words long, it becomes increasingly difficult to execute the kind of flowery prose that can establish a piece of writing as art. It also establishes a sandcastle logic, which, if prodded, should crash in the face of even the lightest scrutiny. For the truth remains that more can also be more, and that less is often inevitably less. What writers must be conscious of, then, is not long sentences, but the control of flowery prose. As with anything in this world, excess is excess, but inadequate is inadequate. A writer must know when the weight of the words used to describe a scene is bearing down on the scene itself. A writer should develop the measuring tape to know when to describe characters’ thoughts in long sentences and when not to. But a writer, above all, should aim to achieve artistry with language which, like the painter, is the only canvas we have. Writers should realize that the novels that are remembered, that become monuments, would in fact be those which err on the side of audacious prose, that occasionally allow excess rather than those which package a story — no matter how affecting — in inadequate prose.

In the same vein, describing a writer’s prose as “self-conscious” isn’t wrong, it is that it misallocates blames to an ailing part of a writer’s work. Self-consciousness is a term that mostly describes the metafictional qualities of a work; it cannot, in effect, describe the use of language. “The hand of the writer” can appear in the framing of a story, in its structure, in the characterization, in the form of experimental works and frame narratives, but it cannot appear in its language. “Self-consciousness” cannot be applied to the use of words on the page, just as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart cannot be accused of self-conscious tune or Yinka Shonibare of self-conscious art. Self-consciousness or pomposity cannot be reflected in a piece of writing, except in its tone, and in fiction, this is even harder to detect. What can be reflected in a piece of writing is excess and lack of control, which can stand in the way of anything at all in life. What critics should be calling out should be pretentious, unsuccessful gloss that lacks measure and control. They should call out images that might be inexact, ineffective, or superfluous. When critics plunge head-on against great writers (Don Delilo, Cormac McCarthy, etc.,) in the manner of B.R. Myers’s agitated fracking masquerading as “criticism,” they only end up scaring other writers from attempting to pen artistic prose. Fear might be what many writers writing today seem to be showing by indulging in the writing of seemingly artless prose. Authorial howls of artful prose as created by James Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Hazzard, are becoming increasingly rare — sacrificed on the altar of minimalism. Hence, it is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate between literary fiction and the mass market commercial genre pieces, which, more often than not, are couched in plain language.

The gravest danger in conforming to this prevailing norm is that contemporary fiction writers are unknowingly becoming complicit in the ongoing disempowering of language — a phenomenon that the Internet and social media are fueling. Words were once so powerful, so revered, that, as culture critic Sandy Kollick once observed, “to speak the name of something was in fact to invoke its existence, to feel its power as fully present. It was not then as it is now, where a metaphor or a simile merely suggests something else. To identify your totem for a preliterate gatherer-hunters was to be identical with it, and to feel the presence of your clan animal within you.” But no more so. Too many words are being produced in print and visual media that the power of words is diminishing. There are now simply too many newspapers, too many books, too many blogs, too many Twitter accounts for words to maintain their ancestral sacredness. And as writers adjust the language of prose fiction to conform to this era of powerless words, language is disempowered, leading — as Kollick further points out — to the inexorable “emptying out of the human experience,” the very object fiction was meant to preserve in hardbacks and paperbacks.

It is therefore necessary that writers everywhere should see it as their ultimate duty to preserve artfulness of language by couching audacious prose. Our prose should be the Noah’s ark that preserves language in a world that is being apocalyptically flooded with trite and weightless words. “The truest writers,” Derek Walcott said, “are those who see language not as a linguistic process, but as a living element.” By undermining the strongest element of our art, we are becoming unconscious participants in the gradual choking of this “living element,” the life blood of which is language. This we must not do. Rather, we must take a stand in confirmation of the one incontestable truth: that great works of fiction should not only succeed on the strength of their plots or dialogue or character development, but also by the audacity of their prose.

Image Credit: The Met.

is a contributing editor at The Millions. He was born in Nigeria. His debut novel, The Fishermen (Little, Brown), was published in 2015 and is being translated into 27 languages. The novel was the winner of the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Award for Fiction, the NAACP Image Awards for Debut Literary Work, the LA Times Art Seidenbaum award for first fiction among others, and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2015 and the Guardian First Book Award. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where he is a professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


  1. “Authorial howls of artful prose as created by James Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Hazzard, are becoming increasingly rare — sacrificed on the altar of minimalism.”

    Yes but who is soliciting that sort of work? Who is promoting it, reviewing it? If you have something different, most editors, bloggers etc don’t even acknowledge you exist.

  2. Yes, so the minimalist teacher’s writing exercise would be for the students to take a Shakespeare play, kill all Shakespeare’s darlings, and replace them with minimalisms such that the result is better than the original.

    re: self-consciousness, we don’t have to be all the time tied to willing suspension of disbelief. So what if we see that an omniscient narrator is there standing outside the story they’re telling us, using fantastic compelling prose? that we then sometimes enter into in the middle of? Why should this bother us more than the so-called primitive story-teller around the fire who we see is telling her story to us? and then the story swallows us?

    Minimalist theory writers may well be the alienated who feel bad, who wouldn’t recognize an epiphany if they fell into the middle of one. Not that we should go beyond minimalism unless we find our words marshaling a certain truth. This is not showboating. It’s about what’s real.

  3. @Jamie–I know, and that’s the point of the essay: To call all writers who want to produce that kind of work to go ahead and do it.

  4. Great essay! On TM? It’s been awhile but I see it with my own eyes so I must believe it!

  5. This is honestly one of the best pieces ever on The Millions.

    Some of the greatest authors ever were in fact elaborate and complex, and they were at times far from “simple and clear” in the minimalist sense.

    Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner, J. R. R. Tolkien — all of these great writers gloried to some degree or another in excess. And as author Ben Masters poignantly says, these authors “remind us of the pure pleasure to be found in the free play and musicality of words. Their sentences sing rather than grumble or shout, and we are all the richer for them.”

    Now elaborate prose, when done badly, can be a truly cringeworthy thing to behold. But when done right, poetic, elaborate and even “purple” prose can be truly great, even approaching the level of the finest poetry.

  6. Good link to the Giraldi piece as well. He was somewhat ahead of the curve with that- what I like to call the “liberal arts school consensus” is in full retreat at the moment, crushed under the weight of it’s self-contridictions and difficult political waters. The raft is coming apart and I say torpedo it. Or to quote a great: “That which is crumbling, push over!!!”

  7. @Chigozie: yes, and thank you. Would just love some editors and publishers (and readers!) who appreciate and want it.

    @Zeko: I happily engage the torpedos!

    Max: more essays like this, please. Not too many outlets out there doing smart original lit stuff like this. Thanks for everything!

  8. Updike’s words on Nabokov are rather famous, and probably worth getting right: “He writes prose the only way it should be written—that is, ecstatically.”

  9. Bolaño’s words in 2666 couldn’t be more appropriate:

    “He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

  10. A couple things:

    Cheever a minimalist? Here are the last lines of “The Country Husband”: “The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”

    And “Goodbye My Brother”: “Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eyes in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

    Also, I recall reading a long time ago a piece (in the NYTBR?) equating minimalism with nativism, the idea being that a minimum of description and reference assumes a familiarity that excludes those readers who might not know the code–a winnowing of literary experience–and this does seem to be another aspect of the loss documented here.

  11. I will say this: To understand what Obioma is saying here, read his debut novel, The Fishermen. It is the best book of the year (If you think I am kidding read the Christian Science Minister or NYTbook review reviews.) The novel is an “authorial howl.”

  12. Ellen Akins,

    I was going to say the same thing about Cheever. Curiously, I also recently heard him described as a minimalist, along with Hemingway and Yates, in a New Yorker podcast by (I think) Joseph O’Neill. Cheever was anything but a minimalist–his language and narrative scope (I’m thinking here of his tendency toward the fantastic and metaphysical) were both extravagant, and in the exact way Obioma prescribes in this otherwise excellent essay. I can only guess that many people–Obioma included–have not actually read much Cheever, perhaps “The Enormous Radio,” and tend to lump him together with the other terse alcoholic mid-century white men.

    To the substance of the essay, however, I could not agree more. Bravo. Extravagance, again, is what’s called for, a willingness to write for the sake of the beauty and strangeness of language on its own merits. It has struck me in recent years, reading nominees for the Pulitzer and National Book Award, that there is very little difference in the prose style, or the ambition of the prose style, between these books, and commercial mainstream fiction on the order of someone like, say, Kate Atkinson. Now, Kate Atkinson is not a bad writer at all, but when it’s difficult to tell the difference between her prose and the prose of a critically lauded writer like Jennifer Egan, something is stylistically afoot.

    Minimalism isn’t so much the problem any more, as what, over the last thirty years or so, its aesthetic has engendered and enthroned as good writing. Namely, a glib, ultra-competent style that is unobjectionable on the one hand, and objectionable for this exact reason. It never risks anything, never attempts, per James Wood, to modulate. Reviews praising books for their “taut” prose are depressingly routine, and have been for decades. The received wisdom would seem to be that “tautness” is the central characteristic to which all good writing should aspire (tell that to Fielding, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Eliot, Conrad, Woolf, etc.). The tacit acceptance of this serviceable, flat style as the house style of literary fiction represents a failure of imagination on the part of both artists and critics.

  13. James Emerson…what a thrillingly apt quote from Bolano’s 2666. A perfect illustration of what Obioma is talking about.

  14. I’m not at all surprised to read this by the author of a book as great The Fishermen. It is truly truly a novel of audacious prose.

  15. Intelligent, thought-provoking piece. While I believe ‘audacious language’ can be found in different styles of literary fiction—it is a component of style, not a style itself—I love Chigozie’s plea for writers to be brave, to dwell in the ordinary and give it wings, for ideas to flower in language. His debut novel, The Fishermen, achieves all these things.

  16. Excellent. A well argued, much-needed encouragement. If it hadn’t been for this, I’d have given it 5 stars:

    “Too many words are being produced in print and visual media that the power of words is diminishing. There are now simply too many newspapers, too many books, too many blogs, too many Twitter accounts for words to maintain their ancestral sacredness. And as writers adjust the language of prose fiction to conform to this era of powerless words, language is disempowered, leading — as Kollick further points out — to the inexorable “emptying out of the human experience”….

    I’m not buying it. As annoying as life in the age of verbo-digital diarrhea can be, those writers who “adjust [their] prose…to conform” are nothing new. For every Euripides there was an Agathon, for every pre-revolutionary Gorky there were a thousand post-revolutionary Gorkys, and for every Nabokov there is practically everybody else prior and since (according to Nabokov), and yet the logos has somehow endured.

    When I had finished reading William Gaddis ramrod the democratization of lit in “Agapē Agape”, I too, was nigh unto convinced that the end was near. The book sat heavy in my hand. And then Bill posthumously leaned over and guffawed at me: the book’s own existence convinced me otherwise. As does your fine novel. There will always be some degree of disempowerment, some profaning of the ancient and the sacred, but these are mere contingencies economic and political and these too will pass. Though the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, the word endures. How could it be otherwise?

    Grateful for the work you do.

  17. And now in discussing maximalism, let’s bring up Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH, last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, known for its elaborate narrative and almost-elaborate Dickensian prose style that makes for an 800-page mammoth novel.

    I heard people criticizing it, and, having started the novel, I do find it a bit wearying it at times. However, I personally have nothing against its elaborate writing, which grows on me as I continue to read. And the narrative is engrossing anyways, even if it is quite long.

  18. Did anyone notice the subtle pun on Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope and Obioma’s “The Audacity of Prose”?

  19. So true!. @Sharpei Ideogram: Exactly — the critically lauded writers are — good enough, I guess, but they don’t “preserve artfulness of language by couching audacious prose” and the current house style dominates the awards, etc.

    @Anand: .You remind us that not all maximalism is worth the slog (no aspersions on TG — haven’t read it). Vladimir the redeemer was unable to write a boring sentence. Ever. But the trend toward overwriting and under-editing of works by, ahem, lesser lights has been noted many times at this site. Mostly by me.

    Still, I would rather the audacious failure with its sparks of life and color than the dull, null, navy of predictable prose. This is a perfect call to arms — I can’t wait to to read The Fisherman. Thank you for this wonderful piece.

  20. @zeko: where is that Giraldi piece?

    @priskill: I understand that overwriting can be bad and imprecise, and that there is a need to edit things. Having said that, I think that many of the complaints about “overwriting and underediting” are more or less based on short-attention spans and a lack of willingness to appreciate long, ambitious, and even a bit flawed work. I think “underediting,” while it has its own problems, is not entirely problematic, as it does lend more room for authorial voice, however problematic that may be at times, and I think that’s a good thing.

    Anyways, I’m personally loving THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt.

  21. I love that you chose Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as an example, because for me, this is the book that taught me to love literature. I have read it several times, and every time I go back to it, I am more impressed with Roy’s writing. It moves from the mundane day-to-day to the grand and sweeping without skipping a beat, and I think this works so well precisely because of the language, which is bountiful, unrestrained and, yes, audacious. It is great when language is used, exactly as you say, to make “the fiction about a known world (…) an elevated vision of that world”.

    I would much rather work through the so-called maximalist/overwritten/self-conscious/flamboyant work than deal with the minimalist works which really just feel stale and stingy. Fiction shouldn’t just simmer, it should boil over.

  22. @anand — You make excellent points about the squelching of the the truly new and different authorial voice — especially in light of the current mania for the minimalist style apparently beloved of the critical industrial complex. Maybe authors are self-editing in order to conform. And you are also correct, I think,about the need to accept the “flawed” bits to get to the gold. So true for so many great pieces of writing.

    But — I still think that often bloated can be improved, even for universally acknowledged geniuses. A careful culling, as opposed to a slash-and-burn is probably a good thing. It’s not the length, for me, or lack of attention span, it’s the quality of the prose, the best examples of which I will follow down many a crooked mile, not as the crow flies but as the worm malingers, slowly, slowly, a lowly pilgrim inching toward the grail. And with my arduous nose so low to the ground, the view is merciless. Every unnecessary, bumptious, overwrought effect looms terrifyingly and insurmountably to my puny vermicular self. If successful, the prose grows wings, I grow wings. If not — the giant shoe comes down.

    But — I do so agree with this piece and these responses! We long to be transported by great works, and great works don’t exist without the risk of the giant shoe felt on every page.

    Thank you for this response and for helping me think it through. Enjoyed this piece and the postings so much.

  23. @priskill: I appreciate your own comments and I will contribute as much as I can to the thread for this wonderful essay.

    Here’s a comment I placed elsewhere that I believe will add some more thought:

    “Purple” or excess prose is not a bad thing in and of itself. Yes, bad purple prose is awful and laughable (as is the case with many a bad romance or fantasy novel), but great purple prose, like much of what appears in many 19th-century literary classics, is truly a sight to behold; in fact, as author Chigozie Obioma (author of the new acclaimed novel The Fishermen) once noted, the novels that become great are often the ones that are a bit excessive rather than the ones that are a bit too inadequate.

    Thus, I don’t have much of an animosity towards overwritten literary novels such as The Goldfinch, and one of my favorite recent novels, All the Light We Cannot See, revels in poetic prose imagery, and it’s all the better for it. Perhaps these “overwritten” novels could use a bit more editing to make them a little better. However, perhaps the best “overwritten” novels carry an audacious and authentic voice that never really leaves the reader. The Goldfinch, which I’m currently reading and enjoying, indulges quite a bit in elaborated storytelling and descriptive prose, but I am all for what Donna Tartt does, because it’s beautiful and engrossing. Here’s an example from the opening page:

    “Chaotic room service trays; too many cigarettes; lukewarm vodka from duty-free. During those restless, shut-up days, I got to know every inch of the room as a prisoner comes to know his cell. It was my first time in Amsterdam; I’d seen almost nothing of the city and yet the room itself, in its bleak, drafty, sunscrubbed beauty, gave a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury brought in merchant ships from the East. I spent an unreasonable amount of time scrutinizing a tiny pair of gilt-framed oils hanging over the bureau, one of peasants skating on an ice-pond by a church, the other a sailboat flouncing on a choppy winter sea: decorative copies, nothing special, though I studied them as if they held, encrypted, some key to the secret heart of the old Flemish masters. Outside, sleet tapped at the windowpanes and drizzled over the canal; and though the brocades were rich and the carpet was soft, still the winter light carried a chilly tone of 1943, privation and austerities, weak tea without sugar and hungry to bed.”

    There are many more wonderful examples of this fine, elaborated excess written by Donna Tartt. Perhaps by Hemingway standards, it could be pared down a bit. But since Donna Tartt’s poetic ear lends an attractive quality to it, I don’t mind it, and I can definitely see why it may have been under-edited — because even if it is overwritten, perhaps it may be all the better for it, in part because the “overwriting” itself is quite beautiful and rich.

    So, writers, do know how to self-edit, but when the time comes, feel free to be elaborate and to delve deep into the audacious world of poetic, elaborate, even “purple” prose. Many great masters did it before you, and such prose worked for Donna Tartt.

  24. Oh. My. God.

    Hey everybody, The Millions published something good! Hey! Hey everybody!

    The Audacity of Not Publishing Jezebel Reject Articles.

  25. Yes. The Millions has published a lot of good stuff before, and I still love the site.

    Much of the recent output, however, has been a bit boring.

    “The Audacity of Prose” is, in this light, a welcome refresher and a true standout.

  26. @Anand: Now, I like the Donna Tartt example — nothing purple there, just lots of telling details that may hold “. . . encrypted, some key to the secret heart of ” the novel to come, hopefully. And the great 19th century masters hardly seem purple to me — merely prolix (and erudite and learned and thoughtful and well-read) in a good way. No, I wouldn’t change a hair of those, epitaphs and all.

    Maybe that’s it — good writing can support any amount of audaciousness. And, as a great teacher pointed out, you won’t reach the heights without really testing them. You can’t be great without the risk of overdoing and overwriting. Otherwise, you are writing just well enough, the best your measly “talent” can do; and talent is only good enough, which is exactly what everyone here is saying about the current crop of award winners.

    Of course, he also advocated the “Minor Craft” of editing — but not too much.

    I think we are actually agreeing! Thank you for your carefully considered points and for forcing me to think and rethink. I do appreciate this article and thread

  27. Yay @priskill: it turns out we are essentially the same in our views about elaborate prose style. We just look at it through varied angles :)

    Anyways, you’re quite right about the 19th century masters. However, I sometimes use “verbose” to describe their prose styles in part because they would be treated as such were they released today. And unless one is Cormac McCarthy or Donna Tartt, he or she won’t really be accepted or highly promoted if he or she has an elaborate prose style.

    Btw, I would recommend checking out THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt (which I’m currently reading), which is a beautifully ambitious and rich work (that some complain is too dense; but I don’t really mind the density). Also, ALL THE LIGHT WE
    CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr, which was one of my recent favorites. Both have beautiful prose styles (Tartt’s is more 19th-century and ornate; Doerr’s is similarly elaborate, but a bit more compressed), and both won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

  28. @ Anand Venigalla @priskill

    A lot here to digest; it’s always good to have someone help you do the chewing. This is just to add remembered conversations with a long-ago professor who enjoyed using the word “overwritten” to describe something either already in the canon or aspiring for admittance. When I’d ask “so I shouldn’t bother?” he’d answer calmly, as if addressing a slow child: “Of course you should, it’s timeless.” Perhaps this article, this thread, helps to show how both can be true.

    An entire other set of questions surface when we consider work in translation, which comes across as “overwritten” too often in English, but I’m not up to it this late in the day. If I might, however, presume to add a couple titles to your search for the elaborate: Ivan Klima’s “The Ultimate Intimacy”, Bolano’s “2666”; Charles Palliser’s “the Quincunx”, and just about anything – essays or fiction – by Marilynne Robinson.

    There’s no end to the encouragement that comes from finding other readers who enjoy the dense woods.

  29. @il’ja: thanks.

    I have heard of Bolaño’s 2666 and of Marilynne Robinson.

    I would also add another one of my favorite maximalists, David Foster Wallace. I haven’t read any of his fiction, but some of his essays, particularly “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” and “Authority and American Usage,” have expansive prose that still lingers in the mind.

  30. @ Anand Venigalla

    Dave is missed. The essays you mention are among my favorites, too. One short piece in his posthumous “Both Flesh and Not” collection – “Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated US Novels after 1960” – reveals a lot about the man.

    I’ve enjoyed his fiction, but I think he was at his best in the essay form. His short fiction will grow on folks, given time. His “Incarnations of Burned Children” will certainly never leave my head.

  31. @Anand @Il’ja

    I will surely be looking into both of those suggestions, Anand — your preview has really gotten me onto the Tartt train –thank you! and I now trust that i will like the Doerr book, as well. Thank you for these suggestions and for taking the time to talk this all through. Maybe All the Light We Cannot See is a great book club title?? It’s my turn to suggest something . . .

    Il’ja, Love that anecdote and it does fit this whole thread. Translation, now there’s a whole kettle of fish. Thank goodness they exist, but what exactly are we reading? I know TM has addressed this many times, most recently with Chinese translations. . . .

    Bolano is on my TBR list, and now Klima will be, too. DFW, man I both love and dread his essays — he is the guy I am thinking of in terms of, ahem, perhaps needing some little bit of editing, but I concede that wretched, brilliant, excess is part of his genius. Interestingly, Authority and American Usage is the one that stays with me from that collection, and now I will most certainly look into the ones you have both mentioned, as well as the shorter fiction. Timble suggested Pale King as the big one to start with, as opposed to Infinite Jest, so I have many, many pages awaiting. Appreciate all these suggestions and clarification — thank you and cheers!

  32. @ Anand Venigalla @priskill

    Before this disappears to that netherworld of unlocatable threads.

    In translation, deliciously, meticulously, achingly ornate is some of Orhan Pamuk’s better work. “My Name Is Red” – I found it bewitching; “Snow”, relentless, interminable, atmospheric; “The New Life” – odd, experimental, kind of audacious-lite; and “Instanbul: Memories and the City”, gorgeous (though I’m partial to the place). “Museum of Innocence” had that relentless, ornate quality but I found it to be unreadable.

    What indeed, priskill, are we reading?

  33. @Il’ja @Anand:

    Yes, Pahmuk — Your description is beautifully spot on! The perfect example rich prose that rewards all the effort. Snow, My Name is Red, and Black (sort of the detective mystery one) — relentless,for sure, but — you can’t put it down, and still, years later, scenes from them play in my head. Do need to look into the last two. MOI — that is disappointing to hear.

    Well, currently finishing “Generations of Winter,” by Aksyonov (sp?) which is not exactly War and Peace but still a “sweeping” portrait of Russia from 1925 on. So fascinating — can’t say no to Russian lit. Have “Envy” on hold from the library. Recently finished Cement, which certainly evokes a specific time and zeitgeist.

    Just finished You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik,which seemed to be an example of of the kind of minimalism addressed in Mr. Obiama’s essay, but by the end I was asking myself what is innocence? who is wronged here? And since he references Camus, Sartre, et al, I went into a bit of an existential brown study. I couldn’t go on but I did go on.

    Recently finished Huck Finn, my pick for the great American novel, once you can grit your way past the N word and the casual racism that was rampant at that time — which I think is his point. It seems no one can teach this anymore, but I would personally pair it with the other great American novel,Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as the key to America — between them they explain exactly who we are.

    Then, some Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Kwei Quartey mysteries. Am supposed to read “Far from the Madding Crowd,” for book club.

    Some Ismail Kidare — read his memoir “Chronicle in Stone” years ago and picked up a couple of his novels. Another careful, lovely writer.

    Finished some short stories by Andrea Barrett. They are the opposite of “audacious” prose — clipped and stunning down to the sentence level.

    And since its summer, need to pull out the old Travis Magees — trashy, great detective series from the 60s and 70s.

    Sorry for going on — what are you guys reading??

  34. It think it doesn’t have to be a massive book to fit the criteria. Ben Okri for example. But really good discussion.

  35. @ Anand Venigalla @priskill

    Yeah, Pamuk’s MoI has all the obsession of Lolita, but you don’t experience the low gut flip that you do with Nabokov. MoI just suffocates you; you get stranded in a kind of mimetic doldrums – no narrative wind in sight. Gave it the ol’ college try, but even Nobel laureates are capable of clinkers, I suppose.

    Don’t even know what to say about the Olesha & Gladkov, priskill. It’s just hard here because we’re swimming in SocRealism and it can get tiring. Some streets just feel heavy with all the jutting jawlines and strutting angularity. I can see, however, the intrigue for someone “on the outside”. The frightening thing about that epoch is that there are forces east of here working hard to resurrect it. Can books save us?

    Maksik is a name new to me. Hmm. I’ll never get through my 2015 list.

    There’s a Trinitarian ring to this, and it will raise hackles, but I’m going to tack Blood Meridian onto your “Understanding America” duet. Perhaps nowhere are McCarthy’s politics more plain; this is a writer deeply invested in justice and Blood Meridian is his testament to how the experiment can go – and often has gone – disastrously wrong. The book is a soul shatterer, a bad drunk on a toxin of rugged individualism and corporate violence. It is clearly NOT a title I’d recommend in general, but for our purposes here, it meets and exceeds the audacious test. In truth, the heavy lifting he does with that book is mirabile visu. Read an odd chapter in Jeremiah and a handful of imprecatory Psalms in the Authorized Version to get yourself into the meter for it.

    This is kismet. I stuck two Hammetts and two Chandlers on this year’s list and about 15 Scandinavian murder mysteries. On the latter – it was just time to find out what this is all about. But I’m saving them for the rains. Oh, yes.

    Devoured the following: the Colin Barrett debut, Young Skins; Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island; a bit of fun by Flann OBrien called The Hard Life; and a deeply serious Cormac McCarthy critique – No More Heroes – by Lydia Cooper, who reminds me of the person I’d like to be half as smart as when I grow up.

    I’m currently od-ing on D’Ambrosio – some stories, some essays, the Francine Prose “Reading like a Writer”, Lorrie Moore, James Wood (who consistently astounds me), and But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer on jazz.

    Denis Johnson’s Laughing Monsters is just underway, as is Doerr’s All the Light… and the Mishima trilogy which I’m done putting off. Then there’s the Thomas Nagel rant on neo-darwinism, in which I fear I’ll find lots of room for agreement. I’ve got Kadare’s “Twilight of the Eastern Gods” cued up for what looks like a Fall read and, for some odd reason, I’ve linked it to Kazantzakis’s Report to Greco – another one I’d been holding off on. And fine, Volume 1 of that Knausgaard fella.

    That gets me nearly to the bottom of page 1 (of 3) of my 2015 list.

    For work I’m having to re-familiarize myself with some lesser-known (to me, for certain) Turgenev, Chekhov, and Lesya Ukrainka. How’s that for audacity?

  36. @Il’ja @Anand

    Please forgive me — i am not at all a fan of Soviet-style politics, nor the callous romanticization of same — not hardly. And certainly not of the current maneuvers east of you and i AM sorry, wasn’t thinking of the awful situation with its “jutting jaws and strutting angularity,” which actually sounds like it came right out of Generations of Winter, with about the same level of disgust. Cement was shocking because, in 1923 the handwriting is already on the wall, unbeknownst to the author who cheerfully works out all the reasons why the Party is always bloody right. Likewise, Platonov, whose “Kill the Kulaks!” rants, from the angelic lips of a beautiful little girl, is one of the more chilling things I have read. Thank you for

    The zeal with which anyone can be made to adopt barbarous ideologies — I do think that is one of the messages of Huck Finn. Twain repeatedly shows how helping a slave escape is a far worse crime on the frontier in 1840 than murder, rape, etc. Huck is petrified by what his “god-fearing” countryman would think if they knew what he was about. So what did it take to get those self-styled lovers of freedom and the dignity of man and all the rest of the high falultin’ concepts recently set out in the constitution to decide it only applies to a few of them? And to see some of that baseness played out here into the 20th and even 21st century is dispiriting,

    I hope books can help. At the very least, they force me to reckon with my own blind spots and preconceptions. That’s why I come here, for sure.

    Ah, Cormac! Have only read Child of God and The Road (which, along with California and Station 11 form a trinity of wonderful, post-apocalyptic novels, with The Road scoring for The Most Grim Thing I Have Ever Read, Ever). Now I must see to Blood Meridian. I will dust off my King James forthwith.

    Also love James Wood and Geoff Dyer. Don’t know Nagel, Barry and Barrett and have not read Kazantzakis yet. All will join The List — thank you. Laughing Monsters was fine, like Graham Greene. The Denis Johnson I love is Already Dead — and talk about relentless prose — it is dense and meaty, not to mention the redwood trees.

    Ah, Turgenev — who gives us Bazarov, the Ur-ideologue, cooly anticipating the world to come. Now I will look up Ukrainka — I applaud your audaciousness. Thank you for taking the time to answer and for the needed reality check. Will be looking into these many suggestions. Good luck with T and Chekhov.

  37. Turns out we have the most interesting essay and comments thread on The Millions.

    Let’s keep it this way :)

  38. @ Anand Venigalla

    We do, indeed! Sadly, even the most ornate of internet threads end. They do, don’t they?

    If I came across as “you-kids-get-off-my-lawn”, that was unintentional. I am – as the pater familias used to say – red-faced. No forgiveness where there is no sin.

    For me, you’re hinting at an important distinction in reading Twain – and your take is my take – and say, Grossman or Bulgakov, et al. For as brilliant as they are, these were not hopeful writers. For this reason among others I can never number myself among the post-structuralists because I do still sense authorial intent. I think *telos* is a true and good thing, and like a corpse from the grave this reanimation of dialectical materialism that informs both the deconstructivists and the neo-bolsheviks just leaves me cold. Here’s to stories that mean something.

    Your reminder of the period in which Twain was writing Huck was excellent, excellent. We could talk, I fear, for days and nights on the mistakes we see playing out in eastern Europe. Let’s get a couple thousand copies of Huck Finn over here. STAT! as the TV doctors have it. If I can offer any encouragement: put no trust in princes, good priskill. Or, if it’s princes you trust most of all, then list to good Prince Hamlet: Believe none of us. Political thinking will save little.

    Yes. Blood Meridian. Tread cautiously, lead with the head, and let the viscera lie where they will. You’ll see. The Road will drop to a distant second on your “Most Grim” list. And remember, King James, and I’m serious. If all this is too abstruse, just keep thinking “Dante, Dante, Dante” as you read. Ibid.

    Oooh. Dennis Johnson, “Angels”. Perhaps better than Jesus’ Son. Heartbreaking. Hi-lighter worthy.

    Finally, at the risk of redundancy – no need for reality checks, at least not from me.

    peace from Kyiv

  39. @Anand — Agreed, yes! And it all started with The Goldfinch. Here’s to the audacity of the thread :)

    @Il’ja — Oh no, you didn’t come off as anything so no red face! it is good to get your take on the things you are living through, since we are woefully uninformed, and I really appreciate that.

    Excellent new thought (for me) — the connection between deconstruction and neo-bolshevism! Denying the individual voice in favor of mass concepts and group-think — well, we’ve seen where that goes. And hell,yes, authorial intent — anything less is just ideology, of whatever stripe, masquerading as art. The “reanimation of dialectical materialism that informs both the deconstructionists and neo-bolsheviks” — wow, I just keep coming back to this. I think I will be chewing on it for some time.

    I feel lucky to to have studied Lit way back before the kudzu of the isms wrapped the academy in a half-nelson.

    Absolutely no trust in princes! And I am starting to lose faith in us peons — see Charleston, South Carolina. I think we need a couple thousand copies of Huck Finn right here, STAT. I don’t have the words to describe our atrocities.

    And it seems we are losing the ability to separate authorial intent from . fictional persona — a teacher somewhere in the land of the free and home of the brave was recently suspended for teaching HF, which really points back to your excellent concerns . . . But I must stop since that is a whole nother thread!

    Gee, more grim than The Road? Dante Dante Dante it is!

    Thank you for these thoughtful insights! Cheers, and peace to you!

  40. Hey, guys, thank you for keeping the conversation going. Indeed, I composed this essay within two days out of some kind of angst, after reading a very intriguing and engaging book but which, it appeared to me, was written without any consideration at all to the language. In all 300 pages, there was not a line that one can cut out and say, oh, this describes this phenomenon beautifully, or in a way that has refreshed my understanding of it. I just felt it was necessary at some point for someone to speak out.

    I recall reading somewhere three years ago, during the incident of birds falling from the skies in the East coast of the States, how certain writers had described similar occurrences in their fiction. One of the writers was Cormac McCarthy who had described such a beautiful way in one of his books that anyone who experiences such a thing would never look at it in the same way again. This is one of the things WRITING should do. As writers, we should be the ones to consult for such things the way CNN consults the opinion of a political scientist to understand a politician’s recent statement. A writer and a non-writer may see a field of lilies the same way, but should never describe it in the same way. Words are our tools, and the sign of good workmanship should be the effective deployment of this tool. That contemporary writers are being told that words are not the most important tool, but merely a medium is a shame.

    My greatest fear, in fact, is that, as this idea grows wilder and is more received, new readers–say, the next generation–might no longer understand what great writing is. The “less is more” idea may soon become so entrenched in the culture that future readers will pick Dan Brown over Milton or Melville. That, in truth, is a very grim future. And every writer, including myself, should aim to prevent this from happening. I know that I’m very very far from achieving this in THE FISHERMEN, but it is worth trying, and we should have no other choice but to aim for audacious prose.

  41. Interesting @Chigozie.

    What would you think of the thoughts I expressed with regard to this audacious prose you so beautifully commend?

    And I have a question: have you read THE GOLDFINCH and/or ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE.

  42. @ Chigozie

    “Words are our tools, and the sign of good workmanship should be the effective deployment of this tool.”

    This reminds me of something Robert Hass wrote about the place where Cormac McCarthy splits off from postmodern practice, insisting “…that in human life certain ancient stories get acted out again and again, and that a writer’s moral relation to these stories is like nothing so much as a craftsman’s relation to his tools…in the knowledge of the skills of a trade that has been passed down to one and that will be passed in turn to other hands”.

    In The Fisherman it seems clear that the craft has been passed on to you. You’ve given us that unmistakable echo – both stylistically and ethically – of an ancient story, and the art you employ in the language is not merely incidental, but essential to the telling of that story.

    You and I have almost nothing – ethnically, experientially – in common, and yet your story resonates deeply with me. The craft in the work is evident: the cadences and the sense of the sacred show a clear reverence for the way the old stories were told. The book is wonderfully accomplished.

    The words do matter. Dan Brown will continue to win the sales wars, but there are lots of us out here who will almost always opt for the beautiful over the merely functional. Even among those most tyrannized (often unconsciously) by the petty coercions of the digital world and social media there is a strong desire for things that last, for characters that ring true and things that take longer to say. More of us than you might be ready to believe. Ultimately, the good craftsmanship is what will last – not the slop – regardless of how prescriptively creative writing is being taught.

    Keep the faith. Keep writing the sentences. You continue to put the best of your heart and mind out into the world and we will continue to read it.

  43. @Chigozie

    Thank you for this beautiful essay and for your responses. I cannot wait to read your book — your cri de coeur resonates deeply. You are making art — the bestsellers are often just commodities, the “beautiful over the merely functional,” as Il’ja said. It’s what we’re all looking for — thank you and cheers!

  44. Amen! Amen! This is a brilliantly argued and much needed article. Though I write in English, I read in other languages and this has had a significant impact on my writing. Some of the harshest criticism that’s come my way has been directed at my “flowery prose.” I wouldn’t change a word of it. So honored to be a finalist alongside you for the Flannery-Dunnan First Book Prize.

  45. Mr. Obioma,

    (and @priskill @il”ja Aline, et al)

    What a magnificent essay and series of comments. Thank you!

    It was wonderful to see both Orhan Pamuk and Francine Prose mentioned within the same thread, both favorites of mine. Just a couple of observations which hopefully are not too far out in left field:

    a.) I enjoyed the referenced to “flowery prose.” A student of mine who was raised in a bilingual (English-Spanish) home in Europe was very harshly criticized at a lobbying firm in Washington DC for her writing product. From what I could glean, the main objection (very poorly expressed) was that her writing was too “flowery.” Her no-nonsense boss wanted sharp, brisk, bullet points. Fortunately, my student found a new job fairly quickly, that was a better fit for her style. I found myself puzzling about the situation. Was either style inherently superior to the other?

    b.) I love the embroidery of Mr. Pamuck’s writing, which brings to mind the tiny details in a miniature painting. On the other hand, I love the sparseness of Robert Frost. It brings to mind for me the ice-hard New England winters of my childhood,, the bareness of the trees in winter, the simplicity of a Presbyterian church on a town square in Vermont.

    c.) I find Cynthia Ozick’s writing style a perfect match to her ideas. What denseness! What scholarship! She is heavy and rich, but perfectly well-balanced, an intellectual marbled butter-rum cake. One must read her in small doses, and carefully digest.

    All for now, but thanks again for a marvelous example of The Millions’ treasures.

    Moe Murph

  46. I like the piece and its passion, but its arguments amount to “This thing I think is self-evident.”

    We tack back and forth between minimalism and maximalism as a literary culture, and we’re in a minimalist moment – or at least a less adorned moment, plainspokenness admired again, Knausgaard, Ferrante, Lerner, etc.

    The essential point to me is that minimalism is essentially ironic, and maximalism is essentially sincere. (INFINITE JEST is probably the most sincere book ever written, which is why it’s so funny it’s become an avatar for irony and knowingness.) Both modes should be available to any great novelist, probably.

  47. @Moe Murph — so good to hear from you and love the examples you gave — “an intellectual marbled butter-rum cake,” indeed! Your vastly different examples are ample proof of Charles Finch’s point that “Both modes should be available to any great novelist, probably” — even in a minimalist era. Surely “the age” can support different prose styles simultaneously.

    @Charles Finch — thinking about your statement that minimalism’s essentially ironic and maximalism is essentially sincere. Hmmm, Isn’t Nabokov pretty ironic and knowing? And Hemingway very sincere sometimes? Well, you’ve got me thinking about it!

    Love all the comments and thoughts thanks to Mr Obiama and The Thread That Would Not Die!

  48. Hello, Priskill! Great to be back and catching up!

    a.) @Charles Finch @priskill — Intriguing observation and response (irony/sincerity and style) must chew upon this new piece of marble butter cake!

    b.) To prep for a first-ever visit to Ireland/Dublin in September for a wedding, am rereading “Ulysses.” Talk about styles! My all-time favorite description ever of any style is Joyce’s own description of the “Nausikaa” section of the novel:

    “Nausikaa is written in a namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy (alto là!) style with effects of incense, mariolatry, masturbation, stewed cockles, painter’s palette, chitchat, circumlocutions, etc. etc. Not so long as the others.”

    (Letter from Joyce to Frank Budgen, 3 January 1920,
    Letters 1:135, Selected Letters, p. 246)


    Moe Murph
    Trying Not to Bore Cubicle Mates with Ireland Trip Prep/Joyce Blatherings – Mostly Succeeding

  49. I will defend that BR Myers piece (or better yet, the expanded book version) to the death. I once had a dispute with Garth Risk Hallberg about it; he complained you could do the same hatchet treatment to ‘any novel.’ I really don’t believe that’s true – Myers highlights some absolute howlers, the likes of which you aren’t going to find in Jude The Obscure or The Secret History or any number of great novels in between. It has nothing to do with maximalism, or in fact any style; just the execution. And I can’t be the only one who finds McCarthy’s affected, faux-cowboy prose excruciating (even as I enjoy some of his work’s themes, characters, and stories)?

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