A common admonition in recent creative writing pedagogy is, “Cut as many adjectives as possible.” I would like to propose that this rule springs from mere prejudice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with adjectives; they’re just out of fashion. In fact (and in fiction), they can be used, in surprising abundance, to good, even brilliant effect.
Today’s writers, I guess, consider themselves superior to, say, Charles Dickens. And Mark Twain. And Henry James. Not to mention James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy. Let’s take a look, shall we, at cold hard evidence.
Twain’s writing was sometimes spare in terms of adjectives, but other times richly spiced, as in this excerpt from Life on the Mississippi.
I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun.
Okay, you say, handing out the tired old adage about one robin not making a spring. You’re not convinced. Let’s turn to Dickens and the powerful adjectives in this excerpt from Hard Times (or would it be better as, simply, Times?).
It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
I think I see adjectives. But two examples make a paltry coincidence, you say. Objection sustained. Here’s the reasonably prestigious Henry James in A Small Boy and Others:
I turn around again to where I last left myself gaping at the old rickety bill-board in Fifth Avenue; and am almost as sharply aware as ever of the main source of its spell, the fact that it most often blazed with the rich appeal of Mr. Barnum, whose “lecture room,” attached to the Great American Museum, overflowed into posters of all the theatrical bravery disavowed by its title. It was my rueful theory of those days — though tasteful I may call it too as well as rueful — that on all the holidays on which we weren’t dragged to the dentist’s we attended as a matter of course at Barnum’s, that is when we were so happy as to be able to; which, to my own particular consciousness, wasn’t every time the case. The case was too often, to my melancholy view, that W. J., quite regularly, on the non-dental Saturdays, repaired to this seat of joy with the easy Albert — he at home there and master of the scene to a degree at which, somehow, neither of us could at the best arrive…
Let’s move on to a short story, “The Raid,” by Tolstoy, sometimes considered a decent writer:
The battalion was about five hundred yards ahead of us and looked like a black, dense, oscillating mass. It was possible to guess that this was an infantry battalion only because, like long densely packed needles, the bayonets were visible…The sun was not yet visible, but the crest of the right side of the ravine had begun to be lit up.The grey and whitish rock, the yellowish green moss, the dew covered bushes of Christ’s Thorn, dogberry, and dwarf elm appeared extraordinarily distinct and salient in the golden morning light, but the other side and the valley, wrapped in thick mist which floated in uneven layers ,were damp and gloomy and presented an indefinite mingling of colors: pale purple, almost black, dark green, and white.
“Needless decoration,” you say. “Who cares about colors?” Let’s look at James Joyce, then, regarded in some circles as a fairly proficient writer, and his story, which you may have heard of, “The Dead.”
The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
“Okay, but those are all men, old dead men,” you object.
I hear you. I hear you, loud and clear. Bring on the women—both the living and the dead. Herewith Jane Austen’s Emma:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period.
I guess we’d be better off if Emma just had a home and disposition. You aren’t satisfied. You aren’t happy. You have strong objections: “She may be a woman, but she’s old.” All right then, we’ll turn then to Annie Proulx, who is, to the best of my knowledge, still living. Let’s examine That Old Ace in the Hole (should we delete “Old”?) which was published in 2002.
In late March Bob Dollar, a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes, drove east along Texas State Highway 15 in the panhandle, down from Denver the day before, over the Raton Pass and through the dead volcano country of northeast New Mexico to the Oklahoma pistol barrel, then a wrong turn north and wasted hours before he regained the way. It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac. NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home.
Some, it seems, prefer eyes that are fringed with lashes rather than sooty lashes. I don’t get it, but you be you. Let’s shift gears and turn our attention to Richard Wright’s generally well-regarded memoir, Black Boy. Wright’s work begins thus:
One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside. All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful, and impatient.
Or maybe Wright wasn’t any of those adjectives; maybe he just was.
“Very good,” you say, “but what about authors outside of North America and Europe? Do they use adjectives?” (A deafening yes! Whoops, I mean just yes.) Let’s see if Gabriel Garcia Marquez fits the bill. One Hundred Years of Solitude is regarded by some as an acceptable piece of literature.
At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquíades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia.
It seems Garcia Marquez is guilty of adjective use in at least the second degree. How sad. How unfortunate. Turning to Japan, Kenzaburo Oe’s work won a Nobel Prize. But perhaps the committee in Sweden was lazy or busy and overlooked the shockingly excessive adjectives in this problematic excerpt from Prize Stock:
My brother and I ran over to the blacksmith’s shed in the shade of the lush nettle tree. In the darkness inside, the charcoal fire on the dirt floor spit no tongues of red flame, the bellows did not hiss, the blacksmith lifted no red-hot steel with his lean, sun-blackened arms. Morning and the blacksmith not in his shop – we had never known this to happen. Arm in arm, my brother and I walked back along the cobblestone road in silence. The village was empty of adults. The women were probably waiting at the back of their dark houses. Only the children were drowning in the flood of sunlight. My chest tightened with anxiety.
Harelip spotted us from where he was sprawled at the stone steps that descended to the village fountain and came running over, arms waving. He was working hard at being important, spraying fine white bubbles of sticky saliva from the split in his lip.
“Well, he may be a living writer, but he’ still pretty old,” you grumble.
With astonishing patience, I bring forth my final sample, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (Just Teeth would be better?). She’s alive, modern, young, possibly even cutting-edge.
Archie was too far gone to make a big noise about it, but he watched them with a warm internal smile as they deposited their load, streaking white walls purple. He watched them stretch their peering bird heads over the Hussein-Ishmael gutter; he watched them watch the slow and steady draining of blood from the dead things – chickens, cows, sheep – hanging on their hooks like coats around the shop. The Unlucky. These pigeons had an instinct for the Unlucky, and so they passed Archie by. For, though he did not know it, and despite the Hoover tube that lay on the passenger seat pumping from the exhaust pipe into his lungs, luck was with him that morning. The thinnest covering of luck was on him like fresh dew.
May I rest my heavy-laden case? Given such copious evidence, it troubles me that people are trying to evict useful and innocent adjectives from the language they occupied long before such critics did. I just hope the next time an adjective-hater books a flight to paradise, he or she alights in Antarctica. Then maybe these individuals will wish they had booked a tropical paradise.
Image credit: Flickr/Alan Levine.
It’s easy to buy into the classic image of the isolated female author: the eccentric Brontë sisters, wandering the moors; lofty George Eliot, sequestered in her London villa; a melancholic Virginia Woolf, loading her pockets with stones before stepping into the River Ouse. Male writers, on the other hand, often come in pairs: Fitzgerald and Hemingway on their riotous drinking sprees, Wordsworth and Coleridge hiking together through the Lakeland hills, Byron and Shelley encouraging each other’s sexual escapades.
As two modern-day writers, we’ve long found it intriguing that legendary male authors are cast as social creatures while their female counterparts are remembered as cloistered figures. We became close friends more than a decade-and-a-half ago when we were taking our first tentative steps on the long path to publication. In the years since, we’ve supported each other every step of the way: commenting on countless drafts, sharing details about literary agents and competition deadlines, and offering a sympathetic ear when the going got tough. Our experiences as struggling young writers suggested to us that history’s best-known female authors would also have welcomed a literary friend, especially, perhaps, during those difficult early stages of their careers.
But if these women had enjoyed relationships like ours, we realized that such bonds had rarely made it into the annals of literary history. And so, our interest piqued, we set out to investigate.
The case of Jane Austen particularly captured our imagination. She devoted 24 years to writing before securing her first publishing deal—a feat of endurance that put our own experiences into perspective. Could she have forged a friendship with a fellow writer, we wondered, who gave her the strength to keep going?
A fleeting reference in a biography provided the first clue to a hidden creative alliance that would eventually take us to old census records, volumes of unpublished diaries, and our discovery of two previously unknown Austen family documents. It turned out that Anne Sharp, a governess to Austen’s niece, and a household playwright, was a dear friend to Austen. Despite the gulf in their social positions, their shared status as amateur writers functioned, for a time, as a kind of leveler. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of Austen’s relatives, the two women enjoyed lengthy conversations, acted together in one of Sharp’s theatricals, and went so far as taking a six-week vacation together.
By the time a publisher finally brought out Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Austen had been working on the novel intermittently for 16 years. Even after Austen’s books had become fêted by high society, attracting admirers as powerful as the Prince Regent, she continued to value the insights of this unpublished working woman. When Emma came out in 1815, Austen set aside one of her 12 precious presentation copies for Sharp—the only friend she singled out for such an honor. But Austen continued to seek Sharp’s appraisals, and the governess remained happy to oblige. While sharing her delight in the character of Mr. Knightly, for instance, Sharp admitted that she was not convinced by Jane Fairfax, who dreads the future mapped out for her as a governess. It’s a telling criticism, since Sharp was so well placed to judge. On a later occasion, when Austen asked for feedback on Mansfield Park, Sharp again summed up her thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses. “As you beg me to be perfectly honest,” she concluded, “I confess I prefer P. & P.”—a view shared by many readers over the centuries to come.
In 1817, Austen would pen from her sickbed her last ever letter to this “excellent kind friend.” After Austen’s death, Sharp received three deeply personal mementoes: a pair of Austen’s belt clasps, her silver needle, and a lock of her hair. And yet, when, half a century later, the great author’s descendants penned her first full biography, they excluded even a single mention of Sharp.
By expunging any trace of this class defying friendship, Austen’s relatives maintained their carefully crafted image of her as a conservative maiden aunt, devoted above all else to kith and kin. This kind of omission is all too common. The important literary friends of Charlotte Brontë, Eliot, and Woolf have all suffered similar fates.
The Brontë sisters are rarely envisaged away from their father’s moorland parsonage, but Charlotte in fact ventured far from her Yorkshire home. In the early 1840s, the 25-year-old—encouraged by her old boarding school friend, the future feminist author Mary Taylor—traveled to live and study in Brussels. Taylor, who believed in female financial independence, was certainly a force to be reckoned with. She pushed Brontë to pursue her dreams of publication, and ultimately shaped the radical elements of her friend’s novels such as Jane Eyre and Shirley. Taylor’s important impact on her friend’s career, however, is rarely acknowledged.
The studious neglect of Eliot’s literary friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe is even more surprising given the towering stature of each author. Despite never having the opportunity to meet, the two literary legends maintained an 11-year, transatlantic correspondence that came to an end only with Eliot’s death in 1880. In deeply personal missives, the two discussed their families, scandals that befell them, and, of course, their work—with Eliot’s final novel Daniel Deronda bearing the imprint of Stowe’s whirlwind bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But this historically important alliance has been seriously overlooked by biographers.
Unlike the literary allies of Austen, Brontë, and Eliot, Katherine Mansfield’s name has frequently been paired with Woolf’s—but for all the wrong reasons. While they regarded each other as important friends, the competitive nature of their relationship has led to the widespread assumption that they were sworn enemies. Woolf’s burning literary drive, it is too often assumed, must have extinguished the possibility of friendship with another ambitious woman.
By contrast, all the great male writing partnerships involved large doses of rivalry and yet the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald are regarded as rambunctious comrades.
When the two of us began our research, we were propelled by curiosity about whether our literary heroines had female writer friends at all. But, having soon discovered that behind every great woman was another woman, our focus shifted to the question of why these crucial influences are so little known.
We initially wondered whether these writers themselves had contributed to this obscurity by guarding their privacy—an understandable stance in the days when a woman could court controversy simply by attempting to publish her words. But, through the process of uncovering a veritable treasure trove of female alliances, we came to the conclusion that there are also more troubling reasons for the disregard shown towards these crucial relationships.
Persistent images of isolation can be used to weaken female power by giving the impression that there are no tried-and-tested models of intellectual collaboration between women. A one-off genius, set apart, is an aberration who poses little threat to centuries of patriarchy—as is the ambitious woman, cast as the enemy of her peers. Especially in today’s uncertain climate—when women are fighting for control over their own bodies, and when their contributions are so often dismissed—we must resist such insidious tactics of divide and rule. The rich history of sisterhood offers a shaft of light during dark times: it is imperative to turn to the example of female forebears—women who always knew that they could best achieve greatness by aligning themselves with other women.
Does Ernest Hemingway really use the fewest adverbs? Do authors write about their own gender more than others’? In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt uses statistical analysis to deconstruct popular and classic literature and interrogate truisms about writing fiction. Many of the claims he makes are intriguing. He finds that male writers tend to use the pronoun “he” far more often than “she” in their books, whereas female writers use “he” and “she” almost equally. Blatt also finds that over the last 200 years, writers’ tendency to use qualifiers (“‘rather, very, little, pretty, etc.'”) in their fiction has decreased substantially. Blatt’s quantitative approach to literature is novel — and very entertaining — but the book is undermined by poor copyediting and methodologies that call into question the conclusions Blatt reaches.
To a bibliophile, the flaw that jumps out is Blatt’s seeming unfamiliarity with some of the fiction he calls on to support his findings. In Chapter 4, “Write by Example,” Blatt claims that writers’ use of qualifiers has been declining for two centuries. (Between 1900 and 1999, he writes, qualifier use per 10,000 words dropped from more than 200 to a little more than 100.) He cites Jane Austen as prime example of 19th-century qualifier abuse: “Jane Austen is one of the English language’s most celebrated authors but her use of words like very is off the charts.” Blatt’s claim, broadly speaking, is believable, but the excerpt from the novel he cites is terrible evidence to justify that writers of a different era conformed to different stylistic standards regarding qualifiers. The quote he chooses from Emma is Austen’s summary of Harriet’s dialogue:
She was very fond of singing. He could sing a little himself. She believed he was very clever, and understood every thing. He had a very fine flock, and, while she was with them, he had been bid more for his wool than any body in the country. She believed every body spoke well of him. His mother and sisters were very fond of him. (Emphasis Blatt’s)
Later in the chapter, Blatt quotes Dead Poet’s Society to explain how qualifiers can vitiate speech: ‘“…avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.”’ Or, to put it another way, using “very” too often can make a person sound dumb. In Emma, Harriet Smith is an airhead and her vacancy is crucial to the novel’s plot. Thus, those abundant “verys” in the passage aren’t an indication either of Austen’s laziness or her conforming to the style conventions of another era; Austen uses them deliberately to telegraph to the reader that Harriet is dense. Blatt’s relying on this passage as an illustration of unconsciously absorbed literary standards suggests either shallow familiarity with his source material or a failure of literary analysis.
Blatt is also sometimes careless about the conclusions he draws from his data. For example, when he compares the relative frequency with which male and female writers use the pronouns “he” and “she,” Blatt concludes that, based on his sample, “Of the 50 classic books by men, 44 used he more than she and 6 did the opposite” and “Of the 50 classic books by women, 29 used she more than he and 21 did the opposite.” Both of these statements, however, are, at best, misleading, and possibly false, as Blatt identifies two books in his 50-book sample, one by a man and one by a woman, that use “he” and “she” at equal rates. Blatt rounds to the nearest percentage point, so it is possible that what he writes is, strictly speaking, true; there may be barely more appearances of “he” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and barely more appearances of “she” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, both of which round most closely to equal representation. If this is the case, however, why does Blatt not make this clear in the text?
Perhaps more importantly, Nabokov’s Favorite Word did not get the attention it needed from a copy editor. (On page 70, for instance, Blatt titles a list “Most Probable to be Richard Bachman” [Stephen King’s pseudonym], when what he means is “Most Probable to be Robert Galbraith” [J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym]). In a book of statistical analysis especially, Blatt’s lack of care defining criteria for inclusion in his samples (and adhering to those criteria invariably), calls into the question the conclusions he draws from his analysis. For instance, in the aforementioned analysis of gendered pronouns, Blatt waffles about whether his analysis is confined to novels or just to “books.” On page 41, he writes that he drew his data from the “100 novels on [the] classic literature list.” This list of “novels,” however, contains several collections of short stories, including A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Winesburg, Ohio. It is unlikely that including short stories would bias the results determining how often writers use “he” and “she;” it may, however, mislead the reader about how writers use gendered pronouns in fiction in general, as opposed to novels in particular. Blatt’s sloppiness in choosing his samples is not limited to this analysis alone. In another case of “Breakout Debut Novels,” he states that to qualify a work had to be “an author’s first novel.” Nevertheless, he includes in his sample Alice McDermott’s second novel, That Night, published in 1987, though McDermott’s first novel was A Bigamist’s Daughter, published in 1982.
Blatt’s problem defining criteria for his samples and adhering to them most profoundly undermines his investigation of different writers’ favorite words. Blatt concludes, for example, that Virginia Woolf’s favorite words are “flushing, blotting, mantelpiece;” Marilynne Robinson’s are “soapy, checkers, baptized;” and Lemony Snicket’s are “siblings, orphans, squalor.” Blatt designates only four criteria to determine whether a word is a favorite, one of which is that the word “is not a proper noun.” Blatt does omit all words that are unmistakably proper nouns; you won’t find Chicago, Arkansas, or Sahara among any writer’s favorites. Blatt, however, neglects to exclude words that writers use as proper nouns. This is most obvious in his choice of Virginia Woolf’s favorite word “flushing.” Based on searches performed on Google Books, Woolf only uses “flushing” (not as a proper noun) eight times in the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. There are, however, 55 occurrences of “Flushing” in Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, in which Woolf repeatedly refers to the characters Mr. and Mrs. Flushing. To determine a favorite word, Blatt also uses the criterion that the word “must be used in half an author’s books.” Excluding The Voyage Out, which never uses “flushing” as anything other than a character’s name, the word only appears in four of the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. Thus, Blatt must be counting the erroneous appearances of “Flushing,” used as a proper noun, to arrive at his ranking.
Though I cannot prove it with the same certainty, Blatt likely repeats this flaw in several other authors’ favorite word lists. One of Marilynne Robinson’s favorite words, as determined by Blatt, for instance, is “soapy.” In her novel Gilead, “Soapy” is the name of the cat, who is mentioned by name 11 times. Excluding references to the cat, however, Robinson only uses the word “soapy” twice in all the novels in Blatt’s Robinson sample and never in Gilead. It is also possible the same error occurred in the identification of “squalor” as one of Lemony Snicket’s favorite words; there is a supporting character named Esmé Squalor in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Blatt could argue that names should be included in the analysis because a writer handpicks them for her characters. Nevertheless, Blatt either needs to redefine his criteria to make this inclusion clear or exclude from his sample instances where a writer uses common words as proper nouns.
Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve is a thoroughly entertaining romp, but the mistakes — especially Blatt’s lack of rigor in sticking to the criteria he defines for his samples — mean one should approach it with several grains of salt. Given the problems of methodology observed, one often can’t put faith in Blatt’s conclusions. It is unfortunate that his intriguing approach is compromised by lackluster execution. His analyses, approached with more rigor, could offer meaningful insight into the way great writers compose.