Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How to improve writing (no. 39)

In August 2008 I wrote a note to myself with some book-buying advice. It ended like so: “Ask yourself, self, the crucial question: do you need to buy this book, or can you be happy getting it from the library?”

More and more often, I am happy getting it, whatever it is, from the library. So it is with Kenneth Slawenski’s J. D. Salinger: A Life (New York: Random House, 2011), a book I found myself rewriting as I read it. Its language is filled with tiresome phrasing: criticism is scathing; friends are close and personal; royalties are handsome; stories are finely crafted.¹ The words actual and actually, often meaningless intensifiers, appear again and again. Some sentences appeared to have been run through a thesaurus: “The episode scorched Salinger fans, a sensation exacerabated twelve years later when Internet booksellers replayed the feint only to deliver disappointment once again.” And Slawenski’s efforts at lit crit rely upon lengthy paraphrase and reductive symbolism: “The room also symbolizes Franny’s spiritual and emotional state.” “The value of acceptance through faith is symbolized by the character of Muriel’s tiny great-uncle.” No, and no.

Here is a sample paragraph, about a novel that was to be devoted to the Glass family:

In attempting such an ambitious work, Salinger tried to employ the same method that worked for him so well when he had penned The Catcher in the Rye: he sought to construct the new book by sewing together pieces that could also stand on their own as self-contained stories. “Zooey” is a prime example of this method. While his letters leave no doubt that “Zooey” was intended to rest with the new novel upon the book’s completion, the story’s most immediate purpose was to stand alone as a sequel to the story “Franny.”
Here’s my more readable version, which omits reference to ambition (as there’s no explanation of what makes this work so ambitious), drops the slightly pompous penned, avoids the illogic of a stand-alone sequel, and reorders elements of the paragraph to make a more logical point: yes, the story is a sequel to “Franny,” but it was meant to be more:
Like The Catcher in the Rye, the new novel was to be a sequence of self-contained stories. While “Zooey” would first serve as a sequel to the earlier “Franny,” Salinger’s letters leave no doubt that the new story was meant to be part of the novel.
Shame on Random House for not making this book’s prose better. Back to the library.

¹ And then there’s this sentence about Claire Douglas, who became Salinger’s first wife: “At the time Claire could not have suited Salinger better had he crafted her himself.”

[This post is no. 39 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Related reading
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comments: 2

Elaine said...

For a book that seems to me to require little or no editing:

_The Hare with Amber Eyes_,
Edmund de Waal.

Slywy said...

I use a few meaningless modifiers out of habit that I didn't recognize as a habit. Now that I do — gack.