Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"If You Really Want to Hear about It...."

....is the beginning of the first line in J.D. Salinger's novel, Catcher in the Rye. This sentence (more below) is written in a particular style and is used to illustrate how it works to breath life into writing.

In an earlier post, I described two basic sentence styles: subordinating and additive.  I've already covered the subordinating style, in which components of the sentence are ordered in a logical way, i.e., have a relationship to each other:  "Before opening the door, he cautiously peered out through the peephole." A subordinate (dependent) phrase adds meaning to another part of the sentence.

In this post, I will talk a bit more about the additive style in which components are listed in sequence but not necessarily in a subordinate relationship to each other.  This style has been described as being more "organic" versus the subordinate style as being "linear".  Consider the following sentence from Tana French's thriller, In the Woods:

"This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses."

No one element listed in this sentence is subordinate (less important) than another.  Instead, they set a mood and stimulate the reader's imagination.  As we read each item, we envision or remember tasting a blade of grass, sweating, eating biscuits (cookies), and drinking lemonade during the summer.  In literature, the additive style has been used to convey spontaneity rather than a logical order.  It can be a list of experiences that have no relationship to each other, other than being, for example, fond memories of summers past, as in the sentence above.  The elements are listed in no particular order according to time or importance.  Chewed blades of grass are no more important than red lemonade in terms of fondness or occurrence in time (at least not as expressed in this sentence). 

Stanley Fish, in his book, How to Write a Sentence, goes into much detail over the additive style, providing many examples from literature to illustrate.  He provides more complex examples of additive style from the works of Hemingway, Woolf, and Salinger.  Salinger, for example, uses this style in the opening sentence of Catcher in the Rye:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Fish interprets this sentence for us saying that it conveys two voices: that of a callow young man and simultaneously that of the cynical author.  The apparent randomness of the thoughts sound spontaneous and how an immature teenager might talk.  The reference to David Copperfield, however, is suggestive of someone who is not your everyday teenager.  The elements of the sentence are offered in no particular priority or according to a timeline (birth, childhood, pre-conception, present day). They are strung together in a seemingly haphazard fashion.  They are not, of course. The sentence is well crafted to convey the mood and specific emotional aspects of the narrator that the author wanted to introduce right at the beginning of the novel.

Ernest Hemingway was a master of the additive style, but in the form of superficially simple sentences.  Many people find his style very appealing.  Here is an example from A Farewell to Arms:

"In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels."

Even though the words are spare and lean, the sentence structure is not simple.  There are two different groups of objects, rocks and the water, which are described in spare terms, but there is no explicit relationship between them articulated in the sentence.  The pebbles and boulders are sitting there in the bed of the river but presumably not in the water (dry and white in the sun); the water is moving nearby in the channels. This sentence describes a scene one might see standing on a river bank looking at the view–a vivid snapshot with the two main elements (rocks and water) juxtaposed in the mind's eye.

I think you get the idea.  In contrast to the subordinating style, which follows a logical framework, the additive style sets the mood, expresses the emotional feelings of the narrator, or paints a scene in a natural, spontaneous manner. Whereas subordinating sentences in a composition provide a coherent structure, the additive sentences add atmosphere. They express the human aspect of the narrative.

Although this style appears to be easy to replicate, Fish warns that it is not.  He suggests that the subordinating style is easier to accomplish because of its logic: you can ask yourself if a sentence's components make sense in relation to each other.  The additive style appears to be uncontrolled, spontaneous, organic, with no apparent logic....just writing down one thing after another in no particular order.  There is no recipe or format that one can follow, as was the case with the subordinating style.  Although the sentence elements appear to be randomly positioned, the sentence still conveys something understandable.  It's not just a jumble of words without meaning or intent.

Fish warns that a writer must learn how to construct the subordinating, controlled sentence before taking on the free-wheeling, additive style...and making it work.  He does suggest that this style can be imitated (and practiced) by starting with examples from less experimental writers.

Fish suggests an exercise to practice writing in the additive style.  Start with a scene, say one in which someone is standing looking out at a view:

She thought, gazing at the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun.

Then add a few participial phrases: "The air smelling of pine resin, the breeze cooling her face, the horse snorting gently,"

Perhaps add another phrase at the end: "would she find the child in time, living?"

Put all together:

"The air smelling of pine resin, the breeze cooling her face, the horse snorting gently, she thought, gazing at the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun, would she find the child in time, living?"

The various elements are listed in no particular order according to occurrence or importance. They set a mood, however, by describing different elements of the environment, which are calm and majestic, and putting these adjacent to an emotional question involving life and death.  The effect is to perhaps convey the impression that the person (a woman) being described is somewhat removed emotionally from the action.  If she's looking for a lost child, why is she so calmly standing and savoring her surroundings?  Is she a professional tracker or detective?  One could easily change this mood, however, by modifying the participial phrases:

"The air reeking of smoke, the wind whipping at her hair, the horse stamping nervously, she thought, peering at the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun, would she find the child in time, living?"

Now we have a completely different impression of the action taking place and the emotional state of the woman.  We perceive more desperation or sense of urgency, but not because of any specific feelings described for the woman.  Instead, it's the phrases (air reeking of smoke--is there a fire? wind whipping, horse stamping nervously) that lend a different mood.  When we reach the part of the sentence describing what previously sounded like a majestic vista, we now interpret the high desert, distant peaks, and setting sun as being ominous portents of the outcome of her search for the child.  We simultaneously have the impression that the searcher has an emotional investment in the action, although this is not explicitly stated.  The subtle change in the word "gazing" to "peering" adds to the impression that the searcher is not calmly admiring the view, but gauging the challenges suggested by the view.

Well, I went on a bit longer about the additive style than I had originally planned.  I will finish up the discussion of the additive style in the next post by considering if this style can be used in science writing.

Image Credit: View of Death Valley, California-Nevada, USA; DrDoyenne

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