Google Images: Virginia Woolf
Even as I continue to defend myself as an utterly straightforward person, barring the simplest complexities necessary for any reasonably reflective woman brought up in today’s quasi-modern atmosphere, I do acknowledge my unfaltered admiration for the seemingly unending sentences in literature and in one’s own writing. It is but just another style, equally honest and unadulterated as any other piece of art, that requires a skill completely linked to one’s love for vivid descriptions and a spirit of wonderment while toying with words and testing their potency each time by defying the rules that govern the parts and figures of speech, not to forget the insane amount of caution, craft and control one needs to exercise over the language.
Sometime earlier this week I received a message from a childhood friend who had just read one of my writings, and who happens to be a wonderful writer himself. The message read –
“I really liked the long sentences, like pulling on a pizza slice and watching the mozzarella strands stretch out, wondering how far you can get from the box while being impatient about biting into your very own piece of the pie.”
Hmm…was that a compliment? I sure hope so. But I must confess that I was so instantly in love with the choice of words he had used, perhaps the best I had received so far with regard to my long sentences, that I immediately decided to dedicate my next post to that lovely comment and a much wider mental block. Another interesting feedback I received from a teacher once was “I can’t really spot a grammatical error here, but something doesn’t quite sound normal”. I thought it was entertaining, though I didn’t tell her so.
I, allegedly among the very few in my generation, am proudly guilty of this somewhat sadistic trait of indulging in complex long sentences as a writer, and I am (wishfully) tempted to use the very well-known Charles Dickens’ style of writing as a reference point to rest my case on, where the first paragraph that consisted of around 150 words was invariably made of a single sentence! And mind you, there were several reasons in that solo Dickens’ paragraph that could send you looking for a dictionary… ah, another book that is highly ignored these days. Even as a young girl, it gave me immense pleasure to unravel the humour or pathos that those adjectives and adverbs so effortlessly conveyed along with the meaning and mood as they loyally guarded and adorned every noun and verb and lent more life into every character and scene.
In fact, I have, on several occasions, tried to track the right reason that might have drawn me towards such multiple complex sentences or even concepts and ideologies like Virginia Woolf’s style of placing her characters across varying time zones. Was it the writers I followed? But this logic would barely throw any light on my research since I was equally drawn towards the works of writers like Satyajit Ray, Anita Desai, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, Enid Blyton, Earnest Hemingway, among an endless list of prolific writers whose works rested upon the element of soothing simplicity.
George Orwell, another word-wizard, could skilfully and almost magically craft an essay on a seemingly mundane topic like ‘how to make a perfect cup of tea’ with the simplest sentences and yet it remains so profoundly memorable and deeply engrained in my heart. In those essays he made his writing style the sole protagonist, which the plot followed like a dutiful obedient student. Style of writing is a dark horse that on several occasions has the power to rise much above the realms of a storyline. An endless list of names of writers comes to my mind even as I struggle to conclude my limited yet independent understanding of this subject of simple vs. complex sentences where the latter is quietly headed towards extinction (or execution?).
I am a lover of lengthy complex sentences and I do believe they have a unique unconventional elegance and zest of their own. I remember being pulled up on this account several times by teachers, friends and colleagues who have protested, complained and even threatened me of a sinking career while they have accused me of being insensitive to the ‘requirements’ of ‘today’s readers’, as these literary gatekeepers choose to amicably define this apparently rising clan instead of tagging them outright as ‘selectively incompetent’.
I am also told that today’s readers suffer from a declining retention span and a plummeting patience level when it comes to reading though scientific researches proudly announce the rising IQ of every successive generation – so where is the degeneration happening? Or as the locals in Singapore put it ‘so how’? I, for one, remain uncertain however if all this is completely true and if so, would catering to those readers be the primary objective of any writer? Who are our readers? When did literature become so time-bound? And if that were true, then why hasn’t Dickens’ or Woolf’s works become obsolete yet? Or perhaps the right question here would be: should literature be governed by such relatively trivial requirements always?
My vote, even if it shouldn’t or wouldn’t count, would still be for the supposition that literature or any art form should not be burdened with the need to either cater to or reform its readers or audience. And in case that should happen, it should be based on the writers’ discretion (a whole new point of discussion, I am afraid, though not completely unrelated to my ramblings). For me, writing is expressing and discovering one’s own signature style just like painting and dancing. Literature thrives for Literature’s sake. Period.
Even as I marvel at the rising number or contemporary writers with an overwhelming flare for and interest in reality-driven plots, somewhere deep down I crave for fiction writing that promises me a Wonderland or a Neverland – simple yet so fantastic! I crave for the likes of Pickwick Papers and a Mr Bennet, stories and characters that can equally effectively address the prevailing mindsets and social issues in a developing society without fully letting go of the literary magic, the wit ‘n satire element, that still retains the smile on their readers’ faces.
I crave for refreshing essays as those by George Orwell or Bernard Shaw and literary criticism by Virginia Woolf, radical and original, that might or might not be able to transform into a multi-starrer movie! But their writing made an impact, and still do, on the readers’ sensibilities. And, I crave mostly for those signature-style, well-crafted long sentences and elaborate writing styles that distinguished one writer from another! It is astonishing yet heartening to discover that Virginia Woolf was self-published just like many other great writers.
The only time I was taught to let the words flow out of me unapologetically, even as the trend-obsessed editor in me swung back to the typical short sentences, was when I had the opportunity to work with one of India’s best editors Mr Dilip Thakore during my stint as a journalist in Bangalore. His writing would carry a distinct style that I so ardently cherished and even tried to emulate secretly. Thankfully life has wantonly led me to these literary stalwarts and guardians of the world of uninhibited sentences and intricate writing styles, and so I have been sentenced for life to be an ardent admirer and a loyal crusader of complex sentences. There fortunately happens to be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of writing. Perhaps, both simple and complex sentence structures would equally represent the beauty and joy of the ever-expanding dimensions of expressing and experimenting!
Finally, I am well aware of my limited though not in any way stunted understanding of the world of literature. Hence, my sincerest apologies in advance to the offence-taking addicts and also a humble word of well-intended caution: there’s more to come. <wink>
© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013