“Your sentences are so long,” said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn’t quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn’t want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn’t have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.
…Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the “gaps,” as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.
Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).
…Many a reader will have no time for this; William Gass or Sir Thomas Browne may seem long-winded, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to San Francisco by way of Death Valley, Tijuana and the Sierras. And a highly skilled writer, a Hemingway or James Salter, can get plenty of shading and suggestion into even the shortest and straightest of sentences. But too often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude. The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity’s greatest adornment).
…There’ll always be a place for the short sentence, and no one could thrill more than I to the eerie incantations of DeLillo, building up menace with each reiterated note, or the compressed wisdom of a Wilde; it’s the elegant conciseness of their phrases that allow us to carry around the ideas of an Emerson (or Lao Tzu) as if they were commandments or proverbs of universal application.
But we’ve got shortness and speed up the wazoo these days; what I long for is something that will sustain me and stretch me till something snaps, take me so far beyond a simple clause or a single formulation that suddenly, unexpectedly, I find myself in a place that feels as spacious and strange as life itself.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise to you that I try to use my writing as the same kind of protest. I don’t mean that I go out of my way to write long, snaking sentences filled with baroque vocabulary, just that I have no interest in making myself more accessible to the feeble-minded who use phrases like “tl;dr” and read everything on a smartphone screen. Luxuriating in language is one of the great joys in my life, and I feel sorry for anyone incapable of ever slowing down enough to appreciate the musicality of an artfully constructed phrase.
I’ll again quote Nietzsche on why it’s sometimes necessary to raise our language above the colloquial and bare-bones:
When one writes a book and thus steps into the public light, that is always a significant act deserving of a certain solemnity, so that one has to put aside everyday language. You have a good example in Catholicism, toward which, as you perhaps know, I am not exactly friendly, but this does not prevent me from recognizing the great worldly wisdom with which Rome has been conducting its business over the ages. Why does Rome still have the Mass read in Latin? To give the solemn act, veiled in mystery, a special solemnity even externally. But that must not be at the expense of clarity or intelligibility. If thoughts were thereby hidden, if the real meaning became hard to understand, that would of course be false, that would no longer be solemn, that would be foolish.
Protestant simplicity for the transfer of essential information, Catholic grandeur for the playful spirit of creativity. Wouldn’t that be a good balance? Unfortunately, it feels like too many people are possessed with the spirit of Martin Luther when it comes to language these days, seeing the devil of artifice behind every unfamiliar word and an obfuscating fog in every wisp of incense smoke.