Saturday, 11 July 2009


Probably more than any other thing, Hemingway was always banging on about truth.
He distrusted similes and he distrusted adjectives. He demanded the mot juste.
But what did he mean?

With my ms typed up, I drew breath and plunged back into it, beginning at the beginning, performing major surgery, renovating crumbled chunks of plot, hammering and sweeping, and something occurred to me.
In those portions of chapters which remain from long ago, I discovered clumps of adjectives.
Curious, I thought. Looks like I'm hiding from something; looks like I've constructed these little bunkers of adjectives to protect something.
Beneath those clusters of adjectives, I had buried the truth; likely, I had been unable to find the truth and so chose to hide this fact from my reader so that he would not notice.
The truth, as Hem referred to it, is the cleanest, most functional and succinct essence of a thing; it is the perfect observation - the bare heart of the thing we are attempting to convey.

If we consider the truth in this way, we find answers to so many questions.
Remember the old 'What's wrong with adverbs?' discussions we used to have?
He walked slowly.
No he didn't.
He ambled.
Adjectives, like adverbs, can needlessly clutter and extend a sentence.
Needlessly is an adverb. However, without it, the meaning of that sentence isn't complete as I intend it. Ergo, it is right.
(N.B. Always looking to remove adverbs: ... can clutter and prolong a sentence? [Both inferred as needless?])
It's one of the simplest ways to spot the first-time author. Their opening paragraph contains six adverbs, and each adverb is unnecessary because, with a little more consideration, the author would have found the perfect verb - the mot juste.

Okay, that was Hem's truth. But Hem's writing isn't to everyone's taste. Although his principles all have merit, I personally would prefer to discover the occasional flight of fancy - the stream of consciousness - the sentence which is soused in the narrator's PRS, in the narrator's unbridled passion so that things are slate blue like the lips of a dead angel, round and soft and freckled with the claret blood of discarded life, etc.
Sure, each word still needs to be right; and sure, Hem's warnings about adjectives and similes are worth bearing in mind; but it's your choice, right? It's your style, not his.

I've also made a distinction between the stream of consciousness which I have always derided, and the stream of consciousness which I admire, and which accounts for the bulk of many lit-fic novels.
The first is an excuse for lack of control; it is the unfettered slurry of words spewn upon the page without consideration or understanding - the first thing to enter one's head.
The second is a controlled simulation of the first.
I love it, when the narrator remembers that he was supposed to collect his tie from the dry-cleaners. I love it even more when he remembers this thing just after arriving home to discover his wife swinging from a noose of electric cable. I don't love it when it appears without reason or when it harms the narrative or pace, or when it is there to hide a weakness or to stall.

So my little clusters of adjectives. Sometimes they are right because they come from the narrator's heart and are controlled and are right for the moment. But sometimes they are artificial.
If you fancy experimenting, have a go at describing the painting above using adjectives, and then without, and compare the results. Or, if you were permitted to use only two adjectives to describe the painting, what would they be?

To demonstrate all of this, here's an extract from Ali Smith's The Accidental:

Astrid dreams of a horse in a field. The field is full of dead grass, all yellowed, and ribs are showing on the horse. Behind the horse an oilwell or a heap of horses or cars is burning. The sky is full of black smoke. A bird which doesn't exist any more flies past her. She sees the shining black of its eye as it flashes past. It is one of the last sixty of its species in the world.

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