Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch 

I posted earlier on the brilliant, beautiful novel The Goldfinch.  I had to do so in broad swaths, given how dense in character and plot the novel is, just to give you a taste of it. But now I want to go back and drill down on just one passage, to analyze what makes the writing—to me, at least—so marvelous. There are so many paragraphs I could choose, but I was particularly taken with the following description of how Hobie, the furniture restorer who takes in the young, homeless Theo, trains him in the art and craft of fine furniture repair.

As you read the passage, make a mental note of how you respond to it, and what you notice in particular (There will be a test . . .).

Auction houses all over the city called him, as well as private clients; he restored furniture for Sotheby’s, for Christie’s, for Tepper, for Doyle. After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents—”sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff”—spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

Okay, Students! How did you respond to this passage? What was the first thing that struck you?  Did you like it, dislike it, love it, indifferent, irritated, what?

I wish we were sitting around a circle and I could hear your answers, which I’m sure will be much more interesting than mine!  And different.  You’ll just have to let me know.

Meanwhile, I’ll give you my take.

The first thing that strikes me is how much Donna Tartt knows about furniture restoration! She’s done her homework, boys and girls. She’s the smartest girl in the class. And it pays off. What authority this passage contains! It absolutely convinces us that the world she’s creating is real, solid, and authentic. We trust that she knows of which she speaks, so we can give ourselves over to the story completely. Surely she researched these esoteric details with someone extraordinarily versed in furniture restoration. Did she takes notes? No doubt. But I’ll wager the best note-taker in the world couldn’t transform mere research into this sterling passage of prose.

Beyond authority, what strikes me the most here is how sensitive and skillful she is in terms of language itself: words, the sounds they make, how they join together into sentences that create rhythm and meaning.  Most of all, her words awaken our senses. Here, words give us the deep pleasure that only our senses can provide. It’s quite a paradox. Most of the time in our so-called real lives, our senses are on pause, slumbering, acclimated to the quotidian. But when we read a passage like this, loaded with extraordinarily precise, sensory detail, our senses wake up and really pay attention, pulling our whole mind into the act. Continue reading “Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch”

Salter and Aciman on the Past

Street in Rome (Photo by Sean O'Neill@oneillsdc5)
Portico d’Ottavia in Rome  (Photo by Sean O’Neill@oneillsdc5)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I’m teaching an online memoir course.  I’m captivated by watching my students grapple with and write about the past.  Here are two passages for writers and anyone else who muses about the nature of memory, one from a novel and one from an essay, both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The first is from the narrator of the novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

And this from “Intimacy,” an essay by Andre Aciman in his collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere.

In this passage, Aciman revisits after many decades the street in Rome where he lived for three years as a boy, having emigrated there from Egypt with his family, while they waited to get visas to America.

One more block and scarcely five minutes after arriving, our visit was over.  This always happens when I go back to places. Either buildings shrink over time, or the time it takes to revisit them shrinks to less than five minutes. We had walked from one end of the street to the Continue reading “Salter and Aciman on the Past”

Vivian Gornick on Situation and Story


Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

In her short book called The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes one of the most useful and important ideas about writing that I know:

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” 

I just critiqued a novel where Gornick’s concept seemed particularly relevant.  On the whole it’s an amazing novel, but I had a clear sense towards the end of where it went off the track, and why.  It was because the writer lost track of the “story,” and just wrote “situation.” Without the “story,” the situation became merely material.  Even though the material at that point was dramatic and even riveting, it lacked the real power that comes from the writer carrying through with the story under the situation.

It can be a little confusing because Gornick’s not using “story” here in the traditional narrative sense. The way I understand Gornick’s “story” is that it is like an interior narrative, the internal journey that the protagonist is experiencing or undertaking which the external action–the situation–the plot– dramatizes and plays out.  This journey is psychological, emotional, spiritual or all three.  It is what the reader is actually tracking, even as his or her attention is captured by the external situation and action.  It’s what gives shape and meaning to the situation. 

Gornick gives this example:

Continue reading “Vivian Gornick on Situation and Story”

What the Reader Needs…


The Antioch Review

“…to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs…” 

I first encountered this bit of writerly advice in 1984 in The Antioch Review, in a piece written by Nolan Miller, who was then Associate Editor. It has served as a North Star of writing for me ever since.  

Miller was a short story writer and novelist who taught creative writing at Antioch College for over fifty years.  The Antioch Review, remarkably, has been publishing continuously since 1941.  It publishes fiction, essays, and poetry, from both emerging and well-known authors.  When it published a story of mine, it was a huge thrill in my literary life.  If you want to read one of the best literary magazines around, subscribe to it:  http://antiochcollege.org/antioch_review/subscribe.html

Miller composed his piece as an imaginary interview between a Reader, Writer, and Editor. He posed the questions that he wished to answer as the editor of the Review, such as: what are literary magazine editors looking for; how do they make decisions; what makes them accept a story; what do writers need to do to develop; and much more, all articulated in a gracious but authoritative voice evoking a professor sitting in a old wooden English Department chair with a pipe in his mouth.  Though the world of publishing has changed dramatically since Miller wrote this piece, his advice about writing is still relevant.  Some things about literature remain the same, eternally let’s hope.  You can read the whole article at this link: Editorial: Reader, Writer, and Editor: An Imaginary Interview   (Copyright 1984 by the Antioch Review. First appeared in the Antioch Review, Volume 42, and Number 2. Reprinted by permission of the Editors.)

When I first read “to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs” it struck me as an essential key to writing that I had been missing.  I don’t believe I had ever thought about the concept, or at least I had never heard it articulated so directly and with such command. I didn’t become enlightened at that moment.  But Miller showed me what I needed to work on: to give the reader what she needs and only what she needs.  Seemingly simple.  Very difficult to master. 

In Miller’s words: “Learning to be direct, to be honest, to be always conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs requires tremendous self-discipline.”

What does the reader need, exactly?  And as the writer, how do you know what that is? 

What we need may be necessary, relevant, functioning information.  It may be tone, the writer’s attitude towards the material that helps us interpret it.  It may be the kind of original, concrete, specific, sensory detail I talked about in my August 8th post.  It may be starting the story or memoir in the right place, striking the key note from the get-go.  It involves writing with the kind of authority that says the writer knows what she’s doing, and has found the best possible way to do it.  It’s a lot of things, and it varies from piece to piece.  But it comes down to the feeling that as readers we can give ourselves up to the writing because the writer knows what works. 

How does one come to write with that kind of authority and certainty? Continue reading “What the Reader Needs…”

Henry James’ Weak Specification–eek!


“Office at Night” by Edward Hopper

I live in fear of weak specification.  I consider it the eighth deadly sin: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony and weak specification.  I’m guilty of it, I admit.  I’m only human, or, some would say, all too human.  I strive to overcome my weaknesses, to improve myself in every way (occasionally) but especially in the matter of weak specification.  I try to be diligent, only to find it sneaks up on me. 

I first heard the term “weak specification” years ago when I read a piece by Flannery O’Connor called “Writing Short Stories” (in Mystery and Manners).  One could do worse than sleep with this essay under one’s pillow every night, hoping trenchant wisdom from it will seep into one’s brain and embed itself there, to come out forever after in one’s writing. 

I felt the sort of conversion experience Paul must have had on the road to Damascus when I read the following passage:

“Fiction Writers who are not concerned with… concrete details are guilty of what Henry James called ‘weak specification.’ The eye will glide over their words while the attention goes to sleep.  Ford Madox Ford taught that you couldn’t have a man appear long enough to sell a newspaper in a story unless you put him in there with enough detail to make the reader see him.”

I was guilty!  I committed weak specification in my writing, and half the time I didn’t even know it.  But that didn’t matter.  It was NO EXCUSE.  I determined that I would do better.

What O’Connor is referring to by concrete details are sensory details: what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. If the writing is not grounded in concrete, sensory detail—if the words are imprecise or inaccurate—the reader will sort of go dormant, even while “reading.”  Haven’t you had this experience?  And haven’t you noticed when you’re riveted to the page by the very specificity—we could say strong specification—of the writing? 

"Chop Suey" by Edward Hopper
“Chop Suey” by Edward Hopper


I’m reading Carry the One right now, a fine novel by Carol Anshaw, which I’ll post about when I finish it.  I love her writing because it is so highly specified.  Because of her details and descriptions, because of the voice that is delivering the observations and descriptions with such aplomb, you cannot glance away. 

Here, for example, is the opening paragraph:

So Carmen was married, just.  She sat under a huge butter moon, on a windless night in the summer of 1983, at a table, in front of the remains of some cordon bleu.  She looked towards the improvised dance floor where her very new husband was doing the Mexican hat dance with several other large men, three of them his brothers, other Sloans.  Matt was a plodding hat-dancer; his kicks threw the others off the beat.  In spite of this lack of aptitude, he was waving her over, beckoning her to join in.  She waved back as though she thought he was just saying hi.  She was hoping to sit out this early phase of her marriage, the mortifying dances segment.

Here we have the first moments of this marriage, the first paragraph of this novel, and I ask you: Can this marriage be saved?

Don’t you love the butter moon, the cordon bleu, the image of a plodding hat-dancer throwing the others off beat?  It’s delicious.  Why?  Because it’s concrete, specific, original and exact. There is nothing weakly specified about it. 

Here’s a description a page or two in:

Carmen entered the farmhouse by the back door into the kitchen, which at the moment was vacant of humans, going about a life of its own.  An ancient refrigerator emitted a low, steady buzz.  The pump spigot dripped into a sink whose original porcelain was, in a circle around the drain, worn down to the iron beneath.  A fat fly idled around the open window amide dangling pieces of stained glass.  The room signed out its own smell—a blend of burnt wood and wet clay.  Trace elements of blackstrap molasses, tahini, apples, and dirty socks were also in the mix.

As a piece of writing this description is pure pleasure.  See how your senses draw you in as you hear, see, and smell.  Notice how closely observed it is.  “Close observation” is a key concept.  It makes you aware that you need not only to see, but to see beyond your first glance, your first look, to really see and experience what you’re describing more acutely, more originally, more specifically.  Read the passage again and see just how specific the details are.  James and O’Connor would approve.  Continue reading “Henry James’ Weak Specification–eek!”

Colm Toibin and “What is Real is Imagined”


Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin

In an essay called “What is Real is Imagined” in the July 15, 2012 The New York Times, Colm Tóibín describes being back in the remote place on the Coast of Ireland which his family visited in the summers until he was twelve.  When he passes the house where his family once stayed, it’s his parents’ bedroom he sees in his memory with its iron bed and the cement floor, and the clover he smells is the same as it was in 1967.  Or, as he amends, because he is trying to dream that world of 1967 into existence, “it is sometimes closer now than it ever was.”

It would be easy to exaggerate, he writes, and say that his remembered town is more real than the one that is there now, where almost everything has changed.  But he resists that temptation, saying that clearly what is real is what is there now.  In a beautiful passage, he muses on the difference between what he sees around him and the fiction originating in his memory:

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.

What occurs as I walk in the town now is nothing much. It is all strange and distant, as well as oddly familiar. What happens, however, when I remember my mother, wearing a red coat, leaving our house in the town on a morning in the winter of 1968, going to work, walking along John Street, Court Street, down Friary Hill, along Friary Place and then across the bottom of Castle Hill toward Slaney Place and across the bridge into Templeshannon, is powerful and compelling. It brings with it a sort of music and a strange need. A need to write down what is happening in her mind and to give that writing a rhythm and a sound that will come from the nervous system rather than the mind, and will, ideally, resonate within the nervous system of anyone who reads it.

In his book Power in Writing, Peter Elbow was perhaps trying to get at the same thing, though less eloquently.  He talked about the central characteristic of “real voice” being that “the words somehow issue from the writer’s center—even if in a slippery way—and produce resonance which gets the words more powerfully to a reader’s center.”  Tóibín speaks of writing as “a sort of music…a rhythm and a sound.”  What writers and readers respond to is often the cadence, rhythm, and tone of language.  The writer listens to the sound of the sentences to see if they ring true, not in a factual sense but in the sense of resonating with whatever inchoate vision is trying to come into being. Maybe they ring true in the body.

Tóibín goes on to describe the process of developing the character based on his mother:

I don’t know what she thought, of course, so I have to imagine. In doing so, I use certain and uncertain facts, but I add to the person I remember or have invented. Also, I take things away. This is a slow process and it is not simple. I give my mother a singing voice, for example, which she did not have. The shape of the story requires that she have a singing voice; it is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised.

But the singing voice is a mere detail in a large texture of a self that gradually comes alive — enough to seem wholly invented and fully imagined, although based on what was once real.

The demands of the story, not an allegiance to memory, become the driver.  “The story has a shape, and that comes first, and then the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched. Then the phrases and sentences begin, another day’s work.” Continue reading “Colm Toibin and “What is Real is Imagined””

On Sentences, Part I: Jhumpa Lahiri


Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri

The New York Times published several pieces on Reading and Writing in the Sunday Review section on March 18, 2012.  At the time I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s eloquent essay called “My Life’s Sentences,” which I planned to reread sometime.  I kept the whole section, intending to read the other pieces, “when I had time.”  Of course I forgot about it all, until recently when I was reading Francine Prose’s (how did she get a last name like that?) book called Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who want to Write Them.  That sounded like me.  Prose’s Guide is a very interesting and valuable book, with chapters on subjects like “Close Reading,” “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” “Character,” “Dialogue…”  I’ll report on that book down the road; I’m only as far as “Paragraphs.”  But reading Prose’s chapter on “Sentences” made Lahiri’s piece pop back into my head, so I did reread it, and I’m so glad I did. It’s wonderful! http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/my-lifes-sentences/

Of course you can read the whole thing for yourself, when you have time (!), along with the other pieces in the Review section which I still have yet to read.  But in the meantime, I’ll give you some quotes from it to whet your appetite for the whole essay, which I promise is worth your while.

Lahiri, author of Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies and one of the best writers writing today,  begins by describing how in college she’d underline sentences that struck her, “that made me look up from the page…”:

“I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment.  For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time.  To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions.  To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.” 

She cites a sentence from Joyce’s “Araby,” which appears towards the beginning of the short story:

“’The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.’  I have never forgotten it.  This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once.  It is full of movement, of imagery.  It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.”

It’s fascinating to me to hear her response to this sentence and her explication of what makes it special to her.  It’s worth reading her words about it again.  Prose’s book is making me more conscious of the kind of close reading Lahiri is talking about.  It’s so easy, given our sped-up attention spans, to skim over things, especially words. But to slow down and pay real attention, to savor as both Lahiri and Prose do in the examples they give, is to increase our pleasure in reading and maybe our skills as writers. 

Reading this Joyce sentence, I thought of something I try to do myself, which is make sentences do more than one thing.  I notice in sentences I read how much a single sentence can accomplish, and not just in terms of providing information.  As Lahiri demonstrates above, a sentence can do many things all at once.  When people sense that their writing is thin or one-dimensional, it may be because their sentences are only doing one thing.  Or maybe not the right things.  I’ll try to give some examples of sentences doing more than one thing in a later post. 

Lahiri describes her own writing process: Continue reading “On Sentences, Part I: Jhumpa Lahiri”

Writing about Other People in Autobiographical Writing

One of the things that comes up a lot when people are writing memoir or autobiographical stories is other people– those you’re now exposing to the world: your parents who, let’s face it, could have done a better job; your children whom you love dearly but who obviously inherited a few errant genes; your relatives whom you will still have to see for Christmas dinner;  your lover who texted you to break up;  your long suffering spouse who now has his sperm count in print; your friends who hadn’t realized you were taking notes; your enemies who got off lucky considering what you could have said… 

I’ve had some experience with some of this myself.  I called my first book “autobiographical fiction,” hoping that would give me cover for what was basically almost pure autobiography.  I told myself it was sorta fiction, in that I was shaping the material into short stories, and, hey, one story was completely made-up.  This was before memoir was so prevalent, and I wouldn’t have been able to write the stories that way anyway.  I needed the cover. 

But after Feeding the Eagles was accepted for publication, I had to face the music.  I had to show my parents and sister the horrible things I had written about them. Actually, I didn’t know if anything was really horrible.  To me the “material” had moved out of the personal into a different sphere, which I considered literature.  At least it was literature I aspired to.  And when I thought about audience, I imagined readers a few states over who didn’t know me. 

The story in the collection that worried me the most was called “The Batsons of Brown and Batson.”  It should have been called “The Bates of Byrum and Bates.”  We were the Bates, and Byrum and Bates had been my father’s radio and TV store on North Main Street in Greenville, S.C.   For many years when I was growing up my father’s store was prosperous.   But then things changed as things tend to do.  The mall opened,  there was more competition, I think Japan started making TVs – I don’t quite know, because I was hiding out in graduate school all the way across the country, not wanting to know too much about what was going on at home.  What was happening was that my parents were in the process of losing everything: the house, the cabin, the store.    So naturally I had to write a story about it.  Here’s what I wrote (cleverly disguised as the character “Miriam”) about coming home after my parents had had to sell our big house on Paris Mountain and had saved a few things for a last trip until I got home:

“The new owners, the Hardings, had spent a lot of time in Turkey. Over my mother’s wall-to-wall carpets, they had laid their own Persian rugs. My room was a sewing room. I kept my dark glasses on for the tour. Tears streamed down my face, and I had a bleery impression of a lot of brass.”

My parents did not discuss their business in public.  To my mother especially, it seemed important at the time to keep up a good front.  Maybe that was what allowed her to go on.  Here’s how I put it in the story:

“To explain to people what had happened to them, my mother said that they had sold their big house because it was ‘just too big for the two of them,’ and that they were living in the Funderburk house ‘until they could decide where to build.’ Standing beside my mother at the Winn Dixie or in Belks, hearing her deliver these lines so smoothly, I fell into a trance. I was almost a believer myself. Later, when I confronted her about it, she hissed at me, ‘I have to live in this town, even if you don’t.’ Later she said sorrowfully, ‘I just couldn’t stand to have someone come up to me on the street and feel sorry for us!’”

It was a big, dark secret, and I wrote a story about it, and it was going to be published.  Undoubtedly people in Greenville would read it.  What I had worked for and longed for, to have my collection of stories published, came with a price: a deeply uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I loved my parents and I hadn’t trashed them.  I had just revealed stuff that I knew was private.  It’s a dilemma that writers often face.  If you don’t write about what is most painful or troubling to you, you may not be writing what you want to write or even should be writing, maybe your best material.  Continue reading “Writing about Other People in Autobiographical Writing”

Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir

I just came upon a new (to me) book on memoir writing which I want to recommend: Fearless Confessions: a Writer’s Guide to Memoir, by Sue William Silverman ((http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com/index.htm).  I learned things from it and will use some of her ideas and language in the memoir workshop I’m teaching in Key West in January.   She also has the most amazing bibliography of creative non-fiction books on her website http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com/click_here_to_see_sue_silverman_s_list_of_contemporary_literary_nonfiction__71566.htm

I thought I had read all the books on the craft of memoir, but nooooo. Lately I’ve sort of read two other (to me) new ones: The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith, and Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton.  Of these three, I liked Fearless Confessions the best, but I can’t really do justice or say anything particularly helpful about the other two since it’s been a while since I sort of read them.  You can check them out.  I still like the “classic” Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, and also Living to Tell the Tale, by Jane Taylor McDonnell.  I have a memoir writing bibliography under “articles,” and it definitely needs updating.  Let me know if you recommend other guides to writing memoir that I should include.

Sue William Silverman has written two memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which received the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction, and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction.”  I haven’t read either.  She says in the Preface that she initially conceived of her memoir guide “as a way to redeem the notion of ‘confessing’ for silenced women.”  I didn’t realize that anyone felt silenced anymore.  But I’m sure Silverman knows more about feeling silenced and writing about taboo subjects than I do.  She draws on her own experiences of writing about incest and sexual addiction to inform her guide.  I want to make clear that you don’t have to have such painful material to gain from Fearless Confessions.  She personalizes the material so that you feel she’s speaking directly to you, she uses faux-memoirs at times to illustrate points, has writing exercises, and includes examples of others’ essays to round things out.  You may not use all her ideas, but I think you’ll definitely find things here that are useful to you as a memoir writer. Continue reading “Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir”

Russell Banks’ Descriptions and “Try Harder”

I’m reading the new Russell Banks’ novel, Lost Memory of Skin, and I’m pretty enthralled with it. I’ll review it here when I’ve finished it.  It’s about a young man known as The Kid who has done time for a sex crime (apparently sex with an underage girl, but I’m only halfway through and it hasn’t been fully revealed yet), has to wear a GPS monitoring device, and can’t live within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might gather—which reduces him to living under a south Florida causeway with other sex offenders.  A sociology Professor doing research on homelessness and sex offenders befriends him…but that’s as far as I’m going to go now with the plot, because that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the book.

I am a big fan of Banks’ robust writing.  I’m conscious as I’m reading Lost Memory of how much I’m enjoying the physical descriptions of people and places, especially how he evokes south Florida, and not the places tourists usually go.  Here, for example, is part of the description of Benbow’s, an old squatters fish camp on Anaconda Key near the sewage treatment plant where the Professor has gone seeking The Kid, who has been run out of his “home” under the causeway by a police raid:

“Beyond the clearing, scattered in the shade of live oaks and palm trees, in no evident pattern and to no recognizable purpose, are a half-dozen unpainted shanties and low, shedlike buildings with corrugated iron roofs. It’s a random-seeming collection of old handmade buildings, most of them windowless and half-open to the elements.  Beyond the buildings a rusted, dented, twenty-foot Airstream house-trailer with flattened tires has been set on cinder blocks.  A hand-painted wooden plaque with the name Benbow is bolted to the aluminum outer wall above the entrance.”

I love this kind of carefully observed physical detail.  Even as I was reading I noticed how pinned to the page I was by it.  Henry James had a term, “weak specification,” where the details are so general, imprecise or vague that the mind skims over the page. Banks’ writing is the exact opposite of weak specification. When I read him, I am seeing so clearly what he describes that I experience a couple of kinds of pleasure.  One is just “being there,” feeling my eyes and mind fully engaged by what he is making me see.  Another pleasure going on at the same time is admiring the actual writing itself.  I noted those flat tires on the Airstream and how they amplified and intensified my ability to see that rusted, dented Airstream trailer, making it all the more vivid, helping me visualize it all the more particularly.  Thinking about the description now, I’d say the description as Banks finalized it is an A description; a B description would be a rusted, dented, twenty-foot Airstream house-trailer… (sans flat tire and cinder blocks); a C description would simply say an old Airstream house-trailer…; and uh oh, a D description would be an old trailer…. Beyond that is writer’s block or should be.

On the next page I marked the following description to study: Continue reading “Russell Banks’ Descriptions and “Try Harder””