Thursday, May 24, 2012

In Praise of Adverbs

Elizabeth Zelvin

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
- William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

The context in which I found these two quotations paired on the Internet was “when insults had class.” But I think this particular duet is not just a couple of clever quips but a statement about a philosophical gulf between two kinds of writing.

As a college English major in the early 1960s, I found Hemingway’s language too plain and Faulkner’s so ornamented as to make the stories he was telling incomprehensible. That is not to say that I reject plain diction. As a poet for thirty years, I was proud that no reader ever said to me, “I didn’t understand your poem.” My second book of poetry contained only seven words of four or more syllables in 64 pages. Nor have I ever been afraid of “big words.” As a kid, I was a spelling bee champ who could rattle off “antidisestablishmentarianism” with the best of them.

Since my college days, the English language and its literature has endured what I consider the toxic embrace of Deconstructionism, with its irritatingly opaque invented vocabulary. Thank goodness that instead of going on for my doctorate, I ran away and joined the Peace Corps—and discovered mysteries and other genre fiction. I’m told that Deconstructionism lasted longer in American academia than anywhere else. And yet it’s Hemingway whose approach to language has triumphed. With my own ears, I’ve heard Stephen King (very much a writer’s writer) declare that his advice to aspiring writers is, “Read, read, read; write, write, write—and lose the adverbs.”

In the past ten years as a fiction writer, through rejection and critique and editing and honing my craft, I have come to understand what’s wrong with adverbial writing. Those tough action verbs can serve the writer well. But I still think it’s pretty weird for the arbiters of language to shun an entire part of speech. I have enjoyed reading work in which adverbs are used deliciously and evocatively to enhance the meat and potatoes of nouns and verbs. So it’s a different style. So what? Why not?

Hemingway and Faulkner, like cozies and noir, are too often assumed to be the only alternatives. Let’s hear it for the middle ground. Language can be rich without losing the reader and strong without being stripped stark naked. But what’s really dangerous is allowing any one literary style to be considered the only right way to write.

There’s a famous quotation about the dangers of “contempt prior to investigation.” (You can Google it to learn how it came to be attributed incorrectly to Herbert Spencer, but that’s another story.) So by all means, let expansive writers rein themselves in by deleting adverbs and replacing Latinate words with their Anglo-Saxon-based equivalents. But let’s also invite the hard-boiled heirs of Hemingway to spread themselves a little. Stick in a couple of adverbs in every paragraph, if not every sentence. Go on, try it. You might like it.


Sheila Connolly said...

There are so many ways to answer that I don't know where to start.

Perhaps the simplest response is that the writing (the words on paper or pixels on screen or whatever) should disappear for the reader, if the writer has done his/her job and told a good story. If the reader starts thinking about Tom Swifties, or has to stop to look up a word, the writer has gone wrong because the reader has been pulled out of the story. But there is no one right way.

Katreader said...

I'll never forget the advice of Brian Jacques: paint a picture with words. Personally, I can't stand Hemingway.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, we don't always want the writing--the language--to disappear. Shakespeare? James Lee Burke? Michael Gruber? The richness of the English language is unrivaled, and it can be one of the crucial reasons we read, rather than reducing all our stories to the vocabulary of a cell phone text message. Just saying. :)

lil Gluckstern said...

I would agree with Elizabeth on another point, which is that language is such a joy to me. I don't like the repetition of Robert Parker's "he said, he said." It works for a while and then becomes way to dry for me. I also think that language that is too flowery doesn't please after a while. But I love language and like it used with balance.

Julia Buckley said...

I am sometimes fond of adverbs because many of the writers who influenced me used them. So occasionally I'll use an adverb that one of them used, and it pleases me to use it in my own sentence.

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