The Long and the Short of It: Writing Style and Reading Experience

We Were the Mulvaneys and TransAtlantic: Book reviews

Years ago, an editor of a major lit mag sent me a “nice” rejection note, extolling the beauty of my story before delivering the kicker: “Your sentences are too long.” I spent the day grumbling about the unfairness of coming “this” close to getting in (sliver of air between thumb and index finger), and then I got to work on the sentences. Months later, when I read the story again, I discovered the improvement. The editor was right. The story I speak of is “Tidal Waters,” which appears in my collection Dust of the Universe.

The obvious lesson here for any writer is to accept criticism, act on good advice, and strive for improvement. The second lesson is to pay attention to sentence length. (As a side benefit, this happens to be a truly fun topic for any language and grammar geek!)

Paragraph-length sentences are commonplace in the flowery prose of 19th century novels (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”) We wouldn’t want to change a word of Dickens or the Brontës. But for contemporary fiction, which do you prefer: a sentence of 210 words or a three-word fragment? You’ll find plenty of the former in We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, and an abundance of the latter in TransAtlantic by Colum McCann.

mulvaneysIn The Mulvaneys, near the end, a 210-word sentence describes a family softball game, with vivid depictions of five characters, the pitcher, batter, umpire, first baseman and third baseman. I’d venture to guess that the novel contains hundreds of sentences this length or longer, jamming the many page-length paragraphs that rush headlong toward elusive end points. I didn’t stop to count the words. I was too busy reading, too enthralled. After closing the last page and drying my tears, I took a moment to mourn my personal loss of the Mulvaneys, as my real-life living room slowly came into focus—a world without them. After getting through all of that, I remembered the sentence about the softball game, went back, and counted the words.

Perhaps you know the Mulvaneys. They comprise that large, noisy clan inhabiting a farmhouse on several acres in upstate New York. The decade is the seventies. They lead exemplary lives, a father and mother, three boys and a girl. The parents are demonstrably in love to the point of embarrassing their kids, every one exceptional: a high school star athlete, a sweet and popular cheerleader, a class valedictorian, and the youngest, an observer of life who grows up to become a newspaperman. Horses, sheep, chickens, cats, dogs, parrots, rabbits, and deer keep the Mulvaneys company up there on the “farm,” although they don’t seem to be doing much farming. The father runs a roofing business and the mother buys and sells antiques. Daily life includes cooperative work rosters, family dinners, a tumultuous togetherness, Christian values. The manic wonderfulness of this life primes us for the hinted-at fall from grace. It’s coming. The catalyst is an unspeakable crime. An act of mere minutes defines a life. One Mulvaney falls, then another. Impotence, futility, revenge. A slow unraveling. Separation. Everyone ruined. Finally, the denouement. A small redemption.

You’ve noticed that, in the paragraph just concluded, I slipped into short, compact sentences and fragments. More on that when we come to TransAtlantic. For now, let’s return to The Mulvaneys.

I don’t mean to say that every sentence in this book is long. That familiar bit of advice for writers—to vary your sentence length—is properly on display. But the writing is extremely busy, complex, and chock-full of detail. For example, we’re treated to an itemization of the myriad objects that accumulate on the edges of the staircase in the Mulvaney home, from thumbtacks and stray gloves to a necktie stained with spaghetti sauce and two blue ribbons from 4-H projects. Some readers, judging by their reviews, are not fans of this kind of detail. Why do we need to know every single nickname for each family member, dog, cat, and horse?

Certainly, Oates is known for her prolixity, but is that a good or a bad thing when it comes to The Mulvaneys? Completely good, I say. I loved this book with its messy writing, the emotional intensity, and urgent tone. Every rule of “good” writing is broken. Besides the run-on sentences, you’ll find overuse of italics and exclamation points and dashes and parentheticals, abrupt changes in point of view from first person narrator to third person omniscient observer, and most delightful of all, abundant non sequiturs. (Are these thoughts, and if so, who is thinking them?) Taking a hatchet to this in the name of good grammar would have stripped the novel of its emotional impact. The very busyness of the writing imparts the chaotic flavor of this household, bringing the reader straight into its heart. Having grown up in a boisterous household within a family larger than the Mulvaneys, I felt right at home. The novel also explores a few of my favorite themes in psychological fiction. Self-deception, and the inability to understand how one’s behavior affects another. The ways in which lives are forever changed by a single, fleeting interaction.

[Note to those of you who’ve read this novel: Didn’t you love the firefly story and Corinne’s implied admission about it at the end?]

transatlanticOn to TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. The construct of this novel is unique. McCann takes three fact-based story lines about men in history who’ve made transatlantic crossings and links their stories—albeit tenuously—with the personal stories of women who’ve played tangential roles in these events. The first part of the book takes history out of order: 1919, the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean by aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, Newfoundland to Ireland. (This was my favorite, but unfortunately, the shortest, at 31 pages.) 1845, freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, on a lecture tour for his autobiography in Ireland. 1998, Senator George Mitchell brokering peace talks in Northern Ireland. The women and their families, spanning five generations, provide the thread linking these events. The second part of the book takes these generations in chronological order, in four sections dated 1863-1889, 1929, 1978, and 2011.

This is a lot of territory to cover in a novel of 300 pages, and the thread takes some effort to follow. We meet the progenitor in the second chapter, Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass. Lily’s daughter and granddaughter, Emily, a writer, and Lottie, appear in the first chapter about Alcock and Brown. Lottie, as an old woman, and her daughter Hannah make a brief appearance in the chapter about Senator Mitchell. The second part of the book expands on the lives of the women, weaving in brief references to the historical figures and their influence.

The writing is full of short sentences and fragments. At times, it was like reading a telegram. Take this paragraph, for example: “News comes later in the morning. A murder in Derry. A member of the paramilitaries. The statements are out. The press releases. The men of violence. Pointless retaliation. Trevor Deeney. Sitting in a car beside his wife. Shot point-blank. For what reason? Is there ever a reason? There will be retaliation. Already promised.” After this, seven more short sentences finish up this paragraph!

For me, the whiplash from constant starting and stopping detracted from the theme of continuation and linkage. The characters are not fully rendered, and I wanted to know them better. On the plus side, the writing is full of beautiful and startling images, unique metaphors, and unlikely juxtapositions of words. The craft and talent in this are awe-inspiring for any writer. “The Great War had concussed the world.”  “Europe was a crucible of bones.” “The sky lifts the hem of Belfast.” “The damp white loaf of his body shuddered.” “The old hieroglyphics of violence” (referring to a scorch mark under a new square of wallpaper).

To contrast: How did the two writing styles affect my enjoyment of the novels? The difference was this. In The Mulvaneys, the writing does not care about itself and simply carried me along. In TransAtlantic, the writing acquired a self-importance and became the prominent feature, drawing me away from the story.

I close with this, a thank you to Colum McCann for an apt metaphoric description of a writer’s labor, taken from the viewpoint of his character Emily: “The elaborate search for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well. Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the mind. Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once more.”

Reflections on the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

On a dismal, drizzly afternoon in Manhattan, an array of editors, authors, artists, and crime fiction aficionados jammed a large meeting room at the Butler Library to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Appropriate to the occasion were several surprise visits from beyond the grave (an eerie, other-worldly screeching from the HVAC system), and a chilling reading by Joyce Carol Oates from her story “Big Momma,” a creepy tale from The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.  Shivers!

In a publishing environment where magazines and journals of short fiction easily come and go, EQMM can be proud of its longevity. The secret (or mystery) of this success was one of the topics explored during the afternoon of panel discussions by notable authors and editors.  Some shared fascinating personal experiences about working with the founders of the magazine, the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who collaborated as Ellery Queen. The distinguished panelists included Otto Penzler (proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop and founder of The Mysterious Press), Sarah Weinman (author, editor, and expert on women crime fiction writers), Jeffrey Marks (biographer of Anthony Boucher, at work on a biography of Dannay and Lee), Russell Atwood (ftomrobertsormer managing editor of EQMM), and award-winning authors Jonathan Santlofer, Joseph Goodrich, Josh Pachter, and Charles Ardai.

Especially fun was the slide show of several EQMM covers from different eras of the magazine, along with interior black-and-white illustrations of the stories. Janet Salter Rosenberg, the daughter of cover designer George Salter, gave insight into her father’s creations. Artists Laurie Harden and Tom Roberts discussed their respective works and their appreciation of the artistic freedom EQMM affords them in bringing their visions of the stories to life. Here is an evocative cover by Roberts from the July 2011 issue. The cover for the very first issue, and a clever story about it by Arthur Vidro, can be found on the EQMM blog, Something is Going to Happen, posted on August 31.

The symposium was capped by our trip up to the sixth floor, enticed by the promise of a glass of wine and (the real inducement) an exhibit of EQMM artifacts displayed in a small alcove of the rare book and manuscript library. Of particular interest to me were the yellowing pages of manuscripts, typed out on an old Remington or some such, with Dannay’s edits marked in pencil. Those of you who know of my life as an editor will guess at my delight in seeing Dannay’s flourishes and variances of the universal copyediting symbols and his spot-on word choices!  The exhibit is on display through December 23.

Why has EQMM endured?  The panelists and current editor Janet Hutchings agreed on a few key ingredients: a commitment to quality and a wide variety of stories of different styles within the mystery genre.  Wait a minute:  I’m going to ban that word “genre”!  It’s thrown around far too often and stirs up preconceptions that limit a reader’s horizons.  As an author who resists a pigeonhole for her own work, I would do the same for EQMM, unless you take the most expansive view of the term “mystery” as an essential element of compelling writing.  As stated on EQMM’s website, when founders Dannay and Lee were “deciding how to orieeqmmallnationsnt their new magazine, there could not have been any question that its outlook would be global. Both men had cosmopolitan tastes and a knowledge of world literature. It has become part of EQMM lore that Dannay, who soon took over the editing of the magazine, aimed to prove, in its pages, that every great writer in history had written at least one story that could be considered a mystery.”

Jeffrey Marks notes in his essay in the September/October issue that EQMM has published such literary luminaries as William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Twain, and E.M. Forster, as well as several Pulitzer winners.  This year, in the May issue, we were treated to a reprint of Borges’ iconic story exploring alternate realities, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was originally published in EQMM in 1948.

Another masterpiece, Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House,” is reprinted in the current issue. Beyond these prize reprints, the range of writing that appears monthly in EQMM’s pages includes something for everyone, whether light or dark, police procedural or private eye, cozy or locked room. My taste runs to stories of psychological suspense and intellectual challenge, and I can always find them here. Janet Hutchings has maintained Dannay and Lee’s expansive vision for the magazine and the tradition of high quality. I’m grateful that my own writing, which bears absolutely no resemblance to Agatha Christie’s, has been printed in two issues of EQMM eqmm_sept-oct2013and its e-book anthology, The Crooked Road Volume 3.  I’m also fortunate to have been welcomed into this community of amazing authors. As one of the panelists noted, mystery and crime writers are a really nice bunch of people because we’ve transferred every bit of aggression and nastiness to our fictional characters!

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Slightly off-topic, on the subject of anniversaries, I note here that October 26 marks a milestone for me.  A year ago, the print editions of my first two novels, Thursday’s List and Homicide Chart, were released.  To help celebrate, I’m running giveaways for signed copies of the two novels on Goodreads.  Be sure to enter for a chance to win!