Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Dickens with words

I’ve always loved reading. Since I started writing it seems I read even more—the printed word is in my sight every spare hour I have—and oh, how marvelous some of those words are. Words, phrases and sentences I wish I had written —wish I could write!

When I think of the consummate writer I think of Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. I can practically quote the entire book, page by page, I’ve read it so many times in so many various editions and seen every movie adaptation.

One of my favourite lines is when Scrooge is addressing Marlowe’s ghost —"You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"
More of gravy than of grave…how marvelous, and Dickens description of Scrooge at the beginning of the story is so spot on, and at the same time so eloquent—

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.

Had I been describing him it would have been more like— He’s a rotten old miser with bad breath. Hasn’t quite the same ring to it, has it?

Some years ago a talented friend of mine wrote a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac. I hadn’t read the book so off I went to the library to catch up. Remember those days? Libraries instead of the internet. After reading the first few pages I was hooked on Rostand’s powerful prose. Here’s an example….I had to look this up in my copy to get the exact words and almost couldn’t put it down again!

“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb 'to love.' A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee's brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover's lip: 'Forever.'”

That last bit —the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip—I mean, jeez why can’t I dream up stuff like this? Well, I’ve always got my vampires and their sometimes archaic way of speaking to play with I suppose. But I’m certainly not going to hold up an example to compare with Cyrano’s ‘What is a kiss?’ Not that silly.

Other than the classics I love mysteries. Lisabet wrote about Janet Evanovich. I like her too, along with Sue Grafton and P.D. James. I first caught up with Baroness James—fancy that!—when she wrote Death Comes to Pemberley. I really admire the way she took on what is almost a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and gave the characters new life. Darcy becomes more human, Wickham an even bigger arse and there’s this lovely line from Darcy’s nasty auntie—

I have never approved of protracted dying. It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.”
Somewhere I read this, from Isabelle Allende, of all people—“In erotica you use a feather, in pornography you use the whole chicken.” Love that, and I like to think that I use a featherlike touch when I write gay erotica. The raunch might be there, but there’s also the kiss that  rises from the heart and whispers "Forever."


  1. Ah, JP!

    I love the Allende quote. Perhaps I'll make that my new tag line!

    Classic (or "old-fashioned", depending on who you talk to) authors tend to be maligned these days for their long-windedness, but I think it's just that today's readers are lazy. I recently re-read Austen's EMMA, and was dazzled by her perfect prose. Another similar experience was re-reading THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins, a favorite from my youth. On my first read, it was the story that kept me riveted. This time, the writing was what captivated me.

  2. Lisabet,
    Reading a classic to me is an adventure and one you have to give time to. They didn't have TV or ipad distractions in those days so weeks could be devoted to savouring every line. I think it's all our dream to write the perfect novel - hey, nothing wrong with having a goal in life! LOL

  3. The problem is that today editors pounce on literary phrases and using out-of-the-ordinary verbiage as an error in the writer's judgement. My first book is different in many ways from my most recent book, but one of the major ways is that I'm not using all of the words I know. As an English major who had ardent readers for my parents, I was raised thinking that all of the words I was familiar with were in common usage. I raised my kids the same way, even though my husband often laughs good-naturedly and asks me what the hell I just said. I explain that longer words have a more precise nature...they are nuanced, whereas the common short words are just that: common and short, not as descriptive.

    Maybe if you are writing novels of "importance" that are represented by agents to "the big six" publishers and that get to the best-seller lists, you might be able to write in a more literary tone. My son tells me I write in a literary manner with tasteful sex scenes. He says I'm too literary for smut readers, and too full of smut for literary readers. Sigh...

    1. Hi, Fiona,

      I've had editors highlight words I use and ask whether they were typos - whether I really meant something else. Sigh!

      And I know what you mean about "too literary for smut and too smutty for literature" too! Definitely describes at least some of my work.

  4. Yes, it's a fine line. I quite often change words when I re-read a sentence. Sounds too "toffy-nosed" sometimes, I tell myself hoping that I'm not insulting my readers by using an easier to understand word - then again the editor might say 'too formal'. Ah well, it's all part of the learning process.

  5. It's funny I was thinking of Dickens when I was reading Lisabet's post. When Dickens was alive and publishing he wasn't regarded as a literary giant, he was considered a kind of low brow popular fiction writer for the common man, a kind of English Stephen King. Now he's one of the giants. Dostoyevsky was like that too. He loved reading crime fiction and the penny dreadfuls of his 19th century Russia with tales of gore and guts and wanted to write that kind of story himself. But of course he's Dostoyevsky, so when he writes a murder mystery novel he comes up with The Brothers Karamozov. We never know what we are during the time that we're still writing.


    1. Actually, I had Dickens at the back of my mind as I was writing the post. Who knows, perhaps Janet Evanovich will end up becoming a classic.

  6. J.P., thanks for your post. you remind me that i want to go back & reread Dickens again. & Swift & Victor Hugo & so many others. i adore the 18th & 19th Century writers, particularly their use of the omniscient third & those long luscious sentences that went on for sometimes pages.

    i write in whatever voice the characters, tone & narrative require. it depends on the work. a skilled writer should be able to use a variety of language styles from colloquial to elevated with dexterity & intention. & a skilled editor should be able to understand the difference between a stylistics & unintentional cumbersome, unwieldy prose. i take a dim view to the philosophy of writing for a grade 8 reading level. as a reader i want to read imaginative & well-written fiction that doesn't pander to the lowest levels but rather strives for excellence: the best words in the best order. [to paraphrase Coleridge]

    1. "between stylistics" [remove the "a."] wouldn't it be nice if Blogger allowed us to edit our comments.

  7. Erudite post, JP.
    My initial downfall was enjoying Proust. When I first started writing, I tried to emulate his style, with the sentences that went on for fifty words or more and paragraphs that took up pages. Alas, I realized how difficult that was and how divorced from the modern reader it is to decipher. I once read somewhere that the modern American reader won't grasp sentences over twenty words or so. Another of my favorites is Lawrence Durrell, who would IMO fit right in with Dickens in his knowledge of human foibles and use of fine lyrical prose.

  8. Yes,I've read that too, about the reader not grasping long sentences or chapters. But reading some reviews it seems to me that the reader has a damned good grasp of what makes a book good or bad, well or poorly written. Authors shouldn't be seen as pretentious, but not pandering to the base line either. Love Durrell and let's not forget James Baldwin whose prose could bring me to tears at times - in the best possible way of course.


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