Saturday, May 12, 2007

Long Sentences

This is not about those given to people who have committed crimes. This is not an allegorical meditation about the penis (and so sentence being a supposedly clever metaphor for it; although a healthy amount of double entendre is envisaged to be present) nor a deconstruction of its possible use as a television antenna (a bit to the left, please) with a scintillating conclusion about how Peyronie's disease would facilitate a better reception. This is also not about using the word 'sentence' in the old fashioned sense when it was similar to a maxim or meant, 'an opinion given on a particular question'. This is about literature and my whimsical reply to the hegemony of those literati who take the position that sentences, be it in fiction or non-fiction, should be short, cogent if not potent. Each sentence tasked only to deliver one singularly clear and inevitable message to the reader. But this reply should not be construed to mean that I am in complete opposition to the beauty, readability and wonder of the shorter sentence. I love them as much too, as my recently published piece B indicated. When I am completely inebriated, I often fancy that I am able to construct short sentences with a smattering of literary merit that would make people want to read it. However, what I propose to do here is to expound a little on the benefits and pleasure of a long sentence, and how they are still relevant and important to writing; and that they should not always be neglected in favour of the cogent.

Ever since I began to write, I have been often told and advised that my sentence must be short. They must be clear, precise, cogent and potent. Is this word necessary? No? Then get rid of it. Can I replace those ten handsome words that I have lined up like United Nations peacekeepers from Bangladesh (with little branches as weapons) standing at attention with one muscled Rambo-like word that can do their work two times over? I can? Then bring in Rambo. Like Tomás de Torquemada, I would then ruthlessly hunt down all these bloated, flabby sentences and upon chancing upon them, root them out mercilessly and then fling them on the bonfire of vanity. If I saw a sentence that looked to tall, out my scythe would come and like the Grim Reaper himself, I shall cleave unto it and make it of appropriate length. I became so obsessed with writing very short sentences, that I even tried writing a non-fiction article using one word sentences but then grew annoyed with the amount of sentences each paragraph had. One paragraph even had 80 sentences simply because that was number of words used there. It just got out of hand. And put it this way after you have been Torquemada and Grim Ripper and deploying Rambos for a good part of your life, it wears you out and down.

You start to long for those days of peace, like a warrior king who has lost his taste for blood, battle but not for comely horny virgins or non-virgins for that matter (I am reliably informed that warrior kings only classify women in that manner). You start to wish you were able to write sentences that had more the feel of a long pleasant stroll under a canopy of trees in the woods with dust-specked shafts of light breaking through the foilage here and there. You begin to take pleasure in John Ruskin's prose which though meanders like a wandering sage, aimless though never without purpose or at the least, beauty. You are more forgiving with the indulgent sentence that perhaps did not say twice it could have with the same amount of words. The weight of sentences began to weight as much as the weight of words. Sentences you wrote now have a more family festiveness with the various punctuations that dance and play around it - there are commas, semi-colons, colons, the odd dash here and there, in addition to the full stop. You no longer worry that the entire sentence sometimes takes up one paragraph or that one paragraph takes several pages because you are not troubled or driven solely by that drive of businesslike efficacy. Business is business. Literature is literature. You may have a little of each within each other but they are not the same.

The difference in power between sentences can also be discerned if they are compared to like a boxer's punch (as opposed to a fruity one). And to me those ideal short sentences like I have described above are like a short, quick punch that keeps the opponent at a distance. Each punch is not powerful but many of them can wear an opponent down before he finally succumbs to a technical knock-out. Of course, once in a while one bears witness to a potently fatal though short and quick punch that does the job but those, like a superbly constructed short sentence full of meaning, don't come often. A long sentence, with its many shorter sentences held together by various punctuation devices, is able to house within it several short punches which can be used to set the stage for the delivery of the coup de grace. Longer sentences also very obviously have a longer reach and greater capacity for holding more information. Sometimes it is necessary to have certain information or facts at the forefront when considering something and short sentences are not helpful in this.

But good prose is a skilful and subtle combination of both. Reading an entire essay or work composed solely of one style or the other is painful and an eyesore, because I believe there is such a thing as page aesthetics (the beauty in the patterns that emerge when the sentences are arranged or formatted on a page). The instinct by these 'short people' to condemn something before they have even read it by simply looking at the length of a sentence must be condemned and put to the pen (so to speak, after all it is mightier than the sword). The problem with long sentence as usual lies not with the length, but the skill required to construct a good one. It certainly is harder to build a good long one compared to a good short one. After all, 'Jack screwed Jane' is theoretically perfect but completely lacking of any literary aesthetic, and its, like both Jack and Jane, easy. Now try to convey that same kind of information in 30 words in one sentence. Not easy... unless you are skilled (or read a lot of those sorts of sordid stories). So the blame then lies not with the sentence but the human. But then, it is common for mankind to blame everything else, including his own inventions, for whatever failings except his-self.

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