Advice For Writers

by John Holbo on April 27, 2012

I’m reading Chesterton on George Bernard Shaw (no, I’m not really sure why either):

“A quick eye for ideas may actually make a writer slow in reaching his goal, just as a quick eye for landscapes might make a motorist slow in reaching Brighton. An original man has to pause at every allusion or simile to re-explain historical parallels, to re-shape distorted words. Any ordinary leader-writer (let us say) might write swiftly and smoothly something like this: “The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.” Now a man like Mr. Shaw, who has his own views on everything, would be forced to make the sentence long and broken instead of swift and smooth. He would say something like: “The element of religion, as I explain religion, in the Puritan rebellion (which you wholly misunderstand) if hostile to art — that is what I mean by art — may have saved it from some evils (remember my definition of evil) in which the French Revolution — of which I have my own opinion — involved morality, which I will define for you in a minute.” That is the worst of being a really universal sceptic and philosopher; it is such slow work. The very forest of the man’s thoughts chokes up his thoroughfare. A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.”

Ah, graduate school, and trying to write my dissertation. I remember it well. (Shudder.) I don’t know whether I was a budding universal philosopher, but I did commit the sin of wanting to be a multifold heretic within the scope of a single paragraph, or sentence. I’ve tried to stop doing that.

{ 69 comments }

1

nnyhav 04.27.12 at 1:06 am

Pshaw! Chesterton on Dickens, now there’s the thing.

2

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 1:11 am

But I already read it twice.

3

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 1:12 am

But yes it is great. Apart from the bits that aren’t. But those bits are at least highly alarming.

4

Alan 04.27.12 at 1:13 am

“I don’t know whether I was a budding universal philosopher, but I did commit the sin of wanting to be a multifold heretic within the scope of a single paragraph, or sentence. I’ve tried to stop doing that.”

If someone ever makes fortune cookies for philosophers, this should be the insert for every single one.

5

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 1:15 am

If I’d ever been hired to write fortunes for fortune cookies in graduate school I would have suffered the worst sort of writer’s block.

6

John Quiggin 04.27.12 at 1:24 am

Oddly enough, I was just given a version of this advice (that is, to avoid parenthetical asides :-)) in the comments thread to my future generations post.

7

Kenny Easwaran 04.27.12 at 1:27 am

“The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.”

I’m actually not sure that I can parse this sentence! At any rate, it doesn’t seem to me like a great example of clear writing…

8

Alan 04.27.12 at 1:33 am

John (if I may), you certainly have no worry about writer’s block now. That was the most precise excision of the cancer of self-possessed philosophical writing I’ve ever read.

9

geo 04.27.12 at 1:51 am

I actually liked the parody-Shaw sentence. The fact is, neither Shaw nor Chesterton could write a dull sentence, even when (as here) one of them was trying to, just for the sake of illustration.

10

JanieM 04.27.12 at 2:25 am

@geo — amen.

11

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 2:41 am

Kenny, I presume your philosopher’s mind – like mine – has to expend energy halting after ‘if hostile to art’, then backing up the primrose path to reread it as ‘although hostile to art’. I agree the allegedly clear sentence is surprisingly treacherous.

12

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 2:43 am

And “(which you wholly misunderstand)” is such an all-purpose navigational instrument that I must try to use it sometime.

13

Jim Harrison 04.27.12 at 2:45 am

When I read Chesterton I’m reminded of old Puritan sermons that warn us that the devil is much better at seducing souls now then he was thousands of years ago because he’s had so much on-the0-job training in the interim. Nobody’s rhetoric matches the technical proficiency of catholic rhetoric, which has not only been refined to the nth degree by sheer repetition but whose contemporary practitioners are pretty much immune to the complacency that goes along with having a plausible case to argue. Rhetoric, after all, has always been about making the worse case defeat the better.

14

Vance Maverick 04.27.12 at 3:02 am

Kenny @7, the trick (for me) in parsing that one was to read “involved” as roughly “tangled” — the F.R. is being said to have mixed morality up in certain evils.

15

wilfred 04.27.12 at 3:10 am

Margin note from undergraduate monograph: “Two clauses per sentence, one semi-colon per paragraph, few adjectives, less adverbs and NO parenthetical remarks”. And re-read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” once a year.

@Jim Harrison:

Re: technical proficiency of Catholic rhetoric. Joyce’s priest’s fly landing on an Earth made of solid iron once every million years is an exquisite, hair raising example.

16

Jacob 04.27.12 at 3:11 am

@7, 11, 14

The sentence and I get along just fine until “yet saved…” After that, though I can understand it, I get the unshakable feeling that something has gone terribly wrong, either in the sentence itself or between my chair and my keyboard.

17

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 3:26 am

“Joyce’s priest’s fly landing on an Earth made of solid iron once every million years is an exquisite, hair raising example.”

Come again? (Before another million years has passed.) Of what casuistry do we speak here? Something from James Joyce?

18

JazzBumpa 04.27.12 at 3:26 am

A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.

That, all by itself (though I might wholly misunderstand it) is worth the price of admission.

And this as a no-cost extra (remember my definition of extra.)
Rhetoric, after all, has always been about making the worse case defeat the better.

Gentlemen, you have truly made my night.

Cheers!
JzB

19

Neil 04.27.12 at 3:28 am

Must avoid parenthetical asides in my emoticons : – )) (!))

20

Vance Maverick 04.27.12 at 3:32 am

Wilfred may be thinking of the sermon in the Portrait:

Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended.

21

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 3:41 am

“yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.”

Compare. “Bob and Carol used to engage in furious quarrels, in which Carol not only involved the neighbors, and eventually the police, but the number 2 itself.”

I take it Chesterton is playing on the ambiguity between a reading like this – in which the primrose path leads to an incongruous tableau in which a pure abstraction is forcibly ‘involved’, as if dragged along by the nose – and a reading on which ‘morality’ refers not to true morality (some causally non-interactive, unalterable abstraction) but ‘common, shared notions of morality’ – i.e. the sorts of things a revolution would be expected to alter. He means the latter, but he is touching on the former, to suggest the degree of baneful upheaval that the Revolution induced. Possibly I am overreading.

22

geo 04.27.12 at 3:56 am

Warning to all but the most hardened atheistical scoffers: don’t read the sermon in the Portrait. It will give you nightmares.

23

boo 04.27.12 at 4:04 am

“That is the worst of being a really universal sceptic and philosopher; it is such slow work. The very forest of the man’s thoughts chokes up his thoroughfare.”

Wittgenstein said that philosophy is a race to see who can go the slowest.

24

wilfred 04.27.12 at 4:16 am

@John #17:

From “Portrait” – don’t have the book in front of me but it’s the scene where Stephen’s priest explains what eternity is: Imagine a fly landing on the earth once every million years, and the earth is made of solid iron, etc.

25

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 4:23 am

“Wittgenstein said that philosophy is a race to see who can go the slowest.”

My dissertation was on Wittgenstein. It was, thus, a confluence and rich tapestry of factors. My writer’s block.

26

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 4:26 am

I think the actual quote is something more like this: “How philosophers should greet each other: ‘Take your time!’”

27

wilfred 04.27.12 at 4:31 am

@Vance:

This. My mistake; I confused the Joyce sermon with a derivative of it I heard in a film once, I think. Or maybe in church.

28

garymar 04.27.12 at 4:50 am

Yes I googled “Joyce priest fly landing iron earth” in various combinations and couldn’t find it.

Sounds suspiciously similar to a kalpa: every quadrillion years an angel (let us say) brushes the smallest, lightest, most insubstantial feather on its wing for a fraction of a second on a mountain of adamant (remember my definition of adamant) bigger than the earth, and when that brushing finally wears down the mountain yadda yadda yadda (which you wholly misunderstand).

29

garymar 04.27.12 at 4:59 am

slow day at the office

30

Salient 04.27.12 at 5:37 am

Rhetoric, after all, has always been about making the worse case defeat the better.

I thought rhetoric has always been about how to manipulating people into feeling either more guilty or less guilty for being who they are. (Or for wanting what they want, doing what they do, feeling how they feel, whatever.) Not always favoring the worse case, but certainly something you’d expect to see perfected by an entity taking a predominant interest in contouring what you feel guilty about…

Pedantry: Pretty sure the ‘if’ is a standin for ‘which was’ rather than ‘although’ — unless we’re talking about hostile elements, which seems out of place in a sentence that’s not about D&D. (Of course, the sentence elegantly mistakes no fewer than eleven words (element, religion, if, hostile, art, yet, save, movement, involve, morality, and French), which kind of sets a land speed record for wrecks per metre.)

31

William Timberman 04.27.12 at 6:10 am

The purpose of rhetoric, it seems to me, is to make sure that the gods don’t mistake us for apes.

32

Neville Morley 04.27.12 at 7:18 am

But I like gratuitous parenthetical asides (albeit normally using em-dashes rather than parentheses, which however tend to do terrible things to formatting on Crooked Timber).

33

Colin Danby 04.27.12 at 7:29 am

The fly bit was great. We need a contest for the most convincing spurious literary reference.

34

Chris Bertram 04.27.12 at 7:53 am

Alas, on the interwebs you’re screwed. Should you fail to explain every reference and clear up every ambiguity, then one of our resident trolls will get the wrong end of the stick, object energetically, call you a moron, and run off with the thread.

35

ajay 04.27.12 at 8:05 am

slow day at the office

Cheer up, gary. Only another 623,000 years and you get to go pick up another grain of sand.

36

ajay 04.27.12 at 8:06 am

Any ordinary leader-writer (let us say) might write swiftly and smoothly something like this: “The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.”

Indeed they might.

THE SUN SAYS: The element of religion in the Puritan rebellion, if hostile to art, yet saved the movement from some of the evils in which the French Revolution involved morality.

Good for the Puritans!

37

Sam Dodsworth 04.27.12 at 8:14 am

Warning to all but the most hardened atheistical scoffers: don’t read the sermon in the Portrait. It will give you nightmares.

Really? The bit where the priest says (paraphrase) “and we now turn to the spiritual torments, which are _much_ worse” is one of my favorite comic moments. But I enjoy really over-the-top writing.

38

Emily 04.27.12 at 8:57 am

I remember reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at 18, and glanced at it again this year.

Sam @37 Really? is the whole of the work amusing for you, or just specific parts? Because of a sort of gaucheness on the narrator’s part? Or something else?

“April 13 That tundish has been on my mind for a long time. I looked it up and find it English and good old blunt English too. Damn the dean of studies and his funnel! What did he come here for to teach us his own language or to learn it from us. Damn him one way or the other!
April 14 John Alphonsus Mulrennan has just returned from the west of Ireland. European and Asiatic papers please copy. He told us he met an old man there in a mountain cabin. Old man spoke Irish. Mulrennan spoke Irish. Then old man and Mulrennan spoke English. Mulrennan spoke to him about universe and stars. Old man sat, listened, smoked, spat. Then said:
- Ah, there must be terrible queer creatures at the latter end of the world.
I fear him. I fear his red-rimmed horny eyes. It is with him I must struggle all through this night till day come, till he or I lie dead, gripping him by the sinewy throat till…Till what? Till he yield to me? No. I mean no harm.”

39

Sam Dodsworth 04.27.12 at 9:37 am

Sam @37 Really? is the whole of the work amusing for you, or just specific parts?

Just that specific part – the description of hell and its torments is so wonderfully, obsessively, absurd. It’s been twenty years since I last read “Portrait of the Artist” but I just looked it up and it still makes me giggle. I’d quote examples, but it’s a cumulative effect.

40

Russell Arben Fox 04.27.12 at 11:07 am

I love this quote, John–thanks for it. I really ought to read some Chesterton. Among other things, he apparently understood why I was a bad blogger. “The very forest of the man’s thoughts chokes up his thoroughfare,” etc.

41

ajay 04.27.12 at 12:58 pm

Agree that the description of hell is comic.
Take this:

“The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury, etc, etc”

compare to this:
“Damned,” he repeated, his voice sinking to a thrilling and effective whisper.
“Oh, do ye ever stop to think what that word means when ye use it every day, so lightly, o’ yer wicked lives? No. Ye doan’t. Ye never stop to think what anything means, do ye? Well, I’ll tell ye. It means endless horrifyin’ torment, with yer poor sinful bodies stretched out on hot grid-irons in the nethermost fiery pit of hell, and demons mockin’ ye while they waves cooling jellies in front of ye, and binds ye down tighter on yer dreadful bed. Ay, an the air’ll be full of the stench of burnt flesh and the screams of your nearest and dearest . . . .”
He took a gulp of water, which Flora thought he more than deserved. She was beginning to feel that she could do with a glass of water herself.
Amos’s voice now took on a deceptively mild and conversational note. His protruding eyes ranged slowly over his audience.
“Ye know, doan’t ye, what it feels like when ye burn yer hand in takin’ a cake out of the oven or wi’ a match when ye’re lightin’ one of they godless cigarettes? Ay. It stings wi’ a fearful pain, doan’t it? And ye run away to clap a bit o’ butter on it to take the pain away. Ah, but” (an impressive pause) “there’ll be no butter in hell!”

42

John Holbo 04.27.12 at 1:38 pm

Ah Ian McKellan was great in that scene.

43

bianca steele 04.27.12 at 1:47 pm

geo:
What gives me nightmares is somewhere around page 37 of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain.

44

bianca steele 04.27.12 at 1:48 pm

Plus, if there are any kids reading, they shouldn’t be allowed to think it’s a good idea to put butter on a burn.

45

Bloix 04.27.12 at 2:02 pm

I have a recollection of Joyce’s priest, when describing what an eternity of damnation means, tells the boys to imagine a mountain of solid rock. Every thousand years an eagle carrying a feather in its claws flies over the mountain and strokes the top of the mountain with the feather. How much time will pass before the mountain is worn away by the feather? Compared to eternity, a blink of an eye.

But I don’t have P of an A with me and I could be remembering that from somewhere else. I know I didn’t make it up.

46

Bloix 04.27.12 at 2:05 pm

#28 – I see garymar has found something similar.

47

X 04.27.12 at 4:09 pm

“A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.”

So that’s why intellectual progress takes so long.

48

jim 04.27.12 at 4:39 pm

By coincidence, Unfogged this morning points us to Adorno’s 1956 essay “Punctuation Marks” which includes this passage:

The test of a writer’s sensitivity in punctuating is the way he handles parenthetical material. The cautious writer will tend to place that material between dashes and not in round brackets [i.e., what is commonly called parentheses, ( )], for brackets take the parenthesis completely out of the sentence, creating enclaves, as it were, whereas nothing in good prose should be unnecessary to the overall structure.

49

geo 04.27.12 at 6:22 pm

bianca @43: Whatever gets you (up screaming) through the night …

50

mattski 04.27.12 at 7:19 pm

Warning to all but the most hardened atheistical scoffers…

Keep this handy as a ready antidote.

[Reminds me of New Yorker story years ago about long-distance ocean swimmer, when asked if she ever thought about how deep the water underneath her was while swimming she answered, "Don't talk about that."]

51

Mr. Blandings 04.27.12 at 9:16 pm

Let’s not forget Built to Spill’s “Randy Described Eternity”:

Every thousand years
This metal sphere
Ten times the size of Jupiter
Floats just a few yards past the earth
You climb on your roof
And take a swipe at it
With a single feather
Hit it once every thousand years
’til you’ve worn it down
To the size of a pea
Yeah I’d say that’s a long time
But it’s only half a blink
In the place you’re gonna be

52

Thers 04.28.12 at 1:51 am

Joyce of course stole the sermon in Portrait and did not make it up. I forget the particulars but he lifted it.

53

Henry 04.28.12 at 2:42 am

My imperfect memory is that he lifted it from a sermon he heard at Clongowes College (a school from which my grandfather was expelled three times – my great grandmother just kept sending him back as if nothing was wrong, until she was informed that he would be forcibly removed from the premises if he returned again).

54

geo 04.28.12 at 3:32 am

Thers, in that sense, no one has ever made anything up. Ex nihilo nihil fit.

55

snarkout 04.28.12 at 4:17 am

20 and subsequent:

“Seems a lot of effort just to sharpen a beak,” mused Aziraphale.

“Listen,” said Crowley urgently, “the point is that when the bird has worn the mountain down to nothing, right, then—”

Aziraphale opened his mouth. Crowley just knew he was going to make some point about the relative hardness of birds’ beaks and granite mountains, and plunged on quickly.

“—then you still won’t have finished watching The Sound of Music.”

Aziraphale froze.

56

John Quiggin 04.28.12 at 4:34 am

“A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.”

That’s a great point, and exactly how I try to do economics. I stick to orthodoxy in methodology so that I can be heterodox in terms of analysis and policy. I can think of plenty of examples going the other way.

57

Thers 04.28.12 at 5:08 am

My imperfect memory is that he lifted it from a sermon he heard at Clongowes College

I will have to now look this up, damn you. But I believe this is wrong.

58

bad Jim 04.28.12 at 8:11 am

I’m annoyed by all these approximations to eternity, because they all convey the impression that eternity is an unimaginably long time, implying that some nearly interminable process could bring it into perspective, which it can’t. It’s simply endless.

However, I just wanted to share an excerpt from a posthumous work by J.B.S. Haldane which I just ran across:

My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy,

59

bad Jim 04.28.12 at 8:29 am

Somewhat more to the point, I found that link in this review, subtitled, “It is the fate of good scientists to be overtaken or overturned, but if they write like Haldane they are unlikely to be overlooked.”

60

Tim Wilkinson 04.28.12 at 6:56 pm

“A man must be orthodox upon most things, or he will never even have time to preach his own heresy.”

I thought of economics too – in particular some discussions of it here at CT – and reflected that Catholicism, being essentially conservative, is not amenable to the paradigm shift.

Chesterton seems to be talking of qualifications and caveats, which are left out at the author’s peril, and not digressions, which should be brutally suppressed. (I thank CT in general for helping me – not that anyone else would probably notice – to learn to do the latter, at least, to some extent, at least. Peter Hitchens is one who can’t resist (further) narrowing his audience by littering everything he wrotes with irrelevant and idiosyncratic – yet insistent – asides. All his arguments are ab homine.)

61

Tim Wilkinson 04.28.12 at 7:06 pm

JBS Haldane gets immortality anyway, for writing ‘My Friend Mr Leaky’ (+ ‘Rats’). Illustrated by Quentin Blake. I hope with unfairly expectant fervour that my son will love them as much as I did. I’ll find out soon.

62

Mauricio Maluff 04.28.12 at 11:30 pm

It reminds me of reading Heidegger, except he never bothered to repeat the explanations for all his idiosyncratic terms.

63

Gene O'Grady 04.28.12 at 11:41 pm

Professor Holbo’s last paragraph is the best description I have ever seen of why my unfinished dissertation stayed that way.

Was Chesterton catholic yet when he wrote that bit? Part of the problem (I think) is that we no longer use “yet” like GKC did.

I note that Henry and I are both descended from people who, shall we say, “left” the seminary in Ireland. In my case, my great-great-grandfather was sent all the way to Canada.

64

David Duffy 04.30.12 at 5:06 am

Ajay @41: “teeth will be provided.”

65

ajay 04.30.12 at 10:27 am

Plus, if there are any kids reading, they shouldn’t be allowed to think it’s a good idea to put butter on a burn.

Good point. Attention all kids: do not take first aid advice from mad fictional religious zealots.

66

Katherine 04.30.12 at 1:36 pm

Honestly, if anyone really truly believed in that vision of hell, they would never ever ever do anything even vaguely wrong. Ever.

Although, suddenly the evangelical earnestness makes sense – if you’re going to that hell no matter what, since no one can possibly be perfect, fling yourself on the mercy of the sadistic b*stard who thought it up, and tell him daily how much you love him – be the perfect masochist – if that’s the only way to escape.

67

ajay 04.30.12 at 1:48 pm

Addendum to 65: you should, however, take first aid advice from mad fictional violent East End gangsters.

68

ajay 04.30.12 at 1:51 pm

And thanks to David Duffy for that (which I had to google) – I can just hear him saying it too…

69

Joseph Brenner 04.30.12 at 8:52 pm

I like the Shaw-Chesterton debates, myself: two very intelligent people with different axes to grind, and both fatally addicted to their own cleverness.

I have a theory that as more of our culture is locked up by “intellectual property” lawyers, the older, pre-mouse cultural influences are going to make a big comeback. (Seen any good Betty Boop T-shirts lately?).

Comments on this entry are closed.