Saturday, February 7, 2015

How Do You Like Your Writing--Crunchy, Smooth, Syrupy, Chewy?

Check out this box of chocolates. Each piece represents a different Japanese onomatopoeiac texture. Toge toge; zaku zaku; goro goro.

Yum yum, right? Well it got me a little curious about the texture of prose.

Texture? To prose? I know what you're thinking: Brendan must be musing again. I know you're preparing yourself for a smattering of five dollar words like susurration, synecdoche, smattering, and crenellations.

Well don't flee to Facebook just yet. I think understanding the texture of writing can help us understand that elusive beast--style. And maybe by understanding how prose has texture, we can improve our own writing styles.

Let's start out with something we all know. Smooth writing. Smooth prose is effortless, easy, flowing evenly across the page. 

We can push the metaphor even further. Sometimes smooth writing comes across as too fluid, too rehearsed, too polished, too damned smooth. Editing has buffed the prose so clean it looks like the shiny hood of a fancy sports car. The worst kind of New York Times op-eds have this kind of smoothness; the smoothness of gelled hair, of dry cleaned slacks, of too-perfect teeth. On the more palatable end of the spectrum there's the smoothness of Malcom Gladwell--a lozenge that you can swallow without flinching. Still, even well-done smooth writing feels a little bit like a trick. Like it's been focus-grouped.

So let's have some fun and think about other prose textures.


Crunchy writing gives up its meaning reluctantly. You gnaw and gnaw and gnaw. Nothing comes. Chew and chew and chew. Still the paragraph looks like a meaningless scribble. A brow furrows. A pen is chewed. The tension builds. Maybe you want put the book down, say fuck it, check Facebook, burn every book you own in frustration. Never read again. Move to the forest.

But then!--the meaning splits open--crunch, and there it is--all at once you understand. And it's like the meaning has been staring you in the face this whole time.

Kant is the crowned king of crunchy prose.

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! 'Have courage to use your own reason!'- that is the motto of enlightenment.

Crunchy writing is not necessarily good. But when it's done well---!

"Hope" is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all — 
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm — 
I've heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

That was Emily Dickinson, of course.


Chewy writing is good to eat. Like crunchy writing, chewy prose makes you work a little before it gives up its meaning. But chewy writing makes that work fun. Its sentences can have the habit of trundling along, but if it is ever long-winded, there is a prize at the end of it--a joke, a metaphor, a candy center. When chewy writing is done well it is never a chore to read, nor to re-read.

Chewy writing is a phrase that gets stuck in your head. The paragraph that grabs you so tightly that you have to put your book down and just ponder. The strikingly grating metaphor that makes you go oh. Where smooth writing aims to go down easy, chewy writing wants you you ruminate. Where crunchy writing expects you to sweat, chewy writing wants you to savor.

Here's Laurence Stern being nicely chewy:
Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, -- have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES ; -- their running horses, -- their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, ---- their maggots and their butterflies ? -- and so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's high-way, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, ---- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?


Forget the insipidly sweet Hallmark pablum that comes to mind when you hear the word syrupy--this is about texture, not taste. Imagine instead the languid drizzle of honey off of a honey dipper. Prose that circles and turns, heavy with adjectives and metaphors, stuck to one large idea, never giving it up, spiraling around and around with meaning. Syrupy prose could just keep on going forever (syrupy books double as doorstops) rich, full, and solid, in huge page-long paragraphs, with chapters the lengths of ambitious novellas.

When the book is finally put down, you get this feeling like you're still covered in gummy similes and exquisite words. Like you've just stumbled out of a slightly magical library and are blinking at the light of the mundane world.

Syrupy writing used to be all the rage. The Victorians get syrupy. Poe is syrupy. 
Here's Gibbon drizzling the prose everywhere:
The Germans, in the age of Tacitus, were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilised people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular.
Lest you think that the style is completely extinct, a contemporary propounder of syrupy prose is Mike Pesca, of the Gist.


Not to be confused with fluid writing (an especially clear sub-variety of smooth writing), watery writing has been diluted so it can go down easy. Its sentences are straightforward. Its allusions are simple.

The watery writer is concerned with taxing the reader's attention span. The watery writer is not sure the reader can keep up. The watery writer really wants the reader to get it, even if you're skimming, even if you're watching TV and just killing time while the commercials are on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for watery writing--in its proper place. Watery writing is an efficient information transmission system--it is easy to skim. Advice columns, how-to manuals, and technical writing are all often watery, because these genres are less about style, and more about getting a point across. Good business writing is watery, which is better than the usual cloudy alternative. 
A great collection of watery writing can be found at Our Incredible Journey, a compendium of the notices start-ups give when they are bought by a bigger company.

Lots of writers should be in the habit of watering down their prose once in a while. (This author included.) God knows that social theory needs to get chased with a few cups of water every once in a while; otherwise it's liable to get stuck in the reader's throat. Undergraduates should make their writing watery--they don't need to be worrying about style. They need to make themselves understood.

Here's Emily Yoffe (Slate's Dear Prudence) showing the power of watery prose:

When it comes to planning one’s funeral some people just don’t want to think about it; some people express general wishes (cremation not burial, memorial service not funeral); some people orchestrate every detail, from the music to the speakers. Of course, each of these choices is valid. You can make whatever decisions you want, let your husband know your wishes, and then put your funeral out of your mind.


Rugged prose is written under a moonlit sky. Journal spread open against thighs. Pencil sharpened with bowie knife. Body tight after a day of hard work.

And every so often the rugged writer has to stop writing just to listen. He listens to the lowing of a coyote echoing out over the valley. He listens to the silence of the big big world. He doesn't feel alone. He just feels small.

And every so often the rugged writer thinks. He thinks about death. He thinks about women. He thinks about the can of beans simmering on the fire. He thinks about the long ride home, through chaparral and sagebrush country, across dry riverbeds, and then over the border. He wonders if home will still be there when he gets back. They probably won't even recognize him, with this two-month growth of beard on his face, with his beaten-up jacket and cold eyes. Probably a good thing they won't recognize him. When he left he felt like nobody wanted him back, not until that boy was a distant memory.

He wishes he didn't need to kill that boy. But the damned kid would've killed him otherwise.  That's the honest truth, no matter what anybody else thinks.

But the rugged can't shake the feeling that the whole world would've been better off if the boy had shot him. That he was living a borrowed life like another man's jacket. That he was living the boy's life, with all it's promise and evil.

The rugged writer listens to the silence stretched taut across his exile like the skin of a drum. He thinks about the long ride home through Indian country. He eats his beans. He pictures the moon, women, the boy's face as he lay there in the dust, asking for his mamma that'd died the summer before, the blood pooling through his shirt. Enough thinking. He starts writing again. He is writing about the moon, about women, about men wearing leather gloves. The coyote has gone silent. He is writing about the silence, too.

It is also acceptable to compose rugged writing on a farm, in remote Alaskan townships, or in outer space.

The Beats were masters of rugged prose. Thus, Kerouac:

What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

And Patti Smith:

nodding tho' the lamps lit low
nodding for passers underground
to and fro she's darning and
the yarn is weeping red and pale
marking the train stops from algiers

sleeping tho' the eyes are pale
hums in rhythum w/a bonnet on
lullaby a broken song
the sifting-cloth is bleeding red
weeping yarn from algiers

lullaby tho' baby's gone
the cradle rocks a barren song
she's rocking w/her ribbons on
she's rocking yarn and needles oh
it's long coming from algiers


From BibliOdyssey
The lacy author likes to evoke in her prosody the feeling of a pair of middle-aged men walking solemnly through the loggias of an Oxford college in autumn, the smell of leather armchairs and old books hanging in the air, the sound of the two men's long coats swishing softly in the air as they talk about something ever-so-slightly sordid. An affair, a scandal, or Cesar. Or a rigged by-election.

The lacy style is completely unafraid to embark on circuitous sentences that meander from clause to clause; where another author might want to plump down a solid period somewhere if only to let the reader have a bit of a break, the lacy author just keeps on going, loving the opportunity to pile word upon word, decoration atop decoration, filigree on filigree, clause after clause. In the most adept examples of lacy writing--P. D. James at her most psychologically acute, George R. R. Martin at his pomp-puffed best--the meaning is perfectly clear, the sentences complex but well-tightened. At its more mediocre, lacy writing does little more than dare the reader to be dazzled at what the writer is capable of. At its worst, it's unreadable.

Here is the legendary Gene Wolfe, from his experimental sci-fi novel, The Shadow of the Torturer, giving a great example of laciness in action:

Dr. Talos leaned toward her, and it struck me that his face was not only that of a fox (a comparison that was perhaps too easy to make because his bristling reddish eyebrows and sharp nose suggested it at once) but that of a stuffed fox. I have heard those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroded metal; and scholars write that the kind of sand that artists call polychrome (because flecks of every colour are mixed with its whiteness) is actually not sand at all, but the glass of the past, now pounded by aeons of tumbling in the clamorous sea. If there are layers of reality beneath the reality we see, even as there are layers of history beneath the ground we walk upon, then in one of those more profound realities, Dr. Talos's face was a fox's mask on a wall, and I marveled to see it turn and bend now toward the woman, achieving by those motions, which make expression and thought appear to play across it with the shadows of nose and brows, and amazing and realistic appearance of vivacity.


Image from the great Kinspiracy blog 
Watery and syrupy. And definitely not smooth. Insert Gwyneth Paltrow joke here.
How many times a day do we throw our words away? We say things like, ‘I hate my hair,’ ‘I’m so stupid,’ ‘I’m such a klutz.’ We never think that these words bring negative energy into our vibration and affect us on a physical level, but they do. Emoto’s experiments were conducted with water. Why? Because sound vibration travels through water four times faster than it does through open air. Consider the fact that your body is over 70% water and you’ll understand how quickly the vibration from negative words resonates in your cells. Ancient scriptures tell us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. As it turns out, that’s not a metaphor.

Further thoughts?

I'd love to hear what you think about texture in language. Which textures do you think matter in prose? Which authors do you find crunchy, watery or chewy?

If you found this post super chewy yourself, please share it or leave a comment!

I stumbled across this digital humanities project working with texture words. I link to it without comment--I need to digest it more.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On The Pleasures Of Internet Obscurity

Let's start with the obvious. The blog has never taken off.

When I started blogging way back in 2007 blogging was the newest of new media. The summer before I had interned at the American Prospect and I remember watching Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein enviously over the cubicle walls: here were kids just a little bit older than me, getting paid to write Big Important Thoughts about Big Important Things, while I was stuck in an unpaid internship. How had they first gained attention while I remained obscure? Their blogs. (And of course, their talent.) They had written incisive, funny, daring blogs. The blogs had earned them attention. So it seemed inevitable that if I wrote enough, well enough, and often enough I would go viral, too.

Hasn't happened.

And even though I'm okay with my relative internet obscurity, every time I write a post there's this fifteen minute window where I keep hitting refresh on the 'stats' page of Blogger Dashboard, wondering whether this is finally the day when Raise High The Roofbeam Carpenters goes viral, whether I am going to see the hit count inch from ten, to a hundred, to a thousand. I imagine that there's this mangy compulsive little Fame Monkey perched on my shoulder beating a drum screeching MAYBE NOW THEY WILL WATCH US DANCE MAYBE NOW THEY WATCH US DANCE! And for the quarter of an hour he's screeching I can't do anything but listen to him. Refresh refresh refresh. As the page views inch up from twelve, to thirteen, to twenty.

The fame monkey, in action

And I suspect that there are Fame Monkeys perched on a lot of our backs, howling that we're right on the verge of going viral, that this comment is the one that's going to get us the attention we deserve, that we are going to be lifted from obscurity; that we deserve to become a name; a known entity; a meme. A Jenna Marbles. A Ze Frank. An Allie Bosch. A Matt Inman.

Some great examples of the Fame Monkey fantasy come from Reddit's new podcast, Upvoted. Each episode of tells the story of a single Reddit user's stumbling path towards internet stardom. The person begins as a regular work-a-day joe, perhaps down on his luck. Then he posts his work to Reddit, and the attention of so many people transforms him into something utterly new. In the space of a few hours he is reborn, different, changed, thankful, and famous. He has had doubts about his talent before; and now in the light of the pageviews he's earned, this doubt looks silly. He has been unlucky before; and now in the face of this massive amount of good karma, he has nothing to complain about. The stories are incredibly compelling because they are exactly the kind of story I once to expected to happen to me. (It is notable that Upvoted has not yet featured any women. Internet fame for women seems to come with about as many dick-pics as page-views; about as much harassment as beatification.)

But this kind of fame changes the internet from a private sandbox where we can try on different identities, to a place our every last comma is scrutinized. Here's Ezra Klein (many years removed from our American Prospect era) explaining why he no longer has as much freedom in blogging: "If I said something dumb in my Blogspot days — which I did, constantly — it hurt me. If I say something dumb today — which I do, but hopefully less constantly — it hurts my writers, and my editors, and my company. My voice needs editing. The cost of being unedited is too high." Fame turns the internet from a place of semi-anonymous play, to a place where we can never speak unedited.

The Fame Monkey can never be satisfied
We don't imagine that we will become the object of the internet's two minutes of hate. That we could become the next Phil Fish. The next Adria Richards. The next Anita Sarkeesian.

And still the Fame Monkey screeches WATCH ME WATCH ME WATCH ME. His fists still pound his tiny drum DANCE DANCE DANCE AND MAYBE THEY WILL WATCH. And we still gaze at the lucky few, wishing we were in their place.

But is this new exciting public sphere of blog comments and Facebook posts and retweeting really truly public when people feel the need to obsessively edit every last comment because they are so closely watched? Where the public, for the most part, stares at those in the public eye from behind some kind of anonymous one-way mirror? Where we ready ourselves to attack every mistake we see, any fakeness, any duplicity. As the Fame Monkey hisses jealously in our ears--THEY DON'T DESERVE THE ATTENTION! THEY DON'T DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DO I DO I DO I DO!