Langdon Hammer, the chairman of the English Department at Yale, is the author of a new biography on the poet James Merrill. It looks like a formidable book and in the Times, Dwight Garner calls it “nearly flawless.”
I’m sure the book is an achievement and I’m not interested in minimizing that but I really like what Garner says here:
Mr. Hammer’s book is something close to brilliant, but it would have benefitted from committed liposuction. Its “Shoah”-like length will repel many casual readers, and likely even noncasual ones. While this book is not stuffed with sawdust, 800 pages is a lot of James Merrill, and its girth is admission of a certain kind of failure. Knowing what to omit is as important as knowing what to add.
Check out this fine post by Chris Jones at his blog, “Son of Bold Venture” (named after a horse in W.C. Heinz’s classic column, “Death of a Racehorse”).
It’s probably the hardest lesson in writing: learning when you’ve already written enough.
We’re taught to believe that words have a value, a power, a weight. Logically, then, the more words, the better the sentence or paragraph or story. But writing isn’t always a logical exercise. Sometimes—most of the time—it’s about things that are harder to measure.
My editor, Peter—he will hate that I’m about to praise him in public—is one of the best in the business. He’s particularly good at carving the little excesses from a story that might either push it into sentimentality or turn the screw a little too hard. Because I’m often writing about emotional subjects, I’m especially dependent on Peter’s eye and knife. He just seems to know when even the smallest trim will serve the story. Peter understands restraint. He knows the value and power and weight of the words that aren’t there.
I e-mailed Glenn Stout, editor of the Best American Sports Writing series, about Jones’ post. He replied via e-mail:
Well, I’ve always thought it important to note that “In the beginning was the word…” Not “In the beginning was the words…” Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that more stories are ruined by underwriting rather than overwriting, because I see a lot of work in which the writer appears to have missed an opportunity, I will say that more ambitious stories could probably use more restraint. That’s one of the reasons I think that writers of any stripe should read poetry – it not only teaches tangible things like economy, sound and rhythm, but it also teaches that the negative space in writing – what’s not there, and the heartbeat of recognition that takes place over the empty space at the end of a line or a phrase – is as important as what is on the page. The way we connect with a piece of writing is how our brain fills in the blanks.
It’s like backing away from a painting rather than standing too close.
I understand negative space when it comes to painting, like in Giorgio Morandi’s wonderful still life pictures, but have only recently come to appreciate it in writing as well. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy expressionists, just that I am more drawn to writers like Heinz and Pat Jordan, Elmore Leonard and Pete Dexter.
My pal John Schulian also sent the following e-mail:
The interesting thing about this is that Chris Jones writes with such restraint in the first place. For him to go public with a confession that even he needs an editor to keep his prose from going over the edge is truly remarkable. And instructive. Every writer caves in to his worst instincts sooner or later. Problem is, not every writer has an editor as sharp as Jones’s Peter (I assume he means Peter Griffin, Esquire’s deputy editor). Also, not every editor is working with a writer as wonderful as Chris Jones. Not that the wonderful-ness of a writer would stop some editors from screwing up their prose. But the trims that Peter made were as artful and restrained as what Jones wrote. They eliminated the unnecessary and, just as important, preserved the rhythm of Jones’ prose. Peter heard the music and left no fingerprints, and that, perhaps, is the ultimate proof of his artistry as a line editor. No wonder Jones saluted him.
It is not easy to find a good editor. Jones has it good and seems to know it. Perhaps the most instructive book I’ve read about editing is Susan Bell’s “The Artful Edit.” It’s an essential guide for me and rests next to “The Elements of Style” on my night table. Bell uses the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Maxwell Perkins throughout her text.
Dig this one example from “The Great Gatsby.” First, from a rough draft:
They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just blown in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments on the threshold, dazzled by the alabaster light, listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.
And then revised for the the final version:
They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.
Fitzgerald dropped “dazzled by the alabaster light…” a vivid, but ultimately, distracting flourish. Man, you’ve got to be ruthless to murder your darlings. It is nothing short of inspiring when the great talents have the conviction to do just that.
[Painting by Girogio Morandi]
“Still Life (The Blue Vase),” By Giorgio Morandi (1920)