Invisible Prose

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There’s a strain of common logic among certain writers and readers which goes a little something like this…

“The best kind of writing is invisible prose — writing that is totally unnoticeable as writing, in which a reader can become completely immersed and forget that he or she is reading a book at all. The author scrubs all traces of artifice from the work. The writing is an invisible channel that exists between story and reader, and nothing more. Prose which calls attention to itself is amateur. Good prose is invisible, and all prose should strive to be so.”

And it’s that last, rotting branch of this diseased tree which most fills me with a sense of outrage and despair. Outrage, because it would shackle an entire medium to a single stylistic preference. Despair, because a great deal of writers and readers seem to agree with it.

“All prose must be invisible”?

Screw THAT.

It’s absurd, the notion that an entire medium be restricted to one approach.

Imagine that!

Imagine if all films had to be directed in a naturalistic style. Imagine if all music could only be set to 3/4 time. If all poetry had to follow iambic pentameter. If all plays had to be musicals. If all paintings had to be Realist. If all animation had to be photorealistic 3D. If all games had to be simulators. If all stories had to have happy endings.

Yuck!

“Invisible” is not the only way prose can be. Prose can have a voice. Prose can have cadence, feeling, flavor, tone, and yes, even style, that gawdy, barbed word we’ve turned into profanity. A writer doesn’t have to hide from his reader, rattling cans and gusting dry-ice smoke, all Wizard of Oz.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” 

The first writer I ever learned this from was Don DeLillo.  Or maybe it was Samuel R. Delany? I don’t know; the teenage years are sort of a blur, and their names sound really similar. And also both write stellar prose. Delany prances around dialogue tags cackling in your face like a post-modern madman, and DeLillo sings right off the page. If you’ve never read DeLillo’s “Underworld”, do so.

NOW.

I’ll wait.

DeLillo’s prose SOARS.  It is upfront and unabashed about the fact that it desperately needs to communicate grand ideas with every single word.  DeLillo’s prose seems to say, “Sit down and shut up, you. This stuff is important.”

Take the first line of the book.  DeLillo’s describing the main character of the prologue, Cotter, a little black boy who’s elected, this spring afternoon, to jump the turnstile and steal into a baseball game which (little does he know) is going to turn out to be (DeLillo argues) the turning-point of American history. This baseball game is THE MOMENT where the Good Ole Days end, and the Cold War begins, and Cotter is our lens into that moment.

In the first sentence, DeLillo writes:

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”

Oof!

Get a loada’ this guy!

The next paragraph goes on:

It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom.  He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it’s hard to blame him — this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each.

And there’s a lot of readers who read that and go, “God, that’s pretentious. Who does this guy think he is, with his run-on sentences and telling me how I should feel about a character I don’t even know yet?” These readers think: the beginning would be better, surely, if it transported directly us into the story: drop us into Cotter’s thoughts, describe what he looks like, what he’s doing, get the story going as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible.

The writer isn’t allowed to talk about ideas yet–these readers feel–because he hasn’t earned it.

What they mean by this, of course, is that themes should only emerge organically. Themes (they feel) should arise as a consequence of a post-consumptive examination of the events of a story. These readers say: If you want me to think “cats are evil”, you can’t just say, “The cat was evil”; you have to tell me a story about the cat, like, “The cat had kittens and ate them”, and then I FIGURE OUT, “Oh, this cat is evil,” as a result.

And that’s certainly one perspective.

But that misses the entire point of what someone like DeLillo is doing. 

DeLillo doesn’t WANT us to transparently experience the story as if it were happening in realtime. He doesn’t WANT us to be focused on story-first, and thinking about theme-stuff later.  He doesn’t WANT us living inside Cotter’s head and soaking up his subjective worldview. The story’s not about Cotter. The story’s about the baseball game, and not the events of the baseball game, but what those events mean.

And that meaning is not one simple message! It’s not a thing encoded into the text which the reader is then expected to dig out like an archaeologist: “It’s about the Cold War. Case closed.” NO! The meaning is a living, breathing thing, which shifts and changes over the course of the story, as events develop. It’s an idea DeLillo introduces us to, and then sets in motion, explores, observes, pokes and prods from every angle.  Cotter and the other POV characters?  Scenery.  “The baseball game” is the main character and “what the baseball game means” is the plot.  DeLillo is writing an essay, in the form of a story, and Cotter just happens to be the argument upon which he builds his case.

So now let’s go back and unpack just the very first half of that sentence.

“He speaks in your voice, American, and–“

There’s a lot happening there.  First, with “American“, DeLillo is contextualizing the reader himself.  DeLillo’s saying, “Hey.  You.  Yeah, you, reading the book. You’re an AMERICAN. That’s my label for you, and it’s what we’re here to talk about.”

With “your voice,” DeLillo is saying, “As an American, you have uniquely American characteristics. One of those is a particular voice — and by voice I mean a way of speaking, thinking, and viewing the world.”

So with “he speaks in your voice,” DeLillo’s saying, “This kid I’m about to tell you about? He’s an American, too. That voice you have, as an American? He’s got that too. This is a kid you know already. He speaks your language. He’s from your world.

“…and…”

DeLillo’s saying: “And now that I’ve told you about who this kid is in relation to you, let me describe him and tell you about what he’s doing.”

And lest you get the idea I’m reading a whole hell of a lot into one half of a sentence, here’s a taste of the first few paragraphs:

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.

It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom.  He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it’s hard to blame him — this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each.

Longing on a large scale is what makes history.  This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day — men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game.

The sky is low and gray, the roily gray of sliding surf.

He stands at the curbstone with the others.  He is the youngest, at fourteen, and you know he’s flat broke by the edgy leaning look he hangs on his body.  He has never done this before and he doesn’t know any of the others and only two or three of them seem to know each other but they can’t do this thing singly or in pairs, so they have found one another by means of slidy looks that detect the fellow foolhard and here they stand, black kids and white kids up from the subways or off the local Harlem streets, lean shadows, bandidos, fifteen in all, and according to topical legend maybe four will get through for every one of them that’s caught.

They are waiting nervously for the ticket holders to clear the turnstiles, the last loose cluster of fans, the stragglers and loiterers. They watch the late-arriving taxis from downtown and the brilliantined men stepping dapper to the windows, policy bankers and supper club swells and Broadway hotshots, high aura’d, picking lint off their mohair sleeves.  They stand at the curb and watch without seeming to look, wearing the sourish air of corner hangabouts.  All the hubbub has died down, the pregame babble and swirl, vendors working the jammed sidewalks waving scorecards and pennants and calling out in ancient singsong, scraggy men hustling buttons and caps, all dispersed now, gone to their roomlets in the beaten streets.

They are at the curbstone, waiting. Their eyes are going grim, sending out less light. Somebody takes his hands out of his pockets. They are waiting and then they go, one of them goes, a mick who shouts GERONIMO!”

Is this coming through? Do you get it yet? Do you feel what DeLillo’s going for, and are you amenable to something different than what you’re used to? Can you take it on its own terms and appreciate it for what it is: rich, vivid prose that’s packed to the rafters with dense imagery and visual metaphors?

Every single word is deliberately chosen. Every image is carefully evoked. And not only that, not only is the story made to play out in front of you, but by taking an active prose voice, by engaging with the reader, by making careful use of the second person to create a conversational dialogue between himself and you, DeLillo can imbue the very substance of the story with the themes and ideas he’s trying to present — rather than having to merely convey those themes and ideas second-hand, by the events of the plot.

Now let’s look at a boring, “invisible” version of those same paragraphs.

Cotter stood outside the stadium.

He was supposed to be at school, but he was here instead.  The place was old and rusty.  The grass had just been cut.  There were packs of Chesterfield cigarettes sitting on top of the scoreboards.

The sky was low and gray.

There are fifteen of them, standing outside the stadium with Cotter.  Some were black, some were white.  They looked like bandidos.  Cotter knew that only about four of them would make it through.  He wondered if he would be one of them.

They waited nervously.  Ticket-holders cleared the turnstile.  Taxis arrived from downtown.  A banker strolled past Cotter, picking lint off his mohair sleeve.  Cotter took his hands out of his pocket.

Someone shouted, “GERONIMO!”

How BORING is that?  How much less excited are you?  How much less do you now know about Cotter and about his school-skipping excursion to the stadium, and about its grand significance? There’s this implicit assumption behind it all that because a sparse naturalistic style is more difficult, it must therefore reap greater rewards.

Why?

Why is banging your head against a wall considered more respectable than just using the door? Why should pretending you’re not telling a story make that story more powerful? Why is embracing the act of the telling considered such a blasphemous faux-pas?

The answer you’ll hear often is, “Well, guys like DeLillo can pull that off, but it’s no good to teach a young writer that way. They should learn to write sparse, effective prose first.”

And all I can say to that is

 WHY?!

 It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy! If we taught young writers to develop their own voice instead of trying to nullify it, THEY WOULD THEN HAVE A UNIQUE VOICE AND KNOW HOW TO WRITE IN IT. Maybe if we schooled writers in the works of full-bodied prosaists like Peake, DeLillo, Delany, King, Gaiman, and Pratchett instead of hammering them over and over with the ~sparse beauty~ of Cormac McCarthy, we’d spawn a whole new generation of writers who could actually WRITE, instead of merely tell a story and hide behind it.

And by the way, I mention Pratchett above, but all good comedy writers get this stuff. It’s necessary for their genre, because the rhythm and flow of their prose is bound up intrinsically in how effectively-timed the jokes are. I dare you to name, off the top of your head, even one good comedy writer who writes “invisible” prose.  I sure can’t, and I read a lot of the stuff. But on the other side of the fence? I can rattle off comedy writers with full-bodied prose without even turning my head to look at the bookshelf: Pratchett, Adams, DFW, David Wong — heck, even JK Rowling does it, when she’s looking to elicit a belly laugh.

So if visible, full-bodied prose can be indulged and allowed when it seeks to evoke feelings of humor, WHY CAN’T IT BE USED TO EVOKE OTHER FEELINGS?

Prose is cinematography. Prose is rhythm. Prose is flow. Prose is the style of the brush-stroke and the choice of oils used. Prose is substance and aesthetic both. Prose is gameplay; prose is central mechanics and core loops in action.

Prose is the moment-to-moment STUFF the story is fundamentally built from.

So the idea that ALL prose should have to be invisible, that something like the passage above ought to be considered “flawed” and that somebody would have the gall to call that kind of careful, considered veteran craftsmanship “amateur” (or even worse, “purple”) is enough to make me foam at the mouth.

There is room under the sun for every prose-style imaginable, and none of them is inherently any better than the rest. Each has its own purposes and aims. Each does some things well, and other things not-so-well. The substance of prose is the lifeblood of ~WRITING~ itself. To say that it can only take one, specific shape is to say that there can only be one real way to tell a story.

And if that’s the way you feel, you have my sincere and heartfelt pity.

So I’ll close with a quote, and I hope that maybe, somewhere in the midst of this discursive screed, I’ve managed to turn a mind or two. And the next time you find yourself reading a “purple” writer, you’ll hold back the kneejerk reaction and give the poor guy a chance.

“Invisible prose only!” rules out the sparkling style of [writers]. . . For [whom] vivid prose, and the visionary mind it evinces — rich with speculation, insight, and subjectivity — IS the craft. It offers a unique caliber of truth. Is there any other art form one would praise by saying it’s “invisible”? By definition, art transcends the ordinary, calls attention to itself, and offers virtuosity as its calling card. One that makes it possible to do what metaphor does so well: illuminate what can’t be wholly understood.” — Diane Ackerman

  • Great article.

    However, I would say Cormac McCarthy isn’t entirely spare. He himself uses stylized prose. Suttree and Blood Meridian, two of the all-time great American novels, are sterling examples of elaborate, stylish prose, full of brimming live for the written word.

    • BCarbaugh

      Thanks!

      Admittedly, I haven’t read much McCarthy beyond “The Road”. But that’s sort of become the de facto gold standard for minimalist prose, so it’s what sprang to mind.

      • Yes. I would say The Road is actually the modern gold standard for minimalist prose. However, McCarthy does WRITE. His imagery is crisp and impressionistic (hence the use of sentence fragments), mixing in which the apocalyptic setting and mood. He adopts from Hemingway the bare-bones sentences and words, but he never departs from his propensity for visual depiction of settings.

        • BCarbaugh

          Definitely. I especially like the flashback passages where he cuts loose with the more purple-y evocative prose, because it stands out much more sharply for being set against the backdrop of a book which is otherwise very minimal in style. That’s a very deft use of voice.

          I wish more young writers were taught / allowed to learn that their prose voice can be fluid that way.

          • Thanks.

            One of the things I want to learn well is how to write beautiful descriptive, long form prose. Like the 19th-century masters and some of the 20th-century ones (like McCarthy, DeLillo, Pynchon, Nabokov, DFW, etc.)

            As for your examples of “full-bodied” stylists, I would make my list to be Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, William Faulkner, J. R. R. Tolkien, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Donna Tartt, and Eleanor Catton (author of THE LUMINARIES, the long Victorian-esque award winning novel).

            Also, Ralph Waldo Emerson is another I would add