After reading the article on Philip Pullman and the morality of fiction in The New Yorker, I was reminded of the following bit from a George Saunders interview posted on Maud Newton a while back:

…as for the craft: I think it’s about sentences. You write: “Hal, as usual, was talking a lot of right-wing bullshit that made no sense.” Okay, fair enough. But now, in revision, you feel that the sentence lacks specificity. Forget about politics, truth, fairness, all that — it’s dull because it’s vague. The question is: What does he say, exactly? And what does his face look like as he says it? And who is he saying it to? And what do they think? And what is Hal thinking as they look at him? Does he feel he’s being judged? Is his stutter getting worse, filling him with rage? Is the father of the Swiss girl there, looking appalled at Hal’s stutter? Is the Swiss girl playing nervously with her braid, suddenly ashamed of Hal? So you have to cross out “talking a lot of right-wing bullshit” and give Hal something to say, in a specific voice. And now suddenly you’re really paying attention to Hal, which means you’re being compassionate. You’re actually curious about what Hal is all about, instead of pre-knowing what he’s about.

What I’m saying is, all moral concerns in fiction reduce to technical concerns. And technical concerns drive us towards specificity and detail and truth.


Without [Constance] Garnett, the nineteenth-century “Rooshians,” as Ezra Pound called them, would not have exerted such a rapid influence on the American literature of the early twentieth. In “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway recounts scouring Sylvia Beach’s shelves for the Russians and finding in them a depth and accomplishment he had never known. Before that, he writes, he was told that Katherine Mansfield was “a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer,” but now, after reading Chekhov, she seemed to him like “near-beer.” To read the Russians, he said, “was like having a great treasure given to you…”

BUT! Says Richard Pevear:

“Hemingway read Garnett’s Dostoyevsky and he said it influenced him. But Hemingway was just as influenced by Constance Garnett as he was by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Garnett breaks things into simple sentences, she Hemingwayizes Dostoyevsky, if you see what I mean.”

– from “The Translation Wars,” a fantastic article on translating Russian lit written by David Remnick for the Nov. 7, 2005 NEW YORKER


The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000

…the essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle. What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence – or let’s say the American sentence, because Mr. Leonard is as American as jazz. Instead of writing ‘Warren Ganz III lived up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County’, Mr. Leonard writes: ‘Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County’. He writes, ‘Bobby saying’, and then opens quotes. He writes, ‘Dawn saying’, and then opens quotes. We are not in the imperfect tense (Dawn was saying) or the present tense (Dawn says) or the historic present (Dawn said). We are in a kind of marijuana tense (Dawn saying), creamy, wandering, weak-verbed. Such sentences seem to open up a lag in time, through which Mr. Leonard easily slides, gaining entry to his players’ hidden minds. He doesn’t just show you what these people say and do. He shows you where they breathe.”

– Martin Amis’ review of RIDING THE RAP



“The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…

My organisational principles, therefore, derive from an inner urgency, and from the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections. The method, plus the use of footnotes (to preserve the collateral thought), should give a clear view of the geography of a writer’s mind.”

– Martin Amis, from his memoir, EXPERIENCE


A person may plan as much as he wants to, but nothing of consequence is likely to come of it until the magician Circumstance steps in and takes the matter off his hands….Circumstance is powerful, but it cannot work alone; it has to have a partner. Its partner is man’s temperament–his natural disposition. His temperament is not his invention, it is born in him….A circumstance that will coerce one man will have no effect upon a man of a different temperament.

“[Take] poor Columbus. He elaborated a deep plan to find a new route to an old country. Circumstance revised his plan for him, and he found a new world. And he gets the credit of it to this day. He hadn’t anything to do with it.”

– Mark Twain, “The Turning-Point of My Life,” in WHAT IS MAN? AND OTHER ESSAYS