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Giving up Henry James

As a young writer I aspired to write sentences like Henry James: long and beautifully elaborated, spinning out subtle, complicated perceptions. At the time I was trying to write fiction and attended classes taught by Marguerite Young (most famously, author of the novel Miss Mackintosh, My Darling), who gave us a terrific exercise:

  • Write a sentence at least a page long. You can use semicolons, dashes, whatever punctuation you want, but it has to be grammatical and it has to keep going.

This exercise had amazing effects. The effort to continue the sentence forced you to push your ideas way beyond what you had originally conceived. People developed wild, intense elaborations of character and action. And through the rhythms that occurred within their sentences, they discovered their own original voice.

What Marguerite didn’t teach, though, was discipline (Miss Mackintosh is over a thousand pages long). Many students’ work became so fantastically detailed that it contained no action. One woman sent a character to Haiti. She spent an entire semester getting the man off an airplane and down a street, since everything he thought, felt, remembered, and observed became part of his interior monologue. I myself began a novel, based on my years working for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that allowed me to fully indulge my Jamesian ambitions. It became truly encyclopedic, aiming to encompass practically everything I knew. Ultimately it died of its own weight.

Later on I realized that my true bent was for literary nonfiction focused around an image. The image gave the book a unity and also functioned as a mode of analysis.  My first published book, The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness, used the image of the witch. It contained lots of long Jamesian sentences, which the copyeditor cut in half. My initial reaction was fury and resentment. Then I realized they read better that way.

Gradually it dawned on me that people don’t want to read long sentences. I began writing for a living, and my sentences got shorter and shorter. The coup de grâce for Henry James came when I learned to write for the web, and had to put most content into bulleted lists. By now short sentences feel normal. I don’t need long ones in order to be “literary.” All that work in the trenches has grounded me.

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This is a discipline I've had to learn, too, over the years, Stephanie. Henry James is well worth mining - I'd go as far as truly unique - and Washington Square, along with The Turn of the Screw, are among my favourite stories, but oh! does he need a good editor! This is always a difficult one when the actual writing is as fine as his. We authors have to bear in mind that the reader is not privy to all the thoughts and images we struggle to encapsulate and seeks either diverting entertainment or a climactic piece of wisdom. The 'spare' novel is usually the most poignant.

I think that, perhaps, English editors are even more rigorous in their demands on this front than American ones. The bottom line is, for them, that words cost!






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Stephanie Golden

Stephanie Golden www.stephaniegolden.net

I suppose I'd say that both "spare" and elaborate novels can be equally effective. Even James covers a pretty wide range, from The Portrait of a Lady and even The Ambassadors, which are fairly straightforward, to something like The Golden Bowl where you really have trouble just figuring out what's going on.

But probably most people today prefer a more minimalist style. Maybe it's the influence of internet writing.

Thanks for your comment!