July 23, 2005

Analysis and authenticity

A few days ago, I heard Marty Moss-Coane interview Terry McMillan on Radio Times. Near the end of the hour, Moss-Coane asked "I read also somewhere that Ring Lardner was an influence on you as a writer ... why an influence for you?" McMillan answered, in part, that " [Lardner] let me know that you can write the way you talk, and you don't have to apologize for it ... he freed me up."

In the middle of McMillan's long and eloquent answer, one of her points took me aback.

... his work was very conversational, it was easy, but it was very powerful. And it didn't feel like you were being *told* a story. And he didn't apologize, it wasn't beautiful language, it wasn't all metaphors and similes and onomatopeia, and it wasn't, you know, packed with symbolism that you had to analyze. He just told it like he saw it. And I said "thank you, Jesus!"

McMillan's central point is that reading Lardner allowed her to find and use her own narrative voice. But rather than contrasting an authentic and believable voice with a forced and imitative one, she seems to be drawing a line between genuine writing and writing that uses certain rhetorical devices. Or is she rejecting prose that needs explicit analysis to be understood? She wouldn't be the first one to oppose analysis and authenticity. But whatever she means, it can't be exactly what she says, because Ring Lardner's stories are chock full of metaphors and similes and onomatopeia, and so are hers.

I'll give just one example of each from Lardner-- you can easily find more for yourself, if you want. A metaphor:

It was a Saturday and the shop was full and Jim got up out of that chair and says, "Gentlemen, I got an important announcement to make. I been fired from my job."

Well, they asked him if he was in earnest and he said he was and nobody could think of nothin' to say till Jim finally broke the ice himself. He says, "I been sellin' canned goods and now I'm canned goods myself."

A simile (with a pinch of hyperbole as well):

After supper Gleason went out on the porch with me. He says Boy you have got a little stuff but you have got a lot to learn. He says You field your position like a wash woman and you don't hold the runners up. He says When Chase was on second base to-day he got such a lead on you that the little catcher couldn't of shot him out at third with a rifle.


If I was running the South Bend Boosters' club, I'd make everybody spend a year on the Gay White Way. They'd be so tickled when they got to South Bend that you'd never hear them razz the old burg again.

I'll add a case of (reported) metonymy just for fun:

I had a run in with Kelly last night and it looked like I would have to take a wallop at him but the other boys seperated us. He is a bush outfielder from the New England League. We was playing poker. You know the boys plays poker a good deal but this was the first time I got in. I was having pretty good luck and was about four bucks to the good and I was thinking of quitting because I was tired and sleepy. Then Kelly opened the pot for fifty cents and I stayed. I had three sevens. No one else stayed. Kelly stood pat and I drawed two cards. And I catched my fourth seven. He bet fifty cents but I felt pretty safe even if he did have a pat hand. So I called him. I took the money and told them I was through.

Lord and some of the boys laughed but Kelly got nasty and begun to pan me for quitting and for the way I played. I says Well I won the pot didn't I? He says Yes and he called me something. I says I got a notion to take a punch at you.

He says Oh you have have you? And I come back at him. I says Yes I have have I? I would of busted his jaw if they hadn't stopped me. You know me Al. ...

Some of the boys have begun to call me Four Sevens but it don't bother me none.

And here are a few similes, metaphors and such from two pages chosen at random from McMillan's own 1997 novel How Stella got her groove back:

p. 10 He bored me to death. Living with him was like living in a museum. It was drafty, full of vast open spaces and slippery floors.
p. 10 We never seemed to come to any neutral turf where both of our feelings and positions were acceptable or at least tolerable.
p. 10 We sort of kept this demerit scoreboard for the last eight years, until we ran out of space.
p. 10 We were both running on high octane and barely had time for sex anymore...
p. 10 At times I felt like his prostitute and I'm sure on occasion he probably felt that way too.
p. 26 ... this is getting too thick for me and I'm like sinking somewhere low and my heart weighs a ton here lately ...
p. 26 All I know is that I was sort of already using my reserve tank when he left and afterwards being alone took some getting used to.
p. 26 It was like this secret longing I felt to replace the void he left with something or someone else.
p. 26 Haven't walked past him in an airport and felt any current radiate from his body to mine.

It's no more surprising to find similes and metaphors and onomatopeia in the works of Lardner and McMillan than it is to find nouns and verbs and prepositions there. Good story-telling is full of the traditional rhetorical devices. When the ancients isolated these techniques and named them and taught them explicitly, they believed that such analytic instruction would help students learn to communicate more effectively. This belief might be right or wrong, but it's a belief about teaching and learning, not about speaking and writing.

Terry McMillan's remarks suggest that our culture has moved beyond the elimination of linguistic analysis from general education, and even beyond the view that such analysis is intrinsically harmful for ordinary people, towards the peculiar view that the objects of such analysis are themselves undesirable pollutants of the pure stream of authentic communication. (Listen to the distaste in McMillan's tone in this audio clip -- you'd think she was talking about yellow fever and dengue and cholera.) This has something in common with the view that the secret of health is not to allow any chemicals to enter your body.

For the record, here's my transcript of Terry McMillan's answer in its entirety:

you know J.D. Salinger
    in Catcher in the Rye
    Holden Caulfield is reading Ring Lardner.

And uh- when I read it
    and I read Catcher in the Rye late
and I said "who in the world is Ring Lardner?"
    and I loved J.D. Salinger
    um and I found him
I went and looked.
And this is before the internet.

And I found out ((he was a)) sportswriter
    from- in the thirties at ((the)) Chicago Tribune
and I found out he wrote short stories
    and I read this story called "Haircut".

Well, I bought the collection.
It's called "Haircut and other stories".

And he starts out talking, this guy comes in, sits in his barber-
    in the barber seat
    and he says
    you know
the guy sits in his chair, and then he starts talking, he said I heard
    so-and-so and so-and-so and so

and the next thing- you're- there- it's a story!

And by the time he finishes, he says "cut it wet or dry?"

And -- I got chill bumps now -- he-
    gave- he let me know
    that you can write
    the way you talk

and you don't have to apologize for it.

And he was from Chicago, and I think this was in the 30's or 40's
    and his work was very conversational
    it was easy but it was very powerful.

And it didn't feel like you were being *told* a story.

And he didn't apologize, it wasn't
    language it wasn't all
    metaphors and similes and onomatopeia

and it wasn't
    you know
    s- packed with symbolism that you had to analyze

he just told it like he saw it.
And I said "thank you, Jesus!"

And he freed me up.

You can find Ring Lardner's 1926 story Haircut in various places on the internet, if you could use some narrative freedom yourself.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 23, 2005 11:06 AM