Tom Simon takes a pretty successful poke at Annie Proulx in the course of a lengthy attack on pretentious literary modernism. Yay, Papa Hemingway! Boo! Jimmy Joyce!
This mania for stylistic weirdness, enforced by the blocking troops of Modernist criticism, led in the end to a situation where even quite ordinary newspaper reviewers would shout praise for the ‘experimental’ brilliance of bad prose rather than admit to the nudity of the reigning monarch. One of the reigning monarchs of the nineties was Annie Proulx, who was extravagantly lauded for the following sentence in Accordion Crimes. A woman has just had her arms chopped off by sheet metal, and this is how Proulx describes it:
She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.
Every story is a conversation between writer and reader, even though the writer is effectively deaf and seldom hears what the reader is saying. Here is a rough transcript of the conversation as it transpires in the passage above:—
Proulx. My character is stunned. Absolutely gobsmacked. Don’t I do a wonderful job of telling you how gobsmacked she is? She’s not just amazed, she’s rooted.
Reader. I don’t think that’s how people react to having their arms chopped off.
P. Now if I were one of these hack commercial writers, I’d talk about her. But see how cleverly I do everything by indirection! See how poetic I am! The barn is built of clapboards, you see—
R. I don’t care about the clapboards. This woman is bleeding to death!
P. And you can see the wood grain because the paint has all been worn off, but I wouldn’t put it that way, oh no, I’m a Writer, I am. So I said to myself, what’s a better action verb to use in this place? Why, chewed, of course! But that’s not poetic enough for me, because I’m a Special Snowflake, I am. So I changed it to jawed instead. Isn’t that original? Aren’t I clever? Look at meeee!
R. I don’t think that word means what you think it means. It doesn’t mean chew; it means to natter on endlessly, just like you’re doing now. Now will you stifle it and get on with the story?
P. Now I describe the swallows, and they’re so ironic, because they’re unconcerned, don’t you see? And they’re just carrying on about their business, darting out of sight and coming back—
R. All this while that poor woman’s arms are flying through the air? They must be miles away by now.
P. That’s not my point. My point is that they’re catching insects, don’t you see, and the insects are like moustaches! Isn’t that clever? Only a Writer could have come up with that simile! Look at meee!!
R. I think you’re mistaking me for someone who cares.
P. And then I describe the rest of the scene, and I’m just as clever about that, and the windows don’t just make reflections, they make swirled blue reflections, because I’m a Writer, I am, and look at me being all impressionist!
R. I think I’m going to skip on a bit.
P. Spoilsport! All right, I’ll get in a bit about my character, since you seem so anxious for me to be all boring and nasty and commercial and stick to the silly old point. What do you think I am, the six o’clock news? So her blood is spurting, no, that’s too ordinary, leaping from her stumped arms—
R. You mean from the stumps of her arms. ‘Stumped’ means something completely different. It has to do with not having a clue, hint, hint.
P. I’m a Writer, I am, and you can tell because I don’t let myself be limited by your silly old bourgeois rules. Her stumped arms, I said, and I’m sticking to it. And then she hears the wet thuds of her forearms—
P. —against the barn, and then the sheet metal hits, and it’s not just the sound of it hitting, it’s the bright sound, because only a Writer would use something as nifty as synaesthesia to put her point across. See? I know about synaesthesia! I’m smart! Look at me! LOOK AT MEEEEEE!!!!
R. If you don’t get on with the story, I’m going to say the Eight Deadly Words.
P. (momentarily taken aback) Which are?
R. ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ I mean, if you’re going to stand there jawing (see, I used the word correctly) about swallows and moustaches and swirly blue windows, while the woman you have just mutilated is bleeding her life away — well, if you care as little as that about your own characters, I don’t see why I should give a damn. You haven’t even noticed that she’s in pain!
P. (angrily) This isn’t about her. This is about me! Me, meee, wonderful ME!! Damn you, why aren’t you looking at ME!!!
Of course this conversation is ruthlessly suppressed in the New York Times review by Walter Kendrick, who singled out that very sentence, in all its scarlet and purple excess, as ‘brilliant prose’. B. R. Myers was kinder to Proulx, if only in the interest of brevity:
The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand rooted long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.
The sad truth, I am afraid, is that self-consciously ‘literary’ writers do not write to be read; they write to impress the critics, and if their ambitions are particularly lofty, to have their books made required reading for hapless English majors. Then the English majors, or a depressingly large percentage of them, buy into the pernicious notion that this self-regarding drivel really is ‘brilliant prose’ — and, still more, that brilliancy of prose is the primary and sufficient purpose of literature — and the whole sorry swindle is perpetuated for another generation.
Proulx’s star has more or less fallen since Myers launched his attack, but the sentence cult goes on.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.