David Foster Wallace on Turgidity

I was encouraged and exhorted yesterday by Fred Sander’s post on writing tips. Last night I also read a few essays in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, including his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” pp. 51-58 in CtL). The review is scathing, to say, the least, and full of detailed critiques of Updike’s writing that I don’t need to repeat here. But toward the end of the essay, Wallace gives a summary what he calls the “turgidity” of Updike’s prose (p. 57-58), a summary which I believe is applicable to any writer in any genre.

  1. “so many modifiers” – Wallace first critiques Updike for constantly modifying nouns and verbs. I see many younger writers (including myself) give in to this particular temptation by loading up sentences with adjectives and adverbs that we’d probably never use in real life. And I’d guess that many times we overload readers on Twitter or in articles and books to make what we’re saying sound more profound than it really is.
  2. “so much subordination” – Wallace’s point here is that Updike constantly subordinates clauses in the middle of sentences. Again, I see (and do) this frequently. Sentences don’t always have to be short, but they should be clearly follow-able. Subordinating clauses decreases the reader’s ability to follow the grain of a sentence.
  3. “so much alliteration” – According to Wallace, Updike gets too cute by half with alliteration. But trying to make all your modifiers start with the letter “p” or some such isn’t the only way we try to doll up our sentences: using weird sentence structures or formatting (as if we’re trying to be the next e e cummings), giving the reader a heavy dose of modifiers (see #1), using words that everyone knows we found in a thesaurus or a GRE Study Guide and not in our own vocabulary, and the like are all ways that writers (including me) try to make their sentences and paragraphs look better than they actually are. As we say in the Deep South, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

These were helpful to me to consider. Maybe they’ll benefit some of you as well.

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