From Tin House (good mag) arrives an email announcing “Song of Myself and Moby-Dick Merchandise Available Now!”. Note the inevitable post-ironic exclamation point, the same as occupies much real estate in all messages from the super-earnest relentlessly well meaning zip codes of Brooklyn. I will likely check the merchandise out: I could use some Song of Myself golf tees. (It occurs to me that moby-dick is a fantasist’s song of himself, if you know what I mean. You probably don’t.)
Meanwhile, this: A book arrived today from the house of Random, a slender volume of stories from an author of a phenomenally successful novel some years ago, set in the Pacific Northwest just when that territory was getting big. I opened to a page well in, but short of the middle. This is my habit with fiction. At mid-page stood the sentence: “At this he shrugged and looked at her skeptically.”
Why would anyone write this sentence? Could he actually see a real character at loose and living in the world doing this? And if so, does it matter? (No, I’d strongly venture; and no, I’m certain.) To add to the banal unreality of the thing, just see if you can make a skeptical face while shrugging. It’s not easy.
It amazes me that writers of English prose at this late date in the historical development of our narrative methods think such sentences are necessary; it amazes me too that readers tolerate them, that they don’t find such tactics, such absolutely stale language, poisonous of whatever credibility — or cinematic reality — or vividness, which we might as well call what Henry James called it, felt life — that the text might be soliciting from them. James himself, well over a century ago, can be seen rejecting these cliched and empty fictional gestures: read Daisy Miller and you’ll see a text full of hoary narrative directionals. Read the late work and you’ll find hardly any.
Shrugging sighing grinning (but not hacking green gobs into an old rag: that works) — this stuff is the powdered sawdust – ground melamine – pink slime filler of narrative prose. Shrugging and sighing in particular can be encountered at a rate in fiction of fifty times the frequency with which they noticeably occur in real life. And smiling is, as a word thrown in, far too generic a term: there are too many tens of thousands of kinds of smiles to use “smile” in a serious way, to not take the time to describe the facial expression: if it matters.
Usually, of course, it doesn’t. These sentences are merely pieces of water-warped plywood lazily thrown down across perceived gaps and broken curbstones in what we expect to be a standard smoothed-out 20th century realist narrative. We don’t need such narratives anymore. Even if we do — I still write them, I must admit — we certainly don’t need the enervating bullshit of ‘He shrugged and looked at her skeptically–” but will we give them up? As another well regarded author once wrote, causing me to close his book a moment after opening it, as I did today: “No,” Tim grinned. Let us grin our no’s forevermore.