A general rule of thumb is that good prose is rigorous. There is no denying this, and I believe all writers strive to be clear and comprehensible. In this regard, I subscribe to White and Strunk’s rule of omitting needless words. Very few readers admire pointless word salads, and if sentences were cuts of meat, most readers would prefer them with the fat trimmed off. This is all fine and well but as any good cook knows, an overly-lean cut of meat can become dry and tough when cooked. I would argue the same principle applies to prose – trimming the excess fat is perhaps desirable, but trimming every trace of fat can render sentences and paragraphs dry and unpalatable. What some might term needless could in fact be the flavorful juice that not only enhances mastication, thereby aiding digestion, but also increases delight and satisfaction. Seen this way, a little of what could be defined as overwriting might actually be useful and enjoyable to the reader. Like a great chef, a good writer must determine the fat-to-lean ratio for their own work, and vary this ratio according to the objective of their work. Adhering fanatically to a rigorous prose approach has its limits, too; one need look no further than Hemingway to see examples of when his terse style works – the masterful short stories – and when it is, for lack of a better expression, painfully inadequate – as is the case in some of Hemingway’s novels.
When I wrote The City of Earthly Desire, I anticipated the overwriting criticism ahead of time. I went so far as to criticize the criticism of overwriting within the novel itself. More to the point, overwriting is the most common censure the protagonist, Béla, encounters when he tries to get his first novel published. He is told that if he wishes to see his work in print, he must set about “tightening his prose,” which leads him to rewrite his book so many times that he eventually no longer recognizes it as his own. As for my own novel, there is no denying that the prose could be tightened. I could pick out dozens of pages and paragraphs where the writing could be deemed overwrought, places where sentences could be rearranged, adjectives cut, perhaps entire sentences eliminated all for the sake of rigor. Perhaps one day I will revisit the text and “tighten the prose” a bit to suit this taste, but I will likely not carve away an excessive amount of prose because I fear I might lose the stylistic essence I had chosen for the novel.
Though my novel may have many faults, perceived or otherwise, I am confident that the prose within it more or less works. Regardless, one of the feedback morsels Stephen Vizinczey was kind enough to impart upon me after he read my work was that it was, in his view, overwritten. The criticism was both unsurprising and understandable. As I mentioned above, I acknowledge parts of my novel may indeed be overwritten. This notion, coupled with Vizinczey’s personal preference to say much with as little as possible, made the criticism rather expected. Having said this, as correct as Vizinczey may have been in assessing my own work, the economical stylistic approach he used in his most recent novel If Only is, apparently, not without its own shortcomings. For example, Vizinczey's obsession with conciseness caused John Self of The Times Literary Supplement a considerable degree of consternation. In his March 29, 2017 review of If Only, Self complains of Vizinczey’s underwriting which, the reviewer argues, negatively affects the plot. Self writes, “Don’t ask this reviewer how Jim got where he is: like many other aspects of the story, Jim’s effortless rise is reported with minimal insight. Turning points are dispatched in a phrase . . .” Overwriting is a negative for sure, but underwriting poses problems of its own, it seems.
As readers of this blog well know, I respect Vizinczey, and I am not referring to the negative TLS review to disparage him. I know for certain that if John Self, or any other TLS reviewer for that matter, read my book he would probably defecate all over it. Nevertheless, Self’s critical rebuke of Vizinczey’s most recent effort highlights a fault many writers, even seasoned ones, tend to overlook as they incessantly focus on ensuring their prose is not overwritten. As they trim their sentences and search their imaginations for wonderful aphoristic phrases capable of capturing a century in a sentence, many writers may, in fact, fall into a trap that could be more pernicious and dire than overwriting. The heroic effort to say much with as little as possible may expose one to the danger of underwriting; that is, of not writing enough or, in extreme cases, not writing much at all. As John Self points out, underwritten prose carries its own hazards, chief among them, a lack of plot continuity.
Which makes one wonder – which is the greater sin for writers? Writing too much, or not writing enough? Neither is desirable, but is one ultimately more troublesome in the end?