Strip it Down


I CAN’T REMEMBER exactly at what point I decided I wanted to throw Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom through a plate-glass window. Maybe I had just reached my threshold for long, long sentences—sentences crammed with so many clauses, qualifications, loop-backs, and asides that I started to feel like I was just reading words instead of actually getting involved in a story. Was it possible the author was sometimes simply showing off? I had been a fan of The Corrections, and even in the beginning of Freedom I could appreciate the way Franzen sometimes compressed so much character study into a small space, the way he swiftly typified a certain kind of person, like here: “In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture…”

God, I loved my old Volvo 240.

But as I got further into Franzen’s book I realized what I was pining for was the simple declarative sentence, one of the great pleasures of life. This is not to be confused with minimalism, with a kind of writing that has been lambasted for stripping almost everything down, sometimes to the point of stunting the emotion or staying only on the surface (Gordon Lish comes to mind). Hemingway sure was spare, but so much was beating underneath that it feels unfair to call it minimal. Same goes for Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie’s work. For nearly thirty years now there has been a ping-pong game of writers and intellectuals batting the ball back and forth: Which is better, more words or less? Is less more or is more more? An essay in the New York Observer by the novelist Tao Lin recently attempted to trace the argument over the years, citing John Barth, Madison Smartt Bell, Tom Wolfe, and others on the subject. When it was all laid out, it looked kind of silly (partially Lin’s point, I assume).

What I’m talking about has more to do with emotional impact than a rigid stance about any particular movement in writing. What often tears me asunder is a simple sentence that has a world of feeling behind it. Call it tone. You know it when you hear it. Here, from the first story in Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son: “The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened.” You hear it in a song lyric too: “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain” (Dylan, from “Not Dark Yet”). Or in these lines from a Czeslaw Milosz poem: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us/how difficult it is to remain just one person,/for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,/and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

Sometimes I just want a writer to stop clearing their throat and give it to me straight.

That’s not to say I don’t admire the elegance and complexity and artistry of Proust, Henry James, E.M. Forster, and so many others who tended toward wordiness. David Foster Wallace, in his long-winded pyrotechnics, often stunned and amazed. Jennifer Egan and Dana Spiotta write what is sometimes characterized as “muscular” prose (a term, annoyingly, often reserved for male writers) but with a sort of lean precision that does not tie the brain into knots.

The truth is that it’s tough to do either one—simple or complex—very well. It’s hard to write without someone somewhere hearing the machinery clanking. Ironically, considering his claim in a Harper’s magazine piece in 1986 that minimalism was compromising literature, I had first become a fan of Madison Smartt Bell’s writing for its unfussy simplicity (this is how he wrote in the early part of his career, anyway). A story of his called “Irene” in Zero db begins: “Irene—actually it’s always impossible to come directly to the point.” I was besotted right there. I loved the way the narrator was talking right to me, direct and unadorned. For a while I tried my best to imitate Bell in my own fiction writing, and even presented a story to him while studying with him in graduate school that prompted this reaction from him: “This reminds me of a story I once wrote called ‘Irene.’” I was busted, completely and utterly busted. I also once wrote a story modeled after the style of Jesus’ Son, but that story got eaten when my hard drive crashed. Right before the crash, a message came up on the computer screen: “General Failure.” I took that as a sign that it was time to stop trying to imitate my favorite writers.

As a reader I still look for that moment when a clear, pure sentence crashes right through and stops time. When it cleaves the air, aiming for truth. Maybe it’s that life feels short, but I want fewer words coming at me these days. I want less showing off. I want a writer to take me right to the heart of the matter. And so I’ll stop here with some lines from a David Berman poem that make me want to fall to my knees in deep admiration:

I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don’t disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one.


About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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