As a writer, you are encouraged to write crisp, short sentences.
‘Economy of Words’, emphasizes Will Self.
Professor Will Self is a renowned British novelist and social commentator. His novel ‘Umbrella’ was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. In the same year, he was also my faculty at Brunel University in London, where I was studying for an M.A. in Creative Writing.
In a lecture on ‘Point of View’, which was conducted by Professor Self, our pre-reading was ‘Vertigo’ by W.G. Sebald and ‘Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka. Sebald and Kafka wrote relatively short and crisp prose. Skillfully using this ‘Economy of Words’, both these authors obliquely talk about their true referent, leaving the reader comprehending the bigger picture.
In the same year, 2012, India’s own Jeet Thayil was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for his novel ‘Narcopolis’. What distinguishes ‘Narcopolis’ from other books is that it starts with a six-and-a-half-page prologue that is just one single sentence.
There was a time when I immensely undervalued long sentences in fiction. I felt that a very long sentence in fiction could distract the reader from the subject being discussed, and also tamper with the structure of storytelling.
However, while studying for my M.A., I realized that almost every recommendation in creative writing training is subjective. As a matter of fact, we were quantifiably scored for creativity, which at times meant bending perceived rules.
Last year, I had the wonderful opportunity to be mentored by renowned Indian author Anita Nair. One of the activities during the mentorship was to get out of my comfort zone and intentionally try new writing styles. I wrote a poem, which I hadn’t done in 10 years. It was a demanding but very valuable experience for me.
Just as writers have comfort zones for their writing styles, readers have comfort-zones for their reading styles. Therefore, I urge readers who don’t usually enjoy long sentences to get out of their comfort zones and read novels with long sentences.
In an essay in The New York Times titled ‘One sentence says it all’, Ed Parker talks about the ‘book-length sentence’. Parker states examples of the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal and the Polish novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski. Hrabal’s novel ‘Dancing Lessons’ has a 117-page long single run-on sentence. and Andrzejewski’s novel ‘The Gates of Paradise’ has a 158-page single sentence (link).
During an Author’s Afternoon in Kolkata, talking about why his novel ‘Narcopolis’ has a six-and-a-half page opening sentence, Jeet Thayil stated the following (link):
‘The reason I used long sentences in this book is because this book is set in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s in Bombay and it begins in the opium dens of Shuklaji Street and follows a group of characters as the theme of that area changes from opium, which is a very 19th century beautiful cultural experience, into the harsh, degrading and ugly world of heroin and modern Bombay. To make that come alive, I realised I couldn’t use short sentences.’
I had the opportunity to hear Jeet Thayil narrate this prologue in December 2013 at the Alliance Française in Delhi. I have to admit that I was awestruck by the beauty of this immensely long sentence’s prose. It is poetic, and sets the perfect tone for the periodic and narcotic journey the reader would experience in the rest of the novel.
It took me time to realize that the art of creative writing has no rules. What matters the most is the ‘wow’ factor combined with the impact on the reader. Who is to say that immensely long sentences don’t offer both?