Stoner and his adverbs

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that I have what I think is a healthy degree of skepticism for the “rules” of writing, especially when they are handed down by one whose authority is based mostly on his or her commercial writing success. I’ve always considered grammar to be more suggestion than requirement, and I believe that if communication is achieved, a piece of writing can go in whatever direction it does.

I recently read a novel called Stoner, by John Williams. It has been called a book of quiet perfection, and I have to say that Williams truly is a writer’s writer. He won the National Book Award in 1973 for another of his novels.

Williams had a Ph.D. in English, and his fiction prose is crisp. He knows the rules of grammar, and by and large he follows them. But he still has no reluctance using a sentence fragment, for example. Nor had he any reluctance to break the rule about adverb usage, probably because he had never heard the rule. (“Don’t use adverbs. They weaken your prose.”)

Among the adverbs I found in this novel were “boredly” and “detachedly.” The character gazed out the window boredly or listened to the complaint detachedly. He sat musedly. Williams had no problem using adverbs when they suited his purpose, even monstrous ones like those.

A story’s grammar and word choice should be governed by the overall tone or the narrator’s or character’s voice. The writer’s purpose should be the standard. Blind adherence to grammar rules is no different from hack writing to formula, and although it may produce “correct” writing from that limited perspective, it is also probably writing to the lowest common denominator.

Yes, grammar and usage rules serve a purpose. They allow the lingua franca we all use to understand each other. But imagine if Faulkner or Saramago were trying to write to the most common grammar denominator. (Saramago has little use for punctuation at all.) Where would our literature be?

While we can’t all be Faulkners or Saramagos or Toni Morrisons, we can be in charge of our own fiction and write in the manner it requires. That may mean breaking the rules.

My point is that the writer should know what is right based on an understanding of the work. That should be how grammar choices are made. Of course this requires that the writer have an understanding of the purpose of the work.

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