Posted tagged ‘Joseph Conrad’

regarding dialog tags

September 25, 2019

From time to time I just can’t keep myself from shrieking into the void about this topic. I think the “rule” that one should only use some form of the word “said” as a dialog tag is ridiculous. It’s a waste of a verb.

I suspect that the notion of this quickly evolved into dogma after Elmore Leonard issued his famous 10 Rules for Writing, one of these being to never use a verb other than “said” to tag dialog. How did the writing world ever get by without this rule?

Quite well, I suspect. (I’ve noted here how Joseph Conrad has his characters “ejaculate” their words.) Some intrepid graduate student might do well to survey the use of dialog tags before and after Leonard’s rule suddenly set such a stupid standard. I suspect that before this rule, there was no reluctance using better verbs than “said.”

Anyway, as I read contemporary literature, my eye is always on alert for rule breakers in this regard. And the more “violations” I see, the more I know that this rule is bogus.

I’m currently reading Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. It’s a lot of fun. The story involves jinn (genies) who have left their world and entered ours, and the mayhem and countermayhem that goes on is relentless. Rushdie’s writing appears so effortless that it is breathtaking sometimes.

But what I want to point out is a conversation that takes place between a dead philosopher (Ghazali), so dead it’s his dust that is talking, and one of the jinn (Zumurrud). The philosopher is engaging in a bit of sophistry, but Rushdie seems to be taking the opportunity to put the “said” rule in its place:

“Just is,” Zumurrud repeated doubtfully.*
“Yes,” Ghazali confirmed.
“So God is a sort of time traveler,” Zumurrud proposed. “He moves form his kind of time to ours, and by doing so becomes infinitely powerful.”
“If you like,” Ghazali agreed. “Except that he doesn’t become. He still is. You have to be careful how you use your words.”**
“Okay,” Zumurrud said, confused again.
“Think about it,” Ghazali urged him.
“This god, Just-is,” Zumurrud said on a third occasion, after thinking about it, “he doesn’t like being argued with, right?”

*Another of Leonard’s rules is to not modify the dialog tag with an adverb.

sez who?

January 28, 2019

I’m always on the look out for rule breakers. I’ve said before that creative writing is such an uncertain process — does this work? will anyone read this? should I throw away this whole paragraph? do I even know what I’m trying to say? should I have changed my major years ago? — that there is a seductive quality to so-called writing “rules.” My personal bugbear is the admonition that only some variation of the word “said” is acceptable as a dialog tag.

So I’m plowing through Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” right now, and in the first chapter I came across this bit:

The mate went on faster: — “Craik — Singleton — Donkin. . . . O Lord!” he involuntarily ejaculated as the incredibly dilapidated figure appeared in the light.

So there’s a dialog tag you don’t see everyday. And I count two adverbs in the mix. On the preceding page, one character “growls” and another “yelps.” And this is within the first ten pages of the novel.

Granted, this is late 19th Century writing (by a man whose first language was not English, by the way). And people don’t write that way much anymore, but are we richer or poorer for it?

triplets, triptychs, trinities

December 31, 2018

My high school English teacher had assigned Lord Jim as my reading and term paper project in my senior year. That turned out to be a watershed moment in my (eventual) creative life because it introduced me to Joseph Conrad, whose novels I’ve read throughout the ensuing decades. Some I’ve read more than once. Lord Jim I’ve read thrice. (Maybe more. I wasn’t keeping good records in my callow youth.)

When my reading turned to Philip Roth, and I read some of his nonfiction, he discussed the influence Conrad had on his own writing and teaching. What I specifically remember was his respect for Conrad’s use of threes in a sentence: three examples, three clauses, three points.

I had long noticed by that time that I was commonly using threes in the sentences I wrote, and I was delighted to learn their apparent influence from my extensive reading of Joseph Conrad. Normally I don’t want to know too much about my creative process since I fear familiarity will lead to analysis, which would slay creativity. (Have I really been writing this blog for more than a decade?)

So here is a sentence I recently wrote for a story I’m working on (with the apt title “Three Small Words”*):

“Nonetheless, he wanted to find some moment, some event, some thing in the past that could be blamed and attacked and conquered rather than admit that his father had been mortal all along, was now simply getting old, and had a limited number of days as all men do.”

By my count, there are three incidents of threes in that sentence. I did not do this consciously; it just rose from the murk of my creative subconscious and flowed through my fingers onto the keyboard and then onto the screen.

I realize that it may be one of those darlings you’re supposed to kill, and that my yet happen since I’m only in the first draft stage.

But for the present I’m going to wallow in the perceived influence of Joseph Conrad.

*The three small words in the story are “Don’t tell Mom,” and an argument in the story is conducted with a series of three-word sentences, but the title harkens to some other threes in One-Match Fire including the three notes of the whippoorwill and the words “I love you,” a feeling that permeates that novel in many unspoken ways, so the whippoorwill is given the job of saying it.


March 3, 2011

I’d had the old Joseph Conrad novel Victory on my to-be-read shelf for more than a year. I had read it once before, years before, many years before apparently, but I barely remembered anything of the story or characters. All I could specifically recall was the description of a group of musicians who were “murdering the silence.” I liked that image, and it stuck with me. The only other thing I remembered from the novel was a reference to Black Diamond Bay. But those two references (and my period of youthful infatuation with Conrad novels) were enough to convince me that I truly had read it once before.

Some months ago I took the novel off the shelf and put it on my bedside table. I began reading it only to be interrupted by some Dostoyevsky demands (the reading group I’m in has taken on the gloomy Russians). So I could only move through Victory in small bits. But with my gloomier responsibilities temporarily addressed, I found sufficient free time to plow through Conrad.

And yet, I could be persuaded that I had never read this novel before. None of it was familiar. Okay, the missing revolver struck a chord. And the inscrutable Chinese man. But I didn’t remember the plot at all. Nor the gloomy characters. Nor the gloomy ending. (Winter gloom!)

Somewhere in an ancient journal I have no doubt written the date that I finished reading Victory the first time. (I keep a written record of every book I’ve read, and I’m sure someday someone will point to that list and be able to say “And this explains everything, your Honor!”) Yet if I didn’t have that list, I might not have believed I’d read the novel. I came to it nearly completely fresh and innocent.

It makes me wonder how many other novels I have read and totally forgotten. Can you even say you’ve read a novel if you don’t remember any of it? And further, how many times must you read a novel (a serious novel anyway) before you can claim to have really read it? I’ve been through Philip Roth’s novel The Ghostwriter at least twenty times, and yet the last time through I still found things I had never noticed before. I’ve asserted that you can’t really begin to understand good fiction until you’ve read a book at least twice. And if you’ve only read a work once, can you say that you’ve read it at all?

A writer’s task

January 10, 2010

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word,
to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.”

Joseph Conrad
Preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”