What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?
There are so many books, written by wonderful writers who have been lavished with accolades, that have received a critical reaction from some readers/casual reviewers. And these reactions nearly always suggest that the dialogue / prose was clunky. Clunky, clunky, clunky. It’s the same word used again and again, thrown about the blogosphere and forums.
But think about it, and the use of the word on its own doesn’t really mean anything.
What are readers actually describing here? It’s not that any one bit of dialogue is objectively clunky (how can it be if some also think it’s good dialogue?) but that the reader undergoes a personal reaction to something within the rhythm of the writing. Is it something that isn’t consistent with characters? Because, you know, people are of course always consistent in real life and never do or say anything unusual…
Do people stop others in mid-conversation to inform them that what they are saying is clunky? I doubt it. So what is it that people mean when they use the c-word? Is it that the words they see on paper don’t pass through their mental filters, the ones calibrated by their own everyday conversations? Is it a reluctance to process words outside of their comfort zone?
And what about prose – if it’s about rhythm, why not say so? If it’s that you felt sentences were too short, too long, too baroque, why not explore that instead of saying the c-word?
I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic; though I’ll admit, at first, you have to take your time to understand what’s fully going on, and read out the dialogue in your head. And once you do, clunky is the last word I’d use to describe his writing.
I think clunky is when the prose or dialogue doesn’t flow, when the reader has to re-read the line to try and make sense of it. Each writer has their own rhythm and when we start a new book by a writer we’ve never read before, it can take a little adjustment. A good writer will slip readers into his or her style with minimum effort on the part of the reader. Dialogue can be disjointed, can snap back and forth, your characters can lack eloquence, but if a reader finds themselves tripping over it – if the writing itself doesn’t follow the rhythms of the writer’s own style, as if someone else has inserted a sentence in the middle of a paragraph – then I’d probably say the prose was a bit clunky.
But what do you mean flow? Do you mean easy to read? That all good dialogue means is that it’s easy to read? But Don DeLillo’s dialogue isn’t, you have to re-read it again to get the real joy from it – which makes it superior dialogue, in my opinion.
And which is not to say you’re wrong! But I’m just interesting in the root of it all. Because how can it flow for one person and not another.
I may be getting out of my depth here, but I’ll explain what I mean as best I can and then someone can come along, say it succinctly and disagree.
A writer might have a style that means long flowing sentences and verbosity. It may also challenge and force you to re-read. That may tighten up a bit during moments of tension, but essentially it’s still the same style, it has a certain rhythm to it.
I’ve not read any DeLillo but stick one of his sentences in the middle of a Dan Brown (i only read the one, honest!), it’s probably going to feel out of place. It may be the best sentence in the entire book but to the reader… it’ll feel like tripping over their own shoelaces.
I’d say every book has sentences that trip readers up… not because they are meant to challenge and force you to re-read, but because they are the sort of sentences that your first readers highlight and say “revise” and you’ll never find them all. And, of course it’s subjective, but if a reader finds they encounter a large number of these sentences over the course of the novel, that they can’t get the rhythm of the prose leaving them feeling almost breathless, then I’d say they’d call the book ‘clunky’.
clunky: gawky: lacking grace in movement or posture
I don’t see what’s wrong with applying the word clunky to prose or dialogue and I thinkt he meaning is pretty clear (though I agree that expanding to show why you think is a much should be done).
It seems to me that it just bothers you that others aren’t appreciating dialogue that you think is great. People have different opinions on things.
Neth: not at all. I think people need to be clear. Otherwise it’s just lazy. “Lacking in grace “- that means *nothing* when applied to prose.
Why should graceful dialogue be all that’s good, when people from poor backgrounds don’t speak with graceful Received Pronunciation? It doesn’t suit. And I think it comes back go comfort zones to some degree.
All I’m bothered about is lazy reviewing really. Or should I say, a clunky review. 🙂
Adrian – all levels of depth are welcome here! But I think you’ve gone far enough in what you say that you can be confident you’re examining your reactions to dialogue, which is all that’s needed. Questioning why certain phrases make us think in certain ways. That’s the key, shining the spotlight on ourselves.
– Using a first person POV and constantly starting sentences with “I”. Five in a row are not unusual for this popular, unnamed Urban Fantasy series.
– Overabundance of adverbs, adjectives and other fillers that add nothing and distract from the story (of a genre novel).
– Using genre conventions without imbuing them with life/making them believable (from fighting to f*ing in ten seconds flat, cos suddenly it’s LURVE; aborted bad guy monologue; being the evil overlord just because …)
– A rhythm that runs counter to my preferences. I hated Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell because of the same things other people loved.
Most often I’ll use some variant of clunky because I can’t pinpoint what rubs me the wrong way. I’m not an expert, my mother tongue is German, but if something sounds off to me, I’m not going to ignore it. That’s no excuse for laziness, though.
Why do people have different reading sensibilities? I don’t know. Why can’t some people appreciate the beauty of a rare steak? Why do some people like fantasy and others don’t?
I guess the first three wouldn’t be clunky – just poor writing. 🙂
As for a rhythm going counter to your preferences, would that be fair to say the prose itself is clunky?
I guess I’m not focussing on why some people hate what I like, and vice versa; I’m really wondering if readers are in control of the words they’re using in a review, because sometimes it doesn’t seem like it.
I think rhythm is a large part of it, and part of the reason why ‘clunkiness’ appears to be so subjective – different styles of dialogue are like different genres of music, which is a problem because people tend to buy books based on the genre of the story rather then the style of the dialogue.
I also think it might come down to meter, although I don’t know enough about the subject to speak with much authority.
But in my experience if I spend enough time with writing styles that I think of as ‘clunky’ I tend to get used to them, and then find myself enjoying them – this actually happened with Villjamur for me, I loved the imagery but not the style for the first half, then found myself enjoying the style. It’s a little bit like training my ear when I hear a new accent.
Hi Sam. Thanks for that. I think you’ve actually picked up on something I read in an interview with David Anthony Durham – and I blogged about it before: http://blog.markcnewton.com/2009/11/02/on-getting-used-to-style/
Glad you enjoyed the accent of Villjamur eventually! 🙂
I don’t think I’ve used the word “clunky” in a review before, but the word immediately conjures up a particular type of writing style in my head. A heavy-handed way of writing- sort of like an elephant doing ballet, or using a sword on a stick of butter. I don’t know if that’s what it implies to other people, but it always seems to me to imply that the author writes things in a somewhat bumbling and inelegant manner.
I would agree with Sam on rhythm. I think it takes some time to settle into the rhythm of a book and the author’s style. But if you NEVER settle into the author’s writing style, then I could see the writing being described as “clunky.” I am not saying that this is the author’s fault, but it’s also not the reader’s fault. I don’t think it has anything to do with consistency, just with how the words sound in your head.
I guess for me, it’s one of those things I have an immediate picture for, but which I can’t describe. I would probably say it would be something like this:
He was anxious to know that she was unhurt. “Are you hurt?” he asked anxiously, twisting his hands together.
Clunky, like a clunky ride in an old banger, the reader is constantly jolted out of immersion in the piece and loses that sense of confidence in the writing which is vital to enjoyment of a book. I don’t think it is so much about rhythm, actually. Words that seem innapropriate to meaning, or unnecessarily difficult. Images that are ill-thought out, do not stand scrutiny. Dialogue that is not honest or convincing. But in the end it’s really like saying badly written or well written, it tends to be a rather lazy shorthand for I did or did not like this.
What Joe said.
Poor writing often “sounds” clunky – it throws you out of the story. If I start counting the “I”s instead of following the storyline the writing is poor and clunky.
To your question: There’s nothing wrong with stating your preferences as long as you’re honest about it. It’s another matter entirely if you lack selfawareness and/or try to sell your subjectivity as objectivity. That’s bad reviewing 🙂
I think you are being overly harsh on the use of “clunky” in reviews. If the review is in a short format then “clunky” says a lot in a small space.
For me clunky dialogue is something I couldn’t imagine people being able to speak aloud. That covers the range from real people to actors/professional speakers – if it’s on the page and couldn’t be spoken it’s clunky. This takes me out of the story and, as Joe said, that’s a bad thing.
Now if it happens to be a character who for some bizarre reason speaks in clunky, then i guess you could get away with that. I’d question why an author would want to do that though as taking someone out of the book everytime the character speaks seems like a very bad idea. You could argue that you are trying to be “realistic” but in that case you may as well ditch plot and theme as well and just transcribe the conversations of people on the tube.
Joe, I think that last line is perfect: “But in the end it’s really like saying badly written or well written, it tends to be a rather lazy shorthand for I did or did not like this.” Though I like the old banger metaphor. Stretching that though, do bangers not have a charm? Can we not appreciate authors who write with clunk-chic?
Monika: yes, that self-awareness was really what I was driving at. If you’ve got it in spades, I take my hat off to you. 🙂
Neil: I don’t think so. Perhaps as a reader myself I always strive to wonder if I’m being true when a certain line makes me stop reading.
But I certainly don’t buy that realism in dialogue is a bad thing, and to an extent, it patronises readers. Take “Iron Council” – that novel has wonderful sort of Western-styled hyper-realistic dialogue – and sure, readers are outside of their comfort zone, but I think it’s certainly healthy for the genre to have characters speak like that.
I think I’ve never used “clunky” in any review. But this post has been great because it’s made me think about a few things. And I’ve read more than a few great comments here.
I agree that it looks like it’s laziness just to say “clunky” and not to give any more reasons. I kinda understand why laziness can happen, though, and why it shouldn’t.
It can happen because, I think, it’s harder to write a negative review, at least for me. Which ties in with the next point:
It shouldn’t happen because in case of a negative review, I, for one, feel more responsible in giving satisfactory explanations about what and why I didn’t like it. Which makes me think even more about the book, which can stir some amount of doubt, which can bring up more questions etc.
I’m all for being self-appraising and striving to improve by debating conventions and so on, but this is a total storm in a teacup.
Clunky – “awkwardly heavy or clumsy.”
Taking into account the above definition, I don’t see what the problem is with using it in a sentence such as “The prose is often clunky.” To me, the meaning of that sentence is perfectly clear – why the need for further explanation? I assume people who read my reviews are intelligent enough to understand the word and its meaning – why patronise them by explaining it?
“But think about it, and the use of the word on it’s own doesn’t really mean anything.”
In my review of NoV, I described your prose as having a ‘liquid’ quality. To take your logic above, this word means nothing and needs further explanation. Am I really going to interrupt my review to go off on a tangent to explain what I mean by ‘liquid prose’? No, because that would undermine the quality of the review and is – in my mind – totally unnecessary. When you read my review, did you stop and think “Hmm, what does he mean by ‘liquid prose’?” Bet you didn’t – because it’s self-explanatory, the same way ‘clunky’ is!
“If it’s that you felt sentences were too short, too long, too baroque, why not explore that instead of saying the c-word?”
Because saying ‘the prose is often clunky’ is far easier and less time-consuming than saying “the prose sometimes deviates from its generally even rhythm.” In this digital age, people want information as quickly and easily as possible – so why hinder this by refusing to use simple words that easily get your meaning across?
Yo, James – I think that bypasses the point a little. What I’m searching for is before the review is written. It’s that reader-reaction, and getting the reader to question it. Why did they think their reaction was like that? And if so, why not explore that? Hell, they might even surprise themselves and develop their tastes in different directions as a result of examining their reaction. And is that a bad thing?
It’s clear what the word clunky means, but is it clear how the reader came to that reaction? So what’s the trouble in expanding?
As for “less time-consuming” – isn’t that a less time-consuming phrase for “lazy”? 🙂
As for “less time-consuming” – isn’t that a less time-consuming phrase for “lazy”?
Or “efficient”. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that just because “people want information as quickly and easily as possible” they should get it but there is a question of proportionality. Not all books require forensic analysis, some books are just flat out bad. Clunky might be a perfectly adequate for such a book without a need to go any deeper. Now, an author might find this too dismissive but really there are a lot of books out there, not all of which are worthy of consideration (or even publication).
Why should graceful dialogue be all that’s good, when people from poor backgrounds don’t speak with graceful Received Pronunciation?
That’s big-ass hairy bollocks, so it is, man. Aye, yer talking pish if ye think that fuckin RP is the fuckin bee’s knees when it comes tae fuckin grace in a fuckin sentence, for the love of Christ. Ya blethering numpty.
With all due respect. 😉
Seriously though, clunk is onomatopoeic, conjuring up a discordant sound somewhere between a clank and a heavy thud. Hell, for me it even has attached robotic imagery (I think of the Tin Man or those robots from early Flash Gordon serials). That conceptual richness makes it way more efficient than some convoluted descriptive blather about rhythmic disruptions rendering prose awkward in its articulation. It’s not that this is a subjective judgement, but that we’re talking about a general cack-handedness as evidenced in a disparate multiplicity of low-level fuck-ups. Bum notes. It’s not that the high C’s are all generally flat. It’s not that the semiquavers are all out of time. It’s just that there’s a clumsiness to the articulation throughout.
Would you say that someone constantly spills wine glasses, trips over their own feet, bumps into things, knocks over salt, fumbles rugby balls, and so on, and so on, and so on? Or would you just say they’re clumsy? In fiction, yeah, you’d show rather than tell, but in critique you’re looking for a concise encapsulation. It’s not lazy but ergonomic, gets the point across more effectively in one word than you might manage in ten.
Thing is, Spoken English does have natural rhythm patternings, irregular but discernible enough that you can largely tell when they go awry. Leastways, it sounds that way to me, and I have vague recollections of English Language lecturers going on about stress-timing and other such malarky, in detail that suggested this was pretty much at the level of “yeah, we’ve studied it and spoken English has these distinct patternings”. Those rhythms may be subtle enough it takes skill to replicate them, but I reckon that’s where the “read it aloud to see if it flows” maxim comes in.
Anyways, when someone hasn’t yet developed an ear for those rhythms they’re often guilty of *all* possible disruptions, in my experience. Some sentences are too long, others too short, while yet others simply trip over themselves halfway through. With a klutz, it would be misleading to simply say they have a specific problem with holding wine glasses, and it’d be over-egging the pudding to detail all their fluffs and bumblings, when you can just say that they’re a klutz.
It’s a little more complex than that, cause *all* written dialogue is formalised to some extent, with even the most “realistic” bearing little resemblance to the way people actually speak in real life, in terms of elisions, redundancies, pauses, interruptions, etc.. So, yeah, some writers going for a more realistic approach might well end up irking a reader who expects something more stylised, with all the rough edges smoothed off. But on the whole there’s a backbone of musicality, a fluidity to natural speech that you find in a Glaswegian drunk swearing at his missus as much as you find it in, say, Gore Vidal excoriating an opponent in a TV debate.
That’s the way I’d use the term clunky, at least. I’ve no doubt some would apply it to particular styles of dialogue/prose — the staccato rhythms of Noir which I’d say are *clipped*, for example — because that style is outside their comfort zone and they have a sodding tin ear. Those people are just wrong, IMHO. ;P
When it comes to the use of “clunky” as lazy shorthand for “badly written,” I reckon this might be something to do with pulp fiction’s preference for transparent prose. Or just that natural human tendency to wankily dismiss that which is successfully doing X as a complete failure at doing Y — cause, yanno, Y is what *everything* should be doing. This is, I think, where Joe’s notion of “clunkiness” comes in:
Words that seem innapropriate to meaning, or unnecessarily difficult. Images that are ill-thought out, do not stand scrutiny. Dialogue that is not honest or convincing.
Also your “too baroque”. This is where it becomes about whether you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone, go with a book and adjust to its voice… or not.
Transparent prose is more likely to be clunky (in the sense I’m using it) than baroque prose, I’d say. While the writers using fancy words in fancy sentence structures are at least likely to be *trying* for something a bit more “poetic,” even if they fail, I’ve seen a fuckload more failure in works where the writers clearly just weren’t considering prose as an end in itself. It’s kind of amazing how much it’s forgiven in commercial fiction actually, and all I can think is that the prose is being treated as a means to an end, written not to be heard in the mind’s ear but to be translated into a little imaginary movie. Some readers just read for that movie, I think, deaf to the cadences, which is why Dan Brown gets away with criminally clunky prose, I’d hazard. Some don’t even require clarity. Hell, they don’t even require *functionality*, it seems — just a string of benchmarks they can parse into staging, dressing and action. From the first page of The Da Vinci Code: “On his hands and knees the curator froze, turning his head slowly.” (Or words to that effect.) That’s just cack. But it’s easy enough to parse it to what Brown actually means if you don’t give a fuck about the prose, if those words are just… flashcards, prompts.
In fact, it kinda seems there are readers in SF/Fantasy circles so raised on transparent prose that they have a tin ear, zero appreciation for all that “style” (i.e. voice) that just “gets in the way of the story”. They will however be bothered by words rendered dissonant by their exoticism or “difficulty” — i.e. words that can’t be translated automatically into movie-imagery. Complex sentence structures also seem to be a problem, but usually the critique is “pretentious” rather than “clunky” there.
Anyhoo, this is, I think, where a reader who just can’t pick out the more subtle rhythms in an idiosyncratic narrative voice will react against them, like a listener bristling against some modern jazz improv with a weird time-signature and syncopation all over the shop. And I imagine some writers like De Lillo might run afoul of reviewers whose ear for prose isn’t as good as they think it is.
I agree that clunky is a ‘clunky’, lazy word choice. Very unspecific.
Another one I can’t stand is ‘edgy’. Talk about vague and overused.
Martin: “Not all books require forensic analysis, some books are just flat out bad. Clunky might be a perfectly adequate for such a book without a need to go any deeper.” Agreed – so long as the person reading it genuinely feels it’s the right phrase, after reflection.
Hal, I welcome such Glaswegian verbosity!
I totally agree on the ergonomics, but that is on the assumption the word is the reviewer knows it’s *right* one to use in the first place, without getting all Wittgenstein on their asses (not that I could these days).
Interesting reflections on developing an ear for these things, and again, I’m in agreement. And I think that sort of thing is only consistent so long as the characters themselves are – I guess we get into all levels of complexity when we’re considering if a character is deliberately talking *out* of character.
“When it comes to the use of “clunky” as lazy shorthand for “badly written,” I reckon this might be something to do with pulp fiction’s preference for transparent prose.”
That’s another – very important – topic entirely, isn’t it? The preference for transparent prose… And very eloquently explained.
There does seem to be this hangover that lingers, even in creative writing classes – (which, I suspect, derives from discussions on “clear communication”) about making what you write to be as *simple* (transparent) as possible. Forums are abuzz with such conversations. ZOMG NO ADVERBS, HEMINGWAY SAID SO etc. And as much as I love some of Hemingway’s books, we’ve come a long way since then.
You’re definitely wrong with equating “concise” as “lazy”, when it comes to reviews. A review is an attempt to clearly describe what the reviewer thinks of a book as ecomomically as possible. If a review of a book is longer than the book it is a guide not a review. I think you’re looking at reviews with your writer’s hat on.
I think you’re wanting an explanation for what makes something “clunky” goes far deeper than you may think. I’d tie it in with humanity’s ability to understand language in that we can instictively pick it out without necessarily explaining why. Think about it in terms of music (which is essentially the same thing as language). It’s very hard to explain exactly why we like a certain song but we can tell when something is music and when it’s just noise.
I’m certainly not dissing what people think here – that’s an important thing to note. That’s not my tone. I’m merely questioning what people’s reactions are to certain aspects of writing – and economic does not always mean good! Plus I don’t think economic comes into reviews necessarily. I mean, some review sites have longer reviews than others – but does that make them bad if they want to explore things in more detail?
I love all the definitions of clunky that I’ve read here. As a tecknical word, I can see where many good dialogues could and should be “clunky”, which I think of as meaning chunky, lacking grace, perhaps having an irregular rythm, inconsistancies. Realistic dialogue, dialogue wherein the story actually progresses (requireing change and conflict) should not necessarily flow smoothly, poeticly.
On the other hand, the term “clunky” in all it’s vagueness usually is meant as a bad thing. I generally take it to mean that the flow of the dialog is uneven and interrupted in its presentation, not in the nature of the dialog itself, at least if the critic has any understanding of the literature, writing, the characters involved, etc. Factors that would make a dialog clunky, then, would be interrupting a phrase or sentence at an inappropriate location to describe an accompanying action or gesture, choppy sentences that come across as unnatural, overly formal, or otherwise inappropriate for the character, and having a character describe off-scene activity at length in a way that is more appropriate for a backflash than for dialog.
If a critic is using clunky to mean choppy, broken, irregular, even when it is perfect and consistent for the characters at a point when realistic is appropriate (sometimes it just isn’t, but that’s a whole different line of discussion), then the critic would probably do well to choose a more specific and meaningful a word to make clear whether they are objecting, and if so, what aspect of it they are really objecting to.
I’ve always thought of clunky prose as prose that does not flow smoothly–overuse of the passive voice, awkward diction, poor sentence construction, and the like. I think labeling prose as “clunky” is perfectly apt. A sentence may clunk along, when it could very well glide to the same end. (It’s at least better than labeling prose as “masculine”, whatever that means.)
Labeling dialogue as clunky is a bit more problematic as realistic dialogue is often much more awkward than dialogue in fiction. I’d wager most readers favor sacrificing some bit of realism in dialogue for a smoother, more enjoyable reading experience. But characters’ dialogue should not all have the same tone and style. As in real life, some characters should be more eloquent than others. So “clunky” dialogue should not automatically be dismissed as poorly-written. If all the dialogue in a novel is awkward, though, it’s less plausible to pin the style on characterization.
I hope the discussion doesn’t dismiss *any* analysis of prose as merely expressing personal taste. That is, I think there are objective factors that determine good writing. And while we may disagree about the particulars, can we not admire a writer who can express things elegantly over one whose prose suffers from poor rhythm and awkward construction? I hope it’s not completely a matter of taste, at least.
Mark, this is one of the few places polar views get discussed without things dissolving into a flame war ;.
I think we can both agree that size doesn’t matter 😉 Being concise/verbose does not make a review better/worse. Being to the point usually makes things easier to undertand though in terms of a review.
The discussion does seem to be drifting into one about review qualoity moreso than clunky dialogue, which i’m sure could make a good post in itself.
did you stop and think “Hmm, what does he mean by ‘liquid prose’?” Bet you didn’t – because it’s self-explanatory
I, for one, have no earthly idea what “liquid prose” means without further context.
I hope I’m not barred from this discussion or from your site. Certainly, I think I might have something useful to say on the subject, as I more than half suspect that in our emails, I have very likely used the word clunky. Let me be more clear.
I think clunky, while inherently and appropriately inelegant, is a perfectly serviceable word. Especially when applied with an eye (or an ear) to its definition as “clumsy or awkward.” And used in a critique of someone’s writing, it is not without value.
Fiction is in no small part the art of telling lies which sound like the truth. As writers, we use our prose, especially in dialog between characters, to convince the reader of things that haven’t happened, never have, and perhaps never will. If our writing is not carefully and thoughtfully constructed, it is all too easy to see the scenery of the real world poking intrusively through. Bad prose then, that is clunky, is a bit like driving a square wheeled jalopy with a rusted-through floorboard across a half-built bridge which dissolves into thin air before we reach the other side. It breaks us out of the story and exposes the kindly lies of the author to the harsh, unblinking light of day.
Smooth or flowing for me then, isn’t what marks out good prose. Nor does a lack of the same make its opposite number. But clumsy, cliched writing on the other hand, can drive the careful reader crazy, because we can sense that what is being said isn’t true, not true to the story, not true to the people who are speaking it, and not true to the story that is meant to unfold. By exposing the small lies (and obviously, sometimes characters are *meant* to be unreliable narrators, unpredictable, or even inconsistent in their diction, and certainly, some use speech that is rustic, ungrammatically polished, or otherwise far from formal, but we can tell this as well, generally, when penned by the hand of skilled author) we are shaken from our happy conceit, and the whole of the superstructure of outright fabrication becomes clear. This is in part, why it takes a very skilled writer to jump back and forth, breaking through the “4th dimension” of the printed page with a knowing wink at the reader. Many lesser try, and stumble.
And remember, words aren’t lazy. It’s just lazy people who are imprecise in their usage. But as others in this thread have pointed out, there is a fine line between useful brevity and a personal shorthand vocabulary that leaves other readers in the dark. In think that clunky has a place in both.
Neil: I’m sure the flame wars will surface some day. I did make a post on reviews from a writer’s perspective recently. I think it’ll need a while yet!
Niall: all I can tell is it’s good, so I didn’t poke. 🙂
Eric, of course you’re welcome here, and thank you for your comments. I liked the phrase of the “art of telling lies”. Personally, I prefer that link to the real world to be there. All the (secondary world) books I greatly admire have great emphasis on making that connection with the real world actually. I don’t like fantasy to be locked away from the real world.
Interesting you mention cliché. Does this dismiss all of crime fiction in that it follows a formula?
I heartily agree with Eric’s fourth paragraph (not counting Hello Mark), that’s exactly what I was trying to get at higher up. It’s not so much about rhythm – jagged, staccato, brutal language can be just as effective as flowing, liquid language under the right circumstances. It’s lack of truth, lack of thought, lack of care that makes things clunky.
Thank you Mark. You are as ever, a gracious host.
Actually, that is valid point you raise about cliché. It is hard to think of a genre more built around themes which are all too often seen as such, or at the very least as over familiar and possibly trite. I suppose crime fiction suffers much the same, though I read less of it and so will reserve judgement for now.
How does then an author move a work of fiction, one grounded in a framework of intense, well trod familiarity, to fresher pastures? And must they, always?
Sometimes I think that genres work and have been retained in literature because far from being just clichés; they are a sort of common ground where hopeful author and expectant reader meet. They hold tight to archetypal form because their stories have been the focus of keen human interest for as long as there have been those tellers of tales to spin them.
Does this make *all* genre fiction inherently clichéd, or simply more prone to this malaise than non? I don’t know the answer.
However, I’d like to think that a skilled author can take what is inherently familiar and raise it a level where it is safely beyond the accusation of being trite or tired, by means of well developed characters, story, dialogue, and setting.
One way of doing this is to deconstruct the familiar, much in the style of the recent crop of gritty, dark fantasy fiction such as practiced by Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, Lev Grossman, and many others (such as yourself of course), where the knights are not always (or even ever) noble nor the damsels universally fair or in need of rescue. Some have done this more successfully than others of course, but you can see, I think, the impulse do so in all of them. Or like the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which bolts on a refreshing twist of 19th century classic English literature to the genre of wizards and fairies, a new twist may be added to an old form by the fusion of one or more genres. Finally, another way across the chasm perhaps, is to invent new robes for the Emperor, cloaking archetypes in less readily recognizable garb than the standard “medieval Western European” setting which is known to everyone who has read such stories ranging from Beowulf to The Witch and the Wardrobe (and to be honest, is much older than these examples if one looks to sources from Greek and Roman mythology for a start).
The problem with former, is that novelty for novelty’s sake will only get you so far. Two clichéd genres hammered clumsily together, may not always, give rise to a third that is free of the same imp. And often all this does, after the first several successful authors who forge the way, is to perhaps build a sub-genre ghetto for others to follow and languish in. The latter approach in turn, can fail when the reader realizes that the titular Emperor is wearing nothing new at all, and that beneath the mere cosmetic changes, the story is much the same as the uncountable others which have gone before.
I suppose I’d like to think it doesn’t matter in the end. IF you’re a good enough writer to make the story completely your own. But I’m not sure of this, and as I’ve said before, I trust least that what I want most to be true.
Can fantasy and crime fiction truly then be novel? Can it, wearing its familiar robes (and I for one like the old fellow, creaky joints, greybeard and all), still entertain and even, surprise us? I’d like to think so. Sometimes the best stories still are, the oldest ones of all.
Perhaps it all comes down (preference and levels of personal tolerance for cliché aside) to how skillfully the writer can make the story and its characters come alive.
And what about non genre novels? Rarely do people complain for example, that a huge number of contemporary “serious” fiction novel includes such well worn themes such as broken marriages, failed lives, families in free-fall, terrorism, celebrities, politics, or in the case of the Great American Novel, America itself, used as tropes or as a post modern setting.
I think then it all comes down to the craft and the spark of imagination that we imbue it with, in the end. Tell me beautiful lies and I’ll suspend my acknowledgement of the ugly truth, for a while at least, even if it’s just the length of your book.
That’s all I ask.
I’m surprised by people not understanding the term “liquid” applied to prose; it seems pretty simple to me. Clunky, liquid — they’re both metaphors, the one comparing prose to a mechanical system, the other comparing it to a dynamical system. On the one hand, you have language seen as an articulation of discrete components, words as nuts and bolts, cogs and gears, with the implication being that this machine isn’t working properly. On the other hand, you have language seen as a continuous process, prose as a system of meanings in motion, seamlessly transitioning from one state to the next. In the one, you have something so roughly put together that its jointedness becomes apparent in its ungainly movement. In the other, the jointedness is largely imperceptible, as words meld into phrases, phrases into clauses, clauses into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. We don’t really have an informal vocabulary for describing scansion *literally* in general terms, so we use metaphors. To me, clunky and liquid seem so conventional that not getting them just seems a bit… well, obtuse.
There’s a lot of “jagged, staccato, brutal” prose I think “clunky” would be a bad label for, btw, in the same way I wouldn’t say a song like Amanda Palmer’s “Bad Habit” has a “clunky” rhythm; that song is *awesomely* “jagged, staccato [and] brutal” but it’s far from clunky.
Seems like there might be different dimensions here though. I’d pretty much invariably read “clunky prose” as referring to scansion, but Joe and Eric seem to be talking about clunky phraseology (clichés, and maybe bathos.) Which does make sense — prose full of “clangers” (and not in a cute Oliver Postgate sense). Where others bring up things like genre conventions though, aren’t we talking about clunky *narrative* rather than clunky *prose*?
Writing great dialogue is an art form in and of itself. I am not sure I can define clunky, but I know it when I read it.
Great dialogue has to do with capturing an individual characters speech patterns and making the character seem like a real person. When the dialogue is stilted or not quite perfect for that character, the reader has more trouble suspending their disbelief and can be sort of yanked out of the pleasure of reading the story.
I think that suspension of disbelief is really what people mean when they talk about the “flow” of the dialog. You sort of forget you are reading and a little play is going on in your mind. You can imagine the characters and imagine them talking to each other.
Then all of a sudden you are like – wow – bad script writing, bad acting, bad dialogue. Clunky.
Without wishing to retread too much of what people have said on the subject of clunky prose, I’m in agreement with those that say it’s a comment on the execution rather than the intent. In critique, if we say a passage is clunky we really mean that we found it difficult to parse and possibly can see how a better way to present the same information, achieve the same effect. It’s not about people stammering or speaking in ‘orrible mockney argot (necessarily).
Some writers almost never commit the sin of clunkitude. Others clatter and clank their way from word one to The End. The question which interests me is: does it matter?
Sure it does to *us*. We who worship words and love language. But what of the majority of book buyers out there who don’t even notice the prose? I think it was Hal who said it’s just a means to an end; for some readers (I’d argue many, if not most, readers) it’s just the medium through which they experience story. And all that matters is the story. To linger (if we must) on Hal’s example of The DaVinci Code, I read it because of the word of mouth buzz. A number of friends had raved about it; my partner (who rarely reads fiction) devoured it. I read two pages and threw it across the room. She asked me why? The prose! I responded. I can’t believe anything so ugly, so horrible, so…clunky, got into print! She just shrugged and went back to what she was doing. My bad for getting all writery about it – it’s just a story after all.
I’m not saying there’s no point in including the quality of prose in book reviews. After all, those of us that do care about such matters are the going to be the same ones as read those reviews. But I’m interested in (and fearful for) the overall context. If an editor had to choose one or the other – great prose or a compelling story, I think there’s only one winner.
I want both dammit. and I do want more transparent stylists in genre fiction to*think* about what they’re doing and why.
Can anyone think of a transparent prose stylist in genre fiction who’s the equivalent of Hemingway? Just askin.l
And: everything Mark, Joe, and Hal said.
“Do people stop others in mid-conversation to inform them that what they are saying is clunky?”
Sure they do. The only time they use the word clunky though is when their working on their alibi. Most of the time though you stop them, point out what they said, mock them, laugh at them, and then let them continue.
What is clunky?
Your driving home from the best day of your life, your heads in the clouds as your rehashing the events of the day when, “BOOM”, your jarred out of your seat back into reality. That to me is clunky. Of course what you consider a pothole depends on what your driving, are you driving a Hummer or one of those itty bitty bubble cars? However, when a driver of a bubble car talks to the Hummer driver about potholes, they both know what the other is talking about despite their differences of what a pothole is.
If I’m jarred out of an novel because of odd dialogue, names or events that to me is clunky. Of course this is a very generic term, and it covers a lot of ground. I bet when you talk about prose and rhythm and all that a lot of peoples eyes glaze over, but you say it’s clunky and a light goes off. In short, using the word, “clunky” is a very quick and easy way of explaining what you didn’t like about a book.
Perfect examples of clunky: The dialogues (if they can be called that) in the Star War prequels and Avatar. To call those insultingly lazy mishmashes anything longer than clunky would actually be wasting too much effort.
Genre writer with transparent writing style: Le Guin, especially her recent works. Read Searoad or Lavinia.