RISKY EDITING

THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt

I heard much about this author and decided to give her a try. Tartt likes long and longer sentences. When I experience authors using long sentences, I am inclined to send each a bag of periods.

In History of Florence, Ferdinand Schevill, Ungar, NY, 1961, has many long beautiful sentences conveying a paragraph’s worth of information before the period arrives:

“If we now remind ourselves that Boniface VIII belonged to a lesser clan of the Roman Campagna, the Caetani, and that throughout his early life he had been exposed to the slights of the greater lords, we have no difficulty in understanding that from the moment he commanded the unbounded resources of the papacy he resolved to raise the Caetani to a level with the oldest and most powerful barons of the capital.”(page 168)

This sentence states a longstanding motivation of Boniface VIII and supports inferences why other Roman and Italian families did not like and back the upstart Caetani clan. It also explains why in 1308 (ten years later) when the French sacked Rome Boniface VIII had no friends.

That sentence has its own motors. The reader goes from facts to more facts defining further the subject and other nouns all without a dependent clause following the verb. There are no semi-colons; colons and parentheses. The author has set up the motivation, ability to use power and the projected results of using power.

In The Little Friend Harriet, girl growing up, tells the story of the family. It is the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Every scene in the book may have happened, but readers don’t need a chronicle of a family’s life. The sense that events are similar makes them indistinguishable; family members dwell on nonsense – what-ifs and what-might-have-happened is conveyed. Here’s a sentence about Harriet’s and the family’s outlook: 

“She possessed, to a singular and uncomfortable degree, the narrowness of vision which enabled all the Cleves to forget what they didn’t want to remember, and to exaggerate or otherwise alter what they couldn’t forget; and in restringing the skeleton of the extinct monstrosity which had been her family’s fortune, she was unaware that some of the bones had been tampered with; that others belonged to different animals entirely; that a great many of the most massive and spectacular bones were not bones at all, but plaster-of-paris forgeries. (The famous Bohemian chandelier for instance, had not come from Bohemia at all; it was not even made of crystal; the Judge’s mother had ordered it from Montgomery Ward.) (page 40)

There are oblivious problems, the first being this is a summing up, which runs on. It is better if a novelist tells the story and allows the reader to sum up – reach the conclusion the author wants the reader to make. This sentence sits in the novel like it was an outline point, which should not stand out in the text.

I added the sentence in parentheses because the words or sentences in the parentheses inferentially relate to something that came before. However, it seems improbable any sentence should start with “the narrowness of vision” and link it up with the great family lie, the Montgomery Ward chandelier.

I have been around long enough to know “the narrowness of vision” and “restringing the skeleton.” The secrets and the “dirt” about families are not about whether something is gold or brass, something easily discovered on “The Antiques Roadshow.” Family secrets are about conduct, behavior and thoughts. I would know more about my family not from the filtered fables about favorite souvenirs, but how family members procured their liquor during Prohibition, from whom and how far behind was Elliot Ness.  

There is a lot of parentheses use in A Little Friend. It is irritating. I decided to look it up. Perrin, Smith, Corder, Handbook of Current English, Scott, Foreman & Company, 3rd Edition, 1968, tells, “Parentheses are curved marks used chiefly to enclose incidental or explanatory remarks.” (173) “Parentheses are used to enclose remarks and asides that are not essential to the meaning of a passage.” (174) In essence parentheses are notes or footnotes in another form. A Little Friend uses parentheses correctly but does that use make it a novel?

It is still Harriet’s tale later on:

“Pemberton Hull was driving home from the Country Club in his baby-blue ’62 open-top Cadillac ( the chassis needed realigning, the radiator leaked and its was hell to find parts, he had to send off to some warehouse in Texas and wait two weeks before they arrived but still the car was his darling, his baby, his one true love and every cent he made at the Country Club went either to putting gas in it or to fixing it up when it broke down) and when he swept around the corner of George Street his headlights swung over little Allison Dufresnes sitting out on her front steps all by herself.” (page 104)

I don’t need to know the state of repair of a character’s tuna boat. What is amazing is the car made no noise as it came up the street, and Harriet was upstairs on her bed near an open window and didn’t hear it. When Harriet talks to a boy from town, he mimics the car by sound. (108)

The realization readers have after plowing through The Little Friend (more than 200,000 words) is, how many extra words will I read by the end on page 540? After reading the first 50,000 words, I figure I had read an extra 15,000 words – 75,000 words possible total which is another novel. I refuse.

These words exist in The Little Friend because someone failed to edit it and next blue pencil the text. Long sentences, semi-colons, colons and parentheses return me to my days when I wrote law. I know legal writing when I see it, and The Little Friend is written like a lawyer wrote it. It is informative and mostly clear with a caveat: Legal writing is better organized. A Little Friend is lawyerly not literary.

The types of writing to pass information or to tell a story in a novel is a grand canyon. Each presents opinions; each should present a consistent point of view; each presents the entire opinion in steps. But informational writing follows those guides in every document in order: A, B, C, D. Opinions and their arguments in literature can bounce around: A, L, Z, Q.

In literature an author communicates her imagination; she does not communicate information. Authors shift the order of presentation of opinion: A, L Z, Q may be it. But other devices give structure and order to the story: Voices. There can be more than one. All voices must be distinct from the standpoint of the character: education, biases, prejudices, age, status. These voices pass into dialogue.  In The Little Friend Harriet’s voice seems similar to those of other characters and their dialogue. The drawback is compounded by a united style [or presentation] of writing. For the reader all the characters become the same.

The paragraph about repairs needed on Pembarton’s car would have been better placed earlier when Harriet talks to him: She had introduced him before and knows his “one-true love.” He likely would have mentioned the car, if given the chance because he talked about the car with everyone who would listen. Pembarton also talks about Harriet’s sister. The car arrives but Harriet doesn’t describe any sound, or its effect on her. (104) The sound comes from the boy on page 108. In a novel the characters and the car, obtaining character-like traits, should relay a vignette. Weave the facts into the story about the people rather than data dump: (1)Pembarton’s car, (2) Harriet’s sister, (3) who is Pembarton.  

I tired of reading informational clumps, and stopped when family members began talking about the son, ten years dead, who would now be at college in a fraternity… I realize there is a story in The Little Friend, but it is not well put together. I don’t want to read it.

P.S. I glanced at Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch (700 plus pages) and was disillusioned. There are words in parentheses on the first page! What type of author has a writing style using parentheses?

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