Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

More on style (part three)

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Continued from More on style (part two).

Morley said that what he wanted to achieve was No Style. He didn't want the reader to be aware of him as a writer writing. Others agreed that Morley certainly had no style; they said that he was bland, grey, toneless, and he was so because his language lacked metaphors, lacked similes. He had refused to turn his prose sentences on the language lathe. Was he, therefore, being perverse when he said that "words should be as transparent as glass, and every time a writer used a brilliant phrase to prove himself witty or clever he merely took the mind of the reader away from the object and directed it to himself; he became simply a performer." Was he flat-out wrong? Is metaphor necessary? Is simile necessary?

Where would Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Martin Amis and others be without the metaphors and similes and comparisons that hang heavy heavy heavy over their work?

Well, consider the following long piece of prose:

On the fifth of November, which was the beginning of summer in those parts, the weather being very hazy, the seamen spied a rock, within half a cable’s length of the ship; but the wind was so strong, that we were driven directly upon it, and immediately split. Six of the crew, of whom I was one, having let down the boat into the sea, made a shift to get clear of the ship, and the rock. We rowed by my computation about three leagues, till we were able to work no longer, being already spent with labour while we were in the ship. We therefore trusted ourselves to the mercy of the waves, and in about half an hour the boat was overset by a sudden flurry from the north. What became of my companions in the boat, as well as those who escaped on the rock, or were left in the vessel, I cannot tell; but conclude they were all lost. For my own part, I swam as fortune directed me, and was pushed forward by wind and tide. I often let my legs drop, and could feel no bottom: but when I was almost gone, and able to struggle no longer, I found myself within my depth; and by this time the storm was much abated. The declivity was so small, that I walked near a mile before I got to the shore, which I conjectured was about eight o'clock in the evening. I then advanced forward near half a mile, but could not discover any sign of houses or inhabitants; at least I was in so weak a condition, that I did not observe them. I was extremely tired, and with that, and the heat of the weather, and about half a pint of brandy that I drank as I left the ship, I found myself much inclined to sleep. I lay down on the grass, which was very short and soft, where I slept sounder than ever I remember to have done in my life, and, as I reckoned, above nine hours; for when I awaked, it was just day-light. I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: for, as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender ligatures across my body, from my armpits to my thighs. I could only look upwards; the sun began to grow hot, and the light offended my eyes. I heard a confused noise about me, but in the posture I lay, could see nothing except the sky. In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left leg, which advancing gently forward over my breast, came almost up to my chin; when bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hands, and a quiver at his back.

In the above description, from Gulliver's Travels, a moment inscribed in the memories of millions of readers, there is not one metaphor, not one simile, not one comparison.

This is glass, man.

Horseman Quixote pass by.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Barry Callaghan

Barry Callaghan is an award-winning author, poet, editor and publisher. He is one of Canada’s most preeminent men of letters. His most recent collection of short stories, Between Trains, was published by McArthur & Company in 2007.

Go to Barry Callaghan’s Author Page