Sunday, March 2, 2008

Good writing requires both right- and left-brain thinking

But in today's published fiction, right-brain inspiration too often trumps left-brain precision. B.R. Myers observed this seven years ago in his provocative Atlantic Monthly piece, "A Reader's Manifesto," in which he critiques the sloppy, pretentious prose of many of our most esteemed contemporary novelists.  More recently, Ian MacKenzie's letter in today's New York Times Book Review takes reviewer Liesl Schillinger to task for praising a sentence in Charles Bock's Beautiful Children that depicts the tattooing of a character named Ponyboy:

"Electricity lit up Ponyboy's skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy's nostrils."

In its original simile and flamboyant imagery, this sentence is nothing if not inspired.  In the implausibility of the simile and (as MacKenzie points out) the redundancy of "brimstone" and "sulfur," it is also imprecise, sloppy, and unrevealing.  Connecting body and pinball machine might work, but it cries out for some left-brain editing.

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