Friday, May 29, 2015

Detail

Among the many reasons for your admiration of the Irish critic and novelist, John Banville, there is the fact of you having at one or more points of your reading a novel of his, either under his own name or his mystery-writing pseudonym, Walter Black, the fact of you having to set the book down, then rush to your American Heritage  (Unabridged) Dictionary of the American Language. You have the fourth edition and also the more recent, fifth edition.

You have in fact had at one time or another all the previous editions of AHD.  By the time you were in a position to do so, you caused the third edition to become the usage standard for the publishing company of which you were editor in chief.  This was no mere stylistic whim on your part.  

Many publishing houses used the redoubtable MW2, the Merriam-Webster's (unabridged) second edition or the MW New Collegiate, you believe at edition thirteen.  Your choice of AHD3 had to do with the fact of the number of admirable writers who were on the usage committee.  

If you were in a position to do so now, you'd specify AHD 5 because it now incorporates some of the features you find most appealing about the regal and comprehensive OED, the true grandparent of the unabridged dictionary, based on historical principal, which not only provides a menu of definitions but the dates in which those definitions and uses were first recorded.

Although digressive, these paragraphs away from John Banville's vocabulary and his willingness to use it in his work illustrates your intended point here:  The language continues to grow, evolving, co-opting words and phrases from other languages, reflecting the needs and conventions of the times for words that either bury, articulate, or further describe the things writers believe need explanation.  

When Banville sends you scrambling to find a word, you do not retire in resentment to the dictionary; you feel challenged in yet another way.  Thus you can truly say you read Banville not only for his content and thematic thrust; you read him to be challenged by a major intellect and in the same bargain, a man able to see depths of emotional conflicts and moral choices.

You first read Joseph Heller's mesmerizing Catch-22 as you approached age thirty.  You've re-read it several times, twice in connection with using it as a classroom text for close reading.  One word sent you to the dictionary, infundabuliform, which, to this day, you've attempted to use yourself in written material.  Every time you've tried, some content or copy editor has queried you:  Wouldn't it be better to say funnel-shaped? Your answer is always yes.  Perhaps, if you keep trying when it seems appropriate, you'll hit the right circumstances and the word will seem as appropriate in your use as it was for Heller in his.  Worst case, you'll have a word to try out.  Since Heller used it in context of a character's jaw, you've spent the last fifty or so years looking at the jawline of various of your characters.

Another thrust of this essay is to note how you've come to observe how some writers' work can be approached in terms of details they include while the work of still other writers can be characterized by the things they leave out.  

You have a love-hate relationship with Hemingway, particularly his short stories, which you value more than the novels.  "Write drunk," he said, "and edit sober."  There were earlier times when you did, indeed, write drunk, which, given the drunk writing was done on manual typewriters before it was done on electric typewriter, leaves a picture of you during those days.  You did not always write drunk, just often enough to know how helpful the process was in so many ways.

You always did edit sober, but fairness and honesty require of you that you mention how much more significant your editing process has become in recent years, in stark comparison to earlier times.  Now, you attempt to write as though you were drunk, but instead of cognac, the engine is enthusiasm or a sense of mischief, or a cocktail of mischief, enthusiasm, and righteous anger.

So far, you know this about yourself:  At one time, you were eager to get in as much as you could, an agenda that caused your revisions to be scouting expeditions for places where you could put in more detail.  Not any detail, certainly not detail for the sake of detail, rather details that held significance and interest to you.  

In a definitive way, details define your memory process and your writing process.  You remember the details that impress and amuse you.  Some random fact such as the cheetah being able to run at the speed of ninety miles an hour for upwards of three minutes has impressed you since well before you read Heller's use of infundabuliform.  You have thus waited even longer to use this detail and, yes, have had to answer an editorial query, Does the reader need to know this? with a regretful no.

Your interest in details is unabated, but your goal now has evolved, perhaps not with as much significance and uniformity as AHD5, to the point where you wish your composition to emphasize details left out that the reader will either know, wonder about, or have to look for

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