In Defense of Being Clever

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Gran has thankfully stepped into the comments to set the record straight on what she views as “honest” prose. I apparently misinterpeted what Sara was saying, but I leave this post up to reflect the assaults on “clever” literature from other parties cited here.]

Sara Gran writes:

I don’t often give out writing advice here, becasue I doubt anyone wants to hear it, but here’s some: choose honesty over cleverness and coolness. Cleverness and coolness are quicksand that will kill you and your writing. There is always someone more clever, someone more cool, but there is no one who can be honest exactly like you can becasue [sic] there is no one who’s seen exactly what you’ve seen.

While I’m sure there are many things Ms. Gran and I might agree upon (e.g., adverbs are, for the most part, useless in fiction), I would argue the opposite. Certainly human experience (or, more specifically, how a fiction writer perceives human experience) is unique on an individual-by-indivdual basis. At the same time, there are undeniable existential commonalities which sometimes demand distinct phrasing, if only to avoid a certain fictive boilerplate — what some of us out here in the skids call dull as fuck prose.

einsteintongue.jpgI presume Gran is championing the unadorned observational standpoint. But if Gran’s literary Calvinism here involves restricting how an author expresses one’s self, then this also means losing such giddy imagery as Raymond Chandler’s “tarantula on a slice of angel food cake” (perhaps just as inconspicuously), a phrase that is honest and, if you’re one of those people who bothers to assess “cleverness” in the same humorless way that tax agencies audit, I suppose, cool and clever.

But to follow up on my main objection (i.e., there are only so many ways to describe the quotidian), is this not where style comes into play? And is this not where writers such as Nicholson Baker, George Saunders, the late Gilbert Sorrentino, David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann come in? These writers often chronicle the minutiae around us and dare to commit expansive passages to the page, but are often taken to task by critics of the James Wood/B.R. Myers variety, as if they have flatulated during a formal seven-course dinner. The current hep thing to do is to badmouth writers who “go beyond the realist inheritance” (Wood) or who write “affected prose” (Myers).

But isn’t there room for both schools of thought? To echo Anne Burke, why must “struggles” be declared? Why must wars be waged by reactionary literary geeks? Why are the James Woods and the B.R. Myers so adamant about declaring a crisis? The way some of these folks talk, you’d think that Winston Churchill was trying to figure out the best response to the London Blitz. For those who love reactionary fiction, there is no need to worry. So long as dull, upper middle-class suburbanites pine for safe fiction to discuss at their book clubs, there will be dull novels involving dull people going through “crises” to accommodate them.

I obviously can’t speak for any of the writers I’ve named above, but to respond to Gran’s claim, I don’t think any of the so-called “clever writers” harbor any illusions that there isn’t someone who is “more clever” than them, and I also think “coolness” is a ridiculous qualifier to attach to fiction — if only because writing is largely instinctive and “coolness” is often detected only after a book has published, years after the book was written.

Suggesting that the stylistic choices boil down to “honest” and “clever” is as hopelessly closed-minded as limiting the sexual position spectrum to “missionary” and “doggy style.” There’s a good deal more for any not-so-vanilla literary person to explore. And there are grey areas.

Besides, “clever” style is, as I have suggested, capable of finesse. Take, for example, this section from Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days:

The red light at the head of a buffet table singles one thing and one thing only: prime rib. J. has been waiting for this confirmation all day. In the airport he had glimpsed it in a vision and now it has come to pass. He sees himself cutting into the soft red meat, slicing first through the milky rind of fat, then gaining the meat and watching the blood extrude through dead pores at the loving, sedulous pressure of his cutting. J. sees the red light of the heating lamp at the far shore of the buffet table and immediately conjures mashed potatoes softening in essence of beef, the blood tinting the fluffy potato pink and refining it even purer, softer. This vision is the sublime distillation of all the buffets he’s known, the one and true spirit summoned by caterly prayer. He waits for them to wheel out dinner, he waits to be fulfilled.

The reason this passage works so well is precisely because Whitehead is doggedly eccentric in his phrasing. We have “the far shore of the buffet table,” which suggests a buffet table as a tropical isle. We have the ironic comfort of red: in the blood, the heating lamp, and the “fluffy potato pink.” We have the buffet identified as a religious experience. And while one may quibble over the slight awkwardness of “at the loving, sedulous pressure of his cutting” (which may, in fact, belabor the sentence just a tad), nevertheless, the imagery works. Because it presents us with new ways of seeing a buffet table.

By way of Whitehead’s “failure” to describe the buffet table in generalized terms, the entire passage may be, in Gran’s eyes, too “clever,” but the description here is guided by such inventiveness, by such a fervid determination to recontextualize J.’s hunger and freeloading into fresh terms, that the question of how “clever” it is is moot.

It’s very possible that I’m misinterpreting Gran’s post, but its orthodox posturing and its suggestion that writers must choose either honesty or cleverness as a mode without finding a way to amalgamate the two leads me to believe that I’m not.


  1. This isn’t how I read it, but I heard from people who read it the same way you did after I pointed to this — I think she’s talking about valuing honesty first, because otherwise you end up with something empty and impersonal, bland, generic (her follow-up post went on to talk about the rampant use of secondhand imagery and phrasing), even if it’s pretty and cool on the surface. And, of course, honesty can actually be cool and clever; that’s okay too. I read these posts more as a call to not be afraid to put yourself out there, your own observations and voice, no matter how much it doesn’t conform to a pedestal-esque view of the world. I don’t see it as being about realism at all. And, in fact, based on her other posts, I’m guessing that studiously cynical or gritty realistic fiction that isn’t coming from somewhere honest probably grates on her nerves too.

    But perhaps I’m the one misreading!

  2. Her definitions are vague enough to account for your definition, Gwenda. Even so, I can’t subscribe to an either-or approach to style, much less the wholesale dismissal of something that annoys. (I’ll confess that when I first read “Infinite Jest” many years ago, it initially annoyed me a bit. But I was determined to carry on and I then grew to greatly appreciate DFW’s style.)

  3. Ed, I read your site often, and there are many things we agree on (not necessarily adverbs). You did indeed entirely, completely misinterpret what I was getting at. I would never “champion the unadorned observational standpoint.” In fact, you’ve listed two of my favorite writers there-saunders and baker. What I meant by cleverness was something else entirely–Gwenda, you’ve got it exactly right. It’s too big of a topic for a li’l ole comment box but I’ll write more about it on my site later–from what Gwenda says, other people misunderstood as well, so it’s worth revisting. Thanks to both of you for making me aware that my small post is being so widely misunderstood.



  4. I didn’t take Sara’s post in this way at all; I took her to be talking about an observational precision that can be just as strongly present in cerebral witty postmodern writing (to lump one bunch of stuff together) as in, say, neo-noir. Surely she was talking mainly about a straightforward form of bad writing, when second- and third-hand observations are recycled in cliched language? The version of this that you get in, say, weak detective fiction doesn’t look exactly like the version you get in poor-quality experimental fiction, but there is an underlying pathology of sloppiness and dishonesty that unites the two.

    (BTW, Ed, I LOVE THAT PRIME RIB PASSAGE FROM JOHN HENRY DAYS. I think it was my favorite thing in the whole book. I have always found the phrase “prime rib” very good fun, but that passage took its strangeness to a whole new level for me….)

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