Monday, February 23, 2009

Windows, fences

"Good prose is like a windowpane." As an instruction to cub reporters and old hacks—also as a self-instruction of the kind writer-critics issue to the world while actually describing their own procedures—it sounds reasonable enough. But it begs questions, as does Orwell's other key instruction, from "Politics and the English Language": "Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about." Together, these dicta presuppose, and instruct, that writing is a matter of examining the world, reflecting upon it, deducing what you want to say, putting that meaning or message into words whose transparency allows the reader, now gazing through the same windowpane from the same position, to see the world exactly as you have seen it. But does anyone, even Orwell, actually write like that? And are words glass? Most writing comes from a more inchoate process; ideas may indeed propose words, but sometimes words propose ideas (or both transactions occur within the same sentence). As E.M. Forster, a frequent target of Orwell's, put it (or rather, quoted) in Aspects of the Novel : "How do I know what I think till I see what I say?" To Orwell this might seem a piece of pansy-left whimsy; but it probably accords more closely to the experience of many writers.
-- Julian Barnes

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