Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Hank James, again

Okay, learn along with me. Why aren’t “we” supposed to write with too many adjectives? Because adjectives “tell;” they don’t “show.” And mere telling is uninteresting. When characters are and act, readers feel involved. When characters are merely described they are little more than scenery.
So what is Henry James doing by using adjectives? He’s commenting on the characters he writes about. For example, the passage in “Brooksmith” that made me come up with my silly poetic exercise in “adjectives, adverbs” is this:
They required no depth of attention – they were all referable to usual irredeemable inevitable types. It was the world of cheerful commonplace and conscious gentility and prosperous density, a full-fed material insular world, a world of hideous florid plate and ponderous order and thin conversation.

And later on the same page there is mention of “an elderly dreary dingy person.” If stories let actions and characters unfold, then caricatures burdened with so many adjectives have no chance of becoming anything but stage props. And that is exactly what this “person” is.

Of course I wouldn’t have noticed any of this if Madge hadn’t pointed it out in the reading room of the New York Public Library.

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