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Archive for July 16th, 2009

July 16th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Beautiful Sentences, Conscientiousness and Good Fortune

This from The Elegant Variation’s Interview with Joseph O’Neill:

TEV: …It’s interesting that you have brought up Zadie Smith because I was going to ask about her next. I think that a lot of people draw the wrong kind of conclusions with a piece like the one that she wrote. I think that it sets up some false oppositions. I feel like this form of the novel is capacious enough to accommodate all different styles

Joseph O’Neill: Yes.

TEV: And the notion that one has to chose between Netherland or Remainder just seems silly. I liked Remainder a great deal, as well. I don’t feel that they’re mutually exclusive, that one must declare an allegiance.

Joseph O’Neill: I’d actually read and liked Remainder before that piece. And I thought it was a perfectly good piece of writing. I’m not sure I would describe it as unconventional, not least because that description, as I’ve said, would not mean very much.

TEV: Yes. But I think that some of the sentiments that she expresses hold sway among this younger generation of writers, whether it’s people coming out of the McSweeney’s School or the purveyors of the uber-ironic, the tendency toward a hip nihilism or something like that that. That they mistrust, in essence, the idea of a beautiful sentence. Some people find that corny, the notion of a beautiful sentence.

Joseph O’Neill: Well, it depends on how you define them as beautiful. I mean, you know, Foster Wallace wrote many beautiful sentences. I mean, there’s nothing but beautiful sentences in his work. Even though he had a particular way of doing it. What makes a sentence beautiful, for me, is its conscientiousness. A hip, ironic sensibility is not necessarily conscientious. Neither is a sensibility that latches on to dusks and dawns and roses."

Which of course begs the question: what is a sentence’s conscientiousness? Its painstakingly, careful, thoroughly organized structure? I suppose if what O’Neill means is that time and thought have been put into its construction, I might agree with him, but really, what makes a sentence beautiful is the creative instinct, flare, fire, good fortune that visits itself upon the author, empowering him or her to put words together in ways that perfectly express what demands expression at that very time and place in the text; in ways that few others can or have; in ways that make readers sigh with delight; shake their heads in awe; grit their teeth with envy. For some this entails a lot of hard work, crafting; trial and error. For others it comes like a gift, a wave, a visitation.

As for DFW…his work may have been conscientious, but beautiful? Perhaps at times, but mostly: boredom undermines beauty.