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Saturday, June 9, 2012

And it was NOT set during the French Revolution

We read Les Miserables my sophomore year of high school. It is the only book in all of high school, as far as I can remember, that was so long we were given permission to read the abridged version. I read the full version. Twice. In a row. This from the student who couldn't be bothered to read stories like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or The Most Dangerous Game because they were too long. 
I will never understand teenage Brigid. I was so smart and I loved to read so much. And it's obviously not that I was intimidated by hard reading - Les Mis comes in at 365 chapters - about 1400 pages. But read The Great Gatsby with its 200 pages? Perish the thought.
I am reading Les Miserables again. I know people grouse about e-readers killing "real" books, and I feel them, but man, it's a lot more convenient to lug the e-reader version of Les Mis around.
I'm noticing something really interesting about the book this time around. It, like a lot of classical literature, breaks every rule you learned about good writing. 
Good writing shouldn't be full of unnecessary words and phrases - it should be uncluttered and get its point across cleanly. In Les Miserables, the main character doesn't show up until the fourteenth chapter. The first 13 chapters introduce the Bishop, who disappears from the story shortly thereafter. Imagine a book today taking thirteen chapters to introduce a character - including detailed accounts of what the man eats for breakfast each morning - and then dropping him.
Then there's the fact that we're not supposed to be didactic when we write. We're supposed to show, and not tell the moral of our story, and even when we do show it, we're not supposed to be preachy about it. Hugo editorializes on everything: war, poverty, the clergy, the death penalty. If Hugo's got an opinion, he's going to make sure you know it, and he's not going to bother getting the actions of the characters to show you. No, he just goes off.
We're not supposed to indulge in long, unnecessary descriptions. I'm surprised that Hugo doesn't tell us the exact color and consistency of Valjean's poop. But speaking of poop, there are two chapters, two, in the middle of the climax of the book about all the fantastic uses of human excrement. Jean Valjean's carrying a nearly lifeless Marius through the sewers, we don't know if he's going to live or die, and Hugo's like "Yo, Valjean, I'm really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but poop is the best thing of all time."

It's so unusual to me that we go to school and study the greatest literature, and then our professors teach us to never, ever write like that. I once had a professor literally laugh at me for writing rhyming poetry - literary magazines openly warn on their submissions pages that they won't even read a poem if it's in iambic pentameter. Strunk and White's Elements of Style has a list of "don'ts" that seems to be aimed directly at John Steinbeck. And Jules Verne with his long swaths of narrative and complete lack of dialogue? Horrors. 
I'm not saying we should go back to rhyming or pontificating or spending multiple chapters on the subject of poop, it's just funny is all.

Also, I have watched this trailer maybe 12 times and still get shivers. I don't even like Anne Hathaway. And we all know my (inexplicably strong) feelings on Hugh Jackman. Yet I'm somehow wishing I could cryogenically freeze myself until this comes out so that I don't have to wait to see it.

1 comment:

Bersercules said...

People enjoy well writen material from good writers. Teachers and editors are people who tried and failed to be writers so they try and enforce silly rules to feel good about their lack of creativity.

For creative people there are no rules.