William Faulkner

Period. Full Stop.

The teachers who drilled the rules of punctuation into students -- commas mean a pause, period a full stop -- were not fiction writers. It's not that black and white. The music of the writing comes from words in varying combinations and also punctuation. A particular narrative voice has its own rhythm. Stacatto sometimes.
Short sentences. Simple declarative sentences without embellishing clauses. Sometimes one word sentences (but shouldn't it be a good, useful, even powerful word?) alongside which a pedant might be inclined to scrawl in red, "inc.!" for incomplete sentence.

If it takes too long to establish a voice, the reader will be confused. Will struggle to catch it. Broken punctuation rules will look like mistakes. Readers won't be able to trust their "guide" - as Alistair MacLeod once called the narrative voice - through the story.

Ali Smith is an unconventional punctuator. Lots of semi-colons, colons, irregular line spacing, at least in the first few pages of her How to be Both. For example,

                                                                                    "eyes  :
                                                                                        hello  :
                                                                                          what's this?
                                                                                                A boy in front of a painting.
Good  : I like a good back  :"

I have been resisting, but maybe I will try again. Maybe the resistance has come with an unconscious desire to cleave to the voice that speaks in my head every time I sit down to work on revisions to my own novel.

Long sentences make another kind of narrative voice and require very careful punctuation. The work of some writers - Faulkner, MacLeod - fall into this category. Faulkner created a parade of description and action and reflection all in one sentence, often with a minimum of punctuation. MacLeod's sentences roll like the sea, and the commas he includes serve as troughs between the waves, a sort of rocking rhythm. From The Boat (1968). "He sang all the sea chanteys that had come across from the old world and by which men like him had pulled ropes for generations, and he sang the East Coast sea songs that celebrated the sealing vessels of Northumberland Strait and the long liners of the Grand Banks, and of Anticosti, Sable Island, Grand Manan, Boston Harbor, Nantucket and Block Island. Gradually he shifted to the seemingly unending Gaelic drinking songs with their twenty or more verses and inevitable refrains, and the men in the shanties smiled at the coarseness of some of the verses and at the thought that the singer's immediate audience did not know what they were applauding nor recording to take back to staid old Boston."

A thought occurs in time. Em dashes, hyphens, commas, semi colons, colons and even periods all qualify as pauses. Some long, sometimes glancingly brief, some representing afterthoughts.  Parentheses are good at this last job. Exclamation points are noisy. Question marks? A response not always necessary. Backwards apostrophes can help create a dialect, and right-ways apostrophes, too, at the other end of the word. Most readers won't notice how deliberately some writers work to achieve a distinct voice.  To other writers it comes as a gift and expresses itself almost as if impossible to do so in any other manner. It doesn't matter as long as the voice becomes sufficiently fixed in the writer's head that s/he can transpose it into the reader's imagination, individual, fully realized, irresistible.

Good show!

#book prizes

The latest broadcast of "Writers and Company," the long-running CBC radio show about writers and books, featured a discussion about book prizes. Irish Kevin Barry, British Justin Cartwright, American Meg Wolitzer and Canadian Charlotte Gray talked about their experiences as winners and as jury members and it was all pretty fascinating. The founding host of Writers and Co, the brilliant Eleanor Wachtel, has to have interviewed every prominent and not so prominent writer in the world and knows the right questions to ask.

Part of the conversation concerned the value of prizes to a young writer's career. Coincidentally, earlier that day I had walked on the beach with a friend who recently published her first novel, Lucky, itself the winner of a provincial prize. Now that the launch is over, the book available in bookstores and on line, she feels the only way it will garner attention is if it makes it onto the short list for another prize.

On Writers and Company,  the panelists agreed was that the "prize" mentality makes it harder for a writer to make a career. If a work is worthy of publication, a publisher will take a chance on it, but if it is not noticed by any prize juries and doesn't gain enough attention otherwise, therefore does not sell big, the new writer gets, perhaps, a second chance, and that's it. Eleanor remarked that prizes have taken the place of a strong reviewing community, at least in Canada, something Canadian writers, including me, lament.

My first book, Suburbs of the Arctic Circle, was selected for a small, national award, and the second, Shinny's Girls and Other Stories,  received the greatest promotional efforts from my publisher, therefore, attracted most attention. To me those books were just the beginning of what I planned to be, what has been and continues to be, a long and rich writing life, with each book a new challenge, an opportunity to develop. Yet, perhaps because my work has never made a big commercial splash or been nominated for one of the really big prizes, it has been hard to gain the critical attention that might draw more readers to my work. That later books are more thematically ambitious and better written is something only random faithful readers, many of them library patrons, may ever notice. Thank you to them.

As Kevin Barry said, however, the only way a writer can really fail is to stop writing, and lifers such as myself never consider such a thing.  

Writers and Company offered an immediate prize to those who had not yet heard it, and those who had but never find it old, a selection from the recording of William Faulkner delivering his Nobel acceptance speech:

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."