Pico Iyer: In Praise of the Long Sentence

Pico Iyer has a beautiful, poignant essay in The Los Angeles Times, praising the long and winding sentence. He argues that writing longer phrases is a way to protest the speed of information bites people are subjected to daily:

Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the “gaps,” as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

Pico carefully lambasts the short sentence and then mentions authors who thrive on the long sentence:

The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity’s greatest adornment).

If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us. We will not be able to read one another very well if we can’t read Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, admitting us to those half-lighted realms where memory blurs into imagination, and we hide from the person we care for or punish the thing that we love. And how can we feel the layers, the sprawl, the many-sidedness of Istanbul in all its crowding amplitude without the 700-word sentence, transcribing its features, that Orhan Pamuk offered in tribute to his lifelong love?

Interestingly, Iyer finds Henry James unreadable (I think The Turn of the Screw is an easy read, while The Portrait of a Lady was a challenge for me):

Not every fashioner of many-comma’d sentences works for every one of us — I happen to find Henry James unreadable, his fussily unfolding clauses less a reflection of his noticing everything than of his inability to make up his mind or bring anything to closure: a kind of mental stutter. But the promise of the long sentence is that it will take you beyond the known, far from shore, into depths and mysteries you can’t get your mind, or most of your words, around.

Perhaps my favorite part of Iyer’s essay:

But we’ve got shortness and speed up the wazoo these days; what I long for is something that will sustain me and stretch me till something snaps, take me so far beyond a simple clause or a single formulation that suddenly, unexpectedly, I find myself in a place that feels as spacious and strange as life itself.

The long sentence opens the very doors that a short sentence simply slams shut.

A beautiful, must-read. Writers: are you paying attention?

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