Over on Booksquare, a question is asked:

We have often wondered how certain books would fare if presented to contest judges in manuscript format (sans author names). If a book is stripped of all identifying markers and judged simply by the words inside and how they are presented, would genre fiction have a fighting chance? It is a fair question — how much of how we perceive literature is determined by the label given a particular work?

Leaving aside genre considerations (and I do agree, btw), what about authors whom we are told are the creme de la creme of the literary world and yet who don't seem to follow any of the rules as chipped in stone by Strunk and White? Take this OPENING sentence to a novel:

At five in the morning someone banging on the door and shouting, her husband, John, leaping out of bed, grabbing his rifle, and Roscoe at the same time roused from the backhouse, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her robe, her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come, and down the stairs she flew to see through the open door in the lamplight, at the steps of the portico, the two horses, steam rising from their flanks, their heads lifting, their eyes wild, the driver a young darkie with rounded shoulders, showing stolid patience even in this, and the woman standing in her carriage no one but her aunt Letitia Pettibone of McDonough, her elderly face drawn in anguish, her hair a straggled mess, this woman of such fine grooming, this dowager who practically ruled the season in Atlanta standing up in the equipage like some hag of doom, which indeed she would prove to be.

That is one sentence, folks, and it's from The March by E. L. Doctorow, a current National Book Award finalist. Leaving aside the extended structure, why didn't that woman yank or tug on her robe? Why did Doctorow use an adverb to prop up a weak verb when a better verb could do the trick? Stephen King would object, I am sure.

This, among many other reasons I am sure, is why I will never win a National Book Award. 🙂 I haven't read any Doctorow before, but if you've read any of the various “best of” booklists I've put on this blog, you'll know that he's on them, usually for Billy Bathgate.


I'll never figure this business out. It's Dan Brown polluting the linguistic waters with his swill, or Doctorow sounding like Faulkner, or Hemingway writing in staccato bursts, or Ann Patchett carrying you along with the most fluid sentences ever. In short, it's everything under the sun.

Write. Just write.