Spot. Spot Running. Running, Spot, Running.

December 19, 2008
By Ryan

Ten thousand bucks for dropping subjects from sentences and not using quotation marks.

I know there’s more to the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but co-chair Richard Oppel and his jurors on the selection committee sure have a type these days. Here’s a line from 2008’s top novel: “At JFK, almost not being recognized by his uncle.” And another: “Did what had always saved her in the past. Was defensive and aggressive and mad overreactive.”

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the story of a Dominican sci-fi geek and the history of his family and country, is packed with such fragments, as well as dialogue that tends to roll along without any punctuation indicating someone is speaking. Sometimes Diaz uses both writing devices at the same time: “Wondering aloud, If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?”

Which is fine. Really. English is a language with rules meant to be bent, broken, and boiled away. (See Barbara Hamby’s excellent “Ode to American English.”) An author tweaking the establishment deserves to be recognized for creating brilliant prose outside the strictures and structures of the genre … as the Pulitzer committee did in 2007, for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a prize-winning book packed with fragments and dialogue that tends to roll along without any punctuation indicating someone is speaking.

McCarthy’s writing is beautiful: “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.” His post-apocalyptic nightmare is littered with sluggish water choked by ash, hopeless-yet-determined survivors, horrific cannibalistic atrocities, small moments of human grace and dignity, and a lack of punctuation.

“People were always getting ready for tomorrow.
I didnt believe in that.
Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them.
It didnt even know they were there.”

Which is fine. Really. An original rule-breaker deserves recognition, like back in 1994, when E. Annie Proulx won the Pulitzer with The Shipping News and sentences like, “The hill tilting toward the water, the straggled pickets, and then Dennis’s aquamarine house with a picture window toward the street.”

So why the abundance of award-winning fragments? My vote is for the increasing power and prevalence of visual media over the years. Strings of incomplete sentences set up scenes like series of still shots for Oscar-winning films. I could almost literally see the gray-washed images from the big-screen adaption of The Road as I read it—and that’s before studios announced a 2009 production starring Viggo Mortensen. This poster is exactly what I imagined.

It’s all a matter of visual shorthand. A TV show set in Santa Barbara but filmed in Vancouver only has to flash a picture of a boardwalk to establish location before moving to a scene indoors where the real action happens. Our brains are used to grabbing quick visual clues and filling in the details of setting, time, and context. The device works for a reason, and everybody’s using it—even nationally recognized authors.

But it’s not really groundbreaking and inspiring structural defiance when it’s so common, even if it excites an author and a couple of newspaper book critics enough to name it the best work of the year.

In Write Great Fiction, Ron Rozelle says, “Fragments can often be the very best way for you to emphasize something. Because they are infractions, they stand out; so if you need something to stand out, here’s a good way to do it. But you might get a reprimand from your old English teacher.”

Or a large cash award from the Pulitzer Prize Board and a script option from Universal.

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five Responses to "Spot. Spot Running. Running, Spot, Running."

  1. Adam
    Adam on 19-12-’08 20:56

    I think it’s a good post for 1AM. It seems a little overkill to me that so many books are being made into movies. Or maybe I like it. Maybe it’s another form of affirmation for me when a character looks how I imagined or somebody’s name is pronounced like I read it. But I wonder if the lasting effects will include a retarded imagination. Just wait for the movie to come out. Is it necessary to explore a story through multiple medias? Is it valuable? How much art squeaks through when the driving force is the market? Hmm…Watchmen. Commenting without blogging much, writing little, thinking much, wondering.

  2. Craig
    Craig on 22-12-’08 15:56

    I think that fragments work well for internal monologue, when they are dispensed like afterthoughts, and especially when the character is a little neurotic. I can’t imagine why…

    On the other hand, the Diaz quotations that you have posted above look very irritating—as though the entire book is an overgrown grammar jungle and the reader either needs a machete or a joint to get through it.

  3. Jeremy
    Jeremy on 22-12-’08 22:28

    Make a career out of that style and you could even win a Nobel Prize like Jose Saramago.

  4. Ryan(Farmy)
    Ryan(Farmy) on 30-12-’08 21:22

    I think it’s great for 1am. As much as I practice bad writing and should cheer for fragments and poor punctuation (due to ignorance), I’m glad you carry the banner for proper English. If no one does every lauded novel will end up looking the equivalent of an Urban Outfitters. What is with style these days? You can get away with anything.

    I’m not sure if it helps for a story to be reworked in differing media. I usually find that movie of a book is like a celebration of the book. Like a series of photos at a wedding showing off the life of the couple. I don’t think it adds anything or refreshes the story. If anything is groundbreaking or illuminated it seems to be a differing interpretation. Then I think it is another story.

  5. Kevin
    Kevin on 02-01-’09 00:55

    I would like to think I helped inspire this post. I’m not sure I can give the credit to visual media.

    I didn’t know you had this site. I’m not sure I understand the layout. Is there a way to easily identify the author of each post?

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