More Than Transcription: Why the Smallest Details Matter

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short sketch “The Replacement,” from his 1962 collection Snapshots, a teacher repeatedly commands his young students to be mindful of the punctuation in their reading passage, interrupting them to point out the presence of a comma, the absence of a period. The goal is to get the students (and, by extension, you the reader) to “pay attention to what you are reading,” “to understand what you are reading.” Whether the teacher is successful is debatable: near the end of the piece, a student reads with exaggerated emphasis on the punctuation but “in a voice as devoid of expression as his classmate’s.”

A recent essay by Benjamin Obler over at Electric Literature got me thinking about that Robbe-Grillet sketch. Descriptively titled “How Writing Closed Captions Turned Me off TV for Good,” the essay details Obler’s experience in the world of caption writing, and how it affected his perceptions of the craft of writing and of television.

I’m not so much interested in Obler’s observations regarding the formulaic nature of television writing—I don’t watch enough scripted programming to have an opinion on it—as I am in his account of the caption writer’s values:

The Caption Writer is some kind type of linguistic intermediary between a machine and a hearing-impaired person or an English-language learner or a noisy room. Accuracy is the CW’s watch word. Verity. The CW is impartial, using punctuation and presentation to represent the speaker’s imperfections, emphases, uncertainty, directness or indirectness. Their ennui, their—

Writers will be familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s concept of le mot juste: the exact right word for a given situation. The caption writer, in Obler’s account, must strive for what we might call le caractère juste. To convey the audio track of a show through written text, one must fine-tune every aspect of the transcript: where to place a comma, when to use all-caps, how to describe a grunt.

These are not skills that necessarily come easily to a narrative prose writer. Even when a character in a short story or novel is based on a real person, all their qualities are ultimately creations of the author. There is no preexisting character to describe inaccurately. Not so with captioning, which requires an almost intuitive understanding of what the writer is hearing. As Obler puts it:

…all the Norton anthologies in the world could not teach me the difference between PHEW and [sigh], or a [disbelieving scoff] over an [exhales heavily], or the fine gradations on the surface of what I thought was a humdrum HMM and ho-humm MM-HMM.

Obler finds writing to this level of accuracy and precision to be quite a slog, and for good reason: it’s being applied to work that is not his own. Caption writing is socially necessary work, but it’s exhausting and it comes with no recognition (stations often cut away to commercials, Obler notes, before the captioner’s credit has time to load.) Why should he care if Sitcom Dad’s exasperation merits an “ugh” or an “ughhh”? What is Sitcom Dad to him?

But what if Sitcom Dad were his creation? In that case, I feel that the captioner’s commitment to accuracy, while being no less exhausting, would be far more rewarding. There’s a certain joy in rendering on the page what was so clearly heard in the head, in seeing one’s own idea so perfectly realized.

Or, if one prefers to write without a plan, such fine-tuning is a way to discover a voice, landscape, or gesture—or should it be a lilting “a voice, or a landscape, or a gesture,” or a curt “a voice, landscape, gesture”? Play around with it for a bit and you’ll find the answer.

Perhaps that why the teacher’s lesson in “The Replacement” reads like pointless drudgery: the only prize from the precision he demands is fidelity to the text. There’s no discovery in the reading process. There’s no understanding of how history would be different with a comma instead of a period.

“The Sin of the Apple”: Writing from the POV of an Object

I’ve long been fond of Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman’s compendium of writing advice, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a rather self-explanatory concept: these are the problems that plague countless unpublishable manuscripts, so do your best to avoid them. It’s also hilarious, both in terms of the bad writing samples and the authors’ commentary.

Now, categorical rules for good writing are rare indeed, and while their advice holds true in the vast majority of circumstances, Mittelmark and Newman don’t claim that their list is authoritative. To quote from their introduction: “We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. ‘No right on red’ is a rule. ‘Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly’ is an observation.”

Even the least promising creative devices can be put to good use, however high the degree of difficulty. Case in point: making the narrator an inanimate object.

In their chapter on POV, Mittelmark and Newman write a short paragraph on the subject, with the wonderful title of “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”:

Writing from the point of view of a spoon, the world’s smallest mosquito, or Nero’s fiddle is generally inadvisable. The author is immediately faced with the task of accounting for the spoon’s ability to type, interest in human affairs, etc. (Unless it is a literary novel, where such things pass without comment.) Writing such a book is very difficult, and such strained gimmicks generally backfire. So unless you have an inner passion that drives you, willy-nilly, to sing the secret life of the toaster, it’s better to look to the toaster’s owner for you protagonist.

The whole “how can a spoon type?” question strikes me as overly literal-minded, but the point stands. “Strained gimmick” is a good phrase here. When I’ve gotten such stories from students (and I have), the inanimate POV is usually treated as some big twist. They’ll write a fairly mundane scene, and then at the end suggest that a spoon or whatever is narrating. It’s a twist on par with “The narrator was dead the whole time,” or “It was all a dream,” in that it doesn’t really add anything to the piece. We don’t learn what it means to be a spoon or a literal fly on the wall. It’s just a swerve for the sake of swerving.

So here’s a question: how do we break this rule successfully? Is there an example of a story written from an inanimate object’s point of view that benefits from that perspective? Well, I think I’ve found one: Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple.”

Collected in Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (trans. Hortense Carpentier and J. Jorge Castello, pub. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), “The Sin of the Apple” is a very short story, just 256 words long. It’s more of a monologue than anything else, which the apple directs at those whose look upon it, up until it falls, ripe and ready to be eaten.

So what does this story piece do right? For one thing, Valenzuela gives the apple clearly-defined traits. That is, she treats the POV-object as a character, not merely as a narrator. Consider the first few sentences: “They scrutinize me with eyes of hunger, those abominable gluttons. I’m beyond your reach, gentlemen, and I don’t intend to budge” (all quotes from p. 77). We can see that the apple is resolute, is perhaps a bit haughty, and has a negative opinion of those who’d seek to eat it. And the direct address, “gentlemen,” grounds the text in a specific situation. No generalities here; someone wants to eat the apple now.

Compare the above to a hypothetical rewriting: “The men below look hungry, but they have a hard time reaching me.” This conveys the same literal scene as Valenzuela’s text, but the apple’s character has vanished. It now relates events without comment, which is not quite as interesting for a protagonist. It also makes the text sound more like a riddle than story, playing it too coy with the identity of the narrator (if the title hadn’t given it away, that is).

Once she has established the apple’s attitude and personality, Valenzuela starts expanding on the apple’s status as an apple. Not for nothing does that narrator refer to itself as “the historical fruit”:

Remember: I’m a descendant, as you know, of Paris’s apple, of William Tell’s, of those of the Hesperides. I’m even related, in a direct line, to the scientific apple of Newton, the apple that has done so much for the human race. I’m a descendant . . .

These references serve two purposes. Firstly, they reinforce and even explain the apple’s self-regard. If the apple’s ancestors are so illustrious, able to start wars and inspire scientists, why shouldn’t the apple be proud? Secondly, they force the reader to consider the role of the apple in human society. It’s an object we normally take for granted, yet it figures into so much of our collective culture. Remember how I said that many stories from the POV of an object don’t really benefit from that perspective? This one does, because it takes the time to explain why it matters.

Of course, there’s one hugely important cultural association the apple has neglected to mention so far: Adam and Eve. (Yes, yes, the fruit they would have eaten was likely not an apple, but the association remains.) It’s a telling detail to forget: humanity is brought low in that story, and the apple is riding high on its ego. So it’s only fitting that, at this precise moment, the serpent appears to remind the narrator “of the frailty of [its] species, the great shame of the apple.”

This shame, we quickly see, has a profound effect on the apple: “I feel the shame mounting through the stem, it makes me hot, I feel myself blush. Oh, how red I am!” In literal terms, the apple is ripening, but in terms of the apple’s character, it’s the completion of an arc. The apple’s pride has proven fragile, and a fall, both literal and metaphorical, is sure to follow. Valenzuela has not simply compared ripening to blushing; she has made that comparison emotionally credible.

Then—and I must admit, this is the one decision in the piece that I’m not sure is successful—the POV shifts from the now-fallen apple to a third-person narrator focused on the men who had been eyeing it. We see one of the men bite into the apple, and then justify himself: “‘It’s only natural, it was ripe and it fell.'”

I see the emphasis on the word “natural,” which also appears earlier in the paragraph, as a crucial element here. It casts the apple’s monologue as something like an etiological fable, that is, a fable explaining why something is the way it is. In this case, apples turn red when they’re ripe because they’re ashamed of their role in the fall of man. An interesting fable, yes, but not as interesting as the character study. If nothing else, shifting the POV in a piece this short is bound to be disorienting, no matter how well-executed.

Still, we can learn a lot from following Valenzuela’s example. A POV-object should not be a cipher, a mere lens. It will have similar needs to a POV-person: a defined character, an emotional arc, etc. Crafting those traits and arcs and such requires some serious forethought and reflection, but such is the case for any piece of writing.

Also, and perhaps this is a personal preference, but this sort of piece should probably be kept short. There’s an inherent absurdity in an inanimate object telling a story, Valenzuela’s piece not excepted. At a certain point, the narrative will be ludicrous as more and more human-like qualities are given to the POV-object. This is obviously bad news for a serious-minded piece. And as for a humorous piece, well, comedy is like poetry: an art of concision.

I think I’ll leave you with a little writing exercise to go along with the discussion:

As mentioned above, Mittelmark and Newman call this particular device “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”. Try writing a short piece, say 250 words, which is precisely that: a story narrated by King Lear’s throne. (If you haven’t read King Lear, then 1) what are you waiting for? Read it! and 2) in the meantime, pick another royal story and try that.)

Think about how Valenzuela approaches the apple, giving it character and drawing on the associations it has for us, and apply that thought process to the throne. You also have a key piece of information to play with: this throne has a particular occupant. What’s that relationship like? How does it affect the narrator, if at all?

The Poetry of Anticipation: On Edward Mullany’s Syntax

In her book The Art of Syntax (Graywolf Press, 2009), the poet Ellen Bryant Voight places special emphasis on a linguistic concept that she calls the “fundament,” which is the unsubordinated subject and predicate of a sentence. Whenever we read a sentence containing a subordinate clause, such as the one that you are currently reading, we instinctively look for the main noun-verb combo to ground us. That is, after all, the fundamental part of the sentence. Only when we arrive at that particular phrase can we be sure of the sentence’s primary meaning. “To say…that a sentence provides a complete thought,” writes Voight, “is actually to say it resolves the brain’s search for the fundament” (p. 6).

You might think of that search for the fundament as a source of tension in a sentence, one which the fundament itself will relieve. Many poems feature sentences which deliberately delay the fundament to exploit that tension, to place the reader in a state of anticipation that is only satisfied at the poet’s chosen moment.

This strategic delaying of the fundament shows up repeatedly in Edward Mullany’s collection of short poems, If I Falter at the Gallows (Publishing Genius, 2011). Indeed, the ideas of anticipation and incompleteness runs through the book from beginning to end. The title not only suggests an upcoming demise, but also takes the form of a subordinate clause in search of a fundament. To scan the cover art from left-to-right involves moving over an expanse of empty, white space between the silhouettes, breaking the implied image into two discrete sections. A good number of poems feel like premises that lack conclusions, or even vice versa.

Mullany’s syntax is no different; his one sentence poems often delay the main clause until near the end for maximum impact. But what I find most compelling in Mullany’s syntax is how it wrings extra tension out of the fundament even after the reader has discovered it. I’ll look at two such poems to demonstrate.

The first poem is “Widowed,” which originally appeared in the now-defunct literary magazine Keyhole. The first three lines consist of a long abverbial phrase, a sure sign that the fundament is being delayed: “During the previews for a movie / that was playing on a weekday / afternoon in a mall in a small town” (lines 1-3). This clause does a lot to set the scene for the poem, giving us time and location as context for the main action. There’s a fair amount of branching syntax here as well, which slows down the pace: a relative clause, some prepositional phrases. The reader is ready to know what happened at these previews. They will find out, but in due time.

The next line introduces the first half of the fundament, the subject: “a man” (line 4). But the fundament has only been started, not completed, for the speaker inserts two relative clauses to expand on the subject: “who’d entered the theater / alone, and who’d been unsurprised / to find himself still alone” (lines 4-6). Because these relative clauses are in the past perfect, placing the actions they described at some point before the previews started, the reader is in some sense further from the main point of the sentence than they were just a few lines ago.

Just when the reader might be growing frustrated with the poem’s syntax, the speaker finishes off a line with what looks like the second half of the fundament, the main verb phrase: “got up” (line 6). The whole sentence up to this point is an elaborate way of saying, “The man got up.” We of course have the context which makes the poem more interesting than that. But those four words are the core of the thought.

Except, the predicate doesn’t end with “got up.” It’s not even the predicate’s only main verb phrase, because the next line coordinates it with a second: “and went out to the lobby” (line 7). If anything, “went out” is the dominant verb phrase of the sentence, because the poem immediately tacks on two more phrases parallel to it: “and out / through the front doors and out into / the bright light” (lines 7-9). In the same way that getting up is a prelude to the real action, the phrase “got up” proved to be a prelude to the “real” predicate.

The second poem I’ll consider, “The Not So Simple Truth,” goes a step further than “Widowed,” in that it delays not just the fundament of the sentence but the sentence itself. The first lines of this poem are a series of sentence fragments:

Potatoes. Dirt and
water. And a soft

towel left for us while
we shower. (1-4)

The reader is presented with a list of items, with no guarantee that a predicate will ever appear (although the “and” which starts the third fragment does suggest the list is concluding). The fact that this list will function as the subject of the poem’s one grammatical sentence only becomes apparent from the next two words: “These // things” (4-5).

Already we see how Mullany uses punctuation to delay delivering the subject. One could easily rewrite the sentence with more standard punctuation, for example with a colon: “Potatoes, dirt, water, and a soft towel left for us while we shower: these things…” It’s not necessarily elegant, but it is grammatical. Yet Mullany uses periods, rather than serial commas, to separate items. The reader must first consider each item as a discrete item, rather than as part of a collective grouping that the above rewriting might suggest.

“These // things” gives us the subject’s noun phrase. The predicate’s verb phrase follows immediately. The main verb is “are” (5), but that’s as nondescript a verb as one can have. We technically have the fundament, in that we have the head of the predicate phrase, but not the satisfaction it provides. “Are what?” the reader must ask. The sentence responds: “no / truer” (5-6). The topic of the sentence is becoming clearer: the “truth,” in whatever sense, of the aforementioned things. However, the word “truer” is a comparative, which implies a point of comparison. One mystery solved, another presented.

Instead of simply providing us with that point of comparison, the poem first mentions the grounds of that comparison: “for their // plainness” (6-7). This phrase is useful for understanding the predicate, in that we’d like to know what the speaker means by “truth.” But the phrase also returns us to “these things,” encouraging us to see the items as plain. (Easy with the potatoes, perhaps a challenge for the soft towel.) When one might expect the poem to move forward through the predicate, it instead cycles back to the subject.

What does such backward-looking move achieve? I’d call it a mental smash-cut. The reader’s mind has just reproduced the starting images when the poem finishes by throwing on several new ones: “than peas / or pus or leprosy” (7-8). Finally, the point of comparison arrives. While the peas might not be so different from the potatoes, the diseased imagery of the final line represents a sharp break from the rest of the poem and its quotidian objects. The reader, anticipating mere completion, receives a broken-skinned punch.

The takeaway for your poetry: consider the holding back the fundament of a sentence, letting the reader anticipate the next move. You might, as in “Widowed,” use that delay to weave in context or show a character’s thought process. You might, as in “The Not So Simple Truth,” decide it best serves to set-up a punchy ending. Whatever the case, the reader will thank you for making the wait worthwhile.