Friday, March 09, 2012

Stuffed crowdedly with adverbs

Adverbs are out of favor in crime fiction these days, but American pulp writing in the middle of the last century was full of them — stuffedly full.

In Norbert Davis' stories, characters shave, kick, flip, search, punch, stab, fade, and flip through hotel registration cards "expertly." A  street car clangs its way emptily down the street. Raoul Whitfield, too, used adverbs more than is fashionable today and, if my memory serves me well, Raymond Chandler and perhaps even Dashiell Hammett would have a light blinking redly from time to time.

When did adverbs slip out of fashion? And why?
***
Was good grammar ever looked down on in tough-guy crime writing? The first-person narrator of a Mickey Spillane story originally published in Manhunt in 1953 tells us that "But having learned my lesson the hard way, he never got the chance to impose upon me again."
***
Finally, here's a bit from one of Elmore Leonard's stories published in 1951 (yes, the man has been writing for that long) that may be more pertinent today than ever:
"When he was through, he shook his head and silently cursed the stupidity of men trying to control a powder-keg situation two thousand miles from the likely explosion. ... Sometimes things get a bit hot; otherwise you just sit around and watch the desert."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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24 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I'm glad that as a copyeditor you wonder about this too. I can understand that they are open to being overused and redundant, but I don't know why they are so universally frowned upon.

That's a great cover, though.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I did a search or two as I prepared this post, and naturally I found an article about a backlash against the condemnation of adverbs. And the backlash may well be justified. I have long said that I'd rather edit copy with someone who did not know the rules than with someone who knew them but was too dumb or too inflexible to understand them -- not that I've edited copy with too many of the latter. I'm wary of adverbs, but I don't condemn them out of hand.

These days, people who think about such matters probably regard adverbs as signs of wordiness, particularly in dialogue tags ("He said angrily.). But "A street car clanged emptily" is no wordier than "An empty street car clanged." It does, however, look and sound exceedingly strange today. But the construction is so widespread in mid-century American crime writing that its decline into weirdness is of interest.

March 09, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I thought I nailed that particular aberration in American stylistic fads the other day when someone posted that the prohibition was in the much touted Strunk & White.

There are other irritations also, like a total prohibition of the passive voice, and a disconcerting habit of referring to "passive verbs" (like "to be"). The latter, no doubt, was born out of the confusion over the passive voice using "to be" as an auxiliary, and the fact that nobody seems to know what constitutes a passive construction.

Lately, I get lectures from one of my readers for using "that" in constructions like "He saw that he was alone."

The language is being stripped of anything that might make a writer's style personal and memorable.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One writer's idiosyncrasy is another man's gimmick. Either that, or fashions change in usage.

My only total prohibition would be no total prohibitions on anything, but the writer had better have a good reason for his or her word choices, especially if they go against general stylistic practice.

March 09, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

General stylistic practice varies between countries.

And subject matter.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. So, for example, I associate French crime fiction with either endearing eccentricity (Daniel Pennac, Fred Vargas), or sharp, cool noir (Dominique Manotti, Jean-Patrick Manchette). I think our man Declan is wondering what practices and stylistic tendencies and practices hold sway in Nordic crime fiction and whether herdlike behaviour on the part of English-language publishers is limiting our exposure to them.

March 09, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I've only read one Davis story, 'You'll Die Laughing', which is in the Penzler-edited Big Book of Pulps.

Certainly, no adverb could feel neglected while Davis was at the typewriter but his writing isn't all that bad.

The Penzler bio of Davis suggests that Black Mask editor Joseph T Shaw only published five stories by the prolific Davis because he hated the humour in the Davis stories.

Prejudice against humour seems to be widespread. It's a prejudice I can't even begin to understand.

Despite the title, 'You'll Die Laughing' isn't funny, and isn't intended to be funny.

Have you read anything funny by Davis, Peter?

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read a fair bit of Davis. I like the Max Latin stories better than the better-known Doan and Carstairs tales, and I've read a few standalone stories by Davis in anthologies.

If you've read "You'll Die Laughing," you'll know that Davis could write a hard-boiled scene when he set his mind to it.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

"An empty streetcar clanged" and "A streetcar clanged emptily sound" like somewhat different situations to me, though.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

IJ, with you on the passive voice cautioning.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, perhaps the differences would be less apparent in context, where you'd already know that the street was deserted without being told that the car clanged emptily. "An empty car clanged" may not his the reader over the head quite as hard with all the emptiness. though.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I'm thinking that the emptily refers to the sound, which may not mean the streetcar is empty, it just sounds like it, but an empty streetcar clanged is a bit more straightforward.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

With respect to passive voice, adverbs, and just about anything else, I'm of the old-fashioned belief that one ought to know the rules before trying to break them. Not many people write as well as they probably think they do.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Davis may intend "emptily" to refer to the sound, but not such uses are susceptible to similar explanations. You'll gets signs "flashing pinkly," for instance, an image that requires a bit more work to assimilate these days than it once did, if anything beyond "a sign flashed pink" is intended.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, in all tbese cases it is probably a good test to see if staying with the rules makes the writing tighter. If the writer feels like it somehow doesn't end up meaning what he or she means to say, then I hope the writer would feel free to break them.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You have to understant my position as well. Newspaper reporters, back when newspapers were relevant, were traditionally trained to get to the point quickly.

In the matter of rules, have enough awful writing sent across your desk, and you begin to think that every word excised is a small act of mercy toward the reader.

March 10, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

With you, Seana, on the streetcar thing.

Fiction differs from newspaper writing. We are allowed poetic license that reporters do not get.

A street car clanging emptily refers to night time atmosphere and not the contents of the streetcar.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The discussion seems to have been sidetracked noisily. The post was more about the wider use of adverbs in fiction then than now than it was about the aptness of any given instance.

Read a bit of pulp fiction from the period in question, and you'll find not just more adverbs than you'd find in today's writing, but odder ones: "emptily," "yellowly," "dazedly," etc. Of course, you may consider such observations mere pickiness, in which case you may ignore tham.

March 10, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Whatever about adverbs going out of style, when did Norberts?

And would its abbreviated form, Nobby, be considered either too familiar, or even frivolous, for a wannabe crime-writer desperate to secure hard-boiled 'respectability'?

March 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

.....and then where would we Bergman fans have been with the woefully inadequate, almost naked 'Through A Glass'?

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm. "Norbert." Maybe that's why Captain Joseph T. Shaw published just six of Davis' stories in Black Mask.

March 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or the only acting effort for wehich Madonna was not panned: "Seeking Susan."

March 15, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

......hmmm, or its sequel, 'Seeking Norbert'?
although 'desperately' need only be implied

March 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't see Norbert as a tough guy;s name, though Norbert Davis could get pretty hard-boiled for a guy who wrote humorous stories.

March 16, 2012  

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