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Pritchard’s Law

Posted by on April 4, 2013

Pritchard’s Law says, in one (narrow) application, there will be an inverse relationship between the amount of plot per page in a novel and the quality of its prose.  The more plot, the worse prose.

Below are passages from various novels quoted by James Wood in The New Yorker.  He specifically singled out these passages as being well-written.  What do they have in common?  (Any ellipses are either Wood’s or the original author’s; none are mine.)

 

Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.

With her curling blond hair and her slender limbs and her beautiful clothes, Inez was alluring in an obvious way, and yet it was easy enough to see that her slightly protruding blue eyes were blank screens of self-love on which a small selection of fake emotions was allowed to flicker. She made rather haphazard impersonations of someone who has relationships with others. Based on the gossip of her courtiers, a diet of Hollywood movies and the projection of her own cunning calculations, these guesses might be sentimental or nasty, but were always vulgar and melodramatic. Since she hadn’t the least interest in the answer, she was inclined to ask, “How are you?” with great gravity, at least half a dozen times. She was often exhausted by the thought of how generous she was, whereas the exhaustion really stemmed from the strain of not giving away anything at all.

On the short drive from town out to the salt flats, the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve—those were the colors here, sand edging to green in places, with sporadic bursts of powdery yellow, weedy sunflowers blooming three-on-the-tree. . . . Pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.

By day, my coffin is hot as an oven & my sweat dampens these pages. The tropic sun fattens & fills the noon sky. The men work seminaked with sun-blacked torsos & straw hats. The planking oozes scorching tar that sticks to one’s soles. Rain squalls blow up from nowhere & vanish with the same rapidity & the deck hisses itself dry in a minute. Portuguese man-o’-wars pulsate in the quicksilver sea, flying fish bewitch the beholder & ocher shadows of hammerheads circle the Prophetess. Earlier, I stepped on a squid that had propelled itself over the bulwarks! (Its eyes & beak reminded me of my father-in-law.) The water we took on at Chatham Isle is now brackish & without a dash of brandy in it, my stomach rebels. When not playing chess in Henry’s cabin or the mess room, I rest in my coffin until Homer lulls me into dreams a-billow with sails of Athenians.

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.

The noxious, sour manure stench coming from the pigsty; the howling of the only piglet left alive; the fluttering of fleeting chickens; pungent smoke, coming from moribund pig-roast fires; relentless shuffling and rustle of the gravel on which many feet danced; my aunts and other auntly women trodding the kolomiyka on the gravel; their ankles universally swollen, and their skin-hued stockings descending slowly down their varicose calves; the scent of a pine plank and the prickly coarseness of its surface, as I laid my cheek on it and everything spun, as if I were in a washing machine; my cousin Ivan’s sandaled left foot tap-tap-tapping on the stage, headed by its rotund big toe; the vast fields of cakes and pastries arrayed on the bed (on which my grandmother had expired), meticulously sorted in chocolate and non-chocolate phalanxes.

That was the stage of loss I was in then I suppose, like the first days after someone dies, when you bend down to pick up every piece of lint, and you wonder what the dead person, when you meet her next, might have to say about her death (or about lint), and you worry, a little bit, about how that is going to be a very awkward conversation, the conversation with the recently dead.

Around the clock, ambulances sped eastward on West Twenty-third Street with a sobbing escort of police motorcycles. Sometimes I confused the cries of the sirens with my son’s nighttime cries. I would leap out of bed and go to his bedroom and helplessly kiss him. . . . Afterward I slipped out onto the balcony and stood there like a sentry. The pallor of the so-called hours of darkness was remarkable. Directly to the north of the hotel, a succession of cross streets glowed as if each held a dawn. The taillights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the lit storefronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refined into a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown and introduced to my mind the mad thought that the final twilight was upon New York.

Ice was spread out over the breadth of the Hudson like a plot of cloud. The whitest and largest fragments were flat polygons, and surrounding these was a mass of slushy, messy ice, as if the remains of a zillion cocktails had been dumped there. By the bank, where the rotting stumps of an old pier projected like a species of mangrove, the ice was shoddy, papery rubble, and immobile; farther out, floes moved quickly towards the bay.

The whole day had been hot, there was a thunderstorm gathering somewhere, but only a small cloud had sent a sprinkle over the dust of the road and the juicy leaves. The left side of the woods was dark, in the shade; the right side, wet, glossy, sparkled in the sun, barely swayed by the wind. Everything was in flower; nightingales throbbed and trilled, now near, now far. . . . The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun. Of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old grief and mistrust—nothing could be seen. Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year-old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had produced them.

There was a hole in her cheek the size of a quarter. Through it [he] could see her tongue as it nervously skittered about inside her mouth. The jawbone itself was partially exposed, an inch of it as white and clean as enamel tile.

I understood that background silence had long been abolished from restaurants, elevators, and ballparks, but that the immense loneliness of human beings should produce this boundless longing to be heard, and the accompanying disregard for being overheard—well, having lived largely in the era of the telephone booth, whose substantial folding doors could be pulled tightly shut, I was impressed by the conspicuousness of it all and found myself entertaining the idea for a story in which Manhattan has turned into a sinister collectivity where everyone is spying on everyone else, everyone being tracked by the person at the other end of his or her phone, even though, incessantly dialing one another from wherever they like in the great out of doors, the telephoners believe themselves to be experiencing the maximum freedom.

They’d had their hair cut with sheepshears by an esquilador at the ranch and the backs of their necks above their collars were white as scars and they wore their hats cocked forward on their heads and they looked from side to side as they jogged along as if to challenge the countryside or anything it might hold.

I was thinking of Eve and her apple, or whatever kind of fruit it was; how she was driven by delight to share the taste with the one she loved, and it ruined them both, but God, knowing this in advance, loved them anyhow; and I know, then, that I could forgive the boy and the girl on the phone three years earlier, the girl in the produce department holding an apple, saying, I think you would love this, the boy saying, Darling, I already do.

The days of dust drifting in the light shafts.  Tea bags put out to dry.  Listless newspapers with new dates on them every day.  The pipes of grubby gloss that turn from the back of the radiator along the wall.  The gradual death of things: plants and machines and animals, furniture and friends.  Twisted hairs trapped in a hairbrush… Filling in forms.  New building whose purpose is unclear.  Things that have not been for some time: a good pen, a souvenir key ring.  Lying in bed, and ceiling…  The shocking breathlessness of climbing just a few stairs, and shaving in the morning…  Old-style banknotes discovered in jacket pockets, and the recollection of facts when the need for them has passed.  The relief of television, and its futility.  The persistence of shit, and its undue hold on the mind.  The stuff that passes through the days: empty food cans, old batteries, rotten fruit, and notepaper.

 

What they have in common is, nothing much happens in them, and certainly no plot-work is carried forward.

In its more general form, Pritchard’s Law is a codification of the traits of literary fiction.  We all know that literary fiction is another genre, like science fiction, the mystery, or the thriller, having its own distinguishing signs beyond simply the absence of those signs that distinguish a novel as science fiction, mystery, or thriller.  But what are those signs?

Pritchard’s Law says, whatever advice you may have heard about how to write good fiction, literary fiction does the opposite.

Literary fiction is not commercial fiction.  The rules for good writing that are most widely known (e.g., avoid elaborate descriptions, especially of weather and landscapes) apply only to commercial fiction, and there it is true that one should avoid elaborate description.  But in literary fiction elaborate description, especially of weather and landscapes, is a necessity.  Elaborate description is what gets the encomiums, as we saw above.  Commercial fiction rarely uses metaphors.  Literary fiction requires many metaphors, which serve to reduce the plot-per-page ratio and provide opportunity for those passages that display the “precision and vitality of its perception and the successful intricacy of its prose.”  Here is James Wood reviewing a book that is “remarkable” for just that precision, vitality, and intricacy:

 

Here is a man caught in a coughing fit, whose “eyes thickened in their sockets.”  And here is a young women brushing her hair “until it was glossy and fluent.”  And another young woman, also brushing her hair, her face “vacant with concentration.”  Here are some patients in a mental asylum, “shuffling, drowsy as smoked bees.”  And an old attendant at the asylum: “His face was so detailed, so full of character, that John always found encountering him to be a small event, like eating something.”  Mademoiselle Leclair, a French tutor: “She was a dumpy spinster from somewhere in Picardy with a pale extensive face that ran mostly downhill from a long-white nose.”  The study of the doctor who runs the asylum: “a private red gloom of papers and piled book.”  And the natural world, noticed exactly and reimagined exactly: “The forest made its little eating sounds.” (Yes, that could very well be how a forest sounds, and I hadn’t known until I read it.)  Icicles: “They were smooth at the top and tapered down, with bulges, like a pea pod, to a stopped drop round as a glass bead.”  Bird in a tree: “Small birds, titmice, swapped their places, switching back and for, then flew off together in a pretty wave of panic.”  Winter: “She liked the pinch of absence, the hollow air, reminiscent of the real absence.”  To be truly alive to winter, as is one of the novel’s characters, is “to feel the sharp winterness of the day.”

 

If The Hunt for Red October had been written as a literary novel, it would be 10,000 pages long.  If The Shipping News had been written as commercial fiction, it would be a pamphlet.

 

One Response to Pritchard’s Law

  1. Kate

    Astute observation, like always.

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