I recently read a bit of Stephen King’s critique of the adverb, and while I take his point, also . . . no.

Says King:

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Yes, context should do some of the work that adverbs do.  But while context may obviate the need for bad adverbs, it doesn’t invalidate their usefulness altogether.  Adverbs do, as King says, express a degree of difference.  They qualify, that’s what an adverb does.  And who doesn’t want to be more precise?

But more importantly, what’s up with this obsession over economy?  Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about Gordon Lish’s editing of Raymond Carver this evening, but this mania for minimalism gets on my nerves.  Why does the word have to be “extra”?  In academic or professional prose, I can understand the emphasis placed on concision, but in literary writing?  No.  Why?  Where’s the room for idiosyncrasy and surprise if we’re always pruning out the extraneous words?  We don’t all need to be Ernest Hemingway.  Certainly expressing the same sentiment in fewer words can be effective — constraints are generative, to be sure — but are those other words “extra”?  Are they dead weight?  Are they bad?  I can’t bring myself to believe that.

4 Replies to ““Lacrimosa””

    1. Well, he’s written a lot of books that people really enjoy and a well-respected and frequently-referenced book on the craft of writing, which is certainly more than you or I can say.

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