November 18th, 2008


Nuture Those Darlings

Finally getting to the NYTimes Book Review over breakfast today, I read a glowing review of a book called Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory, which is what I call a title you can get your teeth into. It was written by one Roy Blount, Jr., who (according to the reviewer) is a scholar, a humorist, and a gentleman.

It does indeed look like a book it would be fun to have around the house, but the reason I'm telling you all this is because of what he (Blount) says about Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's famous dictum about having to stringently remove all beautiful and attention-grabbing phrases from one's writing. I'll quote the whole passage:

""Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it--wholeheartedly--and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings, Quiller-Couch wrote.

"As one who labored for 15 years as an editor urging writers to birth their darlings and nurture them so that we would have something interesting to publish, I cheered after reading Blount's critique of this maxim. What is "murder your darlings" but a giant, throbbing, attention-grabbing darling itself? Quiller-Couch could have written "kill your pets" or "eliminate your sweeties" if he was so keen on scrubbing his copy of brilliant phrases, Blount writes, demolishing the famous directive by quoting passages in its vicinity. They swarm with darlings!"

Thank heaven! I've been having that phrase thrown in my face for years. I've always ducked it successfully--they're my darlings, after all: I'll keep them if I want. But I've always thought that whoever said it was being, at best, disingenuous, and at worst, dangerously proscriptive. I acknowledge that some "exceptionally fine writing" is actually rank self-indulgence, but surely it's part of a writer's training to learn to tell the difference between the gloriously right and the gloriously over-the-top? Some things can best be said plainly, and some demand great lashings of imagery. Surely it's up to the individual writer to figure out which is which?