The vogue of ordinariness

Most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.

– From T.S. Eliot’s preface to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, 1927

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Certain producers of plain prose have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum or flat can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy – the human bond with ordinariness. I doubt if much unmitigated ordinariness can exist. As Harold Nicolson, the critic and biographer, once observed, only one man in a thousand is boring, and he’s interesting because he’s a man in a thousand. Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe, a get-poor-quick attitude that wraps up everything in simplistic formulas never to be inspected for veracity or substance. Got up as a cry from the heart, it is really an excuse for dull and mindless writing, larded over with the democratic myth that says this is how most folks are. Well, most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else.

Paul West

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3 responses to “The vogue of ordinariness

  1. Yes, very agreeable quotes. As a student of literature, I can say that the amount of depth and profoundness that is involved in between-the-lines reading grows thinner in many contemporary writers; though I cannot give a blanket generalization to say all of them. Though ordinarily, “anything written” is how literature is defined, it as a piece of art makes exactly for the difference between a “literary”novel and a newspaper article. And, being a musician, I can also say that as is the case with all arts, it demands a lot from the spectator, which an ordinary reader of today isn’t ready to give.

  2. ‘So many novels now really come under the head of journalism; they try accurately to describe just what people actually do. It’s rather journalism and anthropology than writing. It seems to me that a novel should rework that, not just dump a lot of purely factual observations on the reader.’

    – William Burroughs, The Job

  3. ‘So many novels now really come under the head of journalism; they try accurately to describe just what people actually do. It’s rather journalism and anthropology than writing. It seems to me that a novel should rework that, not just dump a lot of purely factual observations on the reader.’

    – William Burroughs, The Job

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