What makes it tick? What makes it NOT tick?
June 11, 2013 9:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of analysis of why a particular passage of prose is excellent, or why it fails.

I read pretty extensively, but I always feel a little left out of the conversation when people give examples of bad writing. Unless there's a grammar error, it's really rare that I can see the problem. I have the same difficulty when people hold up a particular passage as being particularly good--there were some examples of beautiful prose given in the Great Gatsby MeFi post that left me scratching my head.

Clearly, the quality of prose is not what I see when I'm reading, and I'm okay with that, but I'd like to cultivate my palate a little more. I'm wondering if there is any writing out there that talks about what works or doesn't work in specific particular prose passages in a more analytical way. Stephen Fry's book on poetry forms did a pretty good job of doing this for poetry, showing the ways that good poets broke various rules to emphasize things, and bad poets broke those same rules in ways that destroyed the structure. I'm looking for more examples in that vein.

I'm not particularly interested in advice to writers. I'm also not interested in simple lists of good and bad prose--I've seen things like that before, and like I said, I have a really hard time seeing why the bad stuff is bad, and the good stuff is good. I don't mind academic writing, but the more common academic analysis of plot, motivations, etc. is already solidly in my bailiwick--something geared to a more general audience would probably be better.

(If you are someone who appreciates good prose, I also wouldn't mind hearing how you break things down that way.)
posted by tchemgrrl to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: So, this may sound a bit ridiculous, but the videos (there are 9 of them, long) where Red Letter Media completely rips apart Attack of the Clones did this for me.

Dude goes into exhausting detail about every part of the script and acting and exactly how it fails and why, and how it could have been made better.

After watching it, I realized I actually got a lot better at being able to articulate why a movie or why a book was bad, and was able to recognize specific weak points. I don't know if it helps so much in recognizing great writing, but it certainly has helped me to recognize the ways in which something is not great.
posted by phunniemee at 9:21 AM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I know you said you're not interested in advice to writers, but that is the domain of the knowledge you're after. If you're interested in the topic, I think you'd find the reading interesting, even if you don't plan to write as a hobby or professionally. It's hard to be concise on this topic, because just giving "3 bullet points" on it would just scratch the surface; it's more akin to learning to play an instrument, and along that line it's even more complex because it's context-sensitive. I play clarinet differently in an orchestra than I do a jazz band.

Here's a handy list to get started
. Strunk's Elements of Style is near the top for a reason.

It's okay if some conversations about the greatness of a particular passage don't do much for you - the topic is VERY subjective, especially in literary writing (maybe less so for things like business writing, but even there opinions vary on things like whether it's okay to be more informal in e-mail, for example). William Faulkner is widely considered a great author, for example, but he leaves me cold.

And opinions vary on THIS observation, but when you say that you read a lot but don't always see WHY the writing is good - that's somewhat by design. I read, I write, and I tend to analyze writing a lot, but the best writing tends to disappear under the story. Just as you hear a good band and enjoy the music, not marvel at how great they are at playing their instruments, but if you hear a bad band, your thoughts turn to how the guitar is out of tune, or the drummer isn't steady, etc.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:27 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

This post about Pushkin and Nabokov on languagehat's blog is good.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:28 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style does this sort of thing, mostly at the sentence level, but the concepts bubble up to longer passages.

Chapters are broken down to basic techniques(short sentences; parallelism), then applications and variations of them, and what effect those may produce. So, for example, a string of several short declarative sentences comes across very differently and sets a different "pace" than a bunch of longer, flowing sentences. That's a pretty obvious one, but you get the idea.
posted by Su at 9:29 AM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I favorited this post, because I am in the exact same position as you are. That said, there's one passage that I know enough about, through secondary reasons I'm guessing, as to why it works so well, though my reasons may not be exhaustive.

It's the opening to Lolita: "Lolita, fire of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

The magic is the alliteration of 't' in the long portion, although there was a general symmetry before with (foml (fire of my life/loins) and ms (my sin/soul). Furthermore, it's not just alliteration. If you want alliteration, you'll find more than enough to satisfy you in old English work. What makes this alliteration of t's work is that 't' is a dental, and all the syllables of Lolita start off on a dental (if you agree that 'l' is a dental). Furthermore, this alliteration serves to make this very fun image of the tongue's journey in the mouth as it says the word: Lolita. Honestly, I just sit there saying Lo. Lee. Ta. over and over again, paying attention to the placement of my tongue, recalling back this verse: "the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
posted by SollosQ at 9:34 AM on June 11, 2013

Best answer: This piece isn't just about the quality of the writing, but Film Crit Hulk's essay on the Twilight books helped me understand bad writing better. It goes into prose and structure and characterization in a very accessible way.

One of the reasons it's really hard to judge "good writing" from excepts is that the cumulative effect of the whole work comes into play when you're reading. For example, almost any Tom Robbins paragraph is memorable, but it can get sort of exhausting when it's chapters and chapters of such rich material. Also, it's not just the prose style that makes something good--we've all read beautifully-written pieces that have disappointing endings or thin characters.

I personally think Raymond Chandler was an amazing prose writer--not always plot-wise, but stylistically. His work is minimalist, almost transparent in places, and yet distinctive and stylish. He also uses the rhythm of words in a subtle yet powerful way.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 10:21 AM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: By Heart, at The Atlantic online, is a series of bite-sized analyses of great (and not-so-great) sentences and passages in literature.
posted by Mendl at 10:46 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your question is to some degree a matter of taste, but B.R. Myers' A Reader's Manifesto makes the case that what passes for good literary prose nowadays is actually pretty awful when you break it down (and he breaks it down splendidly). See also, by Myers: A Bright Shining Lie.

Orwell is also good on this question. See the canonical Politics and the English Language. Carrying on in his spirit, many essays by Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis critique bad (especially hackneyed or clumsy) prose.
posted by seemoreglass at 11:41 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are several Language Log posts on Dan Brown that are very instructive about why his writing fails on a sentence level, starting with this detailed breakdown of the opening of The Da Vinci Code (at the end of the post there are links to other entries about Brown and his prose).
posted by camcgee at 12:15 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think Richard Lanham is exactly who you're asking for. His books are funny, fascinating, and pitched neither too high nor too low. I'd recommend starting with Style: An Anti-Textbook. If you like that, read Analysing Prose next -- it's more technical but it'll teach you so much about how prose works.
posted by ourobouros at 1:48 PM on June 11, 2013

Best answer: I'm an English teacher, and I actually taught my students how to do this with novels this past semester.

Here is an amazing literature youtube series called Crash Course. John Green, an author and former English major, walks through some of the most seminal American Literature: Gatsby, Catcher, Romeo and Juliet, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

The way I teach students in my classes starts with a passage they like. Then start articulating WHY they like it, and then they move to noticing. I ask them to notice patterns or small details that they missed on the first reading. We practice this together (example using the opening passage to Gatsby). This is a generalisation, but often, the better the text, the more there is to notice in terms of patterns and literary devices and syntax/tone.

The last step is to connect or find emotional resonance. That's often what makes a passage particularly good - the way you connect to it or how long it sits with you after you read it. I have WAY more resources on close reading if this is interesting or helpful.

I find that noticing patterns, more than any other reading strategy, can help show you the difference between good writing and horrible writing. Both use patterns, but good writing subtly and intentionally patterns, where bad writing either attempts it or does it clumsily. And more than anything, "good writing" is subjective. For a lot of people Gatsby is just overblown prose that treasure hunts for symbols. Or it's a beautifully crafted masterpiece of prosaic profundity. Or, like most writing, it's somewhere in between.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:44 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love love love Coursera's Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. Each class is a 10-25m discussion between the instructor and a group of 5-7 students. He reads a poem and they all discuss it. Here's a link to the class intro and first episode (on Dickinson's I dwell in possibility).

The course is starting up again in early September. You need to sign up before the class date, I think.
posted by yaymukund at 7:31 AM on June 12, 2013

D'oh! Embarrassing. I didn't realize you were specifically looking for prose. Perhaps explore the other Coursera humanites courses...
posted by yaymukund at 7:34 AM on June 12, 2013

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