Dead Language

Ever since I wrote my first story, I have been concerned with something that every writer of short stories or novels has to deal with. This is el language muerto (dead language), which is always present in a novel. Unlike poetry, in which from the first word to the last you are placed in a world of extraordinary sensibility and delicacy or dynamism, a novel or short story is a text in which it is impossible to be intense and creative all the time and to sustain vitality and dynamism in the language … I was bothered by this situation and asked myself why it is not possible in a novel, as in a poem, to use only intense, rich, creative language?

These lines are from Mario Vargas Llosa’s A Writer’s Reality, the prose version of some lectures he delivered at Syracuse University.

Dead language has been the splinter under my fingernail for years. I’ve been concerned with the phenomenon at nearly every stage of my evolution as a writer. In college I rebelliously rejected the canonization of Strunk & White, because they were brandished by milquetoast English professors whose own prose read with all the vitality of roadkill. And it wasn’t long before I turned my scorn on myself: over and over in the last ten years I’ve developed a certain kind of smoothness in my prose which I wake up the next day and discover to be blandness, prose like mashed potatoes made with a blender: where are the chunks?

What is dead language? First what it’s not.

It’s not cliché, though cliché can be a form of dead language. Frankly there are stretches even in a writer like John Updike, who took pride in the strenuous rejection of cliché, or in Martin Amis, who wrote a book called The War Against Cliche, which are like a corpse dressed in its best clothes, made-up with red spots on its cheeks, hung about with diamonds, but still dead. Cliché-free, but dead.

Dead language is also not cold or unemotional language. The often affectless precision of Colm Tóibín—in The Master, for instance, which I just read—is utterly vivified language, language trembling with life. Don’t confuse life with excitability.

So, again, what is dead language? I think it might be best to come at the problem—and I know I’m being evasive—by describing living language. Vargas Llosa will give me a hand again:

[Living] language is any language that has the capacity to take the reader from real reality and move him to a fictitious reality, to a separate reality … The characteristics of [living] language cannot be specified because any kind of language can perform these functions if the writer has the ability to use it well.

Where I put [living] he had “literary,” but I swapped out the word to make my point. I think Vargas Llosa would agree with me that literary language is the opposite of dead language. What it does, he says, is to transport us to a different reality. Living/literary language is like a threshold in C.S. Lewis’s books, a portal to Narnia, a doorway you step through and find everything irresistibly changed, charged with meaning.

But, as Vargas Llosa also wisely said, there are no specifications for this kind of language, no universally applicable rules for it.

You can try to avoid dead language by following rules. For example I could learn to write like Chuck Palahniuk in a lot of his short stories and essays, attempting to vivify my language through sensually rich description of horrifying or disgusting things. Tell me you wouldn’t read an essay I wrote if it began like this:

I sifted warm faeces through my fingers, trying not to inhale, until I found what I was looking for: the hard, white body of a parasite, like a plastic bead dropped in brownie batter. So I did have worms.

An extreme example. (But yes, that’s not far off Mr. Palahniuk.) (My apologies if you decided to read what’s at the other end of that link.) The language certainly isn’t dead. But the life it has derives as much from the plain shock value of the content as from the language. The same can be said for writing that gets its life-juice from profanity, slang, or any other easy gimmick: dropping in brand names at every opportunity, relying on humorous analogies.

The problem I have with these methods of vivifying language is that they don’t last. They work a few times. But when a gimmick is repeated too often it turns into its own vintage of dead language.

Even when you fall in love with the voice of a writer, if they turn out to be a hack who employs that voice with universal efficiency, their manner becomes mannerism for you; you recognize yet another instance of dead language.

So writing well, writing living language, is a high-wire act where each new step requires as much concentration as the last. There’s not a place on the wire where you’ve finally got it figured out and now you can relax, now you can just enjoy yourself. Screw up and you’re dead, or anyhow your language is.

So what is dead language? It’s any language whose usage or familiarity make it ineffective at wrenching a reader away from their present circumstances and into the world you, the writer, are trying to create.

I think each serious writer’s quest to avoid dead language will look unique. Vargas Llosa tries to avoid it by minimizing the expository and descriptive content of his novels, and putting that stuff in the dialogue tags. He also tries to avoid it by re-purposing in his novels documents not usually intended for narrative consumption: police reports, newspaper articles, academic essays. Like many literary writers from Dos Passos on, Vargas Llosa likes to slip such things into his narrative and enjoy the vivification of language that comes from displacing one sort of a document into a strange context, from displacing a non-narrative document into a narrative context. But if I did the exact same thing, I’d end up with a form of mannerism.

Or take DFW’s footnotes. I like them. Some of my friends hate them, and the reason they hate them in DFW I often hate them in his imitators: what originated as a method for vivification has turned into mannerism.

This reminds me of what Gabriel Josipovici identifies in his marvelous book What Ever Happened Modernism? as one of the mechanisms of modernist experimentation, a feeling that you simply can’t do x, y, or z any longer. You simply can’t do plot anymore—that’s a conviction about dead language which overcame certain perpetrators of the French nouveau roman, and while I personally don’t list plot among the language-killers (or at any rate among the things that deaden language for me), I can entirely appreciate the sentiment which would dispense with it. To a serious writer—which I think we must define as someone who cannot abide what they perceive as dead language—almost anything can be sacrificed in pursuit of a living or literary language.

  • Awesome post and right on: how to avoid this dead language? I like the idea of the perpetual high wire act: yes, basically, that’s what it is. As if the content wasn’t enough, the language itself requires a lot of work. I personally revere those who have created their unique styles. You read a page and you can unmistakably say: “that’s Pynchon” or “that’s Cormac McCarthy”. They can’t avoid creating their own cliches, but those are more precious to me than any verbal pyrotechnics of mediocre writers.

    • Robert Minto

      Yes, I also have a very high tolerance for authors with noticeably unique styles. McCarthy is a great example.

      However, I’ve been thinking more about the topic of this post recently and wondering about the difference between mannerism and the noticeably unique style. Let’s stick with McCarthy here: he’s easy to parody (as, for example, hilariously, here) because the risks he took on the high wire while developing his style have become analyzable *methods* of style. You could make yourself some rules and by following them closely produce a fair facsimile of his style. At what point, even for the originator of this unique style, does the reducibility of the style to certain repeatable patterns deaden it? When does originality become mannerism? At first glance it seems like a straightforward matter of time and repetition. If it becomes easy, becomes *facile*, even for McCarthy, to write like McCarthy, then surely he has descended into mannerism.

      But his is also an unsatisfying conclusion to me, because it seems to make the vitality of prose depend on things outside the text itself. But it shouldn’t make a difference to the vitality of the prose of Blood Meridian whether it was written first or tenth among its author’s books, right? That’s simply not relevant, surely. So I thought: maybe I’m talking about two things at once. (1) The writer’s experience of language (which I talk about in the post), and (2) the reader’s experience of the same language. For the writer, conceivably, whether it’s the first or tenth book written in a given manner really does matter. But for the reader it might be unimportant.

      Where I am now, though, further complicates this picture. Because the reader’s experience of language is also historically conditioned. Suppose I read a lot of that tumblr I linked to above, and *then* take up Blood Meridian. I might very well find myself noticing the apparent mannerism of McCarthy’s prose, even though I was facing something fresher than both his recent books and certainly than parodies of him. Yet it might seem like dead language.

      It’s a complex problem that seems to grow more complex as I struggle with it…

      • Lots of things to chew on. To re-invent your style all the time and abandon your own patterns in search of pastures new is the privilege of truly gifted writers. The only successful (and radical) example I know is Joyce: The Dubliners – The Artist – Ulysses – Finnegans Wake. Who else could pull off something similar? Even changing a language might not help. For instance, I can “see” the Russian Nabokov in his English language texts.