Portmanteau sentences often help a book qualify for a Delete Key Award for bad writing, the shortlist for which will appear Thursday. What’s wrong with them? Portmanteau lines are those jawbreakers that contain so many phrases or clauses, you get lost in the middle. They aren’t the same as run-on sentences (two complete sentences joined by a comma or by no punctuation instead of conjunction). And length alone doesn’t make a sentence a portmanteau (French for “trunk” or “chest”). Long sentences can read smoothly. Too often, they don’t.
Take the portmanteau sentence that the columnist James J. Kilpatrick found in Timothy Noah’s review of Robert Shrum’s No Excuses in the New York Times Book Review:
“Now retired from consulting, Shrum has produced a lively and indiscreet memoir about his three decades at the center of Democratic presidential politics, from Edmund Muskie’s failed primary bid in 1972 (in one memorably chilly scene, Muskie’s wife asks whether he likes the painting she’s just given him for their wedding anniversary and he replies, ‘No’) to John Kerry’s general election defeat in 2004 (Shrum relates the campaign’s collective sigh of relief when the networks declined to show footage of Kerry at an Iowa party jokingly miming a toke while Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary sang ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’).”
Or try the first line of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s more recent New York Times obituary for John Updike:
“John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit novels highlighted a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism so vast, protean and lyrical as to place him in the first rank of American authors, died on Tuesday in Danvers, Mass.”
Lehmann-Haupt’s sentence is a model of brevity and clarity compared with Noah’s. But you still have to come up for air in the middle. And what’s the point? Why try to shoehorn all of the achievements of a writer as accomplished as Updike into one line? Nobody speaks in portmanteau sentences, so they are inherently pretentious and tend to sound pompous. If people did speak in them, you would have trouble following them. (Try reading that line about Updike aloud.) And good writing is, above all, clear.
The practice of overstuffing first sentences relates to the traditional newspaper practice of cutting stories from the bottom if they are too long. But the custom has little relevance to the Updike obituary. The Times clearly wasn’t going to amputate everything but the first sentence or two of that one.
Overstuffing even less relevance to books, where authors can make their own rules. So you’ll see some portmanteau sentences on the Delete Key shortlist. Which authors are the worst offenders?
See you Thursday!
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.