Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Repelling Readers With Self-Indulgent Prose

Readers: here are three quotes from Michael Pollan's new book Cooked:

"The underlying idea here is that freshly baked bread is the ultimate olfactory synecdoche for hominess." (page 209)

"The pot dish, lidded and turbid, has none of the Apollonian clarity of a recognizable animal on a spit; it trades that brightly lit, hard-edged object and its legible world for something darker, more fluid and inchoate." (page 159)

"But could it be that, for us, the taste of foods rich in umami also sounds deep Proustian echoes, bearing us back to memories, however faint, of our very first food? Is it merely a coincidence that so many of the things we think of as "comfort foods"--everything from ice cream to chicken soup--traffic in tastes of either sweetness or umami, the two big tastes first encountered on the breast?" (page 174)

There's a lot wrong with this writing. A lot:

1) Show-off words like synecdoche, turbid and inchoate.

2) Unnecessary references to Proust and Greek gods, which serve no communicative purpose except to broadcast the author's learnedness and literacy.

3) Complex sentences with countless clauses. Don't forget: the semicolon enables bad writing.

This kind of prose enrages--and nauseates--readers. One of these self-indulgent sentences could be enough to drive away a reader. Fill a book with dozens upon dozens of them (and yes, Cooked is loaded with quotes like these and worse) and you could permanently damage a great writing career.

Never write like this.