In Defence of Verbosity

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (died 1925...
Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (died 1925). See source website for additional information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without a doubt, Interesting Literature is one of my favourite blogs and invariably every post is a treat.

Today I read the following post on Henry James which, as I am not at all a fan of the man, I expected to be a rather dry read:

Five Fascinating Facts About Henry James

As usual, the writer, Viola van de Sandt, wrote a fascinating and brief outline of things lesser known about the great man. But it was the fourth fact which amused me greatly because I saw so much of myself in the chap. In an age where concise writing and brevity are key, essential components of the writer’s craft I find myself adrift so often wondering how I can cut any more words out of my prose without losing all meaning and character. Yet, the ‘next’ writer manages to say whatever it is far better than I could in a mere handful of sentences. It’s very annoying.

The section I’ll quote from Interesting Literature made me laugh, genuinely, out loud and reminded myself both of the necessity to edit, edit and edit again and that there are people out there much worse than I for being (as my postgraduate studies tutor once commented) a ‘tad verbose’. Yet, there is a place for such writers – even now – to make a living. I say ‘let’s hear it for verbosity – at least for a little amusement’. Sometimes a sentence can be too short and we have to add some padding. Whether anyone understands what on earth we’re talking about, however, is another matter.

Anyway, here’s the passage. I hope you enjoy it. Go take a look at the blog itself and (if you don’t subscribe already) please – for heaven’s sake – sign up so you never miss a post.

4. James was famous for his dexterous, somewhat long-winded phrases, both in his writings and in ‘real life.’ A famous anecdote survives which describes how James goes about asking directions from a passer-by while motoring through England with his good friend, Edith Wharton: ‘”My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.” I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…” “Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.” “Ah–? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?” “Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.’”

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