We followed, the other day, over at Literary Rejections on Display, a thread that led us to a sentence being pilloried by an on-line coterie of critics: “Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.” Perhaps it wasn’t the sentence that offended readers as much as its author flinging hash around an apparently voluntary critic’s negative review of her work (we are in Anon waters here). In any case, we found the offending sentence interesting. Well, so did the critics; there’s a lot to be learned from the bad and the small – what would we do without writing samples we can stone to death? Just so, Geoffrey Pullum trudges on in his battle against the Goliath Elements of Style, for many of the prescribed rules turn out to be balderdashes.
So what did we find interesting in the offending sentence? We like the way the sentence illustrates Gino’s awkwardness, an awkward sentence for an awkward scene. But Gino is not awkward; he has “supreme balance.” What enthralls the watcher is the potential fall. It is an awkward sentence, but that awkwardness is the waiter’s balancing act. And if it’s not hypnotic, what then attracted all the attention? But “supreme” seems wrong; acrobatic might better serve the sentence’s purpose. But what is its purpose?
When we ascend or descend a flight of stairs, we don’t want to trip and fall, and carpenters understand that stair tread depth and uniformity, riser height, and nose projection codes ensure our voyage up or down the stairs goes smoothly. No one notices the perfect stairway. But literature is not a flight of stairs; literature is a crooked house with cobbled stairs, its floors often tilted and confusing. Not that this was the offending writer’s intention, but conversations with an author almost always prove spurious. We make of the sentence what we will.