Suspend Your Disbelief

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The loooooong sentence

Winding road

When Twitter arrived on the scene, its proponents found themselves defending the very short. James Poniewozik put Twitter in historical context, and, in the New York Times, writer and teacher Andy Selsberg argued that writing short could make you a better writer.

Now, in the L.A. Times, Pico Iyer writes a defense of the very long sentence:

I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment. […]

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

Iyer’s essay, of course, is a direct response to the so-called Age of Twitter. Yet his actual argument is not for longer sentences per se, but for nuance, for spaces for (and spacious) discussions in our reading, our conversation, our lives:

I love books; I read and write them for the same reason I love to talk with a friend for 10 hours, not 10 minutes (let alone, as is the case with the average Web page, 10 seconds). The longer our talk goes, ideally, the less I feel pushed and bullied into the unbreathing boxes of black and white, Republican or Democrat, us or them. The long sentence is how we begin to free ourselves from the machine-like world of bullet points and the inhumanity of ballot-box yeas or nays.

Wordiness doesn’t always equal depth of meaning, of course, just as shortness doesn’t equal pithiness. But just as Selsberg argues above for what writing short can teach you, I wonder if practicing writing the long sentence might provide a welcome and needed balance to Twitter-fueled shortness. What do you think?

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