A short while ago I read a collection of undergraduate short stories which were earnest and engaging, all the product of the University English Department’s commitment to promoting and supporting creative writing from its students. Indeed, the collection was the latest in an increasingly fine line of regular anthology publications.
One aspect that did stand out, unfortunately, was the lack of the correct use of punctuation, particularly the comma and semi-colon. Comma-splicing prevailed, and semi-colons were inserted for no particularly good reason other than to be used. Now, lecturers might well blame teachers like me who worked in the secondary and post-16 sector, so the educational stage before moving on to university, but I’m not having that! I’ve never taught students to comma-splice – indeed, I campaigned against it on a whole-school basis – and was never a huge fan of the semi-colon used in the hands of innocents.
I blame the Literacy Strategy. The Primary stage emphasis on teaching technical functions of writing as discrete elements is surely the cause of the problem. It has somehow instilled in the young a false sense of the significance of some punctuation – at a time when there is little experience for using it, or more crucially the complexity of thought for needing it to express that thought. And somehow the belief that it is necessary whilst not ever grasping its correct and purposeful use has become an impulse for use. It isn’t a full-blown theory! There is little sense that these older writers/students can actually hear what they are writing, and they certainly can’t be listening to the effects the misuse of punctuation has on their writing. And they clearly aren’t reading. Certainly not reading great writers; or reading widely.
But I’m not in the mood to expand. What I will do is quote a lengthy passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which I was reading this morning. I know it is stylised and in an American tradition of writing exemplified by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Chandler and Carver – to name a few excellent and obvious exponents. It is also an extreme example [just one wonderfully long sentence!] to make a point, but that is what has prompted this piece. I commend to anyone reading this the use of the simple connective and. This exhilarating extract is describing an Apache raid, and the use of and to connect the clauses/advancing details is so simple and yet potent. I do acknowledge that McCarthy’s extensive and vivid vocabulary is a necessary accompaniment to the success of such a style:
They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pedant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.