Monday, August 10, 2009

In Defense of Literary Stepchildren

OR: Why does everybody hate adverbs and passive voice so damn much?

These are two hard and fast rules in "good writing." Adverbs and passive voice are lazy, sloppy, unprofessional, and will ruin your work even though they are grammatically correct.

Okay, who came up with this arbitrary prejudice? I can guess where the antagonism towards adverbs started and it probably is rooted in lazy writing. Observe:

"I want you now, my darling," Fabio whispered breathlessly.
"We can't! O my lover, the evil Stephan will kill you," Victoria murmured fearfully.
"I will defend you. You are mine," he said fiercely.
"Oh, yes. I am yours, lover. Take me now!" she said recklessly.

Many dialogue tags and adverbs to describe the dialogue. BORING. And trite. They should be saying and doing things that cue the reader into the mood. But really, there are only eight parts of speech. Do we have to engage in the wholesale slaughter of one of them just because lazy writers use it as a crutch? That's bad writing. It shouldn't be contending for publication anyway. Meanwhile, a decent story with better writing is getting axed by an agent or editor whose anti-adverb policy is Pavlovian. Once you've trained your eye to look for them they are all that you see.

To adverb or not to adverb? It's basically (uh-oh! adverb!)Faulkner vs. Hemingway. And dammit, I like Faulkner better. But clearly (oops...another adverb!) there is a place for both.

Then there are passive voice and being verbs. Essentially, the subject of the sentence is acted upon or just IS something instead of performing an action. Most of the time a sentence can be restructured to better effect by eliminating passive voice. I get that. For example:

I was hit in the skull with the baseball.
The baseball careened into my skull with bone-crushing force.


The house was delapidated, with paint peeling like willow bark and a porch that sagged with years and the burdens of the family within.

Paint peeled like willow bark from the delapidated structure and the front porch, exhausted with age, sagged in its center.

But why can't it be okay to just state a condition every now and then? Like:

I was defeated.

It's short, sweet, and to the point. If you want more oomph, sub "beaten like a red-headed stepchild" or whatever. Sprinkle in an adverb like "utterly" as long as you're breaking all the rules. But if the narrator got theyself beat, a brilliant descriptive sentence that pops off the page doesn't feel the mood.

I'm paying a lot of attention to passive voice these days and some of my favorite books use a lot of it. I suspect this is because the authors are storytellers more than writers and spend less time worrying about passive voice than communicating the mood or state of the character. At any rate, the reading public is quite forgiving of passive voice regardless of what professionals think of it. It certainly appears with much more frequency in the classics. Probably because they were written before t.v. and movies and ADD convinced us all that everything has to be action or we will be bored by it.

Since I am not famous nor do I think I am the next Faulkner, I continue to scour my work with an eye toward eliminating adverbs and passive voice. I gotta tell you, though, sometimes it doesn't make any difference to the story. I wonder if the pendulum will ever swing back the other way? I miss adverbs. Passive voice doesn't bug me. And don't even get me started on the death of the backstory.