I filed my review of Night Falls in Damascus this morning. One last remark and then I’ll leave it alone. Highland used one of my least favorite sentence constructions. He only did it once, so I won’t hold it against him, but here it is:
He was just not prepared for–how could he be prepared for?–death’s monstrous feast, the carnage that was the Western Front during the Great War.
Did you spot it? No, it’s not “death’s monstrous feast,” although that’s pretty questionable. It’s “the carnage that was the Western Front.”
Every week or two I’ll spot a similar phrase in a newspaper or magazine: the BLAH that was BLAH. It’s melodramatic, the equivalent of a hack Hollywood composer using swelling strings to accentuate the tears dripping down the heroine’s face.
- The mighty land that was America.
- The pop phenomenon that was U2.
- The death of civilization that was cable news.
I like clean writing. And I try to write cleanly. (In fact, my current five-minutes-a-day book is William Zinsser’s indispensable On Writing Well, which we should all reread from time to time–it instructs us to eliminate cliches such as “from time to time.”) And I believe that, in almost every instance, the writer or speaker would be better served by a less grandiose arrangement:
- America was a mighty land.
- U2 was a pop phenomenon.
- Cable news was the death of civilization.
I made these up, but I welcome real-life examples.
I’m no grammar nazi–using the term “grammar nazi” should be proof enough of that. Besides, my own grammar isn’t reliable enough to allow me to don the jackboots and sleeve protector of that particular group. But because I read a lot, I have developed a fairly keen eye for clutter. And I never had a writing teacher tell me to take a clean sentence and complicate it.
Of course, I’m sure that the archives of Likely Stories contain awkward and overreaching locutions, too, so I’m going to go delete them now.