Musicality and modern writing

This is a spin-off of this thread, in which @Vincent_Vincent and I argue for and against the depth and musicality of modern writing. Do people even read anymore?

As it happens, I have a sampler of modern short essays handy, courtesy of a workshop on creative non-fiction taught by Kate Carmody ( They are all short, since that was the focus of the workshop. In form and content, they vary from extremely conventional to quite radical. Be aware that some of them deal with abuse and other “adult themes.”

Edit: Fix broken link.


I read “imagining Foxes”.
Pretty good. And yes, “musical” in quite a few places.
But then that specific text makes it quite hard to understand how you could have said that the musicality of a text has nothing to do with its punctuation… Surely I misunderstood. (?)

And also – though that wasn’t my case at all (I truly liked that short essay) -, there is at least three sentences for which I can easily see an average reader say “Yeah, but… but it’s convoluted”.

[…] but my point here is not what we saw, or even the excellence of gentle patient generous older sisters; it’s about what we did not see. We did not see a fox.

Would you simply change that semicolon for a period ?
I sure wouldn’t.

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I didn’t say that. I said that lyricism and punctuation are not synonyms.

I questioned both the claim that modern writing is lacking music, and that modern writers lack the ability to create music when they want to.

Ok ok.


What I was saying, is that by the repetitive non-usage of available punctuations (including the usage of multiple commas, such as in the essay I just read – them creating, implying (or simply marking – whatever) a change of direction in the discourse) and the use of alternative “tones” that they suggest, the readers become (became) deconditioned to them. (Aka: they don’t know how to read them nowadays anymore.)
Main stream publishers (I read an article somewhere, quite a good while ago – I doubt I could find it back) admittedly look for texts with as little punctuation as possible.
In an effort to minimize the risk of antagonizing their books buyers pool. (Those who would otherwise perhaps be confused with this or that comma’s placement.)

What else I said, is that the result is the same for us writers than it would be for a painter, should someone one by one steal his/her paint tubes; leaving him/her ever constantly with less and less colors to choose from.

Beyond musicality.
When mimicking orality, why is it almost exclusively done using the shortest possible sentences ? If we can do what we want, and have yes all the tools to do so, why then ? [ ← I strongly doubt that this otherwise important “yes” would survive an editor, but see, I like it. It is somewhat perhaps related, but I won’t develop on it, I just felt like pointing it out.]

Have you ever noticed how many people suddenly change the rhythm by which they read out loud when stumbling upon a quote mark ? (On top of using a kid-ish voice.) Doesn’t that imply that they suddenly expect twists and turns as regard of the few next sentences to come? (À la : This is where the whole of the lively stuff is.)
Which in turn implies that they expect the non-quoted text to be flat ? lol (Which, too often to my taste, actually is. Can’t quite blame them…)

When is the last time you read a novel (a recent novel) that gave you that “once upon a time” feel, narrative-wise ?

What I find somewhat sad (for lack of a better word) is that today’s books generally present a story that is “exposed” to the reader. Like a bunch of still pictures being described one after the other. Telling us what to “see”. But there is no one telling the story.

Exposed/reported VS. telling a story.
No musicality, insufficient movement, no humanization → no graspable story-teller, only fake, shadowy, non involved “narrative”.
(I believe one can still get away with it for a third person narrative though (it’d be hard for me to say otherwise, given the number of published books that actually fit the description), it is not a complete catastrophe, as perhaps my overall tone might otherwise suggest.)

But… so many books that are written in the first person “sound” like they were written as a whole in the third person, after which the author just replaced he/she for I.
For real : I even just read a novel where the “I” narrator knows stuff she couldn’t possibly.
But that fluke aside, she have also just been through a terrifying experience (her story), but she relates the events like she’d describe her last trip to the grocery store…
To put it some other way: it is like she is telling someone else’s story, but it just so happens that this “someone else” is herself.

The other way around: short, very short, sentences. All in the same either half-excited, or a tad sad tone. From page 1 to =The End=.
Result: someone who “talks” in a way that should that person be real, I would dare anyone to endure him/her talk like that for an hour before running out of the restaurant.

To sum it up: this – the first person narrative – is where I find that we the writers (or just me, perhaps) are the most handicapped by the somewhat recent developments in the range of “usable” punctuations.

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Well, of course, if you want the depiction to be something else.
That wasn’t quite what I meant by my question. :slight_smile:
But your answer does just as good, as it implies that for you there is a difference between the two.
Perhaps it is just me who has been overdoing it for pretty much all of my reading life, but to me, on top of the pause’s length, the tone of the “sentence” (what comes after the semicolon) is lower than if using a period it would have been made a true (detached) sentence.
Like it is consequential-ish.

If I had written this, I would have put a semicolon before the following sentence too. For which the tone would have dropped down a little further more.

I offered 14 concrete examples. Do you have any specifics – positive or negative – that you’d like to share? You clearly find most modern writing unsatisfying. I don’t. But without examples there isn’t really much to discuss.

I grew up around live theatre. By my standards, most non-professionals are terrible oral readers. I try not to hold it against the authors.

I’m not sure what you mean by “once upon a time” feeling. But here are a few recent positive examples of first person narration. (All novels – plus one memoir – that I happen to have read in the last year.)

Ruth Ozeki, “Tale for the time being.” (Actually has multiple narrative viewpoints, some first person some not.)

John Scalzi, “Old Man’s War.”

Walter Mosley, “Blood Grove.”

Kazuo Ishiguro, “Klara and the Sun.”

T. L. Huchu, “Library of the Dead.” (young adult)

Joy Harjo, “Poet Warrior.” (memoir)(Some sections in third person.)

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Sure. Has anyone in this thread suggested otherwise?

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Not in this thread no.
But for a lot of people the semicolon makes no difference whatsoever. Enough people so that it is more and more common advice not to use it.

It is today’s standards and limitations that disappoint me.
I wish it’d be ok – and readable – to do better than what seems to be currently “allowed”.
'Cuz there is also that I don’t really aim at not selling any copies when writing something. :wink:
Else, I am not completely retarded, I don’t expect the standards to change.
Should I though apologize for having an opinion ?

Kurt Vonnegut somewhat famously claimed to find them pretentious. I haven’t searched his corpus to find how often he used them himself. And of course he spent his whole career slaughtering sacred cows, so I doubt he intended his advice as gospel.

Among people dispensing serious writing advice, though, I’ve found a – fair, IMO – warning that they can be overused, but no outright bans.

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Of course not. I’d just like to know what you’re reading. It sounds tedious and I’d like to avoid it.

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You mean the books that I liked ?
Most of what has been labeled as a classic.
18th ; 19th ; early 20th (back when the narration still had this “once upon a time” feel. You can imagine the old man telling the story, smoking an oversized pipe.)
In French mostly, since that’s the language I write in, might as well keep it educational.

No, the ones you’re complaining about.

I certainly agree that there are plenty of bad books out there. As I said, Sturgeon’s Law applies. I just don’t think today’s books are any worse, and the best of today’s work is fully equal to the best of the past.

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I guess I just haven’t yet stumbled upon the best of today. :wink:

I’d rather not.
Plus, just to clarify, I am not quite complaining about these books so much as I am “complaining” about the absence of books written more like I’d actually like my books to be written. (Which lately seem like a bad idea to forget asap. – Even though that means four books that I have almost finished and that won’t ever see the light of day.)

I think I have read too much classics, and liked them too much, I might never be able to write anything readable in the first person.

I’ve “coded” fluctuations in there, variations, modulations, like a little ballet of words.
That none of my “as it happens” beta readers so far liked.

Today, the standard is for a “journalistic” style. Which means, no lyrism.
Of course, it is not a all black / all white, all or nothing thing.

My French isn’t up to the task, so I’m not going to volunteer. But maybe your beta readers just aren’t your target audience?

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Quite obvious.

The question is, is there such a target audience? If I can’t find a single published book that resembles what I did.
(There is actually plenty, but that’d be the classics I earlier mentioned.)

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Yes. I have been roaming the public library whenever I finished reading the previous books for close to two years now. (I borrow a couple, most of them I drop before page 50.)

That, and editing my books in what I more and more assume to be the wrong direction.
But the way I wrote them is so deep intertwined in the narrative, that the only other solution I could possibly have had for those books (one more than the others, the one I am currently “working” on) would be to rewrite it as an outline, scrap it, wait until I forget about it, and then maybe… in a few years… salvage the story.

And then forget about writing in the first person, as I hear everything lyrical in my head.
For some reason, I don’t have so much of a problem when it comes to third person narrative. (Most likely that my narrator doesn’t care as much.)

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I like the semicolon. It’s the middle brother of the comma and the period; musicality or not.


Probably two drunken paragraphs. But don’t quote me on that.

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There is something interesting about this one.
As regard to how much should one – or can one – cheat grammar in order to get the desired result.

If the answer is “one shouldn’t cheat”, then I would think there is a big mistake in the above text.