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My Hate-Love Relationship with Literary Writing

Series: A day in the life of a writer

7 September 2023

John Greenleaf Whittier, Amesbury, MA., manuscript article, 2 July 1847?: "New Hampshire Politics."

John Greenleaf Whittier, Amesbury, MA., manuscript article, 2 July 1847?: “New Hampshire Politics.”

Original public domain image from Digital Commonwealth

There are times when I pick up a book or open a magazine and enter a world flowing with milk and honey. I get pulled in by the melody of the words, seducing me with each syllable – I’m unable to pull away. It feels … sensual but not erotic, yet I feel my face turning red when attempting to describe how much pleasure I derive from it. It fills my soul with passion and my writer’s heart with eagerness to create. But, sometimes, the writing goes overboard, it becomes so “literary” that it forces me to read the 15-line sentence three times to understand it.
What do I feel then? I want to punch the author in the face.

It’s Pulitzer’s Fault

Well, to be exact, it’s Sean Murphy’s fault; it was his article that triggered me. I mean, what in the world was he thinking? I was still holding it together until just over the halfway mark, that’s when this quote by Paul Horgan tipped me over the edge:“[O]ne can hope to be faithful to, but not aesthetically limited by, a physical or social definition of local subject matter”.

Sylvia Dziuba's critique of literary writing in reference to Sean Murphy's article for the Pulitzer

Now, before I go any further, I want to refer back to my original analogy (in the blog’s excerpt): that literary writing can be like eating out in a fancy restaurant – you have to be familiar with the customs and understand the jargon. It also helps if you have a well-developed palette.  If you don’t, you won’t be able to fully appreciate the meal, or, worse, completely hate the experience.

Ok, I’m ready to circle back to the quote.

To fully appreciate it, you have to understand 3 things. First, what is “local subject matter”? Second, what does it mean to be aesthetically limited, and third, you’d have to understand the difference between a physical and social definition.

I had to look up all three.


It’s not all bad

I mean, the beautiful melody I mentioned at the start of my rant returns as soon as the next sentence, which reads, “Two-time History Prize winner Paul Horgan shared his pupil Perry Barlow‘s affinity for a picaresque existence — or, as Barlow would say, “hanging out with intent.”

I still had to look up the word “picaresque”, but once I did, I truly appreciated the beauty of what Sean was trying to say. At least in my understanding of it: slightly abstract with some room for interpretation, yet leading in a specific direction.

And here is the problem, I am completely aware that my appreciation of good writing is only limited by my familiarity with its jargon. That I am only limited by my vocabulary. I guess, I’m frustrated that I’m not there yet, but excited that one day I might read a sentence, like the quote I am currently ranting about, and be able to get it; right there and then.

Having said all of the above, I realise that I have no right to rant, the article is aimed at a specific audience. I mean, the articles posted on Pulitzer aren’t exactly aimed at the average Joe. Not that I am one; however, I don’t process information at the level of an award-winning literary critic. Not yet, anyway.

This is where I end this critique, this rant, and if you’ve held on until this stage, I’m sorry and thank you. 

’til we speak again,