Parenthetically speaking.

Consider this.

Would it really be quite decent (or prudent) to tell her he was dead?

The above sentence is from my novel. What we’re interested in here is the use of parenthesis or brackets, which I’m told I over-use, and which (I’m told) adds difficulty for the reader.

So – consider the following:

Would it really be quite decent (or prudent) to tell her he was dead?
Would it really be quite decent – or prudent – to tell her he was dead?
Would it really be quite decent, or prudent, to tell her he was dead?
Would it really be quite decent or prudent to tell her he was dead?

The question is: can and does the “average” reader mark the difference, appreciate the distinction? Or does the appearance of an “unfamiliar” punctuation mark (the brackets) simply act as a distraction, a stumbling block, a jagged impediment?

Consider, too, the following:

My hair is shoulder-length and mousy and (outside the private domain) invariably worn tied or clipped back. I had been a (the) DCI in Amberton for two and half years, having briefly been a DI in the Met. Amberton has a population of eighty thousand or so souls and a slower pace of life than the capital. Friends and colleagues had assumed (quite correctly) that I had craved a quiet (or quieter) life. I had, indeed, begun to find London brittle and dispiriting.

Here it is again with the parenthesis replaced with dashes:

My hair is shoulder-length and mousy and – outside the private domain – invariably worn tied or clipped back. I had been a – the – DCI in Amberton for two and half years, having briefly been a DI in the Met. Amberton has a population of eighty thousand or so souls and a slower pace of life than the capital. Friends and colleagues had assumed – quite correctly – that I had craved a quiet – or quieter – life. I had, indeed, begun to find London brittle and dispiriting.

To me, there is something of the theatrical aside to the parenthetic content, a change of tone, an extra thought – some of which might survive with the use of dashes, though it is distinctly weakened. With merely commas or no punctuation at all, this (the tone change, the extra thought) is entirely lost, and the meaning (not so subtly) changed.

Here it is again with the dashes stripped out and not replaced:

My hair is shoulder-length and mousy and outside the private domain invariably worn tied or clipped back. I had been a, the, DCI in Amberton for two and half years, having briefly been a DI in the Met. Amberton has a population of eighty thousand or so souls and a slower pace of life than the capital. Friends and colleagues had assumed quite correctly that I had craved a quiet or quieter life. I had, indeed, begun to find London brittle and dispiriting.

It seems to me a lot of tone and voice is lost in the above if one compares it with its parenthetic counterpart.

But… perhaps all this sounds rather too precious, and one should simply go with reader feedback. In this word-processing, digital age, these things are easily changed. It would take very little in the way of effort to swap out the parenthesis for dashes and/or commas, and I could later argue that brackets – as a punctuation – are just too visible for the “average” reader, too much of a surprise. They’re not used to seeing it, I would say regretfully, and don’t quite understand why it’s there, nor how they should read it. Nuance, I would add snarkily, must be sacrificed on the altar of marketability.

I worry about this, of course. I fear the ability to read generally has been (is being) degraded, that poetry and its cousin, style, are now regarded with suspicion and mistrust. Will I, then, be searching and replacing my brackets? No (actually), I think not. There are so many other reasons for the novel to fail (in terms of the market), its subject matter for a start. The “average” reader is not going to be clamouring for my book anyway, parenthesis or not. And there’s surely something to be said for authorial integrity, for an artistic rather than a mercantile decision.

You can be sure, though, I’ll have it in mind for my next novel (partially built and in abeyance), which will be written third-person (the “average” reader is more used to this) and unburdened with “eccentric” punctuation.

I’ll end on this:

While I was sleeping in Italy, I heard news from overseas – England to be precise – that affected me emotionally and made me want to write a poem in protest.

Or:

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

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  1. #1 by joanitaska on March 26, 2016 - 10:18 pm

    I find this to be a fascinating analysis of the use of parenthesis. I would say that as a reader, they do pull me out of the story, but if used in just the right spot they can also illuminate and give voice.

    Like

    • #2 by WriteLevelZero on March 27, 2016 - 7:00 pm

      Yes. I think the suggestion is I have too many “right spots”. I agonised about it beforehand, and then decided to go for it. Perhaps a mistake – judging by reader feedback. As I said, though, very easily changed. I’m just somewhat loathe to do it.

      Like

  2. #3 by Rodolfo Pascolo on March 27, 2016 - 11:09 pm

    Hi, like it is said in the novel, I don’t want to tell nobody how to live (so how to write). I’m an old writer and became used to regard every one’s style. Style is (for me) the way a person lives throughout his writ and when I read, I dance with the author at his own music Yes, the brackets give any trouble, but I don’t reject trouble when walking a world done by something else, if I am willing to walk within.
    In this case, I was willing a lot. This is (in my mind) a good work, a meritory novel. I read it with gladness and a continuos feeling of gaining (not wasting) the time invested. Thank you for making the job.
    PD.: all I said was with the due respect to the previous commenter.

    Like

  3. #5 by Rodolfo Pascolo on March 29, 2016 - 1:27 pm

    Sorry, I mean ‘someone else’.

    Like

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