Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Plain Style: A Small, Good Thing, or Something Else?

Raymond Carver’s short stories are often written in the Plain Style, simple sentence format. His work appears not only to be an economy of words, but also an economy of clarity and conciseness. In an interview with The Paris Review, Carver said, “If the first draft of the story is forty pages long, it’ll usually be half that by the time I’m finished with it. And it’s not just a question of taking out or bringing it down. I take out a lot, but I also add things and then add some more and take out some more. It’s something I love to do, putting words in and taking words out”. Carver is not aiming to create a simple, easy to follow instructional manual for his readers – he’s creating fictional works which are read by a variety of individuals. I focused on the story, “A Small, Good Thing,” which has a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease of 91.2, and an average Readability Grade Level of 4.3 (or readable by someone in the fourth grade). But with such a low readability score, it becomes important to ask whether Carver’s story is really that simple. Does Carver use the Plain Style to simplify a story, or does he skillfully use the simple language of the style to create the illusion of a simple story that is layered with meaning?

The following excerpt is a paragraph from the story which exhibits the Plain Style:

She pulled into the driveway and cut the engine. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wheel for a minute. She listened to the ticking sounds the engine made as it began to cool. Then she got out of the car. She could hear the dog barking inside the house. She went to the front door, which was unlocked. She went inside and turned on lights and put on a kettle of water for tea. She opened some dog food and fed Slug on the back porch. The dog ate in hungry little smacks. It kept running into the kitchen to see that she was going to stay. As she sat down on the sofa with her tea, the telephone rang.

“She pulled into the driveway and cut the engine,” gets straight to the point, it isn’t complex at all. She, being known, is the character Anne, who pulls into the driveway. Two sentences are combined through coordination, and both are equally straightforward. The “who kicks whom” of the Plain Style is clearly at work. The rest of the paragraph follows a similar pattern. “She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wheel for a minute.” It takes an active voice, even though it occurs in the past tense. “She listened to the ticking sounds the engine made as it began to cool.” There isn’t any jargon present; she simply hears ticking sounds, but she does not jump to a complex mechanical conclusion. The engine is simply beginning to cool. Furthermore, there is something else present, a staccato that is built through parallelism that puts Anne as the focal point of the paragraph.

I have no delusions that a fourth grader would not be able to understand and read the above paragraph fluidly. The reading level is appropriate for the content, but it isn’t necessarily appropriate for comprehension of the underlying meaning of the story. The paragraph echoes an earlier section of the story, when Anne’s husband returns home.

He pulled into the driveway and parked. His left leg began to tremble. He sat in the car for a minute and tried to deal with the present situation in a rational manner. Scotty had been hit by a car and was in the hospital, but he was going to be all right. Howard closed his eyes and ran his hand over his face. He got out of the car and went up to the front door. The dog was barking inside the house. The telephone rang and rang while he unlocked the door and fumbled for the light switch. He shouldn’t have left the hospital, he shouldn’t have. “Goddamn it!” he said. He picked up the receiver and said, “I just walked in the door!”

This is another example of parallelism, which displays the similarly internal aspects of husband and wife, even at distinctly different points of the story, in a very similar way. These sentences also carry the plain style, because they use simple language that is direct in order to avoid abstractions. The sentences, as a whole, are not very complex either.

Beneath the surface of this story, however, is a much more complex network of meaning. This is a story that I was not introduced to until I was in my third year of college, and while I have read it two times since, I still cannot say that I comprehend the meaning of the story in full, because there are so many parts at work. The story is built on understanding what is not stated, just as much as understanding the information that is given. In the following section, the reader can see this working directly within the story: 

“I’m afraid we need some more, he said. “Nothing to be alarmed about. We just need some more pictures, and we want to do a brain scan on him.”
“My God,” Ann said.
“It’s perfectly normal procedure in cases like this,” this new doctor said. “We just need to find out for sure why he isn’t back awake yet. It’s normal medical procedure, and nothing to be alarmed about. We’ll be taking him down in a few minutes,” this doctor said.

Through the stated information, the reader discovers that the doctors are uncertain of the condition of Scotty, but they are quick to reassure the mother that there is “nothing to be alarmed about.” In fact, “It’s a normal medical procedure,” likely one that would be followed in any similar situation. But the information that isn’t stated, the idea that there is something much deeper going on that the doctors do not understand, is an important factor. It also speaks to the level of human connection and disconnection that can occur in everyday occurrences, based on the fact that doctors are in a very high tension position where they cannot always answer in absolutes, but are often coerced into the attempt based on patient’s questions.

In the context of classroom discussion, the Plain Style use in this way may not pose a significant issue. The text conveys complex ideas through the construction of simple sentences, and reveals further ideas by digging beneath the surface meaning of the story. Seeing the Plain Style used in this way, however, calls into question how it can be used outside of the classroom to similarly mask meaning beneath words and sentence structures that are easy to comprehend. Barrack Obama, in his 2009 Inaugural Address, said, “We are the keepers of this legacy,” in reference to the legacy built on our “enduring convictions” and “sturdy alliances,” since the time of the founding fathers. When plain language is used in this way, by those with any measure of power, the simplistic nature sets aside all other attachments that are not referenced. It can be argued that historically we have made poor decisions, but by using this style, those poor decisions are then overlooked in favor of those which assert more flattering attributes. 

The direct, non-abstract language of the plain style was similarly used, as it often is in politics, by George W. Bush when he announced, “Terror must be stopped. No nation can negotiate with terrorists.” But as with Raymond Carver, it is necessary to look at what the Plain Style does not clarify in its use. “Terror must be stopped” may not be written in the active voice, but it is written very plainly. Statements such as this do not fill in to what extent we will go to stop “terror” from taking place, and avoid defining exactly what “terror” is. Even if these are points referenced elsewhere in such a speech, the Plain Style can present problematic gray-areas in understanding, in the same way that one can be confused through the complexity of the Official Style. Just because we know who is kicking whom, or avoid the seeming excesses of the Official Style in favor of the Plain Style, it does not mean that we are being clear with readers. Plain Style use in such a way can be raise issues for all involved in the activity system, and in this case, all of those who reside in the United States. 

While some such as Lanham may argue that the Plain Style is used to express language in a clear and understandable way, the end result of Plain Style usage is not always something that is clearly understood. Carver’s construction of “A Small, Good Thing,” brings into question the level to which we understand a story that has been written at a Readability Grade Level of 4.3. The consequences of not understanding, in this instance, yield few troubles for those in an activity system, unless it revolves around grades. When plain language is applied more universally, however, the issue of understanding becomes incredibly important to multiple activity systems. If the goal of the Plain Style is to be clear and concise, then those using it have an obligation to make their meaning just as clear as the language they are using to construct it, rather than masking it through the style. 


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