Home > Essays > Shadowboxing: Style and Time
Published: Fri Apr 15 2005
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Shadowboxing: Style and Time

in memory of Susan Sontag

for Tamara Denisova

The week we began bombing Iraq, Puppetry of the Penis opened in Boston. Horrified as we were by the President’s decision to attack the cradle of Western civilization, we needed at the same time to find a way to live in our skins, in our homes. Washington made sure we were unable to watch the consequences of our assault—we had to rely on selectively released photographs. Only Europe, Africa, and the Arab world knew what was being done to Baghdad in our name. Since the powers that be had made sure the left hand couldn’t possibly know what the right was doing, what could the left do but play with itself? Thus, even as Patriots and bombers pounded the hell out of the desert and its cities, Bostonians sat in a darkened theater in Boston’s South End and watched, applauding, touched by the obvious artistry, while two grown men twisted their penises into various configurations, like clowns shaping balloons. Then the audience went home, wrote letters of protest to the White House, prepared classes, read, and went to sleep. The sorties went on. Every so often a friend would email a photograph from a European newspaper of a child rendered limbless by another day’s precision bombing and we would wince and tear up and write a letter to the President. Tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered, thousands of children maimed for life, and who knows how many military casualties? Several years seemed to pass this way, and no matter what we did—however many calls we made, however many fundraisers we held or attended, or marches we fueled with our rusted bodies—the net effect was no different than if we had gone out to a theater and watched, over and over, night after night, two Australians wrenching their penises into pretzels.

So I began thinking about style. Probably I’d never stopped thinking about it, even as the bombs fell.


In his The Universe in a Nutshell, physicist Stephen Hawking talks about two different kinds of time: conventional and imaginary. Conventional time is basically what the clock says. You will need at least seven minutes to read through this essay. Imaginary time is a well-defined mathematical concept that allows scientists to create a mathematical model of numbers corresponding to moments in real time—intersecting with them as a vertical line crossing a horizontal one—which helps cosmologists generate mathematical models of the universe. Far from being a mere numbers game, it turns out that this has allowed physicists to discover demonstrable phenomena in the universe, as well as helped them to imagine solutions for problems still unsolved, such as the question of how many dimensions there are.

Please don’t dream of asking me any questions about this, as I will only be able to answer them in imaginary time. But do allow me my metaphor: the relationship between fiction and life is like that between imaginary time and real time. Imaginary characters give us language for sensations and ideas we would otherwise never have known could be had.

The depth of these experiences—and I mean temporal as well as spatial depth—depends on a writer’s stylistic mastery. When we read,we let a writer determine how we experience time. Either we’re bored and time crawls, or we’re enthralled and time flies. We slow down to unpack a metaphor, fall into revery over the implications of an image, or ruthlessly flip the page, hoping for better around the bend.

I’m interested in thinking about how writers control our sense of time through their prose style. In a way this is much more mundane than it sounds: I’m curious about why certain sentences read quickly, why others force us to slow down, and how context, by which I mean all the other elements of fiction—plot, point of view, setting, creation of character, and so on—contributes to controlling the way we read.

One of the reasons this interests me is because I am, to my not infrequent dismay, not the sort of writer who sits down to tell a story but rather the sort who goes to his desk because he is impelled to find one, as though he were searching for something lost long ago, before birth perhaps, and is it any wonder then that in the hunt, in the chase, in the delerium that is the writer’s daily ration, I look up now and then and wonder what the hell it is I am about?


The startling musicality of English has probably been the single most influential force in shaping my life. The spell cast by English-language poetry and prose pitched at the highest possible level, making use of the full range of its inherent powers—I mean the work of Shakespeare, John Donne, George Herbert, Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, James Joyce,T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound,Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin,Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, and Saul Bellow, for starters—spawned a love for the sound words make, irrespective of their meanings. What distinguished these writers from the tens of thousands of their peers was that the spell their words cast seemed to stand apart—whether above or alongside, I no longer know—from their specific meanings: the narratives these authors unfolded seemed almost irrelevant, at least at one crucial level of response. It didn’t matter to me whether I was reading about London in 1910 or Chicago in 1950 or Paris in the Twenties. Whoever inside us reads (whatever faculty responds to imaginative literature) and then orders one’s reading into some kind of semi-coherent structure or hierarchy representing a personal set of values seemed in my case to be on holiday. The stories these writers told had nothing to do with my personal and familial narratives, and it didn’t matter.

Or did it?

Because this passion—like all passions, you might say—existed in tense relation with its opposite.

There is in me a voice that says, Fool, you’ve fallen in love with the envelope before ever reading the letter, or, as Eliot put it, you’ve had the experience but missed the meaning. After all, each of the writers I’ve mentioned was grounded in a time and in a place, and each has won a spot in the pantheon of English letters because she found a form in which to narrate the singular story of a particular tribe. By giving voice to that group’s experience, she has helped to create a kind of cultural consciousness that other members of the group recognize. That is why so many young (male) Jewish writers will pay homage to ancestors like Singer, Bellow, and Roth. That is why Russian literature, according to Dostoevsky, comes out of Gogol’s overcoat and not Jane Austen’s rather more elegant narrative wrap.

There are those writers who listen, though a large part of what they appear to listen for is music—for the cadences of sentences once words have begun taking shape on the page. The obvious members of this club include Flaubert,Virginia Woolf, and William Gass, to name just three. What interests them is not so much the story they’re telling, or the characters they’re writing about, as the rhythms of their own sentences—trying to hear and fine-tune them to a pitch coinciding with some elusive ideal. This observation, however, bears examining, because I don’t think what they’re doing is quite as superficial as that may imply. They’re not merely running fingers along the surface of a piece of wood to make sure it’s been sanded to the smoothness of polished glass—because immediately a corollary question arises: how would one know when a sentence has been smoothed enough? It is easy to say we aspire to put “the right words in the right order,” but I suspect that even before my generation’s subversion of all canons, writers experienced serious doubts—hours, days, and years of them—as they tried to understand just what constituted a right and proper order. To what music, what pitch, what middle C do you tune your sentences? Where do we derive a template we can internalize enough to know when a sentence has fallen into place—clicked shut, to borrow Yeats’s famous metaphor for the sensation that told him he’d gotten it right?

As all intemperate revisers know, our sense of what sounds right seems to change from one day to the next, one sitting to the next. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought I locked in a sentence only to discover to my horror the next day that that was not what I meant to say at all. The whole nature of this process of revision—and this by the way is something we associate with Flaubert but was equally the experience of a radically different writer like Tolstoy—the whole nature of revision suggests the provisional nature of all writing, and it raises complicated epistemological questions about the essence and meaning of style: dare the sound of a sentence determine the destiny of a character? And yet it is never anything else that does. Style cannot be decorative—it is always revelatory. To quote Sontag: “Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist’s will.”


A great prose style accomplishes three things at once. First, it conveys information necessary for deepening our understanding of “the story.” Second, it displays the writer’s attitude toward her material (if one were speaking in terms of voice, one might call this “tone”)—from the impersonal narrators of Woolf or Joyce, who grow out of Flaubert, to the very personal note sounded by Bernhard or Vonnegut, who grow out of Sterne. Finally, style embodies an idea which cannot be extracted from it, yet which is palpable to the reader. “Every style,” writes Sontag, “is a means of insisting on something.”

On the one hand, style seems a simple matter and its erotics are aptly delineated in a wonderful formulation by Ford Madox Ford. Here is Ford:“Carefully examined, a good—an interesting—style will be found to consist in a succession of tiny, unobservable surprises.” He goes on: “If you write, ‘His range of subject was very wide and his conversation very varied and unusual; he could rouse you with his perorations or lull you with his periods; therefore his conversation met with great appreciation and he made several fast friends’—you will not find the world apt to be engrossed by what you have set down.” Ford then rewrites the sentence: “He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking…” Today careers would be made by a single such sentence. What we notice is both a sharpening in the diction and, in the last words, a lengthening of the vowels, making them more piercing: “he made several fast friends” becomes “he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking.”

That idea, of heightened sound, an attentiveness to what we may inexactly term the music of prose as an essential characteristic of an interesting style, may find its apotheosis in a writer like William Gass, who has written one of the finest short stories of the past half-century, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”

In his long 1975 essay “On Being Blue,” which is partly about the word “blue” and the condition of blueness—and partly about the difficulties of writing about sex—Gass produced a masterpiece of style that’s so brilliant you sometimes want to scream. Here’s a snippet of the list that leads us into this ninety-page meditation:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say diamonds have…

Lists are always alternately delectable and detestable. Who will ever forget the lists in Melville or Whitman? American writers seem singularly fond of them, perhaps because we are driven to catalogue the abundance that is our birthright—and just as possibly abundance becomes our birthright because we care enough about it to make a list.

Gass never proposes a thesis, and offers no neat conclusion. But that does not mean he writes without purpose. Some twenty pages in, Gass tips his hand:

Blue postures, attitudes, blue thoughts, blue gestures…is it the form or content that turns blue when these are?…blue words and pictures: a young girl posed before the door of her family’s trailer, embarrassed breasts and frightened triangle, vacant stare…I wonder what her father sold the snapshots for? I remember best the weed which grew between the steps. But they say that sexuality can be dangerously Dionysian. Nowhere do we need order more than at an orgy. What is form, in any case, but a bumbershoot held up against the absence of all clouds? Stringy hair, head out of plumb, smile like a scratch across her face…my friends brought her image with them from their camping trip, and I remember best the weed which grew between the steps. My sensations were as amateur as her photo. A red apple among oranges. Very beautiful. O God.

The excesses here are few yet memorable: “What is form, in any case, but a bumbershoot held up against the absence of all clouds?” And so it turns out Gass is wondering about the same thing I am: what is the relationship between form and content? The word “bumbershoot”—which I had to look up—is meant to take us out of the moment as well as to offer the comic relief embedded in sound. Yet the image of an umbrella opened against a cloudless sky suggests something frivolous or futile.

Can the lust for a loud and rollicking form determine meaning or redirect the content of a sentence? Is it what’s on Gass’s mind or what he found after prolonged prodding of words on the page that prompted the following:

Poets who would never meter their stick or brag of their balls, who would never vulgarly vaunt of their lady’s vaginal grip or be publicly proud of her corpulent tits, succumb to the menace of measurement. Rossetti, while he kisses, counts…

Gass’s wit, the voluptuous reveling in language, the implicit celebration of the things of this world through such consonantal cerebration, the pleasure he takes in enumerating, suggest another important matter for the stylist: rediscovering a humility before his own godliness. After all, the stylist assumes that there are no inherited narratives, only created ones; that the word of God is whatever word one is listening to at the moment—a mystic’s insight, surely, which of course offends the conventional moralist within, the one that those of us raised inside any of the Western traditions will recognize immediately for the force and number of the admonitions he has internalized, the innumerable obstats that would, if enjoined, keep an obeisant Catholic from reading contemporary fiction at all.

Gass’s essay even suggests the risks of over-attentiveness to sound. That way madness lies, surely, yet the line between “On Being Blue,” “Jabberwocky,” and scat singing, though scanty and wavering, is real.

Is it possible that my belief in the absoluteness of the relationship between word and object is an unexamined prejudice I don’t dare leave for professional philosophers? Have I backslid into that old conundrum, the argument between form and content? Should fiction writers even have such debates, whether internally or in public?

The fact is, they do, and I have.

Because this isn’t just about the sound of words, as we recognize the moment we start thinking about style in relation to translation. In a way this carries us into such deep waters that we dare only dip in long enough to make the point that while a diamonds-and-rust style like Gass’s draws on a rootedness in its mother tongue, that’s far from its only claim on us. The question of style isn’t simply a matter of a heightened responsiveness to the noise that words make when strung together. In many cases, poetry is precisely what survives translation: freed from the ephemera of cultural and sonic resonances, a vision can finally come into focus. The case of Boris Pasternak’s two versions of his autobiography is particularly intriguing, because here we have a writer who not only rejected his own early work for its “unnecessary mannerisms” but then went ahead to show us (and himself, one supposes) how it should be done. The older writer revised his younger self until only the lantern jaw in the passport photo would corroborate that the author of the second version, I Remember, was the same man who’d written Safe Conduct twenty-five years earlier. The first version, which is dedicated to Rilke, is built of sentences like the following: “And so it was winter out of doors, the street was foreshortened by at least a third with twilight, and the whole day was in a rush.” A quarter of a century later, Pasternak opens his story with a rehearsal of facts: “I was born in Moscow on January 29, 1890…” Sensibility shrinks before clarity—I was reminded of the differences between late and early Lowell, late and early Auden—but the tradeoff, I’d argue, leaves us even at best. When one is young, before one has acquired a storehouse of experiences, what does one have but mannerisms? Stylists streak onto the scene early and rarely stay late. Even T. S. Eliot dismissed “The Wasteland” as a kind of rhythmic grumbling.

Certainly among the last century’s most influential essays on style were Susan Sontag’s opening pieces in her great book Against Interpretation, which feel as fresh today as they did half a century ago. In those early essays, Sontag wrote that while most literary critics appeared to genuflect before the idea that style and content were one, in practice content remained the center of their attention. Her aim, in that essay, was to right this wrong by discovering a new language for describing not the hermeneutics (interpretation) but the erotics of art. I remember being stuck in an elevator with a professor at Rutgers in the early Seventies right after reading the essay. Excitedly I explained the dilemma. Professor J. arched a brow and said to me dryly, “Mr. Melnyczuk, we are not ready for this.”

In On Style Sontag observes that the problem of art versus morality “is a pseudo-problem.” She shrewdly notes that it is used as a rhetorical trap whose intention is never to question the ethical but to undermine the aesthetic. She concludes by noting that the “moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent
gratification of consciousness.”*

That the work of this pioneer remains avant-garde became clear to me as I was reading an ambitious essay by Julian Evans lamenting the mid-century experiments of French writers associated with the nouveau roman, which he says “arrogated literary gravity, fell into an impoverished emotional minimalism and produced a generation of ‘novels’ that were no thicker than a box of restaurant matches.” Thickness is apparently an aesthetic criterion. Meanwhile, Evans saw in American fiction “an unbroken vital line stretching from Scott Fitzgerald’s America to . . . Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon….[A] great unbordered expanse of narrative lay all around…”

As Sontag noted, such criticism of a writer’s aesthetics often conceals the critic’s umbrage at an ethical matter. In fact Evans doesn’t conceal his very well at all. In the paragraph where he disses the nouveau roman, he describes Robbe-Grillet as “a writer of prodigious skill at publicity but mediocre judgment (how could he otherwise have consented to write the text for David Hamilton’s collection of vaselined erotica, Dream of Young Girls?).”

It is one of those inescapable synchronicities that I’ve recently been rereading Robbe-Grillet’s essays (they are indeed short, which is one of their virtues) and have found them full of provocative observations well worthy of reconsideration. In them Robbe-Grillet labels as obsolete the idea of character and story, and even form and content…In a typical diatribe, he cries out: “How much we’ve heard about the ‘character’! Moreover, I fear we haven’t heard the last….The novel of characters belongs entirely to the past, it describes a period: that which marked the apogee of the individual….Perhaps this is not an advance, but it is evident that the present period is rather one of administrative numbers. The world’s destiny has ceased, for us, to be identified with the rise or fall of certain men, of certain families….The exclusive cult of the ‘human’ has given way to a larger consciousness, one that is less anthropocentric…”

Now these may sound like fighting words to a generation that has done a lot to bring “realism” back into fiction, though I’m not sure putting up our dukes will lead us to wisdom. There seems to be a pointed and bitter truth to Robbe-Grillet’s observation—I think of those noble Bostonians applauding the puppetry of the penis while in Baghdad it was pouring Patriots—and we as novelists ignore this at our own peril. While realism is likely to continue its aesthetic hegemony—I mean that honorable tradition whose lineage can be more or less readily traced backwards from Alice Munro to Anton Chekhov, as though Virginia Woolf or James Joyce had never written—and I, for one, will continue feasting on its finest fruits—I propose we take time to consider alternative strategies that will allow our art to accommodate the altered landscape in which we find ourselves. Robbe-Grillet’s suggestions for replacing the foundational elements of fiction are too much for us to consider here, but let me say at the risk of seeming terribly reductive, that they involve the creation of a world of shimmering prose surfaces. Unfortunately, as that aesthetic has already been usurped and perfected by MTV, there remains a lot of work to be done.

I have no program to declare, but I do want to remind myself of alternative aesthetic routes, breached long enough ago that rediscovering them might usefully open the sluices of inspiration. Moreover, the democratizing power of art is such that it shelters Flaubert and Solzhenitsyn, Colette and Gordimer—and one can imagine the twin pairs in a rare relaxed moment comparing notes on the agonies and joys of production.


          Style, fortunately, is not an article of faith in any of the world’s religions. And yet I can think of no more moving testament to art’s startling capacity to sustain us at the most extreme moments of our lives than some of the stories my wife, the writer Alex Johnson, has told me about accompanying Susan Sontag between various cancer clinics and her New York apartment this past spring. Even as Sontag absorbed the news that her cancer was probably terminal, she continued the conversations she and Alex had been having for years, about the problems of revision and the endless probings after the ur-sentence that would say it right for once, if never for all. Even lying in bed, groggy after chemo, Susan urged Alex to read on, because it mattered, style mattered. Even in the end.


* She further remarks, “Art performs this ‘moral’ task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplation, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.” Earlier in the essay Sontag writes,“Awareness of style as a problematic and isolable element in a work of art has emerged in the audience for art only at certain historical moments—as a front behind which other issues, ultimately ethical and political, are being debated.” This observation will become particularly relevant when we come to discuss critical reaction to Robbe-Grillet.

See what's inside AGNI 61

Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.

In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York TimesThe NationThe Partisan ReviewGrand StreetPloughsharesAGNIPoetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of PoetryLiterature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.

He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.

Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)

See him interviewed on New England Authors.

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