With a tiny bit of sleuthing, Isaac Fitzgerald has identified the unnamed “popular writer” whom the also-popular writer Lydia Davis disparages in her recent New Yorker profile. Turns out it’s Khaled Hosseini. In the profile, Davis is described as objecting to Hosseini’s use of mixed metaphors in sentences like “The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in the hospital, so urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull.” Did you catch that? The problem, according to Davis, is that “eroded” is an earth metaphor, so it doesn’t jibe with “acute.”
This kind of sentence-shaming—which we’ll define as close, critical reading for the purpose of arguing that a previously respected piece of writing is, linguistically and/or logically, nonsense—was recently used by Francine Prose in the New York Review of Books to call Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch a piece of crap. James Wood, the godfather of close reading (and of sentence-shaming) gave The Goldfinch a similar brush-off in the New Yorker, highlighting specific passages to show that Tartt’s writing is full of “flailing imprecision.” For instance: “My heart was pounding and my head swam.”
Good writing should hold up under a microscope, as they say. But these are some pretty small microscopes. (Or large ones. Whichever ones magnify things the most.) Is it really a problem that Hosseini used “acute” and “eroded” in the same sentence? More importantly, is this the best criticism that we can level at writers like Hosseini and Tartt? Because their books have sold millions and millions of copies. They don’t seem ashamed.
– Brian Hurley