The main point of the second essay is to explain that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing the statement, “She was happy.” If the simplest way to get your point across is to make a broad generalization, there are plenty of circumstances in which it becomes correct to do so. If you try to “spice up” or “unpack” your writing by using convoluted metaphors or similes to describe a character’s mood, it often has the opposite effect from what you intended. Either you lose something in transcribing what is, as I said in the essay, a subjective response to a stimulus, or you risk sounding like one of those fake school-children on those clever “terrible” simile websites.
“John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.” “He fell for her like he was a mob informant and she was the East River.”
“She was so beautiful that her beauty hangs on the cheek of night like a jewel in the earring of an Ethiopian woman.”
“The locusts hung over the land like night.”
“The hailstones leaped from the ground like popcorn popping in silver foil.”
Admittedly, those aren’t even the worst examples I could come up with, but even more remarkable is the fact that similes are inherently “bad”. I can’t say with complete certainty that any of those sentences would be cut by a competent editor, but I would be very surprised to see them in a published work.
Of course, two of them are from published works by Shakespeare and Milton. If you did not recognize them at first, they do not seem that out of place in the list, going back, you’ll pick them out in a split second and praise them for the beauty of the language—even though you would have been the first one in the comments section of Shakespeare’s blog to call him a hack. Possibly even a racist hack. Or you would have posted a trollface, one or the other.
Obviously, you can’t find good writing that is completely free of ornamentation. It’s practically the hallmark of competent, evocative literature. The issue is not that metaphor or simile are flawed, just that our interpretation of them is necessarily shaped by factors far beyond what makes writing “good” or not.
Reading Dickens is like meeting a woman dressed up in a Victorian gown. Chandler is like finding her in a slinky dress on New Year’s Eve. Picking up Hemingway is like seeing the same woman at a college frat party. And reading Carver, Lish’s fault or not, is like catching that girl in the damn shower.*
The reason I remain a devotee of Raymond Carver after years of critics poking holes in his oeuvre is not because I am some minimalist hipster. I value the story above the composition. For all of his quiet genius in character development, I am always more excited to read Carver because of what happens. I’ll try and touch on this later, but I’ll leave off this entry with a mystery: what I’m referring to is not what you think of as plot.
*If you prefer: “Reading Dickens is like meeting a man dressed to fly to the Moon. Chandler is like finding him in a well-cut tuxedo on New Year’s Eve. Picking up Hemingway is like seeing the same guy at a college frat party. And reading Carver, Lish’s fault or not, is like catching that man swimming naked in a lake.”