Like A Ride In An Old Banger
Mark Newton does not like the word “clunky”. More accurately, he questions its usefulness as a critical term: “What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?”
I was intrigued because it seems like a fairly straightforward piece of reviewing shorthand. There is another name for commonplaces though – cliches – and we all know what you need to do with cliches. Out of interest I had a quick Google to see if I had used the term and sure enough I had, in my review of The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds:
What starts off as a dazzlingly compulsive thriller is slowly ground down by lazy, thoughtless writing. At one point, for example, Ng gives a little pep talk: “Okay, people, let’s stick together. Like the man said, there could be some angry citizens out there, and we may be the ones they decide to take it out on.” This might be acceptable on Hill Street Blues but not in a book set in the 25th century. This sort of clunky dialogue — the ghost memory of a thousand police procedurals — litters the novel. Something similar is true of the characterisation.
I think I escape Newton’s censure because I don’t leave “clunky” sitting there on its own, I buttress it with further remarks. What do I mean by clunky though? Joe Abercrombie has a good response in the comments:
Clunky, like a clunky ride in an old banger, the reader is constantly jolted out of immersion in the piece and loses that sense of confidence in the writing which is vital to enjoyment of a book. I don’t think it is so much about rhythm, actually. Words that seem innapropriate to meaning, or unnecessarily difficult. Images that are ill-thought out, do not stand scrutiny. Dialogue that is not honest or convincing.
What I mean when I use clunky is to say that the dialogue is mechanical rather than natural. Natural here doesn’t mean graceful or smooth or even realistic – as Newton points out, dialogue rarely bears any resemblence to real speech, try looking at an unedited transcript some time – it means it sounds like something that would come out of the character’s mouth. In contrast, the Reynolds quote is mechanical because it merely seeks to move things along without consideration of how appropriate the words are for the time, place or person. Like clunky it is cliche. I will try not to use clunky but I hope authors will try and give me no cause to slip.
It is interesting in its generalities but Newton is obviously directing his post at some specific (but secret) targets. In particularly, someone seems to have been dissing DeLillo of whom he says: “I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic.”
I am also a great admirer of DeLillo; in fact, this was reinforced just yesterday when I read his short story, ‘Human Moments In World War Three’. Here is a not atypical chunk of dialogue from the story:
“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves,” he says. “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city — but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellowfeeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would enoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”
Obviously his dialogue isn’t clunky, however, I’m not sure I could call it realistic either. DeLillo is a postmodern master of American literature and as such his dialogue often tends to the artificial. It is still natural for the characters in his stories though; perhaps no one in the real world would ever say this but so what? Of course, not only is it not clunky, it is also rhythmic, graceful, poetic and all those other things. I am very jealous.