(Off topic: hello, wtf? It is a rare honor to get to write a big long review in a glossy, well-paying mag, and he doesn't even bother reading the rest of the author's work? Come on, work for your money, sir!)
Anyway, there's some arguing in Rake's comments and on other sites about whether Johnson's sentences are, in fact, bad. It got me thinking about the spring of 1987 ('88?) when my beloved writing teacher Stuart Friebert taught us what a Perfect Sentence is. Yes, it exists. It is a sentence of perfect iambic pentameter, such as:
We kissed the cat then threw it down the well.
Because rhythm, even in prose, is vitally important, and iambic pentameter is the most natural rhythm of the English language: that's how our beats fall, and that's how long we can go without wanting to take a breath.
The other important thing, said Friebert, is to stick to words of Germanic, rather than Latin, root. Germanic words are shorter, stronger, more guttural, and came first. Our Latin words are often just fancy substitutes for simpler words.
I believe in this stuff like a religion. But is that it? No! There's also the commandments in The Elements of Style, which are mostly about grammatical clarity -- terribly important, too. But if you could write wonderful prose just by following a collection of rules, we'd all be doing it. And we aren't.
There is clearly a voodoo element involved. There is a Factor X about great writing that cannot be shaken out and distilled. And hey, if I knew what it was, I wouldn't be blogging: I'd be waxing my Pulitzer this evening.
But that's a cop out, isn't it? Here's what I think: you have to also be surprising. If you follow the rules and only follow the rules, you're not surprising anyone. What I like to read is writing made of sentences that pay attention to rhythm, but also knock rhythm off-kilter; that are mostly grammatically clear, but also make use of a judicious amount of fuzz and ambiguity. Not every sentence has to have a snake-in-a-can in it, of course.
Back when I used to teach writing, I sometimes gave the students the first line of Denis Johnson's "Out on Bail" as a writing prompt. The students always produced terrific, inspired stuff with it. There's something about that sentence that pushed open invisible doors in them. Here it is:
I saw Jack Hotel in an olive-green three-piece suit, with his blond hair combed back and his face shining and suffering.
What is the surprise there? The name "Jack Hotel"? The word "suffering"? Or maybe the strange way the sentence begins, not indicating any time or place ("The first time I saw..." or "That was the time I saw...") but just I saw. Funky! But rhythmic and strong enough to know you're in good hands, so you want to go forward.
The fault-finders could find fault with it, for sure. But being without fault doesn't make writing great. If only!