Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I love metaphors in fiction -- the funnier, the crazier, the more surprisingly apt, the better. For instance: in Elizabeth McCracken's story "Some Have Entertained Angels Unawares," a character is as "pale and bitter as aspirin," and another as "chinless and gloomy as a clarinet," and children sleep "beneath the clasped hands of the roof" (which I think I stole once; sorry, Elizabeth). In Bruce Duffy's The World As I Found It, outlandish, perfect metaphors are everywhere. On a single half page I found a person who smelled "like a sickroom quilt that needed airing," and ice that makes "a sound like a nail being wrenched from a board," then breaks "like the surface of a vast aboriginal egg." (By metaphor I'm referring to similes and metaphors, just to be clear.)

There are people who don't like this kind of literary whimsy, but I don't understand that. However, a writer friend of ours recently said something that made me stop and think. A writer should make sure a metaphor does at least two things, he said. A metaphor that's just a metaphor, that just serves to compare a thing to another thing, is not good enough. Metaphors should really work. The chosen metaphor should carry out the theme, or refer to something in a character's past, or bring out something hidden, or something. Otherwise, they're distracting flotsam.

This, I think, is an example of a rule that could very well improve the writing, certainly make it more rigorous and disciplined. However, in the above examples, the aspirin, the clarinet, and the nail would all have to go. The clasped hands and the egg would probably get to stay, because they resonate with the works' themes.

But I like all of them, and in my ideal world they would all get to stay, even if aspirin really does nothing more than sit there being pale and bitter. But I like junk shops, I like things not to match, and I think fiction should be full of surprises.

Where do you stand? Any examples of good, or, even better, bad metaphors?


GFSnell3 said...

This post is crazier than a circus clown with warts.

Anonymous said...


I always tell my students to consider very carefully what images they are putting into a reader's mind. I think we sometimes forget that metaphors don't exist in a vacuum--when they strain against the parameters the story has established, they can feel like a lot of clutter.

Sometimes, of course, you want to snap the reader out of the scene, to fly in some crazy object for the sake of comedy or surprise or style. But if you do this ten times in a paragraph, you risk being like that assclown at the bar who won't stop talking in funny accents.

Anonymous said...

"...the house stood at the base of the hill like a wagon that had careened down it and never been again been touched..."

Hmmm....who wrote that?

I've never forgotten that image.

Anonymous said...

John, I think you said it correctly in both paragraphs, but for some reason you present the second idea as though it doesn't belong with the first.

The way I see it, you can snap someone out of the scene and still not strain against the story's parameters, so long as your story's parameters allow it. I'm not just being a difficult devil here. I think many stories' parameters allow it, because I think many stories are not without their surreal tendencies.

Rhian, I haven't read the books you mention, but their titles are surreal-friendly.

My favorite is Haruki Murakami. And one famous example is the gray gorilla who takes a sledgehammer to the head of the narrator in Dance Dance Dance to put him into a deep sleep (and then returns a few pages later to do it again).

A gray gorilla is not thematically apt and it says very little about the narrator. Or you could say it says a great deal, because now we know our narrator is the kind of guy who thinks up soporific gray gorillas. So maybe I'm cheating, or maybe the 1st person narrator is a cheating device when it comes to this kind of metaphor.

Still, yes, you have to be as careful and tactful with your metaphors as you do with your punctuation, your politics, and everything else you decide you need in order to putty up your prose.

You have to not be an assclown. Much harder than we make it sound.

Also, very happy about the daily posts. I visit more than often.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put! I agree.

The daily posts have been fun for us, too. We will try to keep it going...

Pale Ramón said...

Anything by P.G. Wodehouse. His metaphors are often silly, but they almost always relate to character.

jon said...

Raymond Chandler:

(All from Farewell My Lovely,I believe):

"He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake."

"She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air."

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

Elizabeth McCracken said...

Hi, Rhian, Hi, John--

So OK: years and years ago, Ann Patchett & I once appeared together at a private school in Connecticut, and we discovered that we disagreed about metaphors. She thought that they were an advanced linguistic technique & that young writers should learn to describe things directly and precisely first. I said that if I couldn't use metaphor I wouldn't be able to describe a blessed thing.

After the class, a teacher told us that according to Jung, we were both right for our ways of thinking: some people were direct thinkers and some were comparative. A more rigorous person than I would have some time in the past 20 years actually tried to track down Jung's theory, but the teacher's explanation satisfied me then and satisfies me now--the way you think in life is the way you think on the page. Which is not to say that comparative thinkers can't describe directly or direct thinkers write brilliant metaphors (as Ann indeed does). But the way you instinctively think is always going to be a huge part of the way you write.

Which is to say: I disagree with your writer friend. Part of this is just because the older I get, the more of writing seems to me to be about intuition and instinct (both of which are muscles that can be exercised), and the idea that every metaphor needs to be tied into theme or character biography would make me aware of the tying. I think of metaphor not as flotsam--floating on the surface of the story--but something on the sea floor: deep and mysterious and startling, not instantly taxonomical.

To, um, extend a metaphor.

But a lot of this is of course a matter of taste. Metaphor is distracting to people who don't like metaphor. I like it. You have to be careful not to be euphemistic or evasive, of course, and as John points out too much metaphor crammed into a paragraph is just distracting. I have a particular dislike for sentences that compare a single thing to two or three different things in a row--"The car limped like an invalid, or a gutshot bear"--but I'm sure I'm also guilty of writing such sentences.

(And "pale and bitter as aspirin," more than 20 years after having written it, is still one of the turns of phrases I'm most pleased with. Good God, I'm twice as old as I was when I wrote it.)

ed skoog said...

Metaphors are like jokes, I think. They have to be economical and quick to land right. The result of a good joke is laughter, but what's the analogy for a metaphor? Sometimes laughter, sometimes clarity, and occasionally the terror of understanding.

One of my favorite metaphors (actually a simile--I say "metaphor" to categorize figurative language generally) in fiction is from Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, when she is introducing Dr. Holstein, a minor character hosting a party. She describes his tailored suit and expensive shoes that he says "were part of his seducer's costume. He was not a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats."

rmellis said...

EMcC: Your skill with metaphor is what made me love your work so much, all those many years ago, and I still love it. And I think a metaphoric turn of mind works in more invisible ways, too -- in the way a story connects to life, or the world (I write these blog posts too quickly, without thinking them out thoroughly, and so always have more thoughts or retractions in the comments). John pointed out that something like the aspirin or the clarinet become connected in deep way to the character, become part of the fabric that a reader has to create.

Anyway, I'm with you. (And I'll try to stop stealing from you.)

Anonymous said...

Dang, these responses are superb. Way too good for internet.

Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth!

Jay Livingston said...

"Her hair at the side hung away from her canted cheek like a cropped black gleaming wing."

"Or is it just that I want to linger here in this moment when everything was still to come, to preserve it in the crystal of remembrance like one of those little scenes in glass globes that I used to play with as a child, cottage and tree and robin redbreast on a twig and all swirled about with snowflakes."

"How had I got from table to window? I imagine a great soft bound, a sort of slow-motion kangaroo hop that landed me grinning before her. I felt shaky and impossibly lofty, as if I were balancing precariously on stilts ogling down at her with a clownish, protuberant eye."

You want methaphors? Open Banville at random (which is what I just did --p. 86 of Eclipse). You'll find them scattered about on every page like bright Easter eggs nestled in the green strands of plastic grass, waiting to be picked up and admired.

gvNL said...

Nicholson Baker is a master at the casual simile:

"the comma seems more of a foil to the progress of the eye, a fallen branch partially impeding a stream, while the period, a mere dot, a small cold pebble, should allow sense to slip smoothly past." And: "...the sunken garden of the parenthetical phrase."

Updike's metaphors are often extraordinary, even if they sometimes have an old wise man's quality:

"Slowly he had come to see that children are not our creations but our guests, people who enter the world by our invitation but with their smiles and dispositions already prepared in some mysterious other room."

It would be interesting to list authors who don't rely on metaphorical language. Kafka comes to mind (though his parables can be seen as large metaphors) and I still haven't found a simile in Carver.

Elizabeth McCracken said...

I often stop by, John--just generally more invisibly!

(& you should come back to Twitter.)

I've been trying to find this Alan Hollinghurst metaphor from The Swimming Pool Library, which is an image that has been in my head ever since I first read it, but never linguistically: what I remember is pure image and no words, and now if I try to translate it back into language I'll fuck it up for sure.

But it was, to use Ed's excellent phrase, something that induced in me the terror of understanding. I'm going to keep looking.

I still always remember a line from Chris Offutt that describes a hill looking like "a kicked rug."

& Rhian: what's mine is yours.

rmellis said...

"I steal the music of Mozart, and I feel I have the right to steal it because I love it." - I. Stravinsky

futurecurio said...

metaphors are the writers brushes like those of the impressionist painter. He weaves a world with his subtle and interpretive strokes from a landscape that defies what are mortal eyes can perceive, refreshing our imagination, opening us up to the minds eye.

The writer can be true (or literal) to what he sees and describe the pen as a long instrument of many colors and sizes designed to place ink on the page for the benefit of communicating the spoken word on paper for prosperity or less if it is invisible ink. He could also describe it as weapon of war when used to write the propaganda of the oppressors.

Pen and brush are my tools of experiment and expression, I feel the angst and frustration as if a child stumbling on his first words, when my clumsy hands fail these tools and the images I create make no mark.

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