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Saturday, June 11, 2011

caption, disjunctive

The uninhabited island was named for a marooned eighteenth-century adventurer who likely inspired the first English novel. I thought I’d strand myself there and read it. --Jonathan Franzen, "Farther Away."
so Franzen's darkly amusing caption offers students of craft a valuable lesson--which is, writing that's directed toward the public, that seeks an audience, should feel conversational. that doesn't mean, though, the word choice must be informal. not at all. it's a common misconception that "conversational" and "informal" mean one in the same. they don't.

a conversation can and often does include many different ways of speaking, of using language--from the common and colloquial to the highly polished and performative. simply stated, the term "conversational" describes language that feels as though it is or could be spoken. (thus, we consider the style of, say, Jared Diamond--author of non-fiction bestsellers Guns, Germs, and Steel; and Collapse, et al.--to be "conversational," since he writes as though he's lecturing to an eager class of students, almost pausing here and there in the text to take up questions from the many raised hands. Diamond remains conversational throughout his books, but never informal.)

now all professional writers, not just Diamond, know they are engaging in a conversation whenever they write something they wish to see published, which is why they infuse their prose (to the desired level) with rhetorical cues that acknowledge someone else has a rightful seat at the table: and that person, of course, is the reader. bottom line: if you want your writing to sing, to move with a kind of dynamism, you must ask yourself two things:
1. what question (either implicitly or explicitly) am i answering in my work?*
2. can my writing be read aloud? (which is another way of asking, is it conversational?)

and Franzen, for all his erudition, never elevates his prose past the point where it no longer sings when spoken. (a few years after reading The Corrections, i bought a used copy on cassette. i must have listened to the book at least twice. if anything, Franzen's style works even better when spoken.) but what does any of this have to do with the caption for "Farther Away"?

well, look at the particular way in which the caption plays to the notion that all writing is form of conversation and thus needs to engage the audience in a type of back-and-forth, question-and-answer.

The uninhabited island was named for a marooned eighteenth-century adventurer who likely inspired the first English novel. I thought I’d strand myself there and read it.

Franzen is smashing two disparate ideas together: a decidedly inhospitable place, and his choice to take residence there. this disjunction opens a crater-sized lacuna in our minds, a gap caused by what we'd assumed given the content of the first sentence and what was actually revealed in the second. the only way to resolve this cognitive dissonance, then, is to ask, why would anyone willfully strand him or herself on an uninhabited island?

and thus we waltz, as if on cue, right into Franzen's essay, which is nothing if not the answer (the bridge, the missing information) to the question the disjunctive caption sets up.

the real value in looking so closely at Franzen's technique, we know, is that one way to improve our own work is to study (not the thematic meaning of literature but) the parts that go into its production. as an exercise, then, i thought it might be useful to come up with our own disjunctive captions. remember, though, the test of its success (using Franzen's as the gold standard) hinges on whether or not your caption seems to play on opposites, on reversal.

here is my attempt:

Jens Lekman, a thirty-year-old singer-songwriter from Gothenburg, Sweden, is largely unknown outside certain indie pop circles. his music will change your life.

(my hope is that readers will then read the article to discover why such extreme disunity exists between Lekman's talent and his name-recognition.)

add your attempt at a disjunctive caption in the comment section.
* in a future post, i will offer a detailed guide on the way professional writers establish a conversational tone by framing their work as a response to an either implicit or explicit question.

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