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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

coherence, a willful entrapment of footnotes within footnotes or: some thoughts on cohesion and



i have my favorite authors (Gladwell, Krakauer, Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Michael Lewis, Hunter Thompson--feel free to stop me anytime), yet i'm not always certain why i love their work. is it their style? sure, but, what about their style do i find so effective? what's the operative ingredient at play in their prose? and is that even a valid question?

who knows. all i can say is that it's a valid question for people still looking to make the Great Leap Forward in their writing. we (correctly?) assume our favorite writers have discovered that special something which elevates language into art--and we hope by pinpointing that rare and elusive flame, we might ignite our own candles by their fire.

and i guess that's what separates mere "reading" from the more self-reflective "reading like writer": the former suggests an activity that's information and entertainment based, whereas the latter involves being less a consumer of the text and more a kind of "scout" or "researcher" (or even "borrower") of technique. and, come to think of it, that's what i love about the work of Gladwell, Krakauer, et al.: the feeling that--somehow, someway--i'm being transformed by their prose. and just as a writer. but also as a person.

here's all i know: we will never unearth the exact magic that runs through the Great Works of literature. yet we most certainly can grasp (and apply) some of the lesser (but still radically important) features of good writing.

with that in mind, i want to share what i've been focusing on lately: cohesion and coherence. for cohesion, the writer wants to make sure the sentences and paragraphs contain proper thematic ties (words and phrases that logically link and unify ideas). for coherence, an author seeks to strike a kind of pragmatic balance among the three points of the rhetorical triangle (writer, reader, text). for coherence, moreover, the author gives greater consideration to his or her audience, gives greater consideration to the purpose and exigence of the work.

we might even say, moreover, that coherence operates at the macro level: a zone where the author seeks (by the final draft, anyway) to present a cogent structure that unfolds not by simple free association but through a system suited to an underlying purpose. cohesion, on the other hand, operates at the more micro level: a space where the author seeks to unify his or her sentences using grammatical, syntactical, and mechanical (punctuation) ties.

now i personally find cohesion in writing much easier to achieve (after all, there are innumerable handbooks out there that--if you don't follow their rules too rigidly--can prove immensely helpful). coherence, however, can be much more challenging. i am not always sure whether i’ve chosen the correct structure to best unfold my ideas, the pattern that's the most helpful, most logical, most effective. yet i remain encouraged because, well, i enjoy the trial-and-error aspect of questing toward coherence, of trying out different structures in an effort to unfurl my ideas as sincerely and clearly and naturally as possible.

coda: for all my talk of cohesion and coherence, it might seem a bit counter-intuitive that my all-time favorite book is American Psycho, a novel of such unwieldy digressions and unreliability that some of the more tame moments occur when, say, the protagonist--the unforgettable Patrick Bateman--takes page after page after page to properly adumbrate the true "meaning" of Phil Collins.

and it also may not seem obvious why David Foster Wallace--whose style can be rightly labeled as a sort of willful entrapment of footnotes within footnotes--remains my favorite author of non-fiction.

to both, here's why: Ellis and Wallace are such deft masters of both cohesion and coherence that they intentionally fracture their narrative structures, consciously disturbing the text's linearity in an effort to mirror the thematic ends their work seeks to probe. click here to watch Wallace briefly explain this idea on Charlie Rose.

hope that helps.


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