Of course I was moved by The Grapes of Wrath, though I think East of Eden was a superior novel.
And Of Mice and Men? Who wasn’t reduced to blubbering at Lenny’s sorry fate? I sure was!
So this post is not to impugn the renowned and honorable John Steinbeck, champion of the dispossessed and travel companion of a dog named Charlie, among other estimable virtues.
It is only to hold up the fact, in graphic detail pertaining to one short sentence of Steinbeck’s prose, that writers don’t always get it right, that they most always benefit from conscientious editing, and that sometimes, even writers as gifted as Steinbeck, rewarded for their talents and toil by being assigned accomplished and decently paid editors, can fail and then be failed by those editors as well.
To such a degree, as a matter of fact, that the following kind of sentence can occasionally sneak past the sentries guarding against ambiguity and wind up in print forevermore, all its shortcomings laid bare for all the (discerning) world to see.
The offending line, straight from page 182 in my hardback 1961 printing of The Winter of Our Discontent:
“In early June the world of leaf and blade and flowers explodes, and every sunset is different.”
Sounds, on the surface at least, like a lyrical, pleasant, and at the very least harmless enough sentiment, doesn’t it? So much so that if you Google the entire sentence you will get pages and pages of citations, most all of them of the “Beautiful Quotes” variety, cited in blogs, literary websites, Facebook pages and quote collections right there with other lines that are supposed to warm our souls and deepen our appreciation of the natural world.
There’s a problem, however. The content of the sentence, if Steinbeck means what I suspect he means, though one can’t be positive he does, is flat-out wrong.
And that’s not the only problem. Another is that the second clause, “and every sunset is different,” is deeply ambiguous, a muddle of opacity, unmoored from any referent that would ground it in answering the elemental question, “Different from what?”
Is he saying merely that every individual sunset in early June (let’s make June 14 the cut-off line for “early”) is different from the 13 others that occur at that time of the year?
Or different as a collective than the other 351 sunsets of the year, all of which are different, too, in their own way, but which don’t much resemble early June sunsets?
Or different because early June sunsets are unique individual presentations, while sunsets all the rest of the year suffer from a depressing sameness?
The answer is difficult to discern, given how the second clause just hangs there at the end of the sentence, listless and lost.
I think he means the third possibility above: that early June sunsets are unique, which clearly implies that the other 351 sunsets tend to look alike. But that compels me to ask of readers: Have you noticed any such repetitiveness in the sunsets you have beheld in your life when it wasn’t early June?
I will hazard a guess to say, No, you have not. The assertion itself seems ridiculous.
Sure, every sunset in early June is different from the others, but that’s just as true in late July or mid-September or deep in December, because no two sunsets, like no two snowflakes, are ever exactly the same. December sunsets can differ from one another every bit as much as those in June. Sunsets elicit gasps of appreciation and are different, sometimes dramatically so, sometimes subtly, at every time of year. Everyone with a lick of sense and attentiveness knows this.
Steinbeck makes this bland assertion as a kind of pretty word-painting, even though it is fundamentally wrong and therefore meaningless. Where, pray tell, was his editor, saying, “Uh, John…?”
People often mistake editing for simply correcting spelling, punctuation and obvious grammatical errors, like a glorified word processing program that helpfully underlines your possible mistakes. But that’s proofreading, which is included in editing, but is not its main point.
Far more importantly, editing saves writers from not-incorrect-but-flabby writing of the type seen in this rather renowned Steinbeck quote. It challenges the writer to be more precise, to defend bland assertions with cogent evidence or reasoning, to say what she means and mean what she says.
No reputable editor should have accepted this line from Steinbeck without underlines and arrows challenging the assertion itself and then asking him to more precisely state its intended meaning.
Yet the line was published as is and has now been anthologized in countless venues, to warmly approving nods. This begs another question: Does good, precise writing actually matter anymore? (Did it ever?)
Every literary person knows that good editors can save bad writing, but does bad writing really need to be saved if bad readers can’t really tell the difference between good and bad, precise and maddeningly imprecise writing?
In the quote cited above, I suspect readers are reeled in with the pleasant poeticism of the first clause, and are mostly asleep or uncaring by the time they get to the ambiguity and questionable accuracy of the second clause. “You had me at ‘the world of leaf and blade,’” they might have dreamily said to Steinbeck, riffing off of Renée Zellweger’s iconic line in the movie Jerry Maguire.
They shouldn’t have been so easily seduced.
Not sure when this sunset compilation was filmed, but I can guarantee you not one of them is like another…
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
All sunset photos by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/