Long Sentences: popular with writers, with readers, not so much

One of our blog readers noted the length of the sentences in WHEN THE KILLING’S DONE, the TC Boyle book that was the subject of our last blog. She, helpfully, sent along some examples like this one:

It was May of 1979 and all the good feelings — the vibrations, the groove — of the shimmering bright era that had sustained her through every failure and disappointment had dwindled and winnowed and faded til she was angry all the time, angry at Toby for leaving her, angry at her daughter, angry at her boss and the landlord who wanted two hundred fifty bucks a month for a dreary clamshell-gray walkup over a take-out pizza shop on Route 1 in downtown Oxnard, where the fog hung like death over everything and the trucks never stopped spewing diesel fumes outside the window, which might as well have been nailed shut for all the air it gave her.

The example above is 118 words, a mere nothing when compared to the two sentences that comprise the famous Molly Bloom soliloquy in James Joyce’s ULYSSES (1922) which are 17 and 19 pages long. More recently, whole books have been written that are only one sentence long.

Long sentences can be hard for readers to deal with especially in the era of 140-character tweets. But writers love them. We were surprised to find that the Internet is full of Web Sites that teach how to write long sentences. In a 2010 essay in the New York Times, Ed Park writes, “there’s something about that slab of wordage that carries the eye forward, promising an intensity simply unattainable by your regularly punctuated novel.” Park is the author of PERSONAL DAYS, which ends with a 16,000 word (roughly 64-page) sentence.

Long sentences (like big words) can also be an affectation. Writers should have good, solid reasons to back up their use of them, such as point of view. Some characters, like Molly Bloom, simply don’t think in punctuated sentences. In other instances, long sentences can be necessary for wordflow, to create an ambiance or to convey difficult concepts.

In the case of T.C. Boyle, not all of his sentences are long. He breaks them up with shorter ones and the result is an ebb and flow, wonderfully appropriate in a book that is often set on the sea:

She was wearing an oversized cableknit sweater she’d fished out of her husband’s locker because the cabin was so cold, and every fiber of it seemed to chafe her skin as if she’d been flayed raw while she slept. She hadn’t brushed her hair. Or her teeth. She was having trouble keeping her balance, wondering if it was always this rough out here, but she was afraid to ask Till about it, or Warren either.