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The Art of X-Ray Reading
How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing
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Where do writers learn their best moves? They use a technique that Roy Peter Clark calls X-ray reading, a form of reading that lets you penetrate beyond the surface of a text to see how meaning is actually being made. In The Art of X-Ray Reading, Clark invites you to don your X-ray reading glasses and join him on a guided tour through some of the most exquisite and masterful literary works of all time, from The Great Gatsby to Lolita to The Bluest Eye, and many more. Along the way, he shows you how to mine these masterpieces for invaluable writing strategies that you can add to your arsenal and apply in your own writing. Once you’ve experienced X-ray reading, your writing will never be the same again.
Table of Contents
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Where Writers Learn Their Best Moves
Where do writers learn their best moves? They learn them from a technique I call X-ray reading. They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do. But in their reading, they see something more. It's as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.
This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text. There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us. Through a form of reverse engineering, a good phrase used by scholar Steven Pinker, they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page—effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain. These working parts are then stored in the writer's toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box—rhetoric.
Let's get to work.
Please put on your new X-ray reading glasses so we can examine the titles of a couple of famous literary works. The first is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), by T. S. Eliot. (The poet died in 1965, my senior year in high school, when I became the keyboard player in a rock band called T. S. and the Eliots.)
"Prufrock" is widely considered one of the great poems of the twentieth century, and I encourage you to read it for the first time, or again, to see if my claims about the title ring true. The poem is, most of all, a poignant reflection on the losses brought on by aging. The protagonist is torn between the lingering longings of youth—romance, sexual energy, creativity, social prominence—and his sense of himself as an old man. He wonders if women at social gatherings, discussing Michelangelo, will notice him; he shrinks in stature and wears his pants rolled up at the cuffs; he worries whether his dentures will allow him to eat a peach. He looks back to see how his life has been "measured out," a wonderful poetic phrase, and all he can see is coffee spoons.
Those are the dramatic and thematic outlines of the poem, but how did Eliot create them? If we can answer that question, perhaps we can begin to know some of the things he knew as a writer. Maybe there will come a time when we can reach for that knowledge and write a title to a text that draws on the same creative energy used by Eliot.
So what is the source of that energy?
My X-ray vision reveals that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a title built upon a tension, a friction, a rub between two dramatically different phrases, two radically different kinds of language.
Write down some of the associations you make when you hear the phrase "love song." My list contains courtship, romance, flirtation, beauty, serenade, youthful exuberance, hope, longing, music, poetry. The range of associations—writers call them connotations—can be wide. A Shakespeare sonnet is a love song: "My love shall in my verse ever live young." But so is "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)," by the Swingin' Medallions.
So who is the persona created by Eliot to sing his love song? Does he have a poetic name such as Marvell, Wordsworth, or Longfellow? No: his name is J. Alfred Prufrock. Make a list of things that come to mind when you read or hear that name. My list includes banker, academic, attorney, businessman, bureaucrat. Nothing defies romance like a name that begins with a first initial followed by a full middle name. John A. Prufrock sounds more regular than J. Alfred Prufrock, which tiptoes near a parody of cold British fussiness. And then there is Prufrock, a name in full defiance of "love song." Passion and fervor are neutralized by the empiricism of Pruf (proof) anchored to the hardness of rock. Read another way, that last name might divide as Pru-frock—someone who wears prudish or prune-ish garb, a shrinking old man who wears his trousers rolled up so he won't step on them.
The tension can be felt in the very letters. The first phrase—"love song"—hooks up the liquid consonant l with the sexy sibilance of s. In contrast, Prufrock links a plosive p with the fricative k sound. Combined, the effect is like a great wave of sea and sand crashing onto a boulder-blocked shore.
See what happens when you put on those X-ray glasses? You are cured of the myopia of common reading. Beyond clarity, you gain an inner vision of literary effects, at its best psychedelic, kaleidoscopic, and 3-D. You are beginning to see as a writer.
Let's say you've learned that lesson—that a gifted writer may create a title in which two key elements collide. You now see titles in a new way. Another Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann, penned a novella entitled Tonio Kröger, published in 1903. This was one of the first stories I read in college under the tutelage of a brilliant young scholar named Rene Fortin. (He also assigned "Prufrock" as part of our required reading.) He taught us how to pay special attention to moments of tension in a text.
Such tension was easy to find in the character of Tonio Kröger, a young man torn between the influences of his German father and Italian mother. He imagines his life as an artist, a life of sensual creativity, the part he inherited from his mother. But he has elements of his father in him, too—a German banker whose life, however dull, offers the promise of stability and financial security.
"I want you to feel that tension in Tonio Kröger," lectured Fortin. "Feel that collision between the coldness of his northern European heritage and the heat from the Mediterranean south. It's there before your eyes, there before you read the first word of the story." We had no idea what he was talking about, but he was right: there it was in the title itself—Tonio Kröger. Italian versus German. Long, open vowels versus umlaut and hard consonants. An artist's first name versus a banker's last name. To my ears, Tonio has the sound of a romantic character in an Elizabethan play. Kröger sounds like a form of currency.
X-ray reading not only gives you deeper reading knowledge, it also gives you a writer's knowledge. Think now of all the authors who have created titles, popular and literary, in which two elements don't feel as if they belong together. My favorites include:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Catcher in the Rye
To Kill a Mockingbird
"Leda and the Swan"
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Great Gatsby
But to those classic works of literature I would add popular ones such as the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling's powerful young wizard has an English king's nickname and a common tradesman's last name. How about popular reality shows such as Duck Dynasty and Amish Mafia? My favorite title, as you may know by now, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the savior of mankind, the one who defeats the forces of evil, is not a Conan or a Van Helsing but a blond teenage Valley Girl named Buffy. It is as odd a title as if Melville had made his famous whale purple and named it Moby Grape (actually the name of a 1960s San Francisco–based country-rock band).
Hey, I want to play.
I heard that one of the top executives at Little, Brown—my publisher—had been reluctant to publish my book on the elements of language, a sequel to Writing Tools, until he was dazzled by my title, The Glamour of Grammar. There you go again. What could be less glamorous than the common perception of grammar? And yet at one time in the history of English, they were the same word, as odd a combination as if T. S. Eliot had named his love song "Tickle Me, Elmo."
The idea for this book was born during the summer of 2013 on the Long Island Railroad. Because the new film version of The Great Gatsby had just come out, I was reading the novel for the sixth time. Six readings, as you will see in the next chapter, really tunes up your X-ray vision. By the time I arrived at Little, Brown's offices on Park Avenue, I was on fire with new insights into this classic American novel. My personal copy was marked up with circles, arrows, and endless notes in the margins.
"It's as if you were undressing Gatsby," said my editor, Tracy Behar.
"Undressing Gatsby," I repeated.
"That could be the title of your next book," she said.
"Undressing" was Tracy's sweet synonym for "X-ray reading." My slight preference for X-raying comes from a desire to see the skin of the story—yes, freckles, pores, hair follicles, and all. But I also want to be able to see the bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, organs, and all the inner workings of the body.
We will begin by undressing Gatsby, then Lolita, then twenty-three more classic and influential works of literature. Many of you will be familiar with these works, even if you read them back in your high school or college days. I hope you will be inspired to read them again. If you have not read them, or even if you have never heard of them, not to worry. I will provide enough in the way of summary, background, and direct quotations for you to catch up and keep up. Following each X-ray reading will be what I call moments of discovery transformed into lessons. These are writing strategies that can be extracted from the text for immediate placement in your toolshed. Once you experience these moments, your reading and your writing will never be the same.
Power of the Parts
Like so many others, I was introduced to The Great Gatsby in high school—just about the time the Beatles arrived in America. Because I went to high school on Long Island, I was curious about F. Scott Fitzgerald's transformation of Great Neck and Sands Point into West Egg and East Egg. Beyond that, the book was lost on me. I lacked the experiences of impossible love and incalculable wealth. I had not yet acquired the critical capacity to appreciate the book's lyrical sentences. When a teacher ranked it near the top of modern American novels, my response was, "You mean that's the best we can do?"
As I was writing this chapter, I heard National Public Radio book critic Maureen Corrigan testify to a similar lack of enthusiasm for Gatsby in her first high school reading, an opinion since transformed by her more than fifty readings of the book. Her experience led her to write a perceptive tribute to Gatsby, entitled So We Read On. I have at least forty-four readings to go until I catch up with her!
With age and multiple readings comes insight. What do I see in the novel that I was blind to fifty years earlier? The author remains the same (still dead); the text—in spite of disagreements among editors about the author's intentions—has been established (very much alive); so I, the reader, become the X factor. Or should I call it the X-ray factor? One change in me is significant. I now think of myself as a writer. What follows, then, is a practical reading of the text—not a grad student's or lit teacher's or postmodern scholar's—but a writer's reading of The Great Gatsby. What can I learn from the novel that I can apply to my next story? How can the book become for me—and for you—a mentor text?
I could choose countless passages to study, as many bright and shiny things to admire as decorated Gatsby's mansion. I could have great fun picking at the author's naming of people, places, and things; connecting the images related to eyes—from the faded billboard ad for the eye doctor to the owl-eyed man at Gatsby's funeral; discussing the archetypal tensions between the promised land and the wasteland, as experienced in the "valley of ashes"; studying Fitzgerald's intentional elaborations on classic themes of American literature, patterns of individual and collective greed and renewal that can be traced back to Franklin, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman.
Instead of those, I'll start with the end, one of the most revered passages in literature, so revered that the 2013 movie version spelled it out on the screen. To fully appreciate it, you might borrow a trick from my old friend Steve Lovelady and copy it out by hand. "I want to get the feel of what it's like to have that prose flowing through my fingers," he would say. This passage is four paragraphs long, the 273 words coming from narrator Nick Carraway, who stretches out on the shore of Long Island Sound and gazes out at the water:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Before I answer the big structural question—where did that ending come from, and how does it fit in with the whole?—I want to spend some time with its fine details, an X-ray reading meant to discover some of the strategic treasures inside, treasures that could brighten the work space of any writer.
COMMON OBJECTS WITH DEEP MEANINGS
One of my first great literature teachers was a Catholic priest named Bernard Horst, who taught us two key lessons that have stuck with me since high school. "Boys," he said during a reading of a Robert Frost poem, "sometimes a wall is more than a wall. Sometimes it's a symbol." But when we started seeing symbols everywhere, he cautioned: "Careful, boys: a symbol need not be a cymbal."
So is that ferryboat out on Long Island Sound a symbol? If so, it does not crash or sizzle in our consciousness like a drummer's cymbal in a jazz band. That ferryboat is much more subtle stuff—a half symbol, perhaps, or maybe just a normal object that in the context of the story is fraught with connotation.
Rides on ferries remain part of the life of many who live on Long Island and in the New York City metropolitan area. The Staten Island Ferry may be the most famous, but ferryboats still carry passengers across the Long Island Sound from towns such as Port Jefferson and Orient Point to places in Connecticut.
The problem that confronts the curious reader, of course, is that the ferryboat is also an ancient literary type. In Greek and Roman mythology—and in Dante's Inferno—the dead (and sometimes the living) travel via ferry down into the underworld, also known as Hades, or hell. The ferryman has a name, Charon, and, if you pay him, he will carry you in his boat across the river Styx, which divides the world of the living from the world of the dead. In ancient Greece, coins were placed in the mouth or on the eyes of a dead person to provide "cab fare" for the journey into the next world.
In other legends a dead hero—King Arthur, for instance—is placed on a boat, loaded with riches for the next world, then buried or cast off to sea.
Let's remember what precedes this passage: the murder of Gatsby and a depressing funeral, attended by a handful of people. The appearance of the ferryboat at the beginning of this passage strikes a somber note. It denotes, then connotes, a journey through darkness, the end of life as we know it, followed by transport into an uncertain future.
Islands are celebrated in life and in literature, perhaps because great cultural centers—Japan, England, and Manhattan—are islands. Think of all the jokes and riddles and stories you know about being lost or abandoned on a desert island, from Robinson Crusoe to Gilligan's Island. Think Treasure Island. Think Lord of the Flies. And remember that, according to John Donne, no man—or woman—is an island.
Islands are natural microcosms, little worlds inhabited by a limited number of players, whose actions, values, and behaviors come to represent universal conflicts. Long Island is a very distinctive island shaped like a fish, more than one hundred miles long and twenty miles wide. It takes up most of the distance between the Empire State Building and the Montauk lighthouse. It is so big, in fact, that it does not serve as much of a small symbolic universe for Fitzgerald. His preference is to go smaller, not with one but two miniaturized worlds in conflict: East Egg and West Egg, where old-money and new-money interests clash.
Like many great writers, Fitzgerald is tuned in to what I might call symbolic geography, not just in the settings of the two Eggs but also in the journey (by auto or train) from Long Island to Manhattan through an industrial wasteland referred to as the valley of ashes. The road between mansions and skyscrapers turns out to be a journey through the underworld, a descent into hell. Only bad things happen to characters who end up there or pass through it.
The simple mention of the Dutch sailors, European explorers who settled New Amsterdam, evokes the mixed heritage of Western history, in which the "new found land" is imagined as a paradise found, a place of endless territory, wealth, and possibility. It will flower for the new settlers trying to escape their pasts in the Old World, but the virgin land will be deflowered by violence and greed.
Authors have lots of ways to help the reader understand what they think is really important. They do it by word choice, for example, or word order. They do it by repetition. Smokey Robinson wrote "My Girl" for the Temptations and created such an effective lyrical hook that the phrase is repeated more than thirty times in a song that lasts less than three minutes. Yes, damn it, he's talkin' about "my girl, my girl, my girl…"
I learned this lesson—call it the echo effect—in my first college literature class. We were reading one of those thick Russian novels, and our professor asked us to analyze a passage in which a character was disturbed by a fly. I remember going through the novel looking for some clue to unlock this passage, and the best I could do was make reference to an earlier passage in which another fly had made a cameo appearance. "To understand what was happening in this passage," I offered in class, "I thought I might compare it to the passage where the fly made an earlier landing." That was it. That's what the teacher was hoping we would discover.
At first glance, "green breast of the new world" appears to be Fitzgerald's synonym for the original unspoiled America, colonized by the European explorers and settlers. But there is something suggestive and troubling about that "green breast." There is an immediate tension, a rub, between the two words. A green breast is a surreal, almost unnatural thing—unless we are talking about Dalí paintings or cartoon ogres. Then we must ask, where do those words come from in the novel? What are their antecedents? The color green is easy, with its evocation of the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. That light is what T. S. Eliot would call the objective correlative, the object that correlates to all of Gatsby's regrets, dreams, and aspirations. Breast is more troubling. Is the word associated with the female objects of desire in the book—Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker? Early on, Nick describes the athletic Miss Baker as "small-breasted." But much later—and more shockingly and memorably—comes an image of violence and catastrophe, the effects of the hit-and-run killing of Myrtle Wilson: "… when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath." That phrase occurs on page 137 of my edition, late enough to be well remembered by a reader who encounters that "green breast" only forty-three pages later.
EXAMPLE TO MEANING
In 1939 a language teacher in Chicago published a book for his college students that remains a classic. The author was S. I. Hayakawa, an expert on semantics (the meanings of words), and the book was Language in Action. In that book, Hayakawa introduced to American readers a concept called "the ladder of abstraction." The basic notion was that you could think of a word or phrase—his was "Bessie the cow"—and you could place it near the bottom of the ladder, where words referred to concrete, specific things: "Sadie's wedding ring" or "the broken headlight on Karen's dark green 1966 Mustang convertible" or "that 1956 Mickey Mantle baseball card—the one with the bent corner—that Roy kept in an old shoe box in his attic for more than fifty years." These are objects that appeal to the senses. Gatsby's yellow car, Daisy's green light, Myrtle's bloody breast—all these would be placed at the bottom of Hayakawa's ladder.
What happens in life and literature, of course, is that these objects come to mean something more. Over time, they may take on new meanings. Perhaps the author chooses them to help the reader reach a higher understanding. Even without such authorial intention, the text can come to mean something at a higher level of abstraction. A hundred readers may come away with a hundred different ideas.
This passage in Gatsby begins with a sweeping recollection of the "vanished trees" that once seduced the European settlers with their majesty, beauty, and fecundity. This land will be ravaged by those settlers; the trees will disappear to make way for Gatsby's extravagant mansion; the natural world will be despoiled by the artificial.
The narrative suddenly gains altitude, the language soaring to the level of ideas, with phrases such as "transitory enchanted moment," "aesthetic contemplation," and "capacity for wonder." Such phrases stand atop the ladder of abstraction, inviting the reader to strive for some higher understanding of the characters in this particular story and their connection to the larger, deeper themes of American history and culture.
It astonishes me how Fitzgerald manages to compress the complex and contradictory concerns of American history and culture in a single passage. His main vehicle for this is a constant movement—from concrete to abstract, from particular to general. After offering us a contemplation of what the sailors must have felt when they encountered the islands and forests of the New World, the narrator connects that sense of "wonder" (and repeats the word) by recalling what Gatsby must have felt when he looked out at Daisy's dock and saw the green light.
Gatsby is seduced by a dream: that he can go back in time, erase the past, and begin again in the arms of Daisy. It is interesting to note the collision of colors here, the proximity of the green light to the blue lawn. Shouldn't the lawn be green? Isn't grass green? Not in Gatsby's world. In his world of unnatural aspiration, the grass must be greener than green. It must be blue, as blue as the blood of aristocrats.
In rereading my 2004 edition of the book, published by Scribner, I thought I found a misprint: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future…" Orgastic? Is that even a word? I checked an earlier edition and found the word as I remembered it. Not orgastic but orgiastic. I looked up orgastic and found that it was an obscure synonym for orgasmic. It carried a meaning beyond sexual pleasure—a higher and deeper level of ecstasy. Did Gatsby believe in an ecstatic future?
According to Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli, the author indeed meant orgastic and discussed it with his editor, Maxwell Perkins. But in 1941, editor Edmund Wilson thought the word was an error and replaced it with orgiastic, which became the version known to a half century of readers. Fortunately, orgastic has been restored and was the word spoken by Nick Carraway in the movie. Why fortunately? Not just because it was the word the author intended but also because it is just the right word. Given the Jazz Age orgies of sex, booze, and excess described in the novel and magnified in the movie, it is easy to be seduced into thinking that Gatsby believed in an orgiastic future. But we know that he threw those parties for one reason and one reason only: to find Daisy—or to create the circumstances in which she could find him. It was a much more personal ecstasy he believed in and was striving for.
RULES TO TOOLS
One of the delights of studying the work of a great author is to stumble upon glorious experiments in punctuation. Most of us learned punctuation prescriptively, as a set of rules that help point the reader to a particular meaning. Where do I pause? Enter the comma. Where is the thought completed? Enter the period, or what the Brits call the full stop.
Once a writer learns the conventions of punctuation, he or she is free to bend them for creative purposes. I often ask students in writing workshops to punctuate Henny Youngman's famous one-liner "Take my wife, please." Do a Google search and you will find these alternatives:
Take my wife. Please.
Take my wife—please.
Take my wife, PLEASE!
The urgency of pleading will determine the choice of punctuation.
From humor to art:
It eluded us then, but that's no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning——
- "Just when you think Clark, who has written some of the best books on the writer's craft, has covered everything related to the subject, he digs deep into literature and excavates a gold mine of artistic strategies for great writing....With lively, colorful writing and inspired practical advice, this guide earns a spot along with Clark's Writing Tools as essential reading for writers. Recommended for book lovers as well."—Kirkus (Starred Review)
- "This enjoyable book is perfect for students, writers, and anyone who wants to learn more about great literature." —Library Journal (Starred Review)
- "This is an infectiously enthusiastic guide to becoming an active reader, an homage to the wealth of meaning in great literature, and a striking demonstration of how that meaning can be transmitted from author to reader across centuries and oceans."—Publishers Weekly
- "Roy Peter Clark is a national treasure that needs to be mined aggressively" —DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University?s School of Global Journalism and Communication, USA Today
- "This book sits on the (well-oiled) hinge between close reading and manual. Roy Peter Clark, who knows a thing or two about the writer's trade, digs into passages of successful writing from King Lear to the Goon Squad in order to unearth such writerly tools as foreshadowing, wordplay, shock value, repetition, rhetorical tropes, soliloquy and many more. It's a delightful read and an illuminating method for beginner or pro."—Janet Burroway, author of Writing Fiction and Losing Tim
- "Any honest writer will tell you this: It's not tricks that make you better at crafting prose. It's reading. Lots of reading. Close reading. X-ray reading. Roy Peter Clark decodes brilliant passages so that we can not so much emulate them, but make our own magic."—-Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax and Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch
- On Sale
- Jan 26, 2016
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little Brown Spark