Highway to Hell

In his book On Writing, Stephen King famously said, ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs.’ I happened to hear someone invoke this dictum on a recent occasion due to the use of a single adverb in a sentence someone else had written, the use of which she found objectionable. This person then went on to further invoke Stephen King’s equally famous metaphor comparing adverbs to dandelions overtaking a lawn and turning it into an unsightly mess.

So with all that in mind, let’s have a little pop quiz. Please identify the following three (3) examples:

1) ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’

2) ‘So we beat on, boats against a current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

3) ‘And now, when Danforth and I saw the freshly glistening and reflectively iridescent black slime which clung thickly to those headless bodies and stank obscenely with that new, unknown odor whose cause only a diseased fancy could envisage — clung to those bodies and sparkled less voluminously on a smooth part of the accursedly resculptured wall in a series of grouped dots — we understood the quality of cosmic fear to its uttermost depths.’

O.K. Time’s up. Pencils down, please. The answers are as follows:

Example Number One is the opening line to Ulysses, by James Joyce. Example Two is, of course, the famous last line of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And the final example (with my italics) comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s 1936 novella, At the Mountains of Madness.

As one can see from these and other examples throughout their works, Messrs. Joyce and Fitzgerald did not shy away from adverbs. And as for Lovecraft (I threw H.P. in there for the fun of it), as a writer he positively wallows in amongst all those adverbs like a contented pig in a ripe-smelling slop.

Now I can already see some hands rising at the back of the classroom. Yes, the word ‘stately’ from Example One is also an adjective. So the argument could be made that ‘stately’ is merely the first of two adjectives describing the character Buck Mulligan. Yet the argument can also be made that the word ‘stately’ is modifying the participial phrase ‘bearing a bowl of lather,’ so that the sentence might read: ‘Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing in a stately manner a bowl of lather…’, etc.

My point is not whether ‘stately’ in this instance is an adjective or an adverb — it’s most likely an adjective, but then Joyce loved words that could do double- or triple-duty in a sentence. Nor with such a close reading of the very first word of Ulysses do I mean to mock Stephen King; Joyce just seems to invite such readings. No, my beef isn’t with Stephen King, it’s with any and all hard-and-fast rules governing usage.

I have no issue with King’s proscription against the overuse of adverbs. (For one obvious instance of this, see Example 3 above; and yet, as always, half the fun of reading Lovecraft derives from his frothing-at-the-mouth, Gothic excess.) A writer must use every arrow in her quiver, of which, in the right circumstances, the adverb can number among the more effective, even lethal — in a purely aesthetic sense, of course.

As I see it, the enemy isn’t adverbs. The enemy is absolutes. So that if one were to write it out as an equation, it might read something like this:

Hard-and-fast rules = formula.

And, Formulaic writing = boredom.

Therefore, Avoid hard-and-fast rules, as they lead to formula, which then leads to boredom. For if there is one absolute, hard-and-fast rule for any writer, it is never to bore the reader.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Highway to Hell

  1. Wes, you are wise but also laugh-out-loud funny in the process. After a day of editing, I really needed to read your post. Merci!

  2. Yes, anytime someone says that something shouldn’t be done, we can find a place in literature where the rule was broken–and done “purposefully.” I think it was Thurber’s piece that alerted everyone to the “adverb problem,” and while funny, I don’t think adverbs should be stricken from the lexicon. They serve their purpose “nicely” if used “judiciously.”

    Oh, and I hate it when people drop the “ly” when speaking, so they’re using an adjective when they really mean to use an adverb.

    Nice piece, Wes!

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