In “Long Story Short,” Dana Goodyear’s profile of Lydia Davis in The New Yorker this week (http://tinyurl.com/keaoath), she recounts Davis’s criticism of her book club’s latest selection (mercifully unnamed). Davis, a short story writer of some renown in the world of literary magazines and book prizes, complains that the author is guilty of employing “mixed metaphors.” While at first blush her dissection of the passages seems like smart writing talk, the sort of advice all of us soak up and then repeat to each other, something about it annoyed me. The more I thought about the examples, the more pedantic her criticism seemed. After a while, I was convinced these sentences were not “mixed metaphors” but something else altogether.
Davis had gone so far as to record the offending sentences in a notebook. The first example was “about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull,” Goodyear recounted. The second was about “ ‘a paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles,’ ” Davis said. “I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.”
For the record, the verb stuff (from the old French estoffe and Middle English stoffen) has nine meanings; the noun form of the word has seven. While most things that we stuff (fill) and most things that constitute stuffing are soft, not all of them are. Besides such examples as stuffing a turkey and the stuffing of a sofa cushion, we also stuff a ballot box (a hard object) with flat planes of paper, which is not exactly akin to breaded mounds of Thanksgiving stuffing or wads of polyester fill. We also say that we are “stuffed” when we eat too much and “stuffed up” when we have a cold. The first meaning in my 1936 Webster’s second edition of the verb to stuff is “to fill by crowding something into; to cram,” which sounds like the meaning this author intended.
As to the first example, the erosion of something acute into something dull does not, at first blush, seem particularly precise. To erode is from the Latin, erodere, to gnaw, and its definition is “to eat into or away; to destroy by slow disintegration,” with the application in physical geography of “to wear away, as land by the action of water.” The writer is saying that an acute intimacy had been gnawed into something dull; its sharpness had been worn away. If you think of this literally, a sharp knife is dulled by use, not by a rat chewing at it, although you might say an acute intimacy had rusted into something dull. But, in the sense of “slow disintegration,” it is not necessarily incorrect to say that something acute could disintegrate slowly into something dull.
It occurred to me that her criticism was as much about precision as comparison. Indeed, if these two examples employ metaphors, they are submerged ones at best. When I think of “mixed metaphors,” my mind turns to the sort of tangled-up expressions that The New Yorker loves to print in small type at the end of its articles, under the heading, “Block that Metaphor.” These sentences, usually from corporate memos or police reports, typically employ two or three analogies so hopelessly intertwined that the effect is humorous to those in the know, and confounding to their intended audiences. “By the first quarter of this year, our soldiers in Sales will take the field by storm and roll the red carpet at high pitch,” might be one example. By the end of the sentence, the poor sales employees have been fighting a war, playing football, premiering a movie and singing opera.
Lydia Davis’s insistence that all words must stay within their accustomed contexts, however, strikes me as deathly to prose. Mixing textures, contexts, and meanings can give us startling juxtapositions that keep writing fresh and alive. When pudding scratches your tongue, rocks waterfall onto your head, an air-conditioner feathers off a sill and onto the sidewalk, the concrete (things with edges: the flat, hard, heavy) meets the amorphous (things without edges: liquid, gel, fiber). (Out of necessity, I am being somewhat imprecise here – the opposite of concrete is really abstract – but a synonym for concrete is “hard” and “solid,” and I think the meaning is clear.) Contrasting the two injects writing with energy and tension, no matter – perhaps because of – how imprecise (or improbable) the comparison is.
Davis’s insistence on precise comparisons – that the verb stuffed must be reserved for the soft and pliable, that only dirt can erode – ignores the elasticity of language. If all comparisons followed this rule, hearts, which are made up of soft muscle and tissue, could not “break.”
Davis may have been correct that laziness and inattention to detail, not a conscious attempt to contrast the dissimilar, were behind our anonymous author’s use of “eroded” and “stuffed.” That does not mean, however, that we have to police our own writing for such juxtapositions to a fault. I’d rather write in a world of tension, where textures and senses mix, where language molds to new and surprising contrasts, than in a world where every word must stay within its literal confines of meaning.