Why you should care
Because one man’s opinion on the verb may have gone too far.
Try writing a sentence without using a verb. Go ahead, we’ll give you a minute.
Couldn’t do it, could you? That’s OK, neither could we. But don’t call it impossible: Michel Dansel, under the nom de plume Michel Thaler, wrote an entire novel without the pesky part of speech in 2004. How much could you possibly write without what most of us consider a crucial part of speech? Le Train de Nulle Part (The Nowhere Train in English) is 233 pages long. Dansel isn’t the only one playing with our preconceptions about prose.
“Constrained writing” uses strict rules or patterns.
It can take many forms: postapocalyptic stories in a single sentence, a tragedy using a third grader’s vocabulary. Ernest Vincent Wright’s Gadsby, written in 1939, excludes the letter “e” altogether. Just think of it: 50,000 words, not one “e.” Inspired by Wright, Georges Perec, part of the literary movement Oulipo, managed to go 300 pages without an “e” in A Void. Harry Mathews’ Singular Pleasures tells 61 stories, each in a different style, in which 61 different people masturbate. (Some critics call the whole thing masturbatory.)
Why mess with perfectly good syntax? Dansel says that since he was a kid, he has viewed verbs as “punches in the face that can’t be avoided.” To him, they are “devoid of nuance, sensitivity, humor, emotional power and poetry.” (Upon publishing Nowhere Train, he actually threw the verb a funeral.) Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says constrained writing is a great exercise for writers, and points out that metered verses fall in the same category. That new (old) Dr. Seuss book? Constrained writing. Grant Faulkner, executive director of National Novel Writing Month, uses vowels and verbs, but writes his stories short. Very short: The author of Fissures, a collection of a hundred 100-word stories, likens supershort stories to poems but also points out their practicality. You can write a 100-word story in an email or a Facebook post, he says. “It’s like the perfect post.”
Not all wordsmiths are down with this kind of wordplay. Leslie Epstein, former director of Boston University’s creative writing program, calls Dansel’s verbless novel an “act of idiocy and despair.” Others write it off, no pun intended, as a stunt. Or a cop-out from doing the work required to create real literature.
But constrained writing isn’t all experimental, at least not in the sense of verbless novels. Most of us accept poetry as legit — just as most of us avoid poetry readings. And haiku and sonnets are nothing if not constrained writing. Bottom line, OZY is partial to people who work with words, however much they mess with them — or, like Dansel, dismiss certain types as “inert, stupid, soulless.” As Faulkner says, “Even if it is a literary stunt, they find meaning in it.”
Taylor Mayol contributed reporting.