I attended a workshop recently by a successful author who gave out lots of fine advice along with this: ‘Get rid of all adverbs and adjectives. They are unnecessary. Bad writing.’ (Presumably she should have cut ‘bad’ from that description and we’d be left with the core villany: writing.)
My hackles rise at the suggestion that any word or collection of words must be outlawed. There’s no such thing as a bad word, just poorly judged use of it. Writing without adjectives would be like music without chords. It’s oh so trendy to scorn them right now, so here’s a look at what these underdogs can do for us.
When Nick sees Gatsby standing on the threshold to his mansion, he describes the man’s gorgeous pink rag of a suit. When I first read that – actually every time I read that description still - I get a sting of envy, like an electric shock, that those three ordinary words could be strung together to such effect.
Gorgeous. Nick says elsewhere that there is something ‘gorgeous’ about Gatsby. The word hints that Nick might have some desire for the man – if not explicitly erotic then at least they explain his adamance at siding with Gatsby against Tom Buchanan’s fortress of wealth and class that first casts Gastby aside as worthless, then allows him to shoulder blame for a death he caused. Nick admires the man for who he is and has chosen to become despite starting out in life with so much less than Nick's set.
Pink is genius here. Not a manly word. Not a worldly man, Gatsby. There is something naïve about him to the end, in his desire to retrieve Daisy, to be accepted by such a brutish ruling class. Pink makes him vulnerable, like scrubbed and naked flesh, but it has the suggestion also of a character stain – bit pink that Gatsby – a commie or a sissy – something one ought not be.
Rag. OK, not strictly an adjective but used here as a description – again – the word works so hard but looks effortless, like the finest acrobats. It reminds us that Jay Gatsby is common lad James Gatz – penniless and aspirant. But it also suggests the carelessness with which he now holds his wealth – oh this old rag, that probably cost the average annual wage of his blue collar family. And it finally echoes ragtime which fell out of favour at the outset of the jazz era, in which Fitzgerald writes. Gatsby is out of place.
If anyone’s still reading they may well argue that I’ve over-thought this, and I doubt Fitzgerald put the words together craftily with these meanings in mind. But well-placed adjectives radiate meanings, not all apparent but subtle and layered. To me adjectives (and vulgarity – but that’s a different blog) are the literary equivalents of spice. They can make or break a narrative voice. Over-liberal and they wreck a dish but put together carefully, unusually yoked, they have a resonant energy. Like thyme with nutmeg or juniper with chilli.
My personal guideline on them is that I take out all the describers that amplify – that say more of the same about the verb or noun they describe. So out goes ‘tiny’ if coupled with baby. Duh. Babies aren’t notably tiny. Mostly they come out that way. ‘Old’ can’t stay in front of granny unless it’s out on special license from Andy Stanton. And so on. But describers which modify, which lead the reader away from the assumed familiar and make them see it with fresh vigour – they stay in. Colossal baby, young granny tell us a story, they make the reader ask questions of these rarer more intriguing variants from the norm. And if as readers our minds are ticking, if we’re asking eager questions, then we’re more than half-way hooked.