Thursday, 14 July 2011

Narrative Masterclass - John Steinbeck

Even in a teaching day that involved Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale and Paradise Lost, this following passage stood out as a narrative masterclass from John Steinbeck.

It is interesting how frequently I feel myself pausing during a class and admiring a detail (sometimes a minor detail) so brilliant in its execution that it points the way to others. The following character is not a major one. Neither is it the first time he has been mentioned; neither is it the first time we've heard him speak. These are important: too many writers (are you paying attention, Mr Self?)hector the reader with a voluminous description the very second a character hoves over the narrative horizon; readers find themselves browbeaten into submission by adjectives and adverbs. Too often the authorial voice reveals everything, thus showing us nothing. Here the character has (a) been named previously near the start of this chapter, (b) already walked into the room on a previous page, (c) sat down - we've grown accustomed to their presence. This is 'Slim', from Of Mice and Men.

[H]e moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving, ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler's butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.

Foregrounding of events? Check. Lexis perfectly fitting and balanced? Check. Sentence styles matching vocal styles of character? Check. Poetic use of defamiliarising work-speech (I’m given to understand that this might be called deixis)? Check. Firm establishing of character? Check. Cryptic AND simple? Check.

We can all learn from that.


  1. Agreed.

    "Slim" would be an apt description of Steinbeck's prose. No words wasted, and no extra ones needed.

  2. Absolutely; he uses words like a scalpel. He achieves what Hemmingway thinks he did. Look how many poetic techniques slip under your radar in that passage; it's not 'simply' written - but it reads as if it were. Masterful.