Noteworthy—David Vann

Among our favorite
ex-pat Alaskans, David Vann recently released the book he deems his best, Goat Mountain. Booklist agrees, calling it “his
finest, most contemplative work to date.”
As the starred review in
Library Journal notes, “Alaska-born Vann experienced catastrophic family
violence in his past, and his work has returned to this theme again and again,
this being his most ambitious exploration of the subject.” 
And just last weekend came the announcement that Vann’s previous novel, Dirt, had been selected from among 170 entries for the $50,000 St. Francis College Literary Prize.
Three years ago, Vann led our first 49 Writers Retreat at Tutka Bay. From among several noteworthy sessions, here are some of Deb Vanasse’s
notes from his lecture on language, based on a selection by Annie Proulx, who’ll
be the keynote speaker at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle.
  • Listing
    is a great way to compress content; an epic convention (from Greek and
    Roman) – compresses content, collapses time.  Also doesn’t fill in time.  Sentence fragments. 
  • You
    can divide the English language into grammar and content.  Morphemes not the same as words – they
    are the building blocks. 
    Grammatical parts organize; content parts are what Proulx (opening
    pages of The Shipping News) leaves in – nouns, adjectives, and active
    verbs.  She converts verbs to
    adjectives.  Using words as other
    than their normal parts of speech: 
    this makes language fresh. 
    Becomes foregrounded – readers tend to be automatons.  Cliches are bad b/c we get only the
    literal meaning.  Poor writers –
    readers can just skim.  As soon as
    something’s outside of its usual position – you’re required to pause. 
  • Style
    is choice.  There are different ways
    to present something:  the kinds of
    sentences, whether things are foregrounded and not in their usual
    spots.  Style is the combination of
    choices – syntax, phonology, lexicon; voice is the combination of that and
    the sensibility (attitude toward the world) – voice is bigger.
  • Basic
    distinctions of style:  language
    divides into Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and Latinate lexicon and meter.  Each has its own vocabulary and metrical
    properties.  1066 is the most
    important date in English literature. 
    Latinate meter in Aeniad is accentual syllabic (dactile: heavy
    stress, two soft stresses). 
    Metrical line arranged by the kind of metrical pattern in each foot
    plus the number of syllables. 
    Everything declined and marked. 
    Sentence order didn’t matter – much more flexible than Germanic,
    which had only accentual meter:  two
    heavy stresses and then two more (number of syllables doesn’t
    matter).  Poets can use either
    paired heavy stresses (accentual meter) or iambic pentameter (Latin) to
    satisfy readers.
  • Chaucer
    – first to write verse in Middle English instead of Latin or French.  Class divide in our language:  German is low; refined is French
    (example:  cow v. beef).  Instinctive class divide can be used for
    jokes:  Latinate sentence with crude
    German word thrown in for fun. 
    (Ex:  mad libs – swaps
    content with grammar; not fun to switch out grammar).  Grammar is our glue and we can’t process
    if grammar is switched.  Double
    heritage:  high/low vocab; double
    metric schemes.  Language use –
    simplify distinctions; tough words go away.  Hymns forced full ideas into single
    lines – destroyed language over time. 
    English made difficult sounds vanish; French – we’ve shortened sounds.  Chaucer’s initial lines:  Latin meter.  Over time, lost vowels, lost
    aspirations.  Language deteriorates,
    but English is still the beefiest.
  • Annie
    Proulx is one of our best stylists. 
    She matches style to content. 
    In first two pages, she heaps up content, cuts out grammar.  Favoring content over grammar, favoring
    Germanic over Latinate.  These two
    pages are among David’s favorite in contemporary writing.  Emphasis and foregrounding in last
    sentence on page 3, providing a snapshot of the rest of the book – theme.  Points of emphasis are about the meaning
    of the book and the character.  Similar
    moment to Faulkner:  this sentence
    tells us how to read the rest of the book; it will work through the
    landscape.  The book is a love
    story.  The sludge could be his
    thoughts, but it could also be his heart. 
    We get some sympathy for Quoyle. 
    We can’t reduce it to a one-to-one correspondence.  Syntactic departure – David’s theory is
    that the beautiful is not just in content, but it’s created by
    syntax.  There are road signs to
For a study of
voice and its impact on writing, Deb Vanasse will be teaching a four-week workshop “Sound and Fury: Find and Free Your Writer’s Voice,” beginning Oct. 17.
Scroll to Top