“Crystalline” isn’t a word that trips off my tongue these days. In fact I had to go to a print dictionary to check the spelling because spellcheck didn’t recognize it. It came to mind because I remembered using it in some publicity blurb I wrote over half a century ago for the original edition of Aubade. Publishers asked me to write my own blurbs in those days, even before I reached the age of consent.
“Crystalline” got me thinking about something I didn’t have room to discuss in the Intros I wrote for Aubade and Waiting for the Sky to Fall: the kind of writing that was admired then versus what’s admired now. The Belfast Telegraph, which never made a secret of hating my guts after I trashed my hometown in an interview in a London Sunday paper, still had to concede that Aubade was written with the “economy of a born writer.” I remember reading Kingsley Amis’s remark that he’d aimed for “crystalline prose” when he started out. He gave up on that ambition, which is just as well, because no prose is less crystalline that Kingsley’s.
So economical, clear and sparkling was the goal to aim for. But is Dostoyevsky crystalline? These days, is Dave Eggers crystalline? “Crystalline” derailed me for a long time, because it led me to pay more attention to how I wrote than to what I wrote. And it led me to get impatient with a book like Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March because it seemed messy. I think a broad rule of thumb is that as we get older, the more aware we are of the complexity of the world and human consciousness, the less economical, clear and sparkling our prose is likely to become. Maybe when we’re about to croak, and things start to look simple again . . . .