Here we go again, featuring a toy machine that deserves three exclamation marks, an unusual word for a young pig, and a punctuation mark ‘also known as a dog’s cock’.
5. Beware of the exclamation mark!
Elmore says: ‘Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.’
The exclamation mark, Wikipedia helpfully explains, is also known as a screamer, gasper, startler or ‘dog’s cock’. Sounds like something you’d want to avoid, and Elmore’s advice should be followed to the letter by anyone hoping to write a gritty Western. And perhaps someone should tell Daljit Nagra about the fifth ‘golden rule’, although his latest collection, Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!, seems to be doing well enough.
Rather than representing an innate law of writing, though, Elmore Leonard simply lends a voice to a particular school of thought, a minimalist approach to writing which aims to make the writer disappear into the white space between the text. Of course, disappearing is a magic act too, just as the ‘fancy prose’ of writers such as Dickens and Nabokov is the literary equivalent of a tight-rope walk: the writer who spends hours redrafting in an attempt to minimize their influence is no closer to a ‘natural’ style than the writer who expands each sentence to accommodate their own bulging ego.
Reasons to ignore him (apart from Tom Wolfe):
Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast
She turned her head again and realized with a start of horror that they were using for their pillow the narrow grassy grave-mound of her old nurse.
‘Oh horrible!’ she screamed. ‘Horrible! Horrible!’
Dialogue is perhaps the most obvious place for an exclamation mark — screams do often end in ‘exclaimers’, and there are three here in just five words of prose as Fuschia rejects the advances of the scheming Steerpike. The Gormenghast trilogy is a fine example of linguistic maximalism, full of Gothic visions recounted in a rich, ornate style unafraid to take risks.
Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher
If need be, she hides her true feelings and says, ‘Pardon me. I’m getting off here.’ The approval is unanimous. She should leave the clean public vehicle at once! It’s not meant for people like her!
The Piano Teacher takes a perverse pleasure in refusing to make things easy for the reader. Erika Kohut’s story is bleak, occasionally hallucinatory and almost completely devoid of happiness. ‘I strike hard,’ says Elfriede Jelinek, ‘so nothing can grow where my characters have been.’ She won the Nobel Prize in 2004: the Academy can’t have been too put off by her frequent use of the exclamation mark, which appears roughly once every couple of pages in Joachim Neugroschel’s English translation.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
How now! A rat! Dead for a ducat, dead!
To be fair to Elmore, he’s talking specifically about prose in this rule (and presumably the other rules too, although any discussion of ‘rules of writing’ should be capable of stretching to cover Shakespeare). There’s a textual problem too: the frequency of Shakespeare’s exclamation marks depends heavily on who is transcribing the script, but the Arden version of Hamlet (as definitive as any) prints seven exclamation marks in the space of four lines in Act 3, Scene 4, when Hamlet stabs Polonius. The excess of exclamation marks indicates an emotional frenzy, and suggests to the actors involved that perhaps they can ignore Hamlet’s advice in Act 3, Scene 2 and allow themselves to be carried away by ‘the very torrent, tempest and, as I may say, whirlwind of … passion.’
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Oh you, veteran crime reporter, you grave old usher, you once popular policeman, now in solitary confinement after gracing that school crossing for years, you wretched emeritus read to by a boy! It would never do, would it, to have you fellows fall madly in love with my Lolita!
‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’ and Humbert Humbert doesn’t shy away from using an exclamation mark or several when describing the emotional peaks (and moral troughs) of his relationship with Dolores Haze. This scene, in The Enchanted Hunters, is a nightmarish (in)version of the wedding night (though it takes place early in the morning), replete with ‘nature studies — a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat’, although the ladies and gentleman of the readers’ jury would probably decide there was nothing natural about Humbert’s rape of ‘his’ Lolita.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
‘Witness! Eyewitness! The whole thing!’ But he was looking someplace else, like more around at people passing. ‘Seen it? I’m him!’
Time Magazine described Infinite Jest as an example of ‘Mad Maximalism’, and it’s perhaps the best contemporary example of an author managing to compress an entire imaginary world into a single novel. Exclamation marks are largely confined to dialogue, as in this Boschian nightmare of a scene featuring ‘psychotically depressed’ Kate Gompert, Ruth van Cleve and an ‘apparition’ in a blood-red coat, amongst other grotesques.