I’m founding a new school of literary criticism. You read it here first!
It’s easy, and anybody can do it. So I expect a big following.
I’m calling it Tefcro. Or perhaps TefcroTM so I can get rich and famous from it. You think?
Anyhow, here it is:
Some writing is TeflonTM, some is VelcroTM.
No, the writing is not made of either Teflon or Velcro. This is literature we’re talking about, so I’m using a MetaphorTM.
Teflon writing is smooth, polished, gemlike. You can admire it, but it doesn’t reach out to you. It leaves you in peace.
Velcro writing, on the other hand, grabs you, sticks with you, changes you. It isn’t necessarily pretty to look at, but it gets hold of you and shakes you up.
Who is a Teflon writer? Edgar Allan Poe, to take an obvious example. Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” explains how he coolly designed “The Raven” to evoke maximum sadness and melancholy. Maximum indeed, but it is maximum delight rather than sadness. We are more likely to crack a smile than drop a tear at the shriek in his penultimate stanza:
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked upstarting–
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! – quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the raven, – “Nevermore.”
Poe is a magician who pulls lines out of his hat and then for our added pleasure explains how it’s done. We applaud, but we aren’t drawn in.
Compare that with the work of the ultimate Velcro writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps the ultimate Velcro statement is the beginning of Will’s Sonnet 73:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
The unsuspecting reader finishes the first line without difficulty, ready to be told which season of the year best corresponds with the poet’s time of life. And the first three words of the second line seem headed for a simple metaphor: “I look like I’m in the autumn of my life.”
But then comes the twist. The speaker withdraws that first metaphor in favor of a colder one, the season when trees have no leaves left.
And scarcely has the reader time to adjust to this new picture when yet another comes along. This time it isn’t no leaves, but few. Ah! Almost winter, but not quite.
Even then, the metaphor isn’t settled. In line 4 the leaves and boughs transubstantiate into stony ruins.
Shakespeare could have placed “few leaves” in the reader’s path from the beginning of the second line. But his Velcro pulls the reader in. The reader is dragged into the poet’s workshop and batted around like a tennis ball.
His contemporary Ben Jonson recognized it. “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, Would he had blotted a thousand.”
We TefcroniesTM think, on the other hand, maybe there was method in Shakespeare’s madness. Velcro method.
Got the idea? Here are a few more literary pairs that I’ll leave you to elucidate:
Alexander Pope, Teflon – Jonathan Swift, Velcro.
Emerson, Teflon – Thoreau, Velcro.
William Carlos Williams, Teflon – T.S. Eliot, Velcro
Which is better, Teflon writing or Velcro? Well, the greatest writers tend to be Velcro, but so are the worst, the authors who can barely write and who drag editors into the murk. In between, the authors of beach reading, mysteries, and popular best-sellers generally are Teflon.
Teachers and scholars like Velcro writing because it calls for explication, while Teflon writing doesn’t need to be interpreted by an expert.
It’s not just literature where the difference shows up. A used car dealer in my town once had a sign “LINCLON LAND AUTO.” It was hard to resist the Velcro pull to stop in and make the correction.
OK, Tefcronies, it’s your turn. Who’s Teflon and who’s Velcro?