“A Small Flame”
by Yiyun Li
from the May 8, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Folks were mixed at best when Li’s last story — “On the Street Where You Lived” (post here) — appeared in The New Yorker. Let’s hope she gets a warmer reception with “A Small Flame.”

As per usual, I’m just excited because a genuine short story writer is appearing in the pages this week, someone who has looked to William Trevor for inspiration. This story explicitly pays homage to my favorite William Trevor story (indeed, my favorite short story, I think) “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” (my thoughts here). According to Li’s interview with Cressida Leyshon (here), a week after Trevor died Li decided to write a story with a character named Bella (a slight variation on Belle, from Trevor’s story). That may be where the explicit homage stops, but I’m betting there’s more than a flavor of Trevor in “A Small Flame.” And from the interview we might expect some Hans Christian Andersen, Chekhov, and D.H. Lawrence as well.

It looks promising. And I am excited for the conversation below!

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2017-06-16T22:12:11-04:00May 1st, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Yiyun Li|37 Comments


  1. David May 4, 2017 at 8:18 am

    After reading this story I went back to look at my comments about her previous story, “On the Street Where You Live”. I was surprised to see that they pretty much summed up my reaction to this story as well, so let me quote myself: “If you read any single paragraph of this story in isolation you will probably get the strong impression that Li is a very talented writer” – Check. “Unfortunately, the story is just a jumble of ideas and moments that I suppose Li hoped might add up to some sort of cohesive whole ” – Check. “Individually the fragments seem like they could be part of some greater whole, but when we step back and look at it all together there might be nothing more than what we project is there.” – Check.
    In the case of this story, the many different ideas in the jumble seem to have more of the appearance of being connected in some ways. The story of the flower seller and Bella’s obsession with wanting to play the Little Match Girl are connected. (The picture accompanying the story hits that nail right on the head, in case we missed it.) Bella is travelling with two gay men and in the end we find out that Miss Chu has become an LGBT activist. So there is the superficial appearance that these bits are connected, but it is never clear how. The one part of the story that seemed by far the most interesting was the idea that her parents adopted her as a replacement for the “defective” child they first adopted. I wanted to hear more about that and less about the English club and Miss Chu.
    I decided to read the story again to see if it made better sense as a whole the second time and I found that it did. The issue of how Bella feels about her relationship to her parents and to the deaf girl she replaced (and never met) is brought out in a number of ways. Bella’s choice to leave China for the US, seeming to want to reject the privilege her parents’ status would give her and to start her own life with a new name is a result of how she feels about her origin story, if you will. The way Bella doesn’t remember playing the deaf girl game with Peipei, who does remember it shows the connection she felt to this other child. Even the transformation of Miss Chu and how Bella feels about it is connected to her own life transformation in some way.
    With all that the story still did not quite seem to come together fully. About “On the Street Where You Live” I wrote, “Li has a lot of very good parts of stories here, but they are more like a bag of colourful pieces from many puzzles than parts of one larger picture.” This time I would say after my second reading that it feels more like she is working entirely with pieces that all come from the same puzzle, but it is a 1000 piece puzzle and she has only given us 800 of the pieces. Just enough to see that they will make some picture when properly assembled and seen together, but not enough so that we know exactly what that picture is. I’d love for another reader of the story to point out that the other 200 pieces really are there and I just missed them, but I fear this might be still a little short of being the great story I think Li might be capable of writing.

  2. Roger May 4, 2017 at 8:41 pm

    Like “On the Street Where You Lived,” this unfortunately is expository, ruminative, and dull, by a writer who used to do so much better. I guess it’s a matter of taste, but memories, flashbacks, and copious self-analysis by a main character-narrator don’t strike me as making for compelling fiction. Sure, the main character, Bella, is sorry for herself, so there is some feeling here. But who wants to read a story where the predominant emotion is the protagonist’s self-pity? After the opening scene with a few character interactions, the rest is mainly a stack of digressions concerning Bella’s childhood friendship with Peipei, memories of her parents, her crush on her former schoolteacher, etc.

  3. Roger May 4, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    Second attempt to post this: Like “On the Street Where You Lived,” this unfortunately is an expository, ruminative bore by a writer who used to do so much better. I guess it’s a matter of taste, but memories, flashbacks, and copious self-analysis by a main character-narrator don’t strike me as making for compelling fiction. Sure, the main character, Bella, is sorry for herself, so there is some emotion here. But who wants to read a story where the only emotional note struck is the protagonist’s self-pity? After the opening scene with a few character interactions, the rest is a stack of digressions concerning Bella’s childhood friendship with Peipei, her parents, her crush on her former schoolteacher, etc. Yawn.

  4. Dennis Lang May 5, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Interesting comments Guys. I just read the story, so as usual just blurting an initial reaction.
    Personally I found the multiple threads leading in various directions, planting pieces of biography, past connections, and present relationships, tantalizing and rather thought-provoking.The first scene was wonderful and expressive of what follows. Love this line as the girl with the flowers :”vanished into the darkness, a swift and purposeful minnow.”
    It surely all adds up to a portrait of Bella, her self-consciousness, leaving mysteries intact as it should, tugging on these disparate elements.
    Also, kind of cool, we’ve been taken into several different cultures and sensibilities in a number of the recent “New Yorker” fictions: among them, Indian, Russian, now Chinese.

  5. William May 5, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    I’m with David and Roger on this one,. Particularly when Roger wrote:

    “memories, flashbacks, and copious self-analysis by a main character-narrator don’t strike me as making for compelling fiction.”

    The lack of something other than self-involved rumination in this story is especially striking compared to the three good stories with external action that we’ve just had — Lara Vapnyar, Akhil Sharma and David Means. In all three of those stories the main action was what the narrator observed in another person. This one by Li is more like something by Lauren Groff.

  6. William May 5, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    I just wanted to add — a story told from Miss Chu’s viewpoint might have been more interesting. Skip the whole thing about Adrian and the other guy, have Bella look up Miss Chu, then give the narrative to Miss Chu.

  7. Dennis Lang May 6, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Hmm…. Are you saying that a character examining her own past “internally”–observing herself– as it intersects with the present can’t be good fiction or just that you found this one kind of boring?
    Again, I wonder as we sometimes write about a story’s effect on us (or lack of) we just would have preferred the author wrote a different story, the one “we” would have written.

  8. William May 6, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Dennis —

    What is this? Are you trying to make me think? Ugh. Ow. That hurts.

    OK, Here is my answer: A qualified Yes: I do think that a story consisting of only self-examination can’t be good fiction. “Qualified” because I’m basing that answer on the examples of what I consider good writing that come immediately to mind. And the fact that I don’t know any good writing that fits that definition.

    (I believe that I just set myself up for people to bring out examples that I didn’t think of. That’s OK — bring it on. Only not A la recherche, please. I’ve never read it.)

    I understand what you mean about preferring the author had written another story. I would have preferred that in this case, but I don’t think that is why I didn’t like the story. Here are my reasons..

    Take the 3 recent stories that I mentioned — Vapnyar, Sharma and Means.
    In each there are one or more characters who are strong in their own right in addition to the protagonist. In Li’s story there are none. The two gay guys disappear from the narrative and PeiPei is just a plot device. Miss Chu exists only as a figment in Bella’s imagination. She never actually goes to see her. In fact, the village girls in Sharma’s story have more reality than Bella herself, because they contribute to the movement and texture and robustness of the plot.

    Also in those 3 stories the protagonist makes a connection or tries to make a connection with another person. Even though one of those characters is deaf and blind, he communicates more than Bella ever does.

    One more thing — in those 3 stories the protagonists learn something. They are changed. Bella learns nothing.

    Oh, and those 3 stories all have a social dimension, the problems of the characters stem from social attitudes. Li’s story has no social dimension.

    There were times when I wanted to shake Bella and say, “It’s not all about you.”

    In summary, it’s social fiction vs. solipsistic fiction. Your choice.

    If you want a yuge contrast, read “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki”. A great novel. For much of the novel the protagonist, Tsukuru, is mostly by himself, though he has a male friend and a girlfriend. Then he goes in person to confront the 3 friends he had in high school who were involved in a major upheaval in his life. Those are great long scenes, set pieces. He connects. He learns. In one case he goes all the way from Japan to Finland to track down one of the friends and has a, well, a catharsis. What a difference from Bella and her avoidance of Miss Chu. Read Murakami’s novel and you’ll never be able to take Li seriously again.

  9. Dennis Lang May 7, 2017 at 10:55 am

    William–Beautiful!!! Thanks for making ME think!!!

  10. William May 7, 2017 at 11:36 am

    Dennis —

    You’re welcome. And thanks for making me work harder so that I better understand my own reasons for liking or not liking something. That’s one of the values of thi website for me. As you and Trevor commented during the exchange on a previous story, there is noting absolute. Just personal taste.

  11. Dennis Lang May 7, 2017 at 11:56 am

    Well, I suppose there is that old trap, “I don’t know art but I know what I like” sort of thing.

    That’s not what’s happening here at the Mookse. All of the contributors strike me as thoughtful with a genuine love of literature and the power of the written word. That’s why it’s especially interesting for me to read what buttons these stories push for all you folks.

  12. William May 9, 2017 at 8:38 am

    Dennis —

    Of course. But even among a group of folks with a love of literature there can be — and are — different likes and dislikes. As you say, that’s what makes this site interesting.

  13. Sean H May 12, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    The language is surprisingly hackneyed at times, almost as if the author is conscientiously trying to pattern something instead of innovate. There’s an unnaturalness here, a stilted attempt at evocation that comes off as flowery (no pun intended, given the opening of this story). Thematically, the cultural appropriation vs. finding one’s heritage is very Ancestry.com, very “Aw, snap, she Eurocentrified her name,” very Safron-Foer skewered (deservedly) by Ulinich. The teacher’s pet protagonist feels central casting as well (and what happens to the gay guys who open the story, they were at least intriguing). Maybe it’s reading fresh new voices like Ottessa Moshfegh, but Li’s approach is starting to seem a bit dated, out of sync. “His voice reminding Bella of an inner tube hung at a bicycle repairman’s stand”?—No thank you.

    The most intriguing, weird, asymptotic section is the old man’s reminiscences at the party at Key West, the three-year-old boy in the tuxedo. That would’ve made a wonderful story and hewed pretty closely to the fairy tale vibe and parallelism that Li goes for. A strange fate indeed (and “A Strange Fate” would be the title of this phantom story that I wish Li would’ve written instead of this one; “O changelings of the world: we go up and down the ladder in this circus called life, and we are more entertaining than clowns, more grotesque than freaks.” That would be either the opening or closing line). Instead, she returns to rather trite book-of-the-month-club-isms about a female protagonist, an adopted & unabandoned child recalling the teacher she was platonically in love with and wondering where she is now. Do people stay loyal to our memories of them? Blech.

    The relationship with Peipei is very well-rendered, convincing and efficient. Absolutely do have to give some kudos on that front. The twist that Ms. Chu has become an SJW for the LGBT community politicizes the story unnecessarily in an ephemeral and distracting manner. I agree with Bella that few things are more noxious than the sanctimony of “preachers” (once a teacher now a preacher) for a “just cause.”

    “Make-believe was her genealogy” is quite a bit too on-the-nose. And it should be “the timorous boy” and not “touched her elbow timorously.” That blue and white crochet is a bit cliche too, the good ol’ epiphanic New Yorker story moment. The final paragraph is flawed but the concoction is intriguing, making me all the more dissatisfied that this very talented writer couldn’t quite put it all together throughout this piece (too many ingredients, Yiyun, too many ingredients spoiling the souffle) and pull off what she’s attempting.

  14. David May 13, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    Dennis, in our discussion of the story “Fly Already” I responded to your comment about an analysis of writing that applies a “conventional formula” I said I didn’t know what you were talking about. With regard to my own assessments of stories I would still say that such a description does not apply, but I have just been reminded of something that I do think fits that description that we do sometimes see here. If you look back at discussions of stories over the past year you will find in there somewhere an extended discussion of the use of adverbs by writers. A few people made comments on a few different stories about authors using adverbs and taking it as a mark of bad writing. I took the position that such a rule for judging writing was silly, at best. I won’t rehash the whole debate here – it’s somewhere in the blog archives if you want to check it out – but I will comment on one thing I did mention then.
    Sometimes the complaint about the use of adverbs looks particularly silly when the suggested improvement is not to merely drop the adverb but to just change the word to an adjective and move it to a different place in the sentence. A good example of that criticism is given above by Sean when he says the author should have written “the timorous boy” instead of “touched her elbow timorously”. He does not object to the author using a form of the word “timorous” to describe the action. He just objects to it being used as an adverb rather than as an adjective. This sort of blind rule-following seems pointless if the result is basically the same words saying the same thing, just organized in a different order to avoid one of them being an adverb. But in cases like this one, the blind rule-following is even worse than that.
    To say “the timorous boy” is to attribute timorousness to him as a general personality characteristic. He is not just timorous on this occasion. That is the kind of person he is all the time. But to say he “touched her elbow timorously” says that on this particular occasion he was timorous, but that might not be true of him generally. Using the adverb instead of the adjective leaves it an open question whether he is just generally timorous or not. But it also serves the purpose of emphasizing that this particular situation is the cause of his timorousness, not a pre-existing personality trait. Something the author might be trying to say is lost by changing the wording. In this case, a slavish devotion to the “no adverbs” rule changes the intended meaning of the sentence, and so is a poor criticism.
    So yes, Dennis, I do, at least to some degree, think I see what you could mean by applying conventional formulas rather than taking a story on its own terms, but it helps to know what the specific convention is you see being applied to be able to assess if that is what is happening. In the case of the adverb rule, that is almost always the case.

  15. Sean H May 13, 2017 at 6:33 pm

    But he is a timorous boy! He’s from the science club and he thinks he’ll impress a girl by peeping tom’ing some couple watching a soap opera. I agree it would change the exact meaning…for the better.

  16. David May 13, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Sean, I don’t see why liking science and being a peeping Tom tells you anything at all about whether a character is timorous or not. Perhaps you are relying on some stereotype you imagine might be true that a science geek is timorous? Of course, it is worth remembering that this is taking place in China and so cultural stereotypes, even if true in one culture, might not transfer across cultures. Based on my two years working in China teaching high school students I would say there is no correlation between being enthusiastic about science and being timorous. I certainly would not expect Western readers to jump to that conclusion about a story set in China, anyway. The idea that suggesting voyeurism to impress a girl is an indication of timorousness just seems random.
    But even if you were right about that, it would only prove that we already should know that he is timorous and so it would be redundant to call him a timorous boy. I find it odd that you would want her to be redundant. I find it less odd that you would (as many people do) see an adverb and say “that has to go”. If your real worry were redundancy you would have simply said that the word should be dropped, not moved to a different part of the sentence.

  17. Sean H May 13, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    I’m not an anti-adverb absolutist but “timorously” just reads as unnecessarily long-winded and awkward sounding. It doesn’t come trippingly (see, adverb) off the tongue. “Timorous” works. “Timorous” has a pleasant sound. “Timorously” stops both my eye and my ear. It’s an unnatural word form. And as far as I know (and as far as my reading and film viewing have shown me), there are nebbishy betas in Asian countries as well. Science dork is a pretty universal trope, as is the timid and giggly (aka: sexually immature) voyeur.

  18. Roger May 13, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    David, you say: “Sometimes the complaint about the use of adverbs looks particularly silly when the suggested improvement is not to merely drop the adverb but to just change the word to an adjective and move it to a different place in the sentence.” This sentence would be better if you dropped “merely” and “just.” They add nothing and operate in tension with one another. But “particularly” silly is ok because it indicates a high degree of silliness. “Sometimes” is also fine, if you mean to suggest that there are other times when the complaint about adverbs isn’t particularly silly. Though “particularly” already implies that there are times when the adverb-criticism is sillier than others, so I’m not sure you really need “sometimes.”

    So here we have a sentence where at least two of the four adverbs should go away. Another example of adverb overkill!

  19. David May 14, 2017 at 12:49 am

    Sean, this is now the third different story you have told about why you think “timorously” should go. The idea that “timorous” is pleasant sounding and “timorously” is somehow unnatural and stops you in your tracks is not plausible. Unless the objection is to any adverb form, which brings us back to where we started.

    Roger, that was cute, but you got your analysis of the two adverbs you didn’t like wrong. The word “merely” does add something to the sentence. It was there to point out that dropping the adverb and not replacing it with anything is a very simple thing to do. It was to emphasize that the option Sean passed up was a very simple one, which makes his explanation for his suggestion less plausible. He was explaining a less simple solution to what he claimed was a problem that resulted in what he was claiming was a redundancy. The “merely” helps to show that his explanation was not very good.
    The “just” is there to emphasize that changing the word from an adverb to an adjective is only, just, merely a formal change and not one of any substance. It is a change that someone would only suggest if they are committed to a rule for its own sake, not because they think less explaining is needed.
    But then again, I just wrote a blog post to, you know, try to communicate with people here and I think what I was saying was pretty, generally, for the most part clear enough. These posts are not things I spend days, weeks, or months carefully crafting and with editors and other readers reviewing them and offering input on every word choice the way people who write stories for The New Yorker do.. So if from time to time I use unnecessary, extra, superfluous words it’s no big deal except to people who read posts here pedantically, disingenuously, uncharitably, pathologically, or the like.

  20. Roger May 14, 2017 at 9:28 am

    David, see what happens when we lose those extraneous adverbs “The complaint about the use of adverbs looks particularly silly when the suggested improvement is not to drop the adverb but to change the word to an adjective and move it to a different place in the sentence.” This is a more direct and succinct sentence. And God knows there are posts in this forum that should be more succinct.

    The “just” suggests that dropping the adverb is the simpler approach of the two that you posit. But the “merely” suggests that changing the word to an adjective and moving it is the simpler approach. They can’t both be the simpler approach. The instinct to toss in adverbs resulted in a tension within the sentence. The cursed murk of adverbs.

    Your post hoc explanation of why you used “merely” is consistent with what I’ve just said, and the sentence would be better, though not ideal, if you merely used merely and didn’t add “just.” Your post hoc explanation of why you used “just” seems contrived – if you reread the sentence it’s evident that you are contrasting two options: dropping the adverb vs. changing the word to an adjective. Even if your intent was as you described, the meaning on the screen to a reasonable reader is as I’ve just described.

    You make a fair point that we don’t labor over these posts for months – a point that seems to amount to an implicit admission of error, which is admirable but would be more so if it were explicit. However, when you take to the forum to initiate a discussion in which you inveigh against those who cast a skeptical eye toward adverb (over-) use and a sentence in your argument over-uses adverbs, even a non-pedant will be tempted to contribute a competing view. And notice I didn’t say “sorely tempted.”

  21. David May 14, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Roger, you don’t seem to understand how adverbs work. I tried to explain the meaning of the words you objected to, but you just stubbornly refuse to see it. Not much I can do about that. But here are a couple of final remarks. After removing adverbs from my sentence you said, “This is a more direct and succinct sentence.” No. It’s a different sentence that does not say the same thing I said nor the same thing I intended to say. I have already explained how the words you dropped change the meaning of the sentence in ways I intended. You can refuse to accept that or (as it seems is happening) continue to be unable to see that difference. Not much more I can do to help you there.
    You then add, “The ‘just’ suggests that dropping the adverb is the simpler approach of the two that you posit.” Again, no. I already explained what the “just” is doing. It is not comparing the dropping of the adverb to the changing the adverb to an adjective. It is a comment on the changing of the adjective. But I already explained that. Go ahead and look. It’s all there if you bother to read it. No really. You just have to look. It’s right there. See it? All you have to do is check.
    You then make the most silly comment of all when you say, “a point that seems to amount to an implicit admission of error”. Do I need to explain hypothetical, counterfactual statements to you, too? Oh dear…. You don’t seem to understand the very simple construction of the sentence and the “But” at the start. Maybe you need more words, not fewer, since you get tripped up so easily. The point I was making was that even though I was not using extra, superfluous, and unnecessary words, even if I had been doing that it is silly of you to make such a meal of it because this is just a blog post, not a highly revised and edited composition like a New Yorker short story. But perhaps it is easier to make a meal of the wording of my post than to address the real issue of adverb use in the story, an issue I notice you have not even tried to comment on. Perhaps that is an implicit admission on your part that you cannot defend the objection.
    I am sorry that you have trouble understanding the meaning of adverbs and so hate seeing them being used. But if you try to take more care in reading them both in the story in question and in my comments here you really, truly, (possibly, maybe) will see that they are really doing some real work and not just laying around causing trouble. Not to a careful reader, anyway.
    PS – being “tempted” and being “sorely tempted” are two different things. They differ in degree of temptation. That you used “tempted” rather than”sorely tempted” does not show that you saved the use of an extraneous word. It shows (or should show) you meant something different than “sorely tempted”. You would know this if you knew what “sorely” means and how adverbs work to change the meaning of a sentence. You really should try to master an understanding of adverbs. It’s really rather quite very easy to do.

  22. Greg May 14, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks guys for all of your insight, opinions and passionate debate. I learned so much from you all!

    And my favourite lines from the story were these:

    “Both her ex-husbands had called her toxic. She had to respect them for that and for not wanting to stay on and be poisened.”

    **I love the self-awareness and graciousness!

  23. Sean H May 14, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    OK, this one’s gone on a bit long and gotten away from the Li story, but isn’t the adverb issue simply one of “Why gild the lily?” An adverb usually amounts to the writer not trusting the reader. An adverb says to the reader, you can’t parse my meaning without me making explicit and obvious to you, so let me paint this adverb on there in big bold letters. Literary writing (as opposed to comments on a website or various other forms of more communicative writing) is about subtlety and nuance. Adverbs mostly abjure subtlety and nuance.

  24. Greg May 14, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    Thank you Sean for helping us fully understand your point with adverbs. We are very fortunate to have you, David and Roger contributing in this forum every week!

    And going back to your original fabulous post, I loved it all, and the following was my favourite part:

    “I agree with Bella that few things are more noxious than the sanctimony of “preachers” (once a teacher now a preacher) for a “just cause.””

  25. Roger May 15, 2017 at 8:47 am

    I agree with Sean H. that an overuse of adverbs may result from a writer’s lack of confidence in a reader. However, the overuse is perhaps equally likely to evince a lack of self-confidence on the part of the writer. A bumbling writer who frets that he is unable to communicate clearly will grab the nearest adverb in a misguided attempt to clarify. If I say “merely” or “just,” such a writer thinks, then I will be able to get my point across. Even better, I’ll use both “merely” and “just” – the more adverbs, the better. The irony is that if the lack of self-confidence is well-founded, the adverb overuse will worsen the problem. So we end up with situations where, as explained in my previous post, a writer will use “just” and “merely” in a way that posits each of two options as the simpler. Such a writer ends up using adverbs as shovels to dig his hole deeper.

    It is true that these kinds of style points are more relevant to literary writing than to posts on a blog. Yet when a post involves a dubious lecture touting the stylistic value of adverbs, a sendup of the lecturer for misusing adverbs is hard to resist. Anyway, anytime any of us puts fingertips to keyboard, we are writing. I’ve seen plenty of good writing here.

    David, you really seem to have lost it on this one. You go as far as to deny that the sentence with three fewer adverbs (losing “sometimes,” “merely,” and “just”) is more succinct and direct than the sentence with those three pieces of baggage. “Succinct” means “expressed in few words; concise; terse.” Your denial that a sentence with three fewer words is more concise than the version containing the three words shows that you do not know the meaning of “succinct.” You are ill-positioned to question my comprehension given your own lack of same. Ditto for “direct.” I will leave it to the readers of this blog to determine which version of your sentence is more direct: the one containing “sometimes,” “merely,” and “just,” or the version missing that surplusage.

    Moreover, for reasons I’ve explained but you don’t follow, omitting those three words would free your sentence from the mess you’ve made by using “merely” and “just” in a way that creates a nonsensical contradiction. I understand that you didn’t “intend” to create that contradiction, but your sentence contains it anyway; once on the page, the sentence’s flaws can’t be remedied by after-the-fact “explanations” of intent – and your juvenile histrionics don’t add persuasive value to your “explanation.”

    As for the “real issue” of adverb use in the story, I haven’t addressed that because it didn’t interest me. I’ve already provided my views of the story in my first post. I don’t have a problem with Li’s use of “timorously” but didn’t feel a need to weigh in on that. You and Sean H. covered that topic just fine. What interested me in my subsequent post was your promiscuous use of adverbs as part of an attempt to defend their virtue. And you know that. Your reference to the “real issue,” in the context of my post about your own adverb misuse, is about as convincing as O.J.’s vow to find the “real killer.”

    Happy Monday, everyone.

  26. David May 15, 2017 at 11:08 am

    A bumbling writer who frets that he is unable to communicate clearly will grab the nearest adverb in a misguided attempt to clarify.
    So if a writer writes a phrase like “touched her elbow” and worries that this might not be clear enough (the reader could think he grabbed it aggressively, which is not what she wants to communicate) and then thinks “my problem is solved if I change it to ‘touched her elbow timorously'”, she should worry that she is a bumbling fretter who can’t communicate? Sounds to me more like she found a simple and effective way to express herself more clearly. Adding words, even adverbs, can sometimes be a very effective way to do that.
    Your denial that a sentence with three fewer words is more concise than the version containing the three words shows that you do not know the meaning of “succinct.”
    Oh dear. You don’t understand what “succinct” means. It is not a slavish devotion to word counts where the shortest sentence is the most succinct one. A sentence is more succinct if it uses fewer words to convey the same information as the longer sentence. I have explained to you how the adverbs you complained about change the meaning of the sentence. You seem either not to be able to understand that explanation or you just chose to ignore it. Either way, taking words out of a sentence and thereby changing its meaning does not make it more succinct. But if you really did care about being succinct, why didn’t you just write, “David is wrong. Adverbs are bad.” instead of five tedious paragraphs?
    I don’t have a problem with Li’s use of “timorously
    Fabulous. So why did you bother to go off on a rant in the first place when I pointed out that Sean’s complaint about it was silly? Perhaps you were just bored? … Wait. I changed my mind. Don’t answer those questions. At least, not unless you can do it in six words or fewer. Be concise Roger. I know you can do it!

  27. Roger May 15, 2017 at 11:57 am

    Oh, David. Not all adverb users are bumblers. Even some adverb abusers are are not – rather, they are guilty of lacking confidence in the reader, as Sean H. pointed out. But some adverb overusers do so in a bumbling fashion. I can think of someone who meets that description.

    With regard to succinct – um, yes, using fewer words is more succinct than using more words. You don’t get that. As for changing your meaning – sure, getting rid of the adverbs changed your meaning to eliminate the internal contradiction you’d created with “just” and “merely.” And it rid your sentence of the redundancy resulting from including both “sometimes” and “particularly. ” This sharpened your sentence. Made it more direct and clear – better than you could do yourself, based on your garbled “explanation” of your “intent.” You’re welcome.

    As for going off on a “rant” about adverb use generally, check your May 13, 2:25 post, where you initiated your rant about previous discussions in this forum about adverb used and where you mischaracterized one view as reflecting “a slavish devotion to the ‘no adverbs’ rule.” (By the way, you should try varying your word choices – you seem attached to “slavish devotion.”) You went well beyond Li’s story to make more general points, which is fine by me, but makes you look silly for complaining that I participated in a discussion of adverb use that went beyond the story. Not that looking silly is new terrain for you …..

  28. Dennis Lang May 15, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    From the bleachers….
    Terrific Gentlemen! No doubt before your time William F Buckley and Gore Vidal went after each other on a national TV show “Firing Line”–just short of an after-school rumble in the parking lot!
    Debates on the nature of sub-microscopic particles can be entertaining. I am!
    Trevor, are you already contemplating the possibility of a Sean H/Roger/David podcast? Or are you concerned that it would portend the end of the Mookse as the faithful know it???
    (As an aside, I had never read William Trevor until mentioned here on his passing not long ago. I have now. I see what the fuss is about. Magnificent!!)

  29. David May 15, 2017 at 1:04 pm

    You really going to stick to thinking “succinct” = “shorter”. Ok, here is a more succinct version of War And Peace: “Tom owns a red car.” There! Did it in five words! What, you say? My sentence does not convey the information that the novel War And Peace does? So? It’s shorter, and that’s what being succinct means according to you. Any changes in meaning are beside the point, as you say. Glad we settled that!
    BTW, continually repeating your nonsense about nonexistent internal contradictions that show that you (1) could not properly read the sentence in the first place and (2) either ignored or did not understand the further explanation provided for the reading impaired in the second place does not somehow magically make it true.
    I’m sorry you have difficulty understanding sentences that contain adverbs and such a strong ego that you refuse to accept it when it is pointed out that you are wrong. But if you will not even admit that you got the meaning of “succinct” wrong, well, there is not much hope for this conversation getting anywhere. I prefer to believe that you know you are wrong and just won’t admit it and feel the need to defend yourself regardless.
    But really Roger, even if you were right (please note the counterfactual form), what would you have won? At best you proved that in a blog post that is several paragraphs long, written on the spot to communicate an idea that you admit you agree with about the use of the word “timorously” you found two, maybe three unnecessary extra words. All you had to do to get there was prove you don’t listen to what other people say in a conversation, don’t understand what they say, and don’t know what “succinct” means. Wow, Roger. You are a true literary hero! You should try looking up the word “Pyrrhic” next. I think I saw your picture next to it.

  30. Roger May 15, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    David, you even blew the Rodney Dangerfield joke about seeing someone’s picture in a dictionary. As you and I have never laid eyes on one another, you wouldn’t be able to identify me in a picture, so the joke doesn’t work. God. You are so dense that you can’t even steal a joke properly!

    In any case, I suspect it’s been a long time since you cracked open a dictionary, given your ignorance of the meaning of words and how to use them. Cheers.

  31. Dennis Lang May 15, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Then again. Maybe this is a bit much.

    Anyone else still getting notice of this exchange/diatribe?

    I’m out.

  32. Trevor May 15, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Since you already referenced the scene, Sean, I’ll just say: Would that it were so simple.

  33. Trevor Berrett May 15, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Now, I’ll just say that this doesn’t seem to be a lesson that one side of the argument is going to teach the other side. I hope that everyone is taking all of this as good, impassioned debate and that no one is feeling personally belittled.

    My own view is that each side has a great point, which I suppose simply means that I think adverb usage (like most “rules and guidelines”) need to be considered on a case-by-case basis, which was happening here for a while. While I’d say I prefer direct and concise, I’d give most of that up if it meant, say, Tessa Hadley would have to change her use of adverbs.

    The real sin, I’d say, is using (or not using) adverbs without making it a conscious decision. If one uses an adverb simply because it’s the first word that came to mind, the work is probably not as good as it could have been. But if someone cuts one out because it goes against the value of “direct” or “concise” then that person is also beholden to some external force and is not considering what is best for the work at hand.

    I say all of that without wishing this conversation were any different. Your comments are just the things writers should be considering when putting together a sentence, and I’ve enjoyed the tug of war, erm, greatly? supremely? Well, I’ve enjoyed it!

  34. Trevor Berrett May 15, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    Please, though, do not be a reason someone decides to turn away from this conversation rather than engage in it . . .

  35. Dennis Lang May 15, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    Yikes! I thought I was out. Guess not. These comments never stop!
    Appreciate your view here Trevor. Would never choose to stifle the conversation. With you all the way and truly enjoy the Mookse.
    However, this one has degenerated into infantile, ad hominem BS. Speaking personally, the lack of decorum displayed undermines anyone’s argument and is disrespectful– cheap defensiveness. Not very pretty Boys. But I’m highly unqualified to be a moral arbiter.

  36. David May 15, 2017 at 3:21 pm


    The real sin, I’d say, is using (or not using) adverbs without making it a conscious decision.

    I heartily agree with that sentiment (and the rest of the paragraph that follows it), except that I would prefer to change the word “adverbs” to “any words or phrases” to make a more general claim. Non-adverbs should not get a free ride just as adverbs should not be singled out as being particularly likely to be pernicious. Every word and phrase, especially in short fiction, must justify its existence.
    But going back to my comment that started this discussion, when someone suggests keeping a word, but changing it from an adverb to an adjective and repositioning it, as Sean did, it seems hard to see this as having anything to do with being more direct or concise or otherwise improving the writing. It seems to be only about blindly following a rule that endorses hating on adverbs.
    PS – Any chance you might check the comments on “Fly Already” and be able to give some information about its translation? Thanks.

  37. Trevor Berrett May 15, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Oh no, Denis, I did not mean you when I said try not to discourage commenting! I did mean that the dialogue was getting a bit over heated and uninviting.

    David, I will look at the comments for “Fly Already.” I guess I missed the comment! I never used to miss comments, but these days I do!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.