Less is more!" cried Robert Browning in "Andrea del Sarto." The architect Mies Van der Rohe made it his own aphorism. Writers should glue it to their laptops.
Today we're talking about similes, metaphors and other garnishes on our plates of prose. The experts say there are two secrets to fashioning such sprigs of parsley: A good simile depends upon (1) close observation, (2) familiar images and (3) compact construction. Other elements are important also, such as the supposed levels of taste, sophistication and tolerance of readers, but we put those aside for another time. Today the theme is, Less is more!
Fourteen years ago, critic Andrew Ferguson panned Kitty Kelley's biography of Nancy Reagan. I've kept his review in the simile file ever since. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Ferguson remarked that Father Time had dealt cruelly with the once pert and petite Ms. Kelley, "who looks like an ice cream cone trying not to melt."
Now suppose a less gifted writer had the same idea. In that event, we might have read that Ms. Kelley's hairdo looked like two scoops of vanilla pecan ice cream trying not to melt under a hot sun on a summer afternoon. Less is more!
Last summer Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated covered Lance Armstrong's victory in the Tour de France. This was Armstrong's sixth straight win, "as one-sided as a speeding ticket." He might have written that Armstrong dominated the field like a 6-foot Alabama state trooper who stops a Mississippi driver for going 75 in a 60-mile-per-hour zone. On second thought, Reilly's fingers couldn't have typed that syntactical sludge.
Another gifted sportswriter, Rachel Nichols of the Washington Post, covered the Wimbledon tennis matches a year ago. Serena Williams defeated fellow American Jill Craybas in the first round. "It was an uneventful affair, with the sellout crowd showing the polite decorum of a stamp-collecting society." Question: Would the sentence have been improved by striking out "sellout" and "polite"? Would "philatelic club" have been better than "stamp-collecting society"? No. Mies' maxim can be too strictly obeyed, as some of his own work demonstrated. The sentence was just right as Nichols wrote it.
Columnist William Raspberry turned out a tart piece on a survey of high school principals who chafe under political and bureaucratic control. Supervision is not an altogether bad idea, said Raspberry. Good principals will use their freedom wisely, but "giving autonomy to incompetents would be like using Miracle-Gro on kudzu."
Writing for the editorial page of the New York Times, contributor Clyde Haberman commented last year on the dismay of Afghan leaders: "These Afghans had hoped for something along the lines of the Americans' carpet bombing in Vietnam. What they see seems to them more like throw rugs."
Tommy Tomlinson of the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer has the gift. A couple of years ago he commented that North Carolina might not be able to hold out much longer against a state lottery. "Virginia already has a lottery, and now that South Carolina has one, they'll suck money out of North Carolina like twins on a milk shake."
In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Roger Ebert praised "Spartan" for is labyrinthine tale of betrayal and deception. It's a pleasure, he said, to watch the plot gradually emerge "like your face in a steamy mirror."
Why do these sentences crackle and pop? Compactness is one element. Another is the familiarity of the images. These writers had looked intently at carpets and throw rugs, at Miracle-Gro and kudzu. They could make confident comparisons to ice cream cones and speeding tickets. When they needed a simile, the telling image emerged like a face in a steamy mirror.
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.