Very Long Essay

“No book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep,” says the garrulous shoemaker who narrates the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal’s “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” (1964), “it’s meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out.” Thirty-three pages into what appears to be an unbroken highway of text, the reader might well wonder if that’s a mission statement or an invitation. “Dancing Lessons” unfurls as a single, sometimes maddening sentence that ends after 117 pages without a period, giving the impression that the opinionated, randy old cobbler will go on jawing ad infinitum. But the gambit works. His exuberant ramblings gain a propulsion that would be lost if the comma splices were curbed, the phrases divided into sentences. And there’s something about that slab of wordage that carries the eye forward, promising an intensity simply unattainable by your regularly punctuated novel.

Hrabal wasn’t the first to attempt the Very Long Sentence. The Polish novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski went even longer in “The Gates of Paradise” (1960), weaving several voices into a lurid and majestic 158-page run-on. (The novel actually consists of two sentences, the final one a mere five words long.) An old priest listens to the contradictory confessions of some apparently holy but actually just horny French teenagers marching toward Jerusalem in the 13th-century Children’s Crusade. A profusion of colons and dashes helps toggle among the multiple points of view, while repeated descriptions of crummy weather give the brain some breathing space. Every mention of the “long and arduous road” seems to comment on the enduring nature of the sentence itself. The descriptions of sex — e.g., “That’s why when we do it we can keep it going so long” — also gain a double meaning.

For a long time, Hrabal and Andrzejewski were the only practitioners of the sentence-long book I could find. Not many writers have had the nerve to go this route: you’re locked in, committed to a rhythm and a certain claustrophobia. But might the format also be liberating? Joan Didion told The Paris Review in 1978: “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” Sticking to just one sentence, ironically, might keep your options perpetually open.

The most famous mega-sentence in literature comes at the end of the book, not the beginning. Molly Bloom’s monologue from “Ulysses” (1922) —36 pages in the thinly margined, micro-fonted 1986 single-volume corrected text (and actually two long sentences, thanks to an often-overlooked period 17 pages in) — sets an impossibly high standard for the art of the run-on. It breathlessly binds together all that comes before while nearly obliterating it, permanently coloring the reader’s memory in one final rush. It feels unstoppable, and then it stops.

Molly’s soliloquy is a touchstone for writers aiming to go long. A copy of “Ulysses” pops up in “Green Coaster,” the 33-page, single-sentence section that closes Jonathan Coe’s brilliant novel “The Rotters’ Club” (2001). (The BBC has reported that at 13,955 words, it is the longest sentence ever written in English.)

Joyce also makes a cameo in the most recent candidate for the absurdly exclusive Book-as-Sentence club, the French novelist Mathias Énard’s “Zone” (2008), just published in an English translation. At 517 pages, it’s far longer than the Hrabal and Andrzejewski combined, though its status as a true single sentence is compromised by 23 chapter breaks that alleviate eye strain. (If “Zone” qualifies, what about Samuel Beckett’s 147-page “How It Is” (1961), with its paragraphic chunks but complete absence of periods?) A bigger disqualification for Énard’s book, about a train journey, is that three of the chapters are passages from a book the narrator is reading — a mediocre short story ripe with periods. If only he’d packed some Hrabal.

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Dear student,

I have just read your essay, and I must apologise – I have absolutely no idea what it said.

When you hold this essay in your hands in a few weeks’ time, I know that you will look immediately at the mark I’ve written at the top of the first page. You will make assumptions about yourself, your work – perhaps even your worth – based on this number. I want to tell you not to worry about it.

How to survive marking dissertations

When I was a student, I assumed – as you probably do now – that my work was meticulously checked and appraised, with the due consideration it deserved, by erudite scholars who perhaps wore tweed.

I wonder now if it was actually marked by someone like me: a semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade.

Your essay is one of 20 or so I’ve tackled in one sitting this afternoon. They are beginning to blur into one; a profusion of themes and things “to be noted” and endless variations on the phrase “It is interesting that...”.

I’m reading something you wrote on page two and I’m wondering if I just read an explanation of this concept on page one, or if that was in someone else’s essay. I have to go back a page, eyes swimming, and check.

Your essay does not stand alone, but becomes amalgamated with the others I’ve read so far today, all talking about the same things, with varying degrees of clarity. Your words are diluted by the ones that came before, they are lost on me even before I begin.

It should not be like this. In an ideal world, I would spend my morning carefully marking three essays at most, giving them the thought they deserve. I would spend the early afternoon wandering around a meadow picking flowers – something, anything, to clear my head so I can approach the next batch with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm.

Academic workload: a model approach

But I do not have that kind of time. I have academic work of my own; I have a job interview to prepare for; at various points of the year, I have additional employment to help tide me over. (And I’m only a part-time lecturer, I’m aware that my colleagues in full-time jobs have a lot more of this to do.)

I have cleared this bit of space in my schedule to read your essays, and I have come at them genuinely excited to see what you have found out this term, and to tell you how you can improve. I try to be thorough and write actual comments on your essay, even though I’m aware that I could probably get away with a few ticks, question marks and a cryptic “needs improvement”.

I’ve been at it all day and it is 6.20 pm. There are 11 unmarked essays. I could carry on, but I can’t make sense of anything you say any more. I have to force myself to understand anything other than the clearest, nicest writing; the kind of writing that takes me by the hand and shows me round all your ideas. (Dear student, please note: I am not so exhausted that I can’t spot nice writing. Do us both a favour and spend time on your essay. Make it good. Edit, polish, relieve my boredom and let me award you a first.)

I know that I should go back and reread a few essays to compare the marks I’ve given, but there isn’t time. I would like to look up the references you cite, to tell you if there are other gems in those books you may have missed, or suggest other interpretations, but there’s no chance. I also have a life – washing to do, family to spend time with, that sort of thing.

In this letter (which I’ve written with an aching hand) I ask three things of you:

  • Work hard on your essays. Help people like me. It’ll open your mind, and it’ll make me happy. And I really, really want to give you a first.
  • Don’t think that if you just waffle on for three pages to bring your essay up to the required word count, I won’t notice. I will.
  • Do not get too upset – or complacent – because of whatever mark you’ve got. Don’t take it too personally. I’ve tried my best to be consistent and fair, and other lecturers will moderate my marking, but really, by a certain stage, I’m just pulling numbers out of the air. (55? 58? I don’t know)

Teaching at a university means constant pressure - for about £5 an hour

Your essay does not stand alone; it’s either going to impress me or sap my energy, and if it does the latter, it affects how I read the ones which come afterwards. Too many awful essays and I can’t concentrate anymore.

The books on your reading list will tell you everything about the subject that you need to know; read them. There are also books in the library with titles like How to Write an Essay; make use of them. If you don’t understand something, come along to my office hour. I’ve gone on about it all term, and you know where that is.

All the best,

Your lecturer

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