The vanishing simile

May 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Today, I was a bad teacher:  I read a novel (which I may review in the next 1-3 days) while my students were taking one of their state exams.  Shameful behavior, I know, written with an expression like that of a dog caught grabbing a morsel from a dinner plate.  Similes, along with metaphors, are some of the hardest grammatical points for me to explain to my students.  Figurative language is difficult for those who do not grow up speaking that particular idiom and it often leaves my students as wide-eyed as flopping fish suffocating on air.  It is increasingly difficult to explain to native English speakers as well, at least if one wants to treat similes beyond the level of how to identify them (looking for “as” and “like” between image words).

Much of the blame, if blame must be doled out, I attribute to contemporary literature, which strives to be “clear” by being as general as possible in terminology and expressive speech.  Short, declarative sentences may have been the rage since Hemingway, but they also limit the writer (and by extension, the participatory reader)’s ability to express herself and to draw new and potentially deeper connections between the written and imagined worlds.

Similes serve to make seemingly disparate images similar, to create associations that the reader might otherwise never have made.  Yet in hindsight, such comparisons, that of the sheepish grin of the (slightly) naughty teacher and the hungry dog caught in the act of stealing, make things easier for readers to relate with and to.  More so than even metaphors, similes enrich our expressed language, making even the most prosaic statements more vivid.

Yet for some reason, similes are often frowned upon in narrative fictions.  In English, it has become harder and harder to spot good simile usage in dialogue or even in the main narrative framework.  Therefore, when I encountered a recent work where expressions such as the one quoted below are more commonplace, it was a thrillingly pleasant surprise (bold my addition):

A plant grew in the drawer, had been growing there in the dark this whole time, crimson roots attached to a nodule of dirt.  As if the director had pulled it out of the ground and then, for whatever reason, placed it in the drawer.  The slender leaves were almost a neon green, the branching stems ridged like segments of tiny pipe with eye-shaped whorls of raised black or dark blue.  It had the look of a creature trying to escape, with a couple of limbs, finally freed, reflexively curled over the edge of the drawer.

This image of a mysterious plant is made more memorable for me by the simile of a tiny pipe, of something metallic, industrial, and constructed in the midst of the organic, natural, living.  Here, connections, seemingly opposite in nature, were made by the judicious use of a simile to create a point of comparison.  Yet too frequently, writers either do not elect to employ them frequently enough to create a particularly allusive atmosphere or they misunderstand and misuse them, leaving the work feeling as limp as an oversoaked boiled celery, lacking that semantic firmness that would make the scene/action being described through figurative comparison something greater and more nuanced than what it actually is.  It is sad to see this vanishing use of similes, but it is not all that surprising, alas.

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