Adversarial Adjectives — An article by Andy Mayo

One of the things that strikes me when I read Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories is her use of what I’ll call adversarial adjectives — adjectives that put a completely different spin on the noun they are modifying.  For example, notorious virginity.

Notorious means having a bad reputation. Virginity isn’t usually thought of as being the source of a bad reputation.

Yoking these two words together isn’t mindlessly clever. The description fits the character, Laura in the story “Flowering Judas.” She is a physically attractive woman who refuses to become romantically involved with anyone, especially the revolutionaries she is helping. So she is notorious for her virginal stance. Her virginity is a denial that tarnishes her reputation in the macho world she inhabits. “Notorious virginity” fits the story perfectly.

My favorite adversarial modifier is in this construction: pitiless courtesy.

A writer could substitute cold, callous or even cruel, but the meaning would not quite be the same. Pity-less is about power. To be pitied is to be looked down upon, to be patronized. Only a person in a superior position can pity another.

So here too, the description perfectly fits the character being described: an overweight “revolutionist” who ‘has the malice, the cleverness, the wickedness, the sharpness of wit, the hardness of heart, stipulated for loving the world profitably.”

Writing instructors today caution against using adjectives (and even more so, adverbs).  The mantra is, show us, don’t tell us.

But Porter’s adjectives — “notorious virginity,” “pitiless courtesy” — are so striking that it is hard to imagine how more “showing” could be as effective.

Other great adjectives in the same story include:  “specialized insolence,” “expedient logic,” and “puzzled eyebrows.”

And then there is “the vast cureless wound of his self-esteem.” You can almost see the wound bleeding with self-pity. His ego-problem cannot be cured.


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