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It might be Mark Twain or O.Henry.

It discusses the shortcomings of that era's novels and short stories. Specifically, it parodies authors' remarks qualifying dialogue. The author of the essay claims that those remarks have become so mindless and mechanical that no one, neither authors no readers, pay attention to the actual meaning of the words those remarks contain: as if there existed a barrel of words and stock phrases specifically for this purpose, and each time an author needed to qualify a character's dialogue line, he or she would just dip his or her hand into the barrel and select some words and phrases at random. As in:

"I have no idea," said the policeman and wept. "You might be right," said the dog, flicking cigar ashes on the floor. "You should have told me earlier," said the woman and tugged thoughtfully at her beard.

Something like that.

Anyone?

  • I don't suppose it could have been "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," an extremely famous essay by George Eliot? The shortcomings discussed therein seem somewhat different (and more gender-specific, at least in Eliot's conception), but it is well-known. – Obie 2.0 May 14 '17 at 5:58
  • @Obie2.0: No, it was a short piece, just three or four pages, I think. – Ricky May 14 '17 at 8:20
  • Was this a story or an essay? ...I assumed essay when reading the question, but this question has the [short-stories] tag. I am now a little confused. – Shokhet Jun 9 '17 at 13:41
  • @Shokhet It was an essay. – Ricky Jun 9 '17 at 23:26
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+350

The essay you're thinking of is possibly "William Dean Howells" by Mark Twain. Towards the end of the piece, he criticizes those who ape the greatness of Mr. Howells by attempting to imitate his "stage directions," and succeed only in making their work boring by the meaningless repetition of the same few tired phrases. Here is the relevant passage:

Mr. Howells does not repeat his forms, and does not need to; he can invent fresh ones without limit. It is mainly the repetition over and over again, by the third-rates, of worn and commonplace and juiceless forms that makes their novels such a weariness and vexation to us, I think. We do not mind one or two deliveries of their wares, but as we turn the pages over and keep on meeting them we presently get tired of them and wish they would do other things for a change.

“... replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar.”

“... responded Richard, with a laugh.”

“... murmured Gladys, blushing.”

“... repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears.”

“... replied the Earl, flipping the ash from his cigar.”

“... responded the undertaker, with a laugh.”

“... murmured the chambermaid, blushing.”

“... repeated the burglar, bursting into tears.”

“... replied the conductor, flipping the ash from his cigar.”

“... responded Arkwright, with a laugh.”

“... murmured the chief of police, blushing.”

“... repeated the house-cat, bursting into tears.”

And so on and so on; till at last it ceases to excite. I always notice stage directions, because they fret me and keep me trying to get out of their way, just as the automobiles do. At first; then by and by they become monotonous and I get run over.

  • 4
    Nice find! I edited your answer (see edit description for everything), but I added the other examples from the essay, to make clearer why it's likely that this is what the OP was looking for, and for the full effect of the misplaced “stage directions.” – Shokhet Jun 15 '17 at 0:23
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+50

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, by Mark Twain?

I think that you are thinking of this line:

The remark about the swiftness of the flight was unnecessary, as it was merely put in to forestall the possible objection of some over particular reader that the Indian couldn’t have found the needed “opportunity” while fleeing swiftly. The reader would not have made that objection. He would care nothing about having that small matter explained and justified. But that is Cooper’s way; frequently he will explain and justify little things that do not need it and then make up for this by as frequently failing to explain important ones that do need it.

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    I'm a bit pressed for time at the moment. I'll try to expand this at some point. – Mithrandir Jun 1 '17 at 7:35
  • I'm very much familiar with the essay. It is close in spirit to what I have in mind, but I don't think the piece I'm looking for involves Cooper specifically. Rather, it would be a criticism of a general trend in literature. The author may not be Mark Twain; two other names come to mind: O.Henry and Damon Runyon; however, I don't think Runyon was ever inclined to indulge in literary criticism - not to mention that the piece, as I remember it, has this distinct turn-of-the-century air; that leaves O.Henry, unless you can think of some other humorous author from the same era. – Ricky Jun 2 '17 at 18:49
  • A British author, perhaps? This is driving me nuts. – Ricky Jun 2 '17 at 18:50

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