The reason this is today’s topic is because I read recently on the website of a literary agent something about how you shouldn’t use more than two similes/metaphors in an entire work of fiction. Now THAT made me sit up straighter. For one thing, I can never remember the difference between the two. In my defense, I’d just like to point out that it doesn’t really matter if you know the name of the thing you’re doing with words as long as you do it well. For another thing, I don’t use very many similes/metaphors because I can never think of any. When I do think of one, I read it over and over and feel enormous satisfaction at my achievement. In fact, just recently, I began a short story with a simile. I mean, a metaphor. No, a simile.
Here it is, for your amusement and edification. And don’t worry, after we skim over my fiction, we’ll be on to Homer — so keep reading because it gets better. And more ancient and classical.
Here’s me, from a story called The Centerfold Club:
What surprised Emily the most, even more than discovering that she didn’t in the least mind seeing Mark, her husband of twenty years, with his arms around the girl, was how bumpy the girl’s skin felt. Specifically, the skin on her legs, which is where she told Emily to put her hands, after she finished grinding herself into Mark’s lap, and turning around and around, in one suggestive pose after another, like a rotisserie chicken, all heated, bronzed, exposed skin, rotating around them both, for as long as the green light stayed on.
That, dear readers is a simile, I’m pretty sure, because it uses the word “like.” I am also confident that, in the entire history of western literature nobody — and I do mean nobody — has thought to compare an exotic dancer to a rotisserie chicken. Now THAT was a good day’s work.
On to Homer. Homer loved, loved, loved similes. (Take that, literary agent.) They have a life of their own, really, in the Iliad — sometimes, you forget the Argives or the Achaeans or the Trojans (who had other names too, and please don’t get me started on why it is that he couldn’t just stick to “Trojans” and “Greeks”) were even in a big battle because all of sudden they’re bees, or leaves, or cows or something. Here’s a good one:
From the camp
The troops were turning out now, thick as bees
that issue from some crevice in a rock face,
endlessly pouring forth, to make a cluster
and swarm on blooms of summer here and there,
glinting and droning, busy in bright air.
Like bees innumerable from ships and huts
down the deep foreshore streamed those regiments
toward the assembly ground-
Simile! So famous, in fact, that others (Virgil I think) borrowed it and used it again.
There are a million of these things in the Iliad. In fact, there’s an entire web site devoted to them. So, my response to the only-two-similes-per-novel is: bah. I love them (if I could only think of them), Homer, obviously, never met a simile he didn’t like, and Shakespeare clearly knew his way around a metaphor (all the world’s a stage, baby).
Why did they use them? Because simile and metaphor deepen our understanding of what a writer is trying to say, I think. My own modest simile is intended to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that an exotic dancer, the ultimate “chick(en)” is a commodity, an object on display, and something sort of delicious, although not really, because, if uncooked, there’s all that bumpy flesh and, when cooked and displayed, maybe a little too perfect looking. Okay, okay. I totally made that up. The truth is that my own modest simile is in that story because it cracked me up and I happen to like the word “chicken.” (One of William’s favorite jokes is “Why did the baby cross the road? Because he was stapled to the chicken.” This joke is a family favorite because it (a) involves the word chicken and (b) the word staple.)
Really, I think writers use simile and metaphor because thinking up a good simile/metaphor is just plain fun. Wit, as I recall, has to do with combining dissimilar things, in a way that gives the reader (and the writer) pleasure. (That’s probably why I love Donne so much — that flea love thing really gets me, although I know it’s not everyone’s cup o’tea.) So, if you can think of a good metaphor or simile, I say: have at it.
And now I’m off, like a … bad simile!
I’d also like to add that I wrote this post lightening fast (metaphor!), did not check my spelling of things like Argives and Achaean (is it possible that word has THAT many vowels in it?) and apologize in advance if that literary agent — whose name and site I cannot now recall — said three was okay, rather than two. And, finally, I think I might be incapable of short & sweet blog posts because it actually takes more time to write something witty and short — like a simile or metaphor — than it does to write a loooooong post yammering on about simile and metaphor.