I’m Not Telling You What I’m Telling You

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Contrary, are you?

Most likely, yes. Brains like to disobey negative orders: don’t think about that stressful meeting tomorrow (you will), don’t worry about that mosquito bite (it’ll prompt start itching), don’t ruminate on all the goals you have failed to achieve recently (a list will promptly appear).

Ouch.

The inability to deliberately shake off a thought through negative command is called Dostoyevski’s white bear problem or the ironic process.

Writing can harness this process to magnify the impressions left by (disconcerting) images. This is another reason why word associations are hard to dispel; in Dangerous Associations the pairing of baby and knife was disturbing because the mind connected the two words via cutting, but also because the image stuck and telling yourself not to think about applying knife to baby may have lead to a mental deepening of the scenario rather than its dispersion. 

(When faced with gloom, it’s worth trying to direct the ironic process towards a positive purpose by trying really hard not to think about, for example, cuddly white teddybears.)

Like with other unbalancing acts, the more stressed you are the more distress persistent, unshakable negative thoughts can cause you. Which is why reading emotionally challenging books during a difficult period at work, for example, can affect you more than reading them during your vacation. Continue reading

Dangerous Word Associations

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Green for spring-growth, blue for water, white for air. Yellow for the sun, black for mourning, white for wedding. You may disagree, depending on culture or idiosyncrasy. But the fact stands: some colours are associated to some objects, gestures, rituals—and the connection is exploited as well as propagated by literature.

And that’s only the colours and their meanings. 

Language itself carries encoded other associative dimensions. For example, in English, words containing a metaphorical up usually stand for positive emotions. For example: buoyancy, bouncing, floating, flying. Conversely, sinking, submerging, descending, falling, are words that contain a metaphorical down and therefore convey negative emotions. (Lakoff and Johnson go into detail in Metaphors We Live by). 

Of course, connotations of words can be bent away from their most common denotations. Take floating, for example, and shade it with gloom:

  • She floated about, giddy with shock.
  • The drugs made her float like a ghost in her own body.
  • Standing over the coffin of his late uncle, the man felt eviscerated, emptied of sense and purpose, and carried along by grief, like a husk barely floating on the surface of a steady, but merciless stream. 

Note that in each case the act of floatation had to be qualified before it could achieve its opposite sense: shock, drugs-ghost, elaborate grief padding. And even then, the first two sentences don’t unequivocally carry negative meaning without further context (perhaps the shock was due to a promotion; perhaps the drugs alleviated debilitating pain). Continue reading

Writing Helplessness

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Bullets chase you, or an illness, or even just last month’s bills. If evasion and shielding fail, your soft flesh—whatever the pursuer’s weapon—will suffer. The inability to prevent cataclysmic injury leads to helplessness.

As there are many wars out there, daily, personal, and local, on top of the devastating regional ones, let’s consider the most extreme cases where life is endangered without any rational escape options.

In such situations, what your body does as a reflex or on mental command simply matters no longer—a realisation which goes against the fundamental survival instinct creating a paradox of the highest order. If the situation is somehow protracted, for example in the cases of people trapped inside confined spaces or of those tortured over longer periods, helplessness will have time to set in.

What happens then nobody wishes to find out voluntarily, in situ, but fiction does go exploring. At the very least, fiction allows a reader to explore an atrocious situation, broadening their empathic response, their insight, and their ability to prevent arriving at similar circumstances. Continue reading

Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words

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Fear is a state of anticipated pain.

Broken bones, broken friendships, broken dreams—so many kinds of pain can be anticipated, that it’s possible to rephrase every decision, conscious and not, as a decision made out of fear. I’ll take the longer path because I fear falling on the black ice coating the shorter path; I’ll tell my boss I’m well-suited to take on an important client (even if I’m not sure) because I fear projecting incompetence.

Worse, it’s often a choice between lesser fears: I fear starting a new hobby, because it’ll be time-consuming and difficult; I fear not starting a new hobby, because all my friends have one and I’ll stand out as the only klutz.

As a primal instinct, fear pertains to basic, life-threatening harm or physical pain, but we’ve built up a society where what’s “in your head” is often equally prominent. Accordingly, fictional characters reflect the whole gamut: between rapaciousness due to want and retreating due to fear you can summarise the motivational background of any character.

The stronger the fear, the more dramatic its consequences and the better the story. So how to write fear, transmitting it, not telling about it? Continue reading

The Terror-Horror-Revulsion Sequence

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Macabre isn’t the word I’m looking for. Yet it presents itself, perhaps chiefly because of Stephen King’s book Dance Macabre.

The word, with a capital M, has its own entry in the OED as part of the phrase dance of Macabre, meaning the Dance of Death, which in turn represents the medieval allegory of Death leading the dance of souls to the grave.

Even if you refuse to read about pirouetting skeletons, you may have unwittingly enjoyed Camille Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre,symphonic poem  from 1874:

Returning to King’s book: even though I haven’t read it, I have seen it quoted and paraphrased for its delineation of three concepts in fiction: revulsion, horror, and terror. It’s a useful gradation, regardless of genre or topic, because it pinpoints the crease between the explicit and the implicit.

Here’s how King’s words have filtered down to me.

Revulsion or gross-out is when you’re told about the eye that burst out of its socket and splattered the doctor, or the parents who threw at each other the heart of their unborn child, or the woman who was walled in with the heads of her lovers, or the long-haired zingaro serenading a pile of severed body parts while admiring his reflection in a lake of blood (mostly images from Barbey and Lorrain). It’s all red and mushy, and anyone Halloween-minded can do it. The sufficiently exaggerated gross-out is grotesque.

Horror is the moment you take out a bunch of beautiful flowers from a precious historic vase and find a baby’s body providing compost feed (Barbey). Horror is the realisation before the gross-out.

Terror is the suspense before the horror that never quite happens: it’s the quiet laughter in the cellar that is empty when you turn on the light; it’s the attic that calls to you, but when you get there is only full of creaking boards and whistling wind; it’s the nightmare in which you’re chased with a chainsaw, but when you wake up, you see that you’re safe, except there’s a trail of blood across your living room carpet leading to the toolshed.

Terror is almost perpetual horror that prolongs the repulsive revelation, the way a romantic comedy prolongs the first kiss.

Continue reading

Becoming Your Body: Fearing Pain

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Uhtceare opened my eyes this morning.

It means dawn-care, or the act of lying awake, worrying, at dawn.

Judging by its internet presence, Mark Forsyth, author of The Horologicon, is responsible for reviving this word—an obscure one even in Old English.1 In a world of anxiety and hyperactivity, it’s a useful term.

If uhtceare keeps eyes open, so does the fear of uhtceare. Ironically, the fear of worry creates additional (meta) worry. The same mechanism accounts for restlessness on alarm-clock mornings: when there’s only three hours left, instead of making the most of those three hours, the sleeper turns insomniac. We’re cursed with the knowledge of the limit, not the limit itself. Continue reading

Becoming a Statue: Fearing Change

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Telepathy would be a wonder. Telekinesis an inestimable power.

Only after acquiring both we’d tackle teaching a stone slab to get up and move (maybe).

Or…

… we can immediately read Henri Michaux’s text The Statue and 1.

In my spare time, I’ve been teaching a statue to walk. Given its exaggeratedly prolonged immobility, it isn’t easy. Not for the statue. Not for me. Great distance separates us, I realize that.

The futility of teaching a statue to walk! The first line presents a paradox heralding a discussion, if not a resolution. The reader is drawn onwards.

The remainder of the paragraph claims the problem is real: this is no metaphorical statue (reserve judgment on that) and the narrator is aware of the difficulties.

A few lines later in the text, the moral of a perennial piece of advice is reversed; instead of reassurance that a journey begins with a single step, implying any first step, just get going, we read:

What matters is that [the statue’s] first step be a good one. Everything depends on that first step.

This is doubly unsettling. Continue reading

Becoming the Sea: Fearing Fate

Suppose an empty room contains a gigantic apple.

That’s a proposition even more disturbing than Rene Magritte’s Listening Room.

https://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/the-listening-room-1952

Henri Michaux’s collection of texts from 1949, Life in the Folds, is the oddest of gigantic apples. If unchecked, it inflates into a daunting monstrosity of ambiguous intent. Indeed, the exquisite mind-contortion chambers contained within it defy obvious origin or characterisation: I started to write a brief post about Michaux’s work, so I copied out all the interesting quotes, only to realise I’d copied out chunks from nearly every page of the book.

Life in the Folds consists of over fifty short texts (and a few longer ones); they are mostly prose, with titles such as The Man-Sling, On the Skewer, In Plaster, Never Imagine, The Danger in Associations of Thoughts, The Trepanned Patient, Recommended Instrument: Apartment Thunder.

Some could be considered mini-stories with hints of plot, but perhaps a good label is thought experiments, or—to move a step away from scientific connotations and Einstein—violent thoughts.  A longer descriptor would be: uncomfortably fascinating meditation on pain: psychological, physical, abstract, concrete, subtle, searing.

It’s easy to dismiss such material as fodder for psychiatrists, especially when we find out that Michaux’s biography includes both war and his wife’s sudden death, but violent thoughts occur in most fiction regardless, as necessary motivators well-woven into the fabric of plot.

It’s also easy to dismiss such material as extraneous or incendiary because violent thoughts already occur in most of life—surely that suffices?—but the subject is often taboo and so, if unaddressed, can lead to people’s lives collapsing insidiously.

With that in mind, there are at least two salubrious approaches to Michaux:

  • As a reader looking for a contained, concrete space to ruminate on negative feelings about others and the self. Perhaps as a springboard for a later discussion.
  • As a critic or meta-reader exploring writing techniques that conjure up the weird and the pain-fear-terror-inducing (but not grossly shocking) while observing your own reactions to those selfsame techniques.

Regarding the first approach: Safe exploration of on-page violence, no matter how imaginary or disassociated from heart-rending characterisations, requires mental mettle—if your environment or state of mind isn’t conducive to challenging reading, leave Life in the Folds for another day.

I will focus on the second approach, which inevitably desensitised everything it touches, but please be warned. (This also means I will spoil a fully immersive reading experience for you, both by quoting and by deconstructing the quotes.)

Continue reading

Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company)

Man is alone in life. He’s alone in his cradle as he’ll be alone on his deadbeat; he’s alone in love…

—Michel de Ghelderode, Stealing from Death (translated by George MacLennan)

Alone in a house, on a bus, in the middle of a field. Alone in a room.

Alone in your efforts, in your struggle, in your pain.

Yet, somehow alone does not mean swimming in a sea of silent nothingness. On the contrary, barring meditative states, it means alone with your thoughts. And the nonsense that swills around in there, between Willing the Future and Judging the Past, can be quite an imaginatively torturous pandemonium—a stampeding herd of dinosaurs makes less of a fuss.

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Urns as Hearts

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When it was known that the Queen had given birth to a frog there was consternation in the court; the ladies of the palace remained mute, and no one any longer ventured into the high vestibules except with sealed lips and heart-rending gazes that spoke volumes.

Jean Lorrain, The Soul-Drinker (translated by Brian Stableford)

Where can a story go after such a beginning?

Written in the Yellow nineties (1890s), the stories of The Soul-Drinker reflect the French literary trends of the time. They split into two groups: psychological probings of perverse loves (naturalism) and mock-folktales (symbolism). Both feature a heavily ornate style and themes of moral decadence.

The first group of stories has a similar thrust to Barbey’s Diaboliques, although Lorrain doesn’t attempt such a high level of historical realism. He does use framed narratives, but in a more traditional Holmes-Watson setting, where the Watson narrates what shocking discovery Holmes tells him he has made (although the degree of unreliability is substantial).

Lorrain’s women are dissolute—diabolical, even, like Barbey’s—but instead of them striking precisely, daggers-to-hearts, they seem to be striking with such variety they might as well be the embodiment of everyone on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express.

Lady Vianes are everywhere; blonde, brunette or red-haired, Lady Viane is woman, the woman, the true woman, the Eve of Genesis, Flaubert’s Ennoïa, the eternal enemy, the dancer who drinks the blood of prophets, Salome, Herodias, the impure beast, Bestia. When she kills us physically, she’s called Debauchery; when she kills us morally, she’s called Hatred, and sometimes Life.

The quote insists on its message to the point of hysteria where any genuine shock becomes grotesque, and then even the grotesque loses its original meaning.

If excessive euphemising is one way to neutralise the unpalatable, excessive exaggeration is the other. Pushed far enough, the mealy-mouthed and the loud-mouthed meet at the ineffective extreme with their backs to each other. The difference lies in their respective wakes: pasty grey versus glossy gold. Neither may be to to your liking, but the scenic diapason is worth reviewing. Continue reading

Diabolical Framings

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 Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that if you saw Hell through a small window, it would be far more horrific than if you were able to see the place in its entirety.

Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Diaboliques (translated by Raymond N. MacKenzie)

Boundaries are meaningful when exceptions plant flags on faraway summits.

Conventions love to hate those who break them.

The don’t do that, begs for the what if I do do?

Such questioning of authoritative admonishment leads to the fall of Satan in Milton’s Paradise, to the Faustian deal with the devil, to murder mysteries, to class-breakers like Gatsby, principled men like Atticus Finch, alienated teenagers like Caulfield, contrarian patients like McMurphy, and in general any tension that falls under the I won’t take out the trash because you insist that I do so.

Space sagas defy scientific barriers; the absurdity of Kafka defies reason.

Even walls that protect from valid harm—no matter how noble their cause—inevitably invite curiosity: some want to peek over, some want to vault over. Imagination allows us to do so multiple times, in multiple ways, and still wake up in our own beds, warm. Imagination leads to written fiction, and fiction thrives on probing the transgression: either how it was done or why.

This is why there exist whole literary movements built on investigations of taboos. The merits of reading such fantasies are myriad, from gaining historical and cultural context, to understanding existential issues, to merely expanding your perception of the human condition. For those of us who care about the storytelling technique, such texts exhibit a number of methods for addressing tender topics, eliciting either disgust or empathy, and skirting the sensitivities associated with the “fallen”.

Also fiction can be read because: fun, exposure, and yes, curiosity.

Continue reading

Ping-Pong Dialogue

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Coward.
I know.
Betrayer.
Yes.
Opportunist.
I can see why you would think that.
Slave.
Go on.
Faithless lecherous child.
Okay.
Liar.
What can I say.
Liar.
But.
Liar.
But please.
Destroyer liar sadist fake.
Please.
Please what.
Save me.
Who else do you say that to.
No one.
No one he says.
Have courage.
You fool.
Oh my love.
Stop.

—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

That was husband and wife ploughing through their domestic argument.

If any dialogue is said to speed up the plot, then “ping-pong” dialogue is a race-car down the page, or a sledge, or a shoot, or a slippery-slope—wheeeeee!—that sends the reader whizzing along.

The absence of dialogue tags (he said, she said) and dialogue beats (He stood up. She pointed a finger at him.) is pleasant. It’s a light touch. It’s the vastness of air above the ping-pong table, that contributes to the game as much as the paddles and the ball.

(Calling it table tennis doesn’t quite capture the gist of repartee.)

But the tags are not needed in a back-and-forth, and the beats appear naturally even when there are none. Once the protagonists of a story are set, their characters and mannerisms vividly portrayed, it’s easy to imagine who’s doing what. When I first read Carson’s exchange, I saw the husband and the wife making all sorts of gestures. Upon rereading, the gestures changed—such is the versatility of invisible beats.

I offer three further quotes from very different sources. They all use the same specific “trick” to pull off an effective ping-pong. Can you spot what it is?

Continue reading

Real-World References in Fiction

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Fiction mustn’t begrudge the setting.

Gripping plot and solid character-building are necessary, but interest is still often derived from the specific where, be it your street, Seattle, Middle Earth, or Mars.

However, occasionally the narrative is only loosely tethered to a place, if at all. Then the details come from the characters and their internal worlds, which have to be richly furnished with knowledge, sensibilities, traumas, psychoses, which in turn have to be labelled, easily recalled, and presented in a way that resonates with the reader.

Resonance comes through recognition, and is achieved by recalling common facts—scientific, geographic, historic, cultural, mythological, literary. We’ve all probably heard of Plato, World War II, and the Internet (my readers at least).

You see: lists, lists, and more lists of building blocks. They get boring. Quickly. Also, there are many choices to make, what to include, where. Different references to the real world ground the world of the story differently, and the audience self-selects for those who appreciate that particular grounding.

For example, Anne Carson’s verse-novel The Beauty of the Husband references Duchamp on the first page, to set the mood for a tale of a broken marriage.

So Duchamp
of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

which broke in eight pieces in transit from the Brooklyn Museum

to Connecticut (1912)

Even if you were unaware of Duchamp’s mixed-media installation, the mention of artist, work, place, and time, flicks colour onto the background of Carson’s literary painting, so to speak. You know what to expect.

Such references—which are neither part of a traditional, physical setting, nor outright quotes of external sources (though there are some)—are difficult to integrate so the reader doesn’t perceive them as mini info-dumps. It’s a skill, and the first step to mastering it is learning from well-wrought examples.

Here is what I learned from Carson.

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The Beauty of the Husband: Metaphors

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Wounds bring both pain and a promise of change.

A wound gives off its own light
surgeons say.
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it.

—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

Mesmerised by Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, I embarked on a more ambitious journey through her world of verse-novels. This blurb warned of complexity:

The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

If tackling page one was an act of faith in myself, then moving from page one to page two was an act of faith in the author and in her ability to write an “enjoyable” book on marriage, starting with the words A wound. Petty grievances and family drama make for hard reading.

But reality TV this is not. In fact, Carson’s book is the smoothest ninety-minute read.

Of the 145 pages most are nearly blank—the usual sparsity of verse counterbalances the density of its internal images—so it’s easy to breeze through visually.

The consequences of the content are another matter (which is personal).

The writing lessons to be drawn, yet another (which I’ll share).

But first: what of tangos, what of Keats?

Continue reading

Leafing Through Shade and Shadow

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I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.

—Dracula in Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel.

Shade and shadow. Different or same? Similar? How?

Fowler’s admits they have an almost identical meaning which branches out into a considerable diversity of idiom. Well put, if hardly illuminating. But his mnemonic “clue” to their difference does enlighten.

shade, shadow, nn. The details of this diversity are too many to be catalogued here, but it is a sort of clue to remember that shadow is a piece of shade, related to it as, e.g., pool to water.

So shade fills a shadow to the brim and no farther, and while shadow belongs to a concrete object, shade belongs to the world.

The pool-water analogy is not as trifling as it seems. It’s almost poetic.

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The Nectars of Paradise

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How from that sapphire fount the crispèd brooks,
Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise …

—John Milton, Paradise Lost (iv. 237–241).

So muses Satan on the nectar flowing through Eden. But how much thought does he give to the adjectives derived therefrom: is that flow nectarean or nectareal, or is it paradisean, or perhaps paradisiacal?

In 1968, Fowler’s opines:

nectar has kept the word-makers busy in search of its adjective; nectareal, nectarean, nectared, nectareous, nectarian, nectariferous, nectarine, nectareous, and nectarous, have all been given a chance. Milton, with nectared, nectarine, and nectarous, keeps clear of the four-syllabled forms in which the accent is drawn away from the significant part; and we might do worse than let him decide for us.

So which one won out?

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Euphemism and Euphuism

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Konstantin Somov, Lady and Harlequin (1921)

 

“My husband has gone bear hunting,” she says.

***

She knows some very pleasant secrets.
After the secrets, we drink aquavit and I recite a poem …

—Paul Willems, Flight of the Archbishop (translated by Edward Gauvin)

Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.

In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.

Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.

Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.

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Elegant Variation

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Fyodor Vasilyev, Poplars Lit by the Sun

By the house grows a poplar. Each spring its branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s rocket-shape.

Try writing a third sentence about the poplar.

Did your sentence use poplar or tree? Did you feel clumsy having to repeat a prominent word that was already used? Or perhaps you went for an unambiguous application of the pronoun (Its roots dig further down into the gravely earth …)? What would you do for a fourth or fifth sentence?

If you’re wondering why word-variation matters, consider the example without it:

By the house grows a tree. Each spring the tree’s branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s bullet-shape.

Aside from losing the specificity, we’ve lost a solid, well-formed image to the inane hammering of a word.

You usually notice that you’ve referred to something in the same way across multiple consecutive sentences during a rereading of a draft. Then comes the question of substitutes. My example above is fairly prototypical for common nouns: there is at least one other word which can serve you immediately (poplar) and one pronoun you can seize on (it). If those are not enough, then the problem lies with uniform (and therefore uninteresting) sentence structure, and it’s a matter of reworking from the elements up.

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Does It Come off?

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Untidy personal appearance or professionally frayed jeans?

Stench or refined perfume made with whale faecal matter?

Kitsch or baroque extravaganza?

Obsolete or avant-garde?

One question underlies them all:

Does it come off?

If it does, critics manufacture reasons for praise. If it does not, the object under scrutiny is shaded with degrees of doom.

This applies to writing, too. In fact, it’s the reason why self-editing is so difficult: of course this essay-poem-post-book comes off beautifully—I conceived it! No one writing for public consumption believes they’re creating a priori substandard or flawed works.

This is also true on a micro level, when it comes to defining what a (good) sentence is. Must it have a subject and a predicate? Or must it just be a unit of coherent thought?

Fowler’s Dictionary offers ten definitions to illustrate the range of approaches. Number 1 takes the ‘popular approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

1. A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.

It almost sounds like the beginning of a modified Turing test. Note how context sneaks in: purposes are largely intelligible when set off against a particular background.

Number 8 takes the ‘grammarian approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

8. A number of words making a complete grammatical structure.

Here the onus is shifted to those willing to define such structures and then grapple with potential exceptions.

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It Is True That Words Are Cheap

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Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.

Let’s have a saucy example.

“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”

“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”

“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”

—Jean Lorrain in The Unknown Woman (translation by Brian Stableford)

How’s that on the digestion?

Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there is a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.

(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)

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Every Chance of Going Wrong

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False scent: When the author claims this is lavender, and some readers claim it’s only a picture of lavender.

 

For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!

Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.

I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.

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Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance

kristina-m-m https://unsplash.com/photos/YzJblODa5mA

If you want to write about the flower, don’t write about the shadow just to be different.

Taut, hard, solid, versus slack, soft, amorphous—language.

On the one side is Strunk & White’s Omit needless words which omits needless words in itself (and therefore is a an autological phrase). On the other side would be a paraphrase of the same idea: When you can, cut words that do not contribute to your meaning.

Each density of style—to coin a name for this taut-slack property—may be obviously assessed on the page, but like a lot of stylistic properties it is hard to define objectively.

For me, density is the rate of surprise, word for word and idea for idea. The more easily I can predict what comes next, the looser the text. The more surprised I am by what comes next, the denser the text.

Examples help.

A dense style needn’t be terse or cryptic. E. B. White of the Omit needless words follows his own dictum assiduously, but does not shy away from sentences fifty words long. This is the beginning of Death of a Pig (found in Essays). Note that polysyndeton, the proliferation of and in the quote, may appear deceptively “loose”, but actually introduces a new idea four out of five times (those are in bold).

I spent several days and night in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.

On the other hand, a dense style can be terse, cryptic, and punctuation heavy. Here’s Roland Barthes speaking about The Pleasure of the Text. (Translated from the French by Richard Miller.)

The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing.  Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).

Density isn’t just a property of non-fiction.

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Love: Writing Fresh Metaphors

everton-vila https://unsplash.com/photos/AsahNlC0VhQ

What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?

So the Sphinx asked many times, devouring those who gave false answers, until Oedipus came along and said: Man. 

The riddle relies on singling out a few properties (footedness) of its answer (man). The air of mystery is removed further, if you see the answer and riddle presented together in a more standard format:

Man, four-footed at sunrise, two-footed at noon, three-footed at sunset.

This sentence (fragment) is now a metaphorical description qualifying the familiar in less familiar terms.

(You can use this principle to make riddles of you own. Take a metaphorical description, remove the familiar thing being described and pose the rest as a question. For example, what first smells of breakfast, then later smells of hell?)

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Life: Writing Extended Metaphors

artem-sapegin https://unsplash.com/photos/GP3EdRRvu2Q

Consider life.

What is it to you: a flower, a dusty road, a never-ending night? Or would anything short of an essay be too simplistic an answer? To forge captivating, brief similes is often trouble enough, but depending on what is being described and in how much detail, extended metaphors may be called for.

In general, metaphors need not be explicit, like in the last line of Fizgerald’s Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Here life (or time) is a rivera common enough trope that it can be toyed with implicitly.

On the other hand, metaphors can be explicit, like in the following quote from (and title of) Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream (1635):

What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.

(Act II, line 1195, translated from the Spanish by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman)

Penning the poetic finale of a Great American Novel or dramatising a metaphor into a full-blown allegorical play isn’t teachable by example. Exploiting an extended metaphor is.

In particular, any good example offers a template which can be reused, like Adán’s Quote of about life that I’ll work through today. (Translation by Katherine Silver.)

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Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk

giovanni-arechavaleta https://unsplash.com/photos/hOBIBC-fg0g

Shoes, mules, what’s next? Metal, wooden, tall and thin, ever-present, holding out lights, signs that warn us, ropes that connect us: poles.

Full-blown personification of non-human entities is usually the province of children and the insane, but it shouldn’t be. It’s an essential imaginative method for enriching any environment, even if you do not intend to write a story about it.

Beyond providing private, in-brain entertainment, it develops perspective-switching, awareness of surroundings, discernment of cause-and-effect, and ultimately, I believe, it enhances empathy.

(What does the world look like from the point of view of that paving stone I just stepped on? What’s it like to be trodden on physically? Metaphorically? Now that you’ve thought about it would you do it to a fellow person?)

Of course, separating reality and fiction is crucial when you act, but otherwise, in your head, the knots in a wooden table are free to unknot overnight and straighten out their poor backs, and nightingale floors can be made of flattened vampire birds that attack assassins bent on taking the emperor’s life. Or maybe they’re zombie birds? You decide.

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Mule: All Things Emanate From Her

simon-wilkes https://unsplash.com/photos/APX-IrnG8yw

When a jack donkey meets a mare you might get a mule. In real life the mule is usually sterile. In fiction the mule can be the creator of worlds. For why not?

Hold that thought.

Nonhuman characters throng mythologies and religions in symbolic roles. Lions, eagles, horses, snakes, dragons and their kin. The powerful, the swift. What about the stolid or the fickle?

Perhaps the most easily forgotten are those who carry the world on their shoulders, unseen. (Not Atlas, though, he’s had his fair amount of press coverage, even siring a common noun.)

I remember the weird plausibility of Terry Pratchett’s idea when I first read it: four elephants carrying his Discworld, while standing on a turtle that swims through space. The notion may or may not derive from anecdotes in Hindu mythology.

Telescoping world-holding responsibility appears elsewhere too. For example, going back a few centuries, there are Kujata and Bahamut, a bull and a fish, whom I discovered through Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. Here’s how he introduces them:

In Moslem cosmology, Kujata is a huge bull endowed with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths, and feet. To get from one ear to another or from one eye to another, no more than five hundred years are required. Kujata stands on the back of the fish Bahamut; on the bull’s back is a great rock of ruby, on the rock an angel, and on the angel rests our earth. Under the fifth is a mighty sea, under the sea vast abyss of air, under the air fire, and under the fire a serpent so great that were it not for fear of Allah, this creature might swallow up all creation.

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Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies

https://www.wikiart.org/en/vincent-van-gogh/a-pair-of-shoes-1886

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886) — Not immaculately polished

 

Shoes are light, tight, and immaculately polished, they are replaceable and irreplaceable, they come with identical siblings, with willy cousins, with colour variations, straps, studs, belts, laces, eyelets, soles for souls, a unique body odour, a sense of humour, and a rapacious hunger for stripy socks they swallow but never digest.

They live in the cupboard, on the stairs, under the bed, behind the coat stand, and on top of other shoes. They’re found in Van Gogh’s paintings, in ultracrepidarian, in someone else’s walked mile.

They are what makes you yearn to sit down after a long night out and what makes you want to keep going on a long slog home.

They bite the dust, even when you don’t, they take one for the toes, they retaliate with the heel, they kick, dribble, squelch and chork. They dance, they lounge, they sneak away when you need them most, and they give you ten inches of height when you’re young at the price of giving you bunions when you’re old. They are loved and hated, lauded and sexualised, they are bought at a discount only to be returned, they are dragged through the gutter, draggled through the mucky lawn, they are torn, tattered, discarded then rediscovered, they are thrown in protest, they are thrown at vermin, they are forced upon horses, pets, and children. They can kill and they can liberate.

Trainers, boots, high heels; slippers, sandals, flip-flops. Just think: the pressure of their workplace, the ignominy of their position, the assault of odours, the taste of dog fluids, the scraping, the freezing, the frying, the up-close imagery of the lowest places that collect the worst gunk. They take it all in silence; occasionally they squeak.

Shoes.

They protect and serve, almost as much as a police force; they provide security, hope, and companionship almost as much as a family member. They may trip you up, but more often they will break your fall. Even when your tie is crooked and your blouse has wrinkles, they make you decent.

Without shoes in a city you are homeless; without shoes in the wild you are dead.

Shoes are heroes.

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Idea: A Rugged Rope

wynand-van-poortvliet https://unsplash.com/photos/kx7KMnSIA2Y

Enough with the sun and the sky. Today, I tackle a scene.

Gasp!

A whole scene description from Martín Adán’s Cardboard House.

If you care to read it before I dissect it, here it is. (If you can’t imagine why I’d care to dissect it, see below the Quote.)

Quote: The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast. A frond rubs against a house as the chaste swallows protest. Above, the cirrus sky. Below is the street, extensively, energetically stained with light and shadow as if with soot and chalk. The gentleman’s jacket belches, swells, and belches again. With their brooms, sharp and straight like paintbrushes, the street sweepers make drawings along the tree-lined streets. The street sweepers have the hair of aesthetes, the eyes of drug addicts, the silence of literary men. There are no penumbras. Yes, there is one penumbra: a burst of light in vain spreads through the street that grows longer and longer in order to cancel it out. Here a shadow is not the negation of the light. Here a shadow is ink: it covers things with an imperceptible dimension of thickness; it dyes. The light is a white floury dust that the wind disperses and carries far away. A shabby young girl inserts a cord into bare spools of thread. I insert wooden adjectives into the thick, rugged rope of an idea. At the end of the street, blocking it, a blue wall grows pale until it turns into the sky itself.

(Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver)

I like seeing literary innards—the bones, the flesh, the tendons and the sticky thingamajig that congeals quickly (blood, humour, ichor). The text dies on the table, as it should, but how else am I to learn the anatomy of good writing? Also, there’s something satisfying about realising that all those ancient rhetorical devices—the so-called figures of speechstill form the essence of an evocative description. That said, rhetoric is as far away from oratory in Adán’s writing as you could possibly imagine.

Aren’t you curious how that’s possible?

If you’re a writer, don’t you want to know the secrets?

All of them?

The literary scalpel comes out.

The day cackles. A hen cackles like the day — secretive, implacable, manifest, discontinuous, vast.

A chiasmus inverts the order of words (day, cackles), and is a staple of paradoxes and nifty quotes. It sounds clever, even if it isn’t. It gives meaning, even where there may not be much otherwise. It’s wordplay that compels the mind to juxtapose meaning in unusual ways.

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Sky: The Dirty Cup Filled with Sugar

rowan-heuvel https://unsplash.com/photos/BAs1ZenPPHE

Look up.

Last time I looked up on this blog, I saw Adán’s sun; today, I see his sky.

Sky from Old Norse for cloud.

Welkin from the German for cloud.

The empyrean from the Greek for fire.

Firmament from the Latin for firm.

Cerulean, from the Latin for dark blue, dark green, as applied to sky—that would have been another appropriate synonym, but it’s not. It’s a colour smeared over our heads on clear evenings.

Beyond the synonyms, the obvious adjectives, and the troves of clichés, writers are left to portray the variations of sky as best they can. Like with descriptions of the ubiquitous sun, the task is formidable.

Once again, Martín Adán, in his lyrical fragments from The Cardboard House, shows us where to look for inspiration. Unlike with sun, which carries the essence of unique, compact shininess, the sky, has a vaster, more flexible (and nightly) presence.

Q1–8 are Adán’s descriptions related to sky (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver). Each exhibits a different tactic that could be used to describe any target object:

  1. Convert other objects to descriptors of the target.
  2. Use interactions of objects with the target as descriptors.
  3. Choose kooky words to bring interest into the description.
  4. Pick an original metaphor for the target then extend it to surrounding objects.
  5. State a metaphor explicitly, develop it over a couple of sentences, elevate the ending by combining unpoetic and poetic words.
  6. Sneak in a most original metaphor as a parenthetical aside.
  7. List the target alongside other objects, thereby creating a complex blend.
  8. Negate the target.

I’ve underlined the points of interest: sometimes they are whole constructions, sometimes they are quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that transform the ordinary into the interesting.

Q1: The vulgar epic poem of the summer, the red sky, the sun sky, and night as a shout.

Analysis: This is an enallage, or deliberate grammatical mistake, using a noun as an adjective.

Writing tip: Use nouns as adjectives. E.g. Paper on the breeze, flying paper, butterfly paper.

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Sun: Turning Dogs into Gold Ingots

kent-pilcher https://unsplash.com/photos/87MIF4vqHWg

How would you describe the sun?

Most immediate answers are trite. And that’s because the sun is an ancient presence in our lives, which means most people in the history of language have reported about it, exhausting whole swathes of linguistic options.

In writing, the weather is a bit like that sex scene: it needs to be mentioned, but unless you have something fresh to contribute, you’re better off not dwelling on the subject—everyone knows what it looks like and is quite satisfied if you state the temperature and the likelihood of rain.

Taking that into account, I am appreciative of writers who offer even a single neat and novel way to say it’s sunny. And when I find a writer who does it page after page, like Martín Adán, seemingly only writing about the sun without repeating himself, I rush to learn how.

Martín Adán (1908 – 1985) was a Peruvian poet who published his only novel, The Cardboard House, when he was twenty years old. The book meanders through page-long vignettes of life in Lima surrounded by sky, sea, and city. Adán’s work in general is described as hermetic, metaphysical, deep, full of symbolic metaphors. That may be so, but from a superficial literary standpoint—were there such a thing—in Cardboard House, he excels at lyrical descriptions of the commonplace seaside scenes.

(I once wrote a brief post quoting him.)

Although the credit for the content goes to Adán, the credit for the beautiful English rendition goes to Katherine Silver.

Effective, innovative descriptions are hard to craft. They take practice (practice, practice, practice) and an ear developed through reading: that’s the general advice, and I’m yet to come across a book that teaches you how it’s done. But the learning process can be sped up—like when coining new meld-compounds—by analysing, and then mimicking, the tactics employed by successful examples.

The elementary descriptive figures of speech are simile, metaphor, and personification. Tips for identifying them:

  • Like, as if, the way that signal a simile.
  • A to be that identifies things which aren’t the same signals a metaphor; likewise verbs that wouldn’t normally be associated with the subject.
  • Verbs that usually apply to humans or animals signal personification.

Sometimes good writing relies on quoins—the quirky, unexpected words that elevate the ordinary to the interesting.

Here are the quotes; the underlining is mine and indicates what I considered imaginative.

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Writing Metafiction: When You See the Back of Your Head

If you look in the mirror and see your reflection, you are seeing reality.

If you look in the mirror and see the back of your head, you are seeing a self-referential impossibility. You are seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence—an existence you are suddenly aware of.

Now, what if you are a fiction seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence?

Magritte Not to be reproduced https://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/not-to-be-reproduced-1937

René Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced (1937)

 

Metafiction is fiction about fiction.

The proliferation of metafiction is part of humanity’s cultural progression. In the past fifty years, it’s ridden the rising wave of societal self-awareness. More recently, the language of recursive programming routines has been filtering into daily life.

Although, nothing about metafiction is new: it is an embodiment of self-consciousness in literature.

I am (aware of) me. 

As far as I am concerned that sentence illustrates four tropes, one or all of which occur in any metafiction: symmetry, circularity, branching, and (questioning of) being.

Without delving into ontology or going all Chomsky on you, to make sense of I am me you need two entities that are:

  • distinct (if only for a moment, so that you can hold them apart in your head before identifying them),
  • connected (via an identification),
  • essential to your being (are the essence of you).

The ephemeral distinctness is the branching. The connectedness of you with you is a circular argument. The essence of you is at the heart of being.

Symmetry—in the sense of not-necessarily perfect mirroring, reflection, duality, self-splitting, identification—is both the most fundamental trope of metafiction, and it is contained in the other three:

  • the basic, choice-free branching is a symmetrical one,
  • the basic circular function is a reflection there and back,
  • the basic test of existence (of a degree of self-consciousness) is the mirror.

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Narrator-Slant and Pronoun Games

john-noonan https://unsplash.com/photos/otdBpgxHm2E

It’s all about the point of view (and the viewpoint).

 

It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.

—Julio Cortázar, Blow-up (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn in Bestiary)

As introductory paragraphs go, explicit indecision about point of view comes high on my list of attention-grabbing gimmicks. Especially when stated so honestly. The last thing a narrator wants to do from the onset is state their own ineptitude.

Unless.

Unless the clumsiness, the cluelessness, the fracturing of character is a game of deception relevant to the message. And boy do I want to hear that message! It’s likely to be bold, deep, and disruptive—otherwise it wouldn’t survive the bruising journey through opaque linguistic waters.

It screams metafiction.

But before you get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before we get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, let us consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before one gets all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, one should consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

The pronoun game is real even for the puny blogger.

Each version slants the statement differently: you addresses you, dear reader; we puts me, the author, and you, the reader, on the same side; one tries for neutral and formal.

If blogs have the freedom of choice, other specialised areas have accepted norms. For example, scientific texts mostly eschew I, as too personal and biasing, and often resort to we, which can mean we, the author(s) of the text, or we, as in me, the author, and you, the reader.

Of course, an ocean or two separate Cortázar’s we hurt me at the back of my eyes and the convenient swapping of you-we-one-I every few paragraphs, but it’s worth remembering that even prosaic texts have to resolve this issue (and often do so unsatisfactorily).

Before moving on, I’d like to sort out a possible confusion in terminology: point of view, shortened to POV, and viewpoint (character) are not the same thing to a writer.

(Sloppiness, or editing for elegance and word count, often equates the terms. I’m as guilty as the next person.)

It’s easiest to demonstrate the difference.

Situation: a mother is buying her young son a treat at an ice cream stall.

anton-darius-thesollers https://unsplash.com/photos/jjCWRxTlATc

You can write in first person (a point of view) from at least four different viewpoints:

  • Mother: I think he’s been a good boy, he deserves an ice cream.
  • Son: I’ve been a good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
  • Vendor: I’m glad the strawberry ice cream is selling so well, the new recipe is definitely an improvement.
  • Ice cream: Why was I so lovingly made, only to be torn to scoops repeatedly? Oh, Food Gods spare me!

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Cortázar in First-Person Plural

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Metzinger#/media/File:Jean_Metzinger,_1910-11,_Deux_Nus_(Two_Nudes,_Two_Women),_oil_on_canvas,_92_x_66_cm,_Gothenburg_Museum_of_Art,_Sweden.jpg

Jean Metzinger, Two Nudes (1910-11)—she, she, we? The soul-splitting of a narrator in first-person plural.

Stories are usually written in first-person singular (I vomited a rabbit) or in third-person singular (He vomited a rabbit), where I and he are the protagonists.

Occasionally, the disconcerting second-person singular makes a showing, like in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, or more popularly, in confessions where the reader is requisitioned as judge or jury, like in Albert Camus’s The Fall (here there’s an overarching narrator I, and a second, quasi point of view: you).

If you haven’t thought about how a story in second person would sound, try writing You vomited a rabbit and spinning a narrative therefrom. Then try getting someone to read it; it’s an intrusive, and often grindingly repulsive, experience.

(If you’re wondering why anyone would think of cuddly rabbits in such emetic terms, see Cortázar: Where Bunnies Come From.)

What remains? There’s the first-person plural (we), the second-person plural (you), and the third-person plural (they).

Remarkably, Cortázar’s Bestiary runs the gauntlet of viewpoints (and points of view) and their tangled variations, but his story The Faces of the Medal is consistent: it is written in first-person plural.

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Where Bunnies Come From

gary-bendig https://unsplash.com/photos/e7A-8mxRXJg

I wouldn’t confess my secret either.

I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from the lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.

—Julio Cortázar, Letter of a Young Lady in Paris (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn)

If Jorge Luis Borges is the literary scientist who excels at exhibiting impossible geometries in miniature, Julio Cortázar is the long-winded, mussy-haired standup act with something direly unsettling about each of his stories, something you really want to pin down, but—no matter how closely you listen—you never will.

When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat …

noah-silliman https://unsplash.com/photos/BzHNKFUGHh0

For those unfamiliar with Borges, perhaps I should be playing on a comparison with another short-piece writer closer to the Western ear who was also Cortázar’s contemporary: E. B. White.

Surprised?

Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was an Argentine writer, and part of the flourishing Latin American literary scene of the 50s and 60s.

E. B. White (1899–1985) was na American writer, known for his contributions to the The New Yorker all of which are firmly grounded in reality. (Although, of course, there’s his fiction for children, such as Charlotte’s Web.) My literary-minded readers will know him for the Strunk & White writing manual that contains such classical advice as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background.

Now for the comparison.

Within the bastion of brilliant writing, Cortázar is the polar opposite of White.

Let me spell that out:

  1. Cortázar does not omit needless words,
  2. Cortázar is not clear,
  3. Cortázar does not place himself (or, rather, the narrator) in the background.

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Morality and the Multiple Choice Test

lacie-slezak https://unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

On the continuum containing dictionaries with tiny margin-side illustrations and full-blown comics, where would you put a novel in the form of an exam?

An exam with pictures?

No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):

In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.

1. MULTIPLE

  1. manifold
  2. numerous
  3. untold
  4. five
  5. two

How would you answer?

Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.

To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?

To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.

A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.

— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—

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Storytelling in Space and Time

jon-tyson https://unsplash.com/photos/eIhH7RTlTZA

Remember, remember, The Last Jedi that came out in December?

 

There’s the conventional text, rows of inky print on ivory.

Then there’s the audio book on one side and the graphic novel on the other. Audio books replace the visual aspect of reading with an aural one, whereas graphic novels introduce additional visual elements at the expense of words.

Occasionally, the internet debates whether consuming either of these counts as reading, so let me first state my opinion—it depends how you define reading, and in any dialogue I’m willing to be as liberal with the terminology as is needed so long as it’s consistent—and now let me move on.

It’s more interesting to consider how different means of storytelling combine our senses into a coherent experience. After all, we hear in time, but we see in space; to my mind this affects the chosen medium and the experience more so than most other aspects.

Let me explain why.

In storytelling, written words convey both sounds and pictures. You hear that gunshot, you see the victim sprawling. Of course, words can make you cringe or break out in goosebumps; they can make you laugh or teach you a lesson. Like any story.

But it’s also true that sounds—spoken words, music, noise—convey pictures (and words) and more.

Indeed, pictures—moving, stationary, on the page and off, fine art, doodles—convey sounds (and words) and more.

So audio, illustrated, and written mediums, whilst not interchangeable, lend credibility and imaginative capacity to each other like a set of connected siphoning chambers in the reader’s mind.

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Beginning with A

The start of a new year is like the start of spring: you’re full of hope and projects and dreams of summer, albeit due to calendric conventions rather than mating calls and increased sunlight. The newness implies a clean beginning, all metaphorical buds and blossoms, unencumbered by preceding dead leaves. Like the first page of an unread book, or the first sentence of that first page.

But that’s still thinking in generalities.

I wanted to open up this year’s literary adventure with something truly fundamental, yet protean. And what is a more fresh and clean embodiment of potentiality than the first letter of the alphabet?

So I celebrated the 1st of January by flipping through the word-entries under the letter A in a copy of the 1976 Webster’s dictionary.

I would not recommend it as light gym reading: it weights as much as a three-month-old baby (six kilos), it’s markably more oblong and unwieldy than a baby, and is a tad more knowledgable at two-thousand-plus pages. Instead, I would recommend laying the dictionary on a desk, opening it wide, then remaining standing up and looking down at it, from a position of power. Otherwise it may threaten to make you feel diminished.

It’s also an excellent flat paperweight for pressing warped watercolour artworks, crumpled diplomas, or curling old photos—but that’s beside the point!

Here’s a glimpse into the fun I had with the letter A.

We all know the first word of the A section. Can you guess the last, or at least, how close can you get to guessing the last word?

(I tried azalea. Then Azerbaijan. Lastly, azote—which is on the final page of the section, but I couldn’t do any better.)

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World-building: The Dog’s Name is Surfle

rob-mulally https://unsplash.com/photos/oacHEtIlXsA

Daydreaming of other worlds

To write, you need words.

To write well, you need a vocabulary—preferably, a large one. And this isn’t so you can show off and write about sitting in a puddle of your own mucilage while bound in a brodequin and tortured in a tenebrous tower.

Readers have it easy: they’re given context for each word and it’s usually sufficient to intuit a meaning. Writers have to pluck a precise word and understand most of its denotations and connotations and create a fitting context (all of which happens simultaneously); therefore, writers need access to a wide roaming ground, plentiful in detail and depth, and an effective search method.

The roaming ground metaphor offers little when it comes to nonfiction writing (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write about fish, go explore the lake), or when it comes to fiction writing set in the real world (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write murder mysteries set in a Bedouin camp, go explore the desert).

But when it comes to writing anything set in a world of your making, where you are God, where you give names—what happens to your roaming ground?

You can keep expanding it by learning concepts, but eventually you’re going to have to invent names for that new plant, that new race, that new arcology. You’ll even have to invent verbs and adjectives (somehow new adverbs seem to be the rarest). Two questions present themselves:

  • How does one invent?
  • How does one invent, coherently? (Because it’s likely you’ll need more than one word.)

The words you invent are the writer’s quirk words (as opposed to the reader’s quirk words)—they enrich the boundaries of language in general, not just the boundaries of a reader’s vocabulary.

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How to Surive a Tough Book: Philosophy

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Different books offer different pleasures and not all of them end in heart-thumping affect.

Some books are initially overwhelming—like, for me, Knut Hamsun’s Hungerand require a modified, laterigrade approach where I half-squint, half-sidle down the page, and whenever it gets too much, I write a comment to release a part of the emotional pressure.

Some books are initially underwhelming—like, for me, Spinoza’s Ethics—and require a modified, porpoising approach where I jump in and out of the page, searching for connections and meaning.

In both cases a creative persistence is needed, and ultimately rewarded (if anything, rewarded more than when reading a middling potboiler that ticks all the boxes).

When books are deemed “tough”, it’s because they require a new coping mechanism from the reader: a different approach from chapter to chapter, a modification of reading goals mid-chapter, and (gasp!) actual thinking while reading.

Escapism—of the kind where you plop yourself on the massage table in an all inclusive resort, become dough, and forget the hands that knead you—it is not. When a book gets tough the bar serves glasses full of pebbles, the air smells of an end-of-year exam hall, and the band plays an industrial hard-metal version of Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring.

Most people riot, then get up and leave.

However, a tough book is also a challenge, and one which can still bring the pleasure of “flow”—a psychological state where man is so well-matched to mission that the world’s problems fall away.

So don’t leave.

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Judging a Book by its Quirk Words

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As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.

Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)

Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.

The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.

Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.

(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)

In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.

Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.

This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.

How about an example?

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Poetry of Hyphens: Exotic

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a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

—E. E. Cummings

When I call my husband’s phrase a nonce-use, he thinks I said nonsense.

/nɒns juːs/ vs /ˈnɒns(ə)ns/

Try saying it quickly to someone who doesn’t expect it and you too are likely to get a blank look. Even the third time in three days.

Every word starts life as a neologism (a newly-coined expression). When a neologism is first uttered it is uttered for the nonce, meaning for a particular purpose or occasion. If it never gets uttered again that word becomes a nonce-word and its singular application a nonce-use.

Internet users—human and not—indulge in volumes of neologising, thereby making it less and less likely that any reasonable two-word combination is truly unique. But that doesn’t mean we’re liable to run out of options any time soon. And even if you’re not being entirely original, context nuances meaning.

In the other posts this week I’ve talked about binding two words together, either as a meld (without a gap) or as a compound (with a hyphen), to create a complex colour expression or a compressed, fresh description. The examples I quoted were meant to be interesting, but fairly reasonable and replicable in kind, if not in beauty and purpose. Now I quote the exotic.

By “exotic” I mean sufficiently interesting that taken as a title, I could write a whole short story based on it. Following each word, I offer the key phrases or sentences describing the ten-second flash-fiction that unspools in my mind.

Any commentary or association is not directly related to the original context but might be distantly affected by it, as I have read the three sources in their entirety.


 

Keri Hulme, The Bone People:
  • fartravelled saltsea ships: Horizon, armada, modern Simbad, oceanliners to the Moon. It turns out this is a newly unearthed painting by Rob Gonsalves. (Similar to the painting on the cover of the Masters of Deception.)

 

  • lovebent fingers: Lovers, mothers, age, fronds of plants, tree branches, lifetime cycle and reuniting with Nature.
  • mothmirth: A swarm of drunken drones, dancing, before being sent into battle. One returns from battle, but mothmirth requires at least two.
  • spiderchild: Silk-weaver born into poor family, spins fortune, climbs nearby cliffs, scene with poor moonlit mooncalf. Moral: a quick climb often leads to a long drop.
  • singing-tired and weeping-drunk people: Wedding of a child-bride to an alien as an alliance between worlds. We’ll find out in two hundred years whether it worked.

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Poetry of Hyphens: Elements

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I reserve a special internal exclamation of joy for words that I have never seen before, but I immediately understand and appreciate. These mostly fall under the heading of compound words or meld words tailored to a particular context.

(Other examples are words that I know in one language and then see for the first time ported into another language—they’re altered, but recognisable; and also word-puns that hit a sweet spot of meaning.)

In my previous post,  I discussed “new” colour descriptions coined by W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, and Keri Hulme, such as cloud-pale, blackred, seashaded, some of which are more, some of which are less far fetched. In the case of the senses (not only vision), it is fairly straightforward to write a recipe for creating sensible adjectives that a reader can enjoy without effort. It is even relatively easy to hone the craft: pick a colour and an animal nuancing that colour (e.g. elephant-grey), pick two colours (e.g. yellow-orange) and so on until you’re happy with your creation.

However, when it comes to more advanced meld-compounds—to coin a word which means either meld or compound word, or a combination, like Cummings’s watersmooth-silver—there are both more options to play with and fewer options that will work.

Take eyes. You can describe them with colours (greengrey), but suppose you want to go beyond that. Then you can also consider physical features (goggly, globular), emotions (gleeful, glamorous, goading), things and people (ghosts, gammoners, gemstones) etc. The options are endless. The price you pay is that the further afield you stretch, the harder it will be to find a reasonable pairing that will be worth the reader’s effort. Metaphors are nice, but they are taxing—this is why meld-compounds become more common and more complex the further you move along the spectrum from genre fiction to literary fiction to poetic prose to verse-novels to poetry.

This is why I picked my examples from poetic sources. (Elsewhere they are scarce and stale.)

As always, reading, reading, reading (of poetry), and tuning one’s inner ear, is probably the quickest way to accumulate ideas and experience that will allow you to hatch your own meld-compounds.

But … If I were to invent an exercise to help the process, this is what it would be:

  1. find examples you like,
  2. expand them into what you think they mean,
  3. write your own sentences of that form,
  4. compress your own sentences into meld-compounds resembling, but distinct from, your original example.

Let’s give it a go.

Four steps. I denote the transfer from one step to the next with an arrow. The first word in italics is taken from the author I’ve indicated; the last is my new meld-compound.

Simple:

  • Yeats: sea-covered stone -> a stone covered by sea -> a shell buried by sand -> sand-buried shell.
  • Cummings: balloonman -> a clown who has/sells balloons -> a clown who wears pantaloons -> pantaloonclown.
  • Hulme: moonshadow -> a shadow cast by the moon -> shade cast by the stars -> starshade.

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Poetry of Hyphens: Colours

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Approximately 90 posts and 90 books ago, in mid-April this year, I wrote about Keri Hulme’s The Bone People—the beautiful, unusual love story that won the Booker Prize for 1985. I titled the article Seabluegreen Eyes to mark my appreciation of her meld words, and, as it turns out, to mark a change in how I viewed English words.

Since then, I have become a hunter of creative and effective meld words (consisting of two or more words that have been merged, like seabluegreen) and compound words (consisting of two or more words joined by hyphens to create new nouns, adjectives, verbs, like Yeats’s red-rose-bordered hem). I seek out those neologisms that bring something genuinely new—beyond syntactic surprise—into a sentence or stanza.

Unsurprisingly, they’re seldom found.

Firstly, there is a modern tendency to avoid hyphenated hybrids: in 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary removed hyphens from 16,000 words, either by splitting the words (ice-cream became ice cream) or by melding them (bumble bee became bumblebee). But those were old words. The University of Oxford Style Guide from 2014, for example, offers the following advice in general: To make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words (e.g. it’s webpages not web-pages). I suppose the Guide would prefer to see Hulme’s seabluegreen just like that, rather than as sea-blue-green, but perhaps today it’d tell Yeats to write redrose-bordered hem?

Secondly, at around 200,000 words, some obsolete, some regional, some derivatives, English is fairly rich and nuanced by most standards. One may think, then, that the coining of an inventive compound or meld word—outside of novel applications in science, technology, and trends—is either a sign of a greedy mind unaware of a well-established equivalent, or of a greedy mind aware that none of the well-established equivalents will do. The former type of greed is almost guaranteed by the scarcity of the latter.

Except it isn’t.

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Chain of Reasoning

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This week has been about intention: first, where it starts and are we in control; then, once established, how it can employ paltering to achieve its goals. Today, I bring up the fundamental intention most of us have when we communicate: we want to make sense.

In particular, there is one figure of speech, anadiplosis, that can lend our arguments the forcefulness and validity of truth even when applied to unconnected elements.

Start from the beginning.

Making sense amounts to cogently conveying our arguments to another person. What it means to do so cogently and what is defined as an argument will depend on the situation: explaining why we’re late, discussing whether to purchase a car, or simply telling a story. Whichever the circumstances, our aim is rarely to garble and perplex.

On sentence level, our reasoning is often a long chain of phrases bound together by conjunctions, which, like the accordions of articulated buses, bend and groan under the strain of each turning—but hold. On paragraph level, we rely on unity of subject matter (traditionally a new subject requires a new paragraph), conventions of reasoning (specific to general statements, general statement and examples, logical argument etc), or all of the above formatted in an idiosyncratic, but fairly apparent “flow of thought”, such as bullet points in agendas, dialogue blocks in a book, action sequences, stanzas. Anything.

Occasionally, what we’re saying doesn’t contain any immediate or established sense, but we would like it to appear otherwise (for whatever reason, poetic or pernicious). This is when we can apply anadiplosis, a figure of speech where we begin a sentence with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence.

Let’s see it do the job.

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The Edge of Intent

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I resolve to exercise more

Intent is the birthday present you will buy, the New Year’s resolution you will make, the vacation you will take in the summer of 2018. Intent is the brilliant child of the future, yet whenever something goes wrong—and it does so frequently—we point at the negation of our intent as the devil and the dark excuse of the far past: I hadn’t intended to hurt you, I hadn’t intended to be a bad person. No one intends to be a “bad person”.

In terms of type:

There’s grand intent—that requires thought, preparation, effort, time, and that is usually well-justified within our internal system of values.

There’s habitual intent—that requires only repeating circumstances and that once well-justified is rarely reexamined.

Then, there’s muddling through.

Habit is the mainstay of life, whilst grand intentions are rare (those well-thought out and actionable, even rarer). Which leaves muddling: these are the chance encounters, the unplanned stops, the out-of-stock labels on your favourite items; this is when you forgot a change of clothes or your wedding ring. Whenever Murphy’s law strikes, we muddle. Depending on what comes of it, we ruminate on what was intended—few people will admit to have been guided purely by circumstances, chance, or biology (unless they’re determinism diehards), but will instead claim step-by-step determination.

Unless it’s a crime.

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The Stories We Craft in Darkness

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Quote: Darkness promotes speech. Light is silent.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Blackouts before smartphones left people to entertain themselves without relying on sight. Night before electricity, too. Sure, we’ve had fire in some form for a million years, but as a communal means of subduing the elements, encouraged by need, not by fancy. In darkness, we talked to battle fear, to commune with the dead, to exchange information, and to tell stories. We talked to others, to ward off loneliness; failing that, we talked aloud to ourselves.

It’s only recently that we’ve found ways to communicate in silence, from darkened rooms, and at a distance, but even then we are reduced to two options: written word or spoken word. Only speech requires not a ray of light.

Vision is the sole sense we can extinguish at will, outside of sleep. But when the eyelids do come down, our consciousness doesn’t vanish, we continue to think, to be with ourselves, within ourselves. If anything, the temporary blindness cements us within the bastion of ourselves, drives us deeper, allows us to contemplate because our primary input source is unavailable to disturb or distract us.

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Books as Family

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Quote: According to Seneca, we can pick from any library whatever books we wish to call ours; each reader, he tells us, can invent his own past. He observed that the common assumption—that our parents are not of our choosing—is in fact untrue; we have the power to select our own ancestry.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Let us leave aside textbooks, technical manuals, picture books, and the grey area of “bad writing” (everyone defines it differently); what remains is a thickly-padded centre consisting of books, fiction and non-fiction, that adults read because they want to. Because there is something enticing about delving into another person’s explicitly printed (if opaque, mysterious, multifaceted) thoughts.

Such books are friends that console and regale, give hope and dispel loneliness, but, vitally, they also illuminate and edify. When it comes to fiction, Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story synthesises various authoritative sources that describe how story affects neurobiology; in essence, we crave fiction because it is a safe environment that equips us with mental tools we can use in real life. Our brains expertly convert a made-up narrative into a convincing environment, cast us as the relevant protagonists, and take us through our paces word by word.

Reading fiction is role-play.

Or, if you prefer Einsteinian terminology, reading is an immersive thought experiment. While we’re within the pages, the thinking is done for us; when we close the covers, we can either forget what we went through, or we can ruminate on the implications, extending the story, transposing it onto our own lives.

Non-fiction also transmits tales, which may be served up well-seasoned, savoury, steamy, but usually fail at inducing the sugar-rush of fiction. History is gripping because it happened—its lessons taste of iron; philosophy is mesmerising because it requires us to step through distorting mirrors to see ourselves more clearly—a paradox; books that cross-section subjects, like Manguel’s on Libraries or Ackermann’s on Senses, are magic because they reveal the intricate strings holding swathes of our reality together—they ask why.

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Books as Libraries

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Quote: No page is the first page; no page is the last.

— Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

Traditionally libraries contained books; later they expanded to hold film and music; later still, computer files and programs. Metaphorically, they are repositories of vast knowledge.

How vast does vast have to be before we call a collection of items a library?

Any public or private institution that has densely populated bookstacks is unmistakably a library. A child’s shelf containing twenty-thirty books is that child’s library—small, but present. What of a physical handful that fits thumb-to-little-finger and the weight of which you can hold up in your palm? I suspect most people would say: no, that’s hardly a library. Surely, the answer should be: it depends.

Consider three moderately-sized books you could just about fit in your hand: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, an atlas. Right there you’d have more facts than you could possibly learn, and more thought-seeds than you could possibly nurture in a lifetime. What if you added a single Joyce, a single Tolstoy, and a single Plato?

Library is a sliding term that involves defining a minimum of some quantity (word count, page count, size, weight, space, influence) that inevitably leaves out a certain immeasurable aspect of knowledge, because no matter how cunning your index of choice, what knowledge means is in itself a personal matter. A bit like intelligence, or wisdom, or savvy. Any test you set is couched in terms of perceived excellence versus failure—often societally defined, but privately disputed.

The finiteness of a personal library is both its greatest weakness (it biases its owner) and its greatest strength (that bias supports the uniqueness of its owner). Indeed, a writer’s creativity springs from the kinds of books they have around them, like flowers or trees from a particular patch of soil. One may wonder: what of the roots?

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Siloed in a Writer’s Library

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Every reader is also a writer, if writer is taken to mean author to mean originator of one’s own actions. Books, like people and circumstances, influence our actions; the more we tease out those influences and knead them into useful, applicable tools, the more we are aware of our partnership with the written word.

Quote: The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil’s famous words, under “the friendly silence of the soundless moon.”

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night.

A den may invoke a tight, dark, mystical space, dense with gases, metamorphosing thoughts, and halusogenic phantasmagoria, but it could also be spacious, light, littered with post-it notes and gewgaws and candy wrappers, or spotless with perfectly aligned rows of books like lines on a page ready for inscription. Whatever its physical manifestation, the library is both an extension of a writer’s identity and a container for it.

To unite these two seemingly clashing metaphors—extension and container—I prefer the idea of a silo from the top of which it is possible to see lands, seas, skies, as well as, communicated with other silos.

Few writers have a complete, perfect library. Better-personalised probably encompasses most desires for improvement (change in arrangement and content), but even if a snap of the fingers brought about an envisaged ideal, there remains the issue of finiteness: the library is of limited size.

This limit is one cause of reader’s angst. But we do have a choice of what to put in our library and that choice, every time it’s made, influences us.

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Reader’s Angst

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Quote: I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night,

The Library at Night is an “uneven” experience: a passing familiarity with the frequent citations is necessary, yet, if you possess such familiarity the connecting exposition sounds oddly bland and loose in places. It’s almost as if this were an expert draft ready to be tightened. Or as if the writing were deliberately left colloquial to “balance out” the  dense forest of references. What Manguel excels at, however, are the dashes of insight, like in the Quote—some of them developed, some less so—that he inserts between the obvious and the obscure in his chapters.

Perhaps calling the Quote an insight is a misleading overstatement, for what he says sounds neither novel nor enlightening, but it does touch on a relevant, persistent gripe of many people: there’s never enough time to keep up with the to-read list. Whether feigned or genuine, hyped or deep-seated, I call it reader’s angst.

There are at least two types of reader’s angst: one plagues people who would like to read this or that, in an abstract, diet-and-fitness-goals sense (these are the casual readers); the other plagues people who would like to read an impossibly large number of books, in a concrete, obsessive, catalogue-and-notes sense (the compulsive readers).

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Bookscapes, Real and Imaginary

Around us may be windowless walls of brick and rebar, but give us a story and immediately an arc of the horizon appears. What if we had many stories?

Magnificent arrangements of books inspire awe in most bibliophiles. Awe—the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature (OED)—really is the right word. Public libraries, bookshops, private collections, even a carefully positioned mess of tattered paperbacks on a stack of plastic shelves in a café: they are magical vistas of possibility.

By Diliff (Own work)

Library of Trinity College Dublin, by Diliff (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the grander the bookscape, the more likely it will overawe any visitor with sheer Olympian attitude, for where does one begin?

Occasionally, even if we were to just dip into a book, then into a another, and so on, it would take years before we wormed our pathetic way through all the covers. (For example, it would take approximately 35 years in the case of the library of Trinity College Dublin, if we were to spend a minute a book, eight hours a day, every day of the year.) The thought makes me go hot and cold and shaky—the potential knowledge, the tales, the imagination, the human ingenuity waiting within the pages, the Diderot-Deridda-Dostoevsky, and only a finite amount of time before my hands will no longer be able to reach beyond the inside walls of an ash-filled urn, let alone hold a book. The desperation!

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Six Hundred and Twenty-Three

Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian (1908-1910)—I preferred this painting to one of his lozenges.

 

I compiled a list. Take a moment to guess what these words have in common:

leaven, reticulum, neroli oil, raglan, syzygy, lozenge.

Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.

Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?

Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.

It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.

Satan in Paradise by Gustave Dore, illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost.

 

One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:

Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.

Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?

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Humour Takes Dictionary

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Definitely not British weather: El Salvador one beautiful morning.

 

The biographies of words are almost as riveting, embarrassing, profane, and lewd as those of humans—just turn to Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon. The official book description is:

A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. 

I would add:

Or, what happens when Humour takes Dictionary to bed and lets a writer spy on them.

Beyond that, a summary or analysis of such a book ends up being a mishmash of paraphrases and inferior humour. Instead, while I was tidying my reading notes, I marked up a number of passages that could stand on their own.

A bit on British weather:

Do you know the difference between the clouds and the sky? If you do you’re lucky, because … our word sky comes from the Viking word cloud, but in England there’s simply no difference between the two concepts, and so the word changed its meaning because of the awful weather.

A primer on how to speak with grace of the lesser human urges (euphemism):

A polite, even beautiful, word for foods that make your bottom quack is carminative.

One that makes me wonder about the reading list of the Archbishop of Canterbury:

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Huh: Quirks and Perks

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Plain is a vice too

 

Forget figures of speech. Avoid them all. Speak cleanly, and commit no rhetorical crimes. What remains is aschematiston.

But that, too, is a vice.

Aschematiston comes from the Greek, meaning without form or figure, and technically it designates not only plain-speaking but also the inappropriate use of figurative speech.

In Trying to Be Cute, I discuss how one way to think about vices (the coin model), considers licit rhetoric to lie between the extremes: the ordinary and any of the various ornamented styles. Most of us know overwrought when we see it, but aschematiston is harder to spot. In particular, sometimes it’s not clear whether a literal interpretation is called for, or whether there’s a hidden metaphorical dimension after all. I termed this phenomenon the metaphorical itch. I often encounter it in surrealist literature, but it’s also present in contextually ambiguous situations.

The last batch of my Nature Magazine  headlines falls into this category. See what you think.

  1. Eating ourselves dry
  2. Economy in the toilet 
  3. Frozen fruit cake
  4. How to build a better dad
  5. How to suck like an octopus
  6. Winged wonder

My first reaction was: Huh. 

What are your guesses: which ones are literal, which metaphorical? What about their subjects? (My answers below.)

If you’ve stuck around on Quiver Quotes for the last three weeks, then you’ve seen approximately 80 headlines drawn from 40 issues of Nature.

That’ll do for a while.

I think it’s time to read on—past the title.

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Trying to Be Cute

jerome-prax https://unsplash.com/photos/jLZWzT_kdTI

Where virtues live, live vices.

Figures of speech are no less afflicted by this schism, although classifying them accordingly is as much a matter of taste, nuance, and circumstance, as any binary division of a continuous scale.

Following The vices of style by William Poole (Chapter 13 in Renaissance Figures of Speech), there are essentially two ways to approach this dichotomy:

  • Fine linguistic feats are opposed by abominations, but they are both just obverse sides of the same tool. (Idea drawn from Peacham’s observations.)
  • Virtuous rhetoric lies between the vicious extremes: plain language, on the one side, and various modes of excessive ornamentation, on the other. (Idea of Aristotelian mean.)

I call the first, the coin model; the second, the razor model.

Take the familiar notion of alliteration (starting consecutive or nearby words with the same consonant), which I develop in Ad Nauseam.

  • According to the coin model, alliteration can be both a good thing (it yokes ideas to words in mnemonics, it gives poems their glitter, it turns headlines into hooks, it makes names memorable, it lends a twist to prose), but it can also be a bad thing (it makes poems sound shallow, headlines puerile, names forced, prose juvenile).
  • According to the razor model, a gracious application of alliteration lies between the dullness of plain “tone-deaf” writing and the grossness of overuse (paroemion).

However, before you can talk about vices or virtues (using either model), you need to be able to classify the figures themselves. But surely, you say …

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Ad Nauseam

This week is about vicious word-choices. Up today: repetition.

hans-eiskonen https://unsplash.com/photos/clkYWlgOHIQ

Beautiful parrot pics are used to counterbalance any negative attitude towards parroting

 

Learning by rote has been banished to the domain of crafts, sports, and foreign-languages studies. Although, even there we first ask why? Certainly with unfamiliar words, we’re encouraged to memorise by association and etymological inference, to think about them before repeating, repeating, repeating.

Passive acceptance of knowledge is equated with boredom, unintelligence, accidie. Which won’t do: smart multitasking is the emblem of the successful twenty-first century man. (Heap scorn on the art of reverie and creative procrastination, which are best done while completing some innocuous action by rote.)

Also mechanised memorisation smacks of “robot”, and “robot” smacks of “subhuman”, or worse, of “brain washing”.

Perhaps I should I update my vocabulary: not paying attention to data intake is like opening up our brains to information from unverified sources and then making sure we remember every dubitable factoid by parroting it to others. (Once incorporated into a belief system, fake news ossifies to prejudice, and prejudice is a long-term affliction—just a hunch.)

tomas-sobek https://unsplash.com/photos/5EtinxYsE8w

Poor rote. 

It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, and it’s gone down in the world. Even its origin seems unclear—most likely to do with roundness (rota) or repetitiveness (rotative), in both senses related to musical composition. Of all the early entries in the OED, I prefer the 1623 example taken from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (iii. ii. 56):

Now it lyes you on to speake to th’ people … with such words That are but roated in your Tongue.

It’s quite fitting that one should think of words as being roted (I almost wrote rooted) in one’s tongue, like second-nature reflexes—which is what speaking becomes in healthy adults. But it’s also a fitting quote because it pinpoints where tongue meets memory meets ear in the musical nexus of the language.

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Dissenting Voices: Quirks and Perks

 

A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.

I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)

I persisted.

The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing. 

Quote: 

Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.

Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.

Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.

So things have changed since 1940.

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The Flavour of Personhood

Sequence of a Fata Morgana of the Farallon Islands as seen from San Francisco. (Brocken Inaglory CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

To improve the taste of an insipid factual statement, baste in metaphor, bake with active verbs, and serve soused in piquant words. But be wary of overdoing it.

For example: There was a mirage on the horizon.

Could be changed to: Sun-drunk air shimmered in the offing.

Regardless of whether the edit is an improvement, it is a more complex piece of writing which triggers a more complex response. In particular, the reader recognises the sentence as not being literal because air cannot be drunk.

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Come again?

alexander-mils https://unsplash.com/photos/aiIANaSK9DQ

Neither humble pun, nor humble pie.

 

The humble pun.

What interests you more: its aesthetics or its taxonomy?

The internet seems to think that the issue of aesthetics cannot be settled: if you like puns, you like them; if you don’t, you don’t. But nothing is ever so clear-cut, and especially when it comes to newspaper headings where wordplay is almost an obligatory linguistic foreplay.

Out of context and as a congeries, the titular wordplay assumes melodramatic proportions. I have in mind a mordant self-critique taken from The Economist’s blog (Oct 28th 2010by G.L. | New York). Try not to cringe as you go down the list.

I note with chagrin that The Economist‘s series of awful puns in stories about the Chinese currency has reached epic proportions:
A yuan-sided argument
Yuan small step
Yuan up, yuan down
Tell me what you yuan, what you really, really yuan
It’s yuan or the other
Yuan step from the edge
Yuan-way bet
Yuan for the money

Yuan. A word made in punner’s heaven?

 

Perhaps you didn’t cringe, perhaps you enjoyed that. Either way, I won’t discuss taste—I’ll focus on the taxonomy. However, I will not do so with any degree of precision that a true linguist might appreciate. My method is a mental shortcut through the jungle of word-jokes.

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Mythology in Science

Laocoön and His Sons. Image by LivioAndronico (2014) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

LAOCOÖN, n. A famous piece of antique sculpture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


This week we’ve seen literature, film, and music referenced, but how often do myths crop up in Nature Magazine?

For example, there’s a reference in An Achilles heel for kidney cancer, but Achilles heel is a recognised OED term and is no longer properly thought of as the Trojan hero who was dunked into the Styx while held by a heel.

I found no obvious mythological references in the general section. However, the specialised, cutting-edge research articles yielded some interesting terminology:

  • Argonaute proteins,
  • Asgard archaea,
  • and the volcanic Loki Patera on the moon Io.

As you know from posts like Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane, I enjoy tracking down wellsprings. So here goes …


Argonaute proteins

The science: Argonaute proteins were observed in a plant that reminded researchers of an octopus called Argonauta argo, which itself had gotten the name from a (never-observed) method of propulsion along the surface of the sea that resembled a boat with sails.

The myth: Jason and the Argonauts were the Greek heroes of legend who went to steal the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were named after the ship they sailed on, Argo (which makes Argonauta argo a pleonasm).

Argonauta argo by Comingio Merculiano (1896)

 

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