Thursday, February 28, 2008

Oh! The Damage to Our Mother Tongue!

I cannot pass this up!

Norm Geras writes in Tradition, tradition:

Suppose you set out deliberately to write a column which would be so obviously laughable a decade or three on that it already is laughable, to put together a sad rant about how everything is going to the dogs, you couldn't do much better than the piece I've just read by David Gelernter. It's an 'end of civilization as we know it' lament, and the particular thing that's at stake for him is our language.

Read the rest and the rant he is referring to.

David Gelernter needs to get his facts straight. Gender-neutral language was the baby of American big business, not the Women's Liberation Movement (though they liked it for obvious reasons). AT&T was the first to rewrite all corporate documents in an effort to get better executives (through more competition) by insuring the promotability of women. Other corporations followed suit - for purely mercenary reasons ;-)

The implications of the Civil Rights Act made the government then follow suit.

The publishing industry then followed suit, again for the purely business reasons I outline here.

So, quit bawl-babying about them evil feminists, will ya? Don't you think it's about time you guys got used to it?

What's more, the singular "they" is going to destroy the English language? Give us a break: it has been in use since before Shakespeare's time.

May God grant everyone their heart's desire.

Shame on Bill for damaging the English language like that.

Jeez, I wonder why (she says, scratching her head) these traditionalists don't mind the singular you which replaced thou much later? Why do they blow a gasket only when such a change brings women from out behind the literary hajib? Hmmm?

The English language is (or at least till now) has been forged in speech, not writing. In speech, for many centuries now, all native speakers of English use have used gender-neutral language when in mixed company. It's only polite to do so.

Of course, he and man mean what we all think they mean, and studies show that we all think they mean "adult male." Gelertner couldn't be more wrong when he denies that. Pendants don't determine what words mean to us: the users of the English language determine what they mean.

Hence, unlike our forebears of the 7th century, we'd never say that the "princess is a wonderful man." Even these traditionalists would never dare say that, would they?

Learn more by clicking the "gender-neutral language" label below.



Thursday, February 21, 2008

Writing Achonologically

You get a little of this and little of that in the Weblog of Norman Geras, including his Writer's Choice series. Here is an excellent piece by Angela Young:

I was given a proof copy of Maggie O'Farrell's first novel, After You'd Gone, in 1999. I can't remember why, now. It wasn't for review because I'm not a professional reviewer, and I didn't read it until 2002, at least two years after its publication, when a friend said how good she'd thought it. But when I picked it up I couldn't stop reading: I read it in a weekend. There was one point where the power of O'Farrell's writing had me sobbing and laughing at the same time: this is the only book that has had that double effect on me, but O'Farrell's visceral, spare writing style carries such emotional truth that it pulls deep emotional responses from the reader.

Later, After You'd Gone gave me the confidence to write my own first novel, Speaking of Love, achronologically, from various points of view and in both the third and the first person. O'Farrell does all these things in After You'd Gone, but so skilfully that you never lose the plot, and one of the reasons that you don't is that...

Read the rest to find out.




Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Resonance through Name-Dropping

Nobody forgets the first words of Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "Call me Ishmael," because of the Biblical reverberations of that name.

You can also achieve resonance through the name of a famous person or historical figure who makes a cameo appearance in the story as a character. Jack Higgins has done this in his novels with great success.



Wednesday, February 06, 2008


There are many ways to make writing resonate. They all often employ a simile or metaphor.

Here are some ways to make action resonate:
  • Invoke images of some past event that occurred in the same place.
  • Jump-cut between scenes happening simultaneously.
  • Zoom out or in to make an image resonate like the first photos of Earth from outer space did.
Those are ideal ways to make writing resonate, because they make the story itself resonate. But there are devices you can use as well.

Devices that make writing resonate:
  • hyperbole
  • name dropping
  • reference to religion / invoking authority
  • invoking death
  • titling the parts or chapters of a book
  • a bold, surprising opening conclusion
  • aphorisms and epigraphs
Let's consider these tricks of the trade. First, hyperbole.

Perhaps the most common means of achieving resonance is through extravagant exaggeration or enlargement. When not meant to deceive, we call it hyperbole. People use this device in everyday speech. For example: People with no respect for others' privacy extend the borders of their own to the outer limits of deep space.

The cathedrals of Europe and the extravagant settings that surround monarchs and popes are a study in hyperbole to resonate with awesome grandeur. Hence these relics of past power display opulence and grandiosity that strikes us as bawdy today.

Though we aren't nearly so extravagant, the trick hasn't gone out of style. The Queen used to visit the far-flung parts of the British Empire in the H.M.S. Brittania, which was deliberately designed to dwarf every other ship in sight and fill those who saw her with awe at her grandeur. Similarly, Air Force One was designed under President Kennedy to impress. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is often asked whether she was treated with due respect by foreign leaders, particularly those of male-dominated Moslem states. And she's fond of replying that her sex was no problem abroad, because when that great big sleek and beautiful Air Force One lands anywhere on this planet, dwarfing everything in sight, with "The United States of America" blazoned across it, the American Secretary of State seems awesome and gets immediate respect — plus all the attention, no matter who else is there. Resonance.

Michelangelo used hyperbole to achieve resonance, too. His Piéta and the statue of David are huge, affecting one the same way in their presence.

Here's an example of hyperbole from a Catholic who used it to describe her experience of entering St. Peter's Basilica for the first time: "The first thing that strikes you about the place is the enormity of it. You could fly a plane in there!"

Obviously she didn't mean that literally — at least not the part about the plane. In fact, hyperbole is never meant literally. So, be sure to overdo it enough that the reader can tell you don't mean an exaggeration literally. Otherwise it isn't hyperbole, it's just a lie.