Showing posts with label E.B. White. Show all posts
Showing posts with label E.B. White. Show all posts

08 October 2016

Mrs. Malaprop Lives!

Affectation, Henry Fielding declares in the preface to Joseph Andrews, is "the only source of the true Ridiculous."

That principle holds true for language. We may get irritated with people who confuse "your" and "you're" or "accept" and "except." Usually, though, we're not tempted to ridicule them--certainly not if they're very young or haven't had many educational opportunities, probably not even if they're well-educated adults who ought to know better. After all, everyone makes mistakes.

Unless something is so riddled with errors that it's obvious the writer didn't even try to proofread, most of us are more inclined to forgive than to ridicule. (I certainly hope you'll forgive me for any mistakes I've made in this post. It's terrifying to write on this sort of subject, knowing I could slip up at any time.)

But when writers are guilty of affectation--and especially when affectation is compounded by ignorance--ridicule begins to seem like an appropriate response. Some literary characters have become famous for sounding foolish when they try to impress others with inflated language. In Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Dogberry announces that he and his men have "comprehended two aspicious persons" and later declares a prisoner will be "condemned into everlasting redemption" for his misdeeds. (I checked several copies of Much Ado, by the way, and they all said "aspicious," not "auspicious." So you don't have to forgive me for that one.) In Sheridan's The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop complains she has little "affluence" on her niece, who is "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." When these characters make us laugh, I think we're laughing at their affectation, not their ignorance: They become ridiculous not because they have limited vocabularies but because they're trying to show off.

And Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop have plenty of modern descendants. "My new thriller is the penultimate in suspense!" a novelist proclaims. The poor thing probably thinks "penultimate" means "more than ultimate." But since it actually means "second to last," "the penultimate in suspense" isn't much of a boast. "If you're searching for the meaning of life," a motivational speaker says, "I can offer you a simplistic answer." The speaker could have said "simple" but probably thought it sounded too--well, simple. Instead, the speaker opted for the extra syllable, unintentionally admitting the answer he or she is about to give can't adequately explain life's complexities. "If you follow my advice," the astrologer promises a potential client, "you will always be fortuitous." The astrologer may think "fortuitous" is a more elegant way of saying "fortunate." But to the extent his or her promise means anything, it means the potential client will always be ruled by chance. In all of these examples, the real problem is affectation, not ignorance. (True, we sometimes laugh at the things people say even when there's no affectation involved. For example, it was hard not to chuckle when Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by just watching" or "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." But an affectionate chuckle isn't the same as ridicule. Yogi wasn't putting on airs, just scrambling things up a bit--that makes a big difference.)

People who dress up their sentences with foreign words or phrases may also be suffering from affectation affliction. I love HGTV--like Food Network, it's one of my default channels--but the constant use of en suite grates on my nerves. "Here's your magnificent master bedroom," a star of Love It or List It or some such show will say, "and here's your spa-like en suite." Then he or she throws open the door to what used to be called a master bathroom.

Has en suite become fashionable because "master bathroom" sounds politically incorrect? I don't think so. After all, the same people who use en suite still say "master bedroom"--once, I heard an HGTV host refer to a "master en suite." And if the connotations of "master bathroom" make us uncomfortable, we can always say "owner's bathroom." No, I think en suite is appealing because it has that special air of sophistication, that added note of elegance, that je ne sais quoi. In short, it's appealing because it sounds so darn French. Unfortunately, to anyone who knows even a little French, it also sounds silly. "En suite" is a phrase, not a noun; it means "in a suite," not "bathroom." Two or more rooms that form a unit might be described as rooms en suite, but referring to a single room as "an en suite" doesn't make sense.

It also doesn't make sense for invitations to ask people to "please RSVP," or for menus to say a roast beef sandwich is served with "a cup of au jus." And if the menu also lists a "soup du jour of the day"--sacre bleu! The point isn't that we all need to know French--certainly not--but that we shouldn't try to sound impressive by using words or phrases we don't really understand. The advice George Orwell offers in "Politics and the English Language" can save us from a lot of embarrassing mistakes: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Linguistic affectation can take other forms, too. Malapropisms are silly but relatively innocent. Driven by a desire to impress, people abuse the language without realizing it. But sometimes, I think, people are so driven that they push ahead even when they're fully aware of what they're doing.

That brings us to the world of politics, and to the world of television journalism. Like many others during this election year, I've been watching far too much cable news lately. And I've heard far too many reports that go more or less like this:
Top Democratic advisors meeting today to discuss strategies for the next phase of the campaign. On the other side of the aisle, Republican spokespeople responding to the latest controversies and countering with charges of their own. And both candidates issuing statements predicting victory. In Florida, officials warning of worsening conditions. In international news, NATO leaders calling for more joint action against terrorism, North Korea announcing more missile tests, and Vladimir Putin posing shirtless for more photographs.
Here we have five so-called sentences but not a single complete verb, just a plethora of present participles. As a result, we don't really know when things are happening. Have top Democratic advisors already met today? Are they meeting now? Will they meet later this afternoon? We can't be sure. We might think the present participle at least rules out the possibility that the meeting already happened, but that's not a safe assumption. I've often heard news anchors use the present participle, without any auxiliary verbs, to refer to past events.

I don't know when this preference for verbs without tense began. Maybe it's a recent development, or maybe it's been around for a long time, and I just haven't noticed it until now because I don't usually watch so much news. It does seem to be widespread. I sampled three cable news networks to make sure, and I never had to wait long to hear an ing string. I also don't know why the trend developed. It could be that news writers are so determined to use only "strong" verbs that they avoid all forms of to be and other auxiliaries. My best guess is that news writers (or, more likely, producers or executives) decided that unadorned present participles are more dramatic than regular old verbs, that they're sexier, more immediate, more exciting. "FBI investigators revealing startling new facts"--if we don't know exactly when something is happening, we might think it's happening right now. Better stay tuned. If that's why news networks are dangling all these enticing participles in front of us, I'd say it's another form of affectation. And it's a particularly calculating form, a deliberate misuse of language to mislead and manipulate. I don't want to overstate the problem, or to suggest news networks have evil intentions. At worst, they're guilty of trying to drive up ratings, and I suppose that's natural enough. But I don't like it when people twist the language to try to limit my understanding or control my reactions. And as a long-time English professor, I know that plenty of students already have a hard time understanding what a sentence is. If the news networks are muddying the waters still further, that's a shame.

We probably can't do much to reform the language of cable news, and malapropisms of one sort or another will probably always be with us. Affectation has deep roots in the human soul. But we can at least try to keep our own use of language as free of affectation as possible. To the extent that our writing has any influence on others, we can try to make sure our influence is positive. How can we do that? I've always found some advice E.B. White offers in The Elements of Style helpful, even inspirational. "The approach to style," White says, "is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

That about sums it up.

# # #

Do you have favorite examples of malapropisms, or of other forms of inflated language? I'd love to hear them.

12 February 2014

Old Yeller Dies

by David Edgerley Gates

I'm prompted to these musings by a post my pal Art Taylor and his wife Tara Laskowski made on FaceBook about their son Dash, and his reading enthusiasms. Dash is a year old, and likes Robert McCloskey's MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. Art says Dash has already memorized it, when Art reads it aloud to him.

I suggested a couple of other books to add to Dash's reading list, as he gets a little older. I remember a guy named Robert Lawson, who was an author-illustrator, like McCloskey, and told familiar stories from an unfamiliar POV. Ben Franklin's pet mouse, for example, or Paul Revere's horse. No man, it's said, is a hero to his valet.

The grand-daddy, of course, is Kipling, and THE JUST-SO STORIES. It's past time I gave him credit for his abiding influence on my own writing. My dad read those stories aloud to me, when I was sick in bed, at four or five. I still remember the smell of the inhalator, a kind of steam device, with a cup of spice-flavored medication. It was supposed to make your breathing easier. What actually set my mind at rest was the sound of my father's voice. We all have a comfort zone.

At what point do we graduate to more sophisticated stuff? Sake of argument, when we start reading on our own, at six or seven, say. I had an interesting exchange with my pal Johnny D. Boggs a little while back. THE SEARCHERS was being shown at the Lensic theater, on the big screen, and I asked Johnny if he were going to take his son Jack (THE SEARCHERS being one of Johnny's favorite pictures, and mine). Johnny said no. He thought the movie was probably too dark for Jack, who was, I think, eight or nine at the time. Maybe the threshold is our exposure to ambiguity, or a lack of moral certainty, and THE SEARCHERS sure fits.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB. E.B. White was an unsentimental cuss, and he doesn't sugar-coat the story. Charlotte's "web" is of course all the animals
in the barn, not just Wilbur, and death is part of their lives. Wilbur himself barely escapes being turned into bacon. But the book isn't really sad. it's more of an affirmation, that there's rebirth.

On the other hand, OLD YELLER. I think I was ten or eleven when I read it. It was probably on my summer reading list for school. Jeez, what a heartbreaker. The dog, after all, wasn't responsible. The real choice is the one the kid has to make, and in fact there is no choice. He has to do it.

So, what's appropriate, for Dash, as he grows up, or Jack? When do we, as parents, or role models, teachers or even librarians, stop making the decisions for them? I had dinner with some people, a few years ago, and there was a teenager there, with his dad, and the kid was nuts about science fiction. I think we started talking about DUNE, or STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and his dad interrupted to say it was all crap, and the kid just turtled in on himself, and the conversation dead-ended. I didn't say anything to his father, but it was discouraging. We should all be allowed to read crap, although I don't agree with the guy's description of SF. How many of us have actually ground through MOBY-DICK, or BLEAK HOUSE? I've rediscovered Dickens, in later years, but if he's crammed down your throat in high school, to fatten up your liver, you're like one of those unhappy geese.

Perhaps water finds its own level. Girls of a certain age go from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES to FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, which is arguably soft-core YA porn. Who's to say? Books lead us on, and one person's despised genre is someone else's delight. I suspect our earliest experiences, or exposure, are a template. I've mentioned Carl Barks, and his duck comics, in the past. I'd add Kipling, and TREASURE ISLAND. The child is father to the man.

One of these days, Johnny will take his son Jack to see THE SEARCHERS. And one of these days, Dash is probably going to read OLD YELLER, and cry at the end, the way I did. Especially when we're young, it seems to me, we inhabit the stories, or they inhabit us, and take on a life of their own, as real as a dime. A spell is cast, and I doubt if we ever break free of it. Innocence is never really lost.

21 September 2012

To Weave a Tangled Web

E.B. White
When is a children's book not just a children's book?

When it was written by E B White.

My youngest son and I are reading Charlotte's Web. And, to be frank with you, I probably hadn't looked at the thing since I was in the 4th Grade myself.  Maybe even the 3rd Grade; I'm not sure when we read it in class.

Why address a children's book on a mystery blog?

Because I wish, now, that I'd re-read it several years ago.  There's so much to learn about writing, inside.  And, so much the book keeps reminding me about.

A Bit of a Shock

"Well, pull the book out of your backpack, little buddy, and let's take a look at it."  That's what I told my son, when he said he had to read Charlotte's Web for a school book report.

A moment later, the book was in my hands -- and I was floored!

I'd read the book as a kid.  But, it was only as an adult that the author's name lept off the cover at me.  "E B White?" I cried.  "Son!  This is written by E B White!"

As if that would mean anything to him.

My wife stared at me, too.

I stared back, mouth open, no sound coming out, except a very thin: "But . . .  It's E B White."  How could I explain? How could I make them understand about those three or four copies of Elements of Style that I'd murdered over the years -- not through book burnings or neglect, but through long, hard, rough use.  Those little white paperbacks had been literally "dog-eared to death."

I felt a bit as if I'd just learned that God, himself, had taken pen in hand to write the Mother Goose Stories.

It was a much more powerful surprise, even, than the time I bought Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! at a garage sale, only to discover it had been written by Ian Flemming.  That's right.  In case you didn't know,: the same Ian Flemming who wrote the original James Bond novels wrote  Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang!Which makes sense in the context of the book, because -- when you think about it -- Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! (the car in the book) is really a kids' version of a James Bond spy car.  And, the novel (obviously quite different from the movie) reads (IMHO) as a children's spy or mystery/suspense story.

Further: For those who think only "little old ladies" write mysteries with recipes inside, I think it might be interesting to note that my copy of the book came with a recipe for brownies on the back page. And, clearly, Ian Flemming put it there, because, when the kids eat brownies, in the novel, there is a little aside explaining where to find the recipe, so the reader can try them him/herself.

But, what gets me about Charlotte's Web has nothing to do with flying cars or brownies.

It's the Subtext

Several SS writers (myself included) have touched-on or examined differences between "literary works" and what are often referred to as "genre" works.  But, one element I don't recall seeing explored in enough depth is that of subtext, or multi-layered meaning.  This concept is very near-and-dear (let me know what you guys think of the hyphenation there) to those who love so-called "literary works", and it's one of the hallmarks critics point to, in order to determine if a work has literary merit.

I'm not talking about "Theme" here.  I'm talking about the ability of a written passage, or passages, to be understood in an entirely different way, depending on the reader's viewpoint and experiences.  On the most superficial level, the passage is an integral part of the work, and reads and functions that way: it moves the plot forward, and characters continue to grow or change.  Perhaps the reader gets a better feel for important setting details, or clues. Yet, at the same time, the passage is also open to interpretation, as a metaphor for one or more other ideas; ideas quite different from the surface action or meaning.

My son and I have only made it to Chapter 4 or 5, so far.  Wilbur the pig just recently met Charlotte the spider.  And, this is a children's book; it's simple.  Or, at least, appears to be simple.  Yet, I was surprised to find several elements that veritably screamed at me with different meanings, all in such a short span of pages.  Leave it to E B White to sew this incredibly rich subtext in such a small plot of fertile words.

  But, a person may well ask, did E B White intend us to see this subtext?  Or did he write a simple children's story and I'm loading it down with ideas that were never planted by the author?  According to the literary critics:  It doesn't matter.  The fact that a reader can view subtext -- even if that reader had to bring his own baggage along, to do so -- is what counts.  Subtext is different for each reader, the idea goes, because everyone brings his/her own experience to the table, and this is how readers interact with literature.  It's an important part of what makes Literature literary.

So, please permit me to examine a little of Charlotte's Web in these terms.

Lassie?  Or something darker?

When Wilbur temporarily escapes from the barn, for instance, the farmer lures him back into his pen with a bucket of slop while the goose screams words to the effect: "Don't fall for it!  It's the old Slop Bucket Trick!  You'll be sorry."

My son, who looks at the book through the lens of an innocent nine-year-old, sees the farmer as acting in Wilbur's best interest.  The farmer cares about the pig, and worries about him -- for Wilbur's sake. He helps Wilbur by returning him to the safety and security of the barn, and by feeding him warm food.  My son equates the farmer with the way he would see a police officer or collie dog that helped him get back to the warmth of family and home, were my son to get lost.

As a nearly-fifty-year-old, who once had the dubious honor of slaughtering a cow with a sledge hammer, and has interacted in the sometimes (though not nearly as often as Hollywood would have us believe) duplicitous world of Military Intelligence and Special Operations, I understand that the farmer's caring has less to do with helping Wilbur, than it does with not letting Christmas dinner get away on the hoof.  The farmer only cares about Wilbur, at this point, in the context of the pig's usefulness. The return to warmth and security is important because these elements are necessary if the farmer is to get the ham he plans to harvest near the holiday season. And, the slop bucket that Wilbur is lured back by, is an important part of that plan.  Thus, Wilbur is lured back to a false security by his very love for the thing that will increase the value -- in the farmer's eyes -- of Wilbur's eventual slaughter.

So, my son views this passage in terms of Lassie Come Home while I view it as something more akin to Orwell's Animal Farm, in which (if I recall correctly) the leader-pigs sell the old draft horse to the glue factory.

Is Charlotte a Capitalist  . . .  Or just industrious?

Cavatica or "Barn Spider"
Shortly after Wilbur's return to captivity, he hears a disembodied voice that promises to be his friend.  The next morning, he discovers that this voice belongs to Charlotte, the spider who built her web overhead, in the eaves of the barn.  Her full name is Charlotte A. Cavatica.

Now, I'm constantly fascinated by the thought process behind naming fictional characters, and may explore the field more fully in a later post.  In this case, however, a quick online search yielded a photo of a Cavatica spider -- otherwise known as a Barn Spider.  Thus, Charlotte's name tells the reader (and the pig, if he has internet access or a good encyclopedia at hoof) what Charlotte is.  At least on the surface.

But, what is she really?

Almost immediately after meeting Charlotte, Wilbur is horrified to watch as she sews-up a fly that got stuck in her web.  And, he's further shocked and disgusted when she tells him that she plans to suck the fly's blood.  When the little pig expresses his feelings, however, Charlotte basically tells him:  "Well you may talk.  You have your food brought to you.  But, I suffer a much more precarious existence than you do, and have to work for my food.  It may seem mean and vicious, but it's what I have to do to survive."

On the surface, a main character is introduced and we learn about her.  We also see the beginnings of Wilbur's horrified loss of innocence.  And, a key theme -- the seeming necessity to kill for nourishment -- is introduced.

Just beneath that surface, however, the two passages -- which comprise two back-to-back chapters -- can be read as a metaphor similar to The Ant and the Grasshopper.  Here, Wilbur is an ignorant version of the lazy grasshopper, in pig-form ("swine-a-morphised" perhaps??), while Charlotte is cast in the industrious ant's role (aracnimorphised? ;-). And, Charlotte is trying to explain these facts of life to a lazy (or simply ignorant) little pig.

On a third level, however, (And perhaps my earlier comparison to Animal Farm, which sprang during the reading from I know not where, contributed to this interpretation.) the two chapters can be seen as an allegory for political, social or even economic ideas.   Charlotte and Wilbur, who live in such close proximity, yet experience life in vastly different terms, may perhaps be considered to represent citizens of Capitalist nations (Charlotte), who have to fend for themselves and face the reality of quite possibly starving if they don't work hard and effectively to secure food and shelter, and citizens of Communist or Socialist nations (Wilbur), in which people tend to be more state-reliant for their sustenance

That Charlotte has to build and maintain her own web (which might, therefor, be seen as belonging to her), while Wilbur is housed and fed by an authority figure (the farmer, who clearly owns the barn and food, which  keep Wilbur alive and well), lends further credence to this view.

A right-wing reactionary might even view Wilbur's state of false-security (He's warm and happy now, but the farmer will kill him when the time is right) as being illustrative of the "evils of communism."  Wilbur has been "tricked," in this viewpoint, into surrendering his freedom for what seems like security.  Meanwhile, Charlotte is the rugged individualist who stands on her own eight legs.

A left-wing radical, on the other hand, while still viewing the selection as a comment on Capitalism vs. Communism, might note how it stresses the innocence and trusting nature of the (socialist) pig, versus the greed and callousness of the (capitalist) spider.

Two chapters in a simple children's book.  But, at least three or four different ways of looking at it.  Such a tangled web of meaning, in so few words.  Now that, to me, is Subtext.

Deconstructing a children's book may seem ludicrous on a blog that's about writing for adults. . .

But Charlotte's Web has reminded me that my favorite books are those loaded with subtext.  Books and stories that have several layers of meaning; layers I can sit back and consider, weigh and examine, long after I've finished reading.

If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that my writing suffers from a certain lack of subtext.  And, putting it in there is a tricky business -- to say the least!  I'm reminded now, however, of the importance of trying to get it in there, of trying to push the boundaries of the meaning behind the words on the paper.

We often speak of the necessity of making words carry as much work as they can -- particularly in short stories, where the space is so limited.  But, are we succeeding to the best of our abilities if we don't try to make the work of those words include creation of subtext?  I can only answer -- with a guilty "No" -- for myself.

Meanwhile, my son and I will continue to read Charlotte's Web, and we'll continue to discuss the surface context, while I gently try to get him to consider subtext as we go along.

He wants to keep reading because the little girl who rescued Wilbur from being slaughtered as a runt hasn't visited Wilbur in quite some time.  My son and I both think she'll return for a visit before the book is over.  He wants to see this happen, so he can learn why she disappeared for so long, leaving the little pig lonely and sad.

I'm nearly fifty, and I've known a lot of little girls.  I'm not surprised by her disappearance. Yet, I too, await her return -- with great anticipation. Because I want to see how both the pig and the girl have changed in the interim.

See you in two weeks!