sense & sententiousness
1 September 2023, around 4.36.
Die Frage nach dem Sinn. Vergleiche:
“Dieser Satz hat Sinn.” – “Welchen?”
“Dieser Wortreihe ist ein Satz.” – “Welcher?”
Asking what the sense is. Compare:
“This sentence has a sense.” – “What sense?”
“This sequence of words is a sentence.” – “What sentence?”
—Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe et al., §501)
People clamor to tell their stories in words.
This doesn’t make them writers.
Nor does it make their stories matter.
—Verlyn Klinkenborg (Several Short Sentences about Writing, 65%)1
Some time ago, I read a blog post about Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences about Writing, although I can’t quite remember where.2
A first attempt at reading the book was so irritating that I returned it to the library immediately.3
I often read books about writing, though, because they increase my sympathy (empathy?) for the foibles of the writers whose work I am paid to copyedit.4
Authorial foibles are seldom endearing and are often irritating.5
Querying one’s irritation is part of the work of sympathy, so I decided to give the Klinkenborg another try.6
It was more irritating the second time around.7
Sources of irritation included (but were not limited to) the book’s
- formatting, with each sentence (or sentence fragment, or clause, or phrase, or period) on a separate line;8
- tone, an unpleasant vibrato across boredom, to pity, to condescension, to the therapeutic, and back again (although I could be projecting);9
- banal advice, because no neophyte scribbler has ever been told to avoid cliche or read their own writing aloud before;10
- the second person, or how you alienate your audience;11
- unflattering (but true) suppositions: to tell me I have the unhealthy habit of larding my prose with ‘overused, nearly meaningless words and phrases’ (59%; e.g., ‘in fact, indeed, therefore, however, of course’, etc.) is not helpful;12
- misrepresentation – not several, but many; not short, but of varying lengths; not sentences only, but fragments as well; not about writing, but about the limits of the educational establishment in the United States and what is called writing, but should perhaps be thought of as thinking, except that is not quite right, either, because it seemed to be, overall, about being very, very tired of reading (and probably having to respond to) bad, slipshod, thoughtless, careless, dadgum, no-good, lazy writing.13
As a practitioner of lazy writing, let me stop with the discursive footnotes (for once) and tiresome line breaks. Rather, let me note that the strategies suggested for writing (no outline, all perspiration no inspiration, eternal line editing, and a constant fussing) is more or less how I myself get across a page. (My irritation with the book sneaks a glance in the mirror and recognizes the narcissism of minor differences.) But I do not write by the sentence (who cares about a sentence? only the one sentenced) – nor by the word or paragraph. I usually write by the pun and take as the starting point a play on words, a play with words, a bad joke, a dad joke, a rad joke: not a hook on which to hang an argument, but a cascade of sound that opens a window onto an unexpected meaning. Sometimes I come back to some sort of sense, but I am not a particularly sensible person in my prosing and have a lamentably poor regard for the comfort of the reader (or co-conspirator or myself), who tends to be dragged backwards (or sideways) through the tangles of what passes for a composition.
Klinkenborg also has a poor regard for the comfort of the reader (who is probably not a co-conspirator and is certainly not himself and, judging by the description given, seems rather a dull dog), but gives the appearance of pretending to care, rather like the host at a potluck putting a plate of beans in front of the resident Pythagorean: well meant, perhaps, and wholesome, but still missing the essential mark. It is not a bad book, and it might be the right book for some students of writing, but you could also read the following quotation, which more or less sums it up (more astringently):
The integrity of a piece of language, poetry or prose, is a function of its quality; and an essential element of its quality is the inseparability of idea and language. When a thing is said right it is said right, whether in prose or poetry, formal discourse or cursing the cat. If it is said wrong, if it lacks quality, if is stupid poetry or careless prose, you may paraphrase it all you like; chances are you will improve it.
—Ursula K. Le Guin (‘Reciprocity of Prose and Poetry’, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, pp. 107f.)
- Taking this out of context makes it sound more, well, unfortunately contemptuous than it was intended to be (I am assuming that he wishes to make the point that one must put in the work to convince the reader that one’s story matters), but seems to be typical. [↩]
- Situational opening that makes use of vagueness as a rhetorical strategy to reduce any apparent disagreement with the author of the post mentioned: why would one want to offend a complete stranger simply because one is not impressed by a book they appear to have liked? The truth value of the sentence is entirely open to interpretation; it is also not important. [↩]
- Expository. [↩]
- Expository. Unnecessary. I love unnecessary sentences. Perhaps the only true sentence in this post. [↩]
- 100% linking sentence. [↩]
- Pompous generalization followed by exposition; a bloated sentence with a double chin and incipient gout. [↩]
- Insipid observation. [↩]
- You were wondering why I have been annotating each sentence, weren’t you? Well, I just wanted you to know that I was giving each sentence a good think before I put it in this post and I have justified each sentence to the full extent to which any sentence is justifiable (i.e., not at all); cf. unflattering suppositions [↩]
- Pedagogy can be the pits; cf. banal advice. [↩]
- This was advice that could perhaps have been applied to the book itself. Some sentences were clunkers. But that could be a result of the formatting: not every sentence deserves to be given the attention of a fragment from Heraclitus. To sloppily repeat myself (because the point bears repeating): not all reading needs to (or should) be close reading; cf. formatting. [↩]
- The lack of clarity about the audience seems to be one of the broader structural problems of the book. It repeatedly uses phrases like ‘as you learned in school’ before presenting an exercise that one would have done in school (e.g., circling all the parts of speech in a favored bit of prose). One assumes an undergraduate audience, but the marketing seems off; cf. misrepresentation [↩]
- It also misrepresents the intention of their use; for me, at least, they provide not the illusion of logic, but a variation in rhythm, a hedging about and a setting off: there are some ideas or feelings or notions that one does not wish (or need) to approach too closely. But I also always aspire to build ‘a maze with nothing but dead ends’, 67%; cf. the second person [↩]
- Kids these days, amirite? Cf. tone [↩]
3 September 2023, around 12.28.
Stein is, rather, demonstrating that writing about the true Gertrude isn’t simply a matter of writing truthfully but involves applying force to the great containers of literary writing, to the forms that at the moment seem most comfortable, most beautiful, and instead are a death trap for our intention to write “truthfully.” […] This is what upends the traditional relations between invented story, autobiographical truth, and biographical truth, making Stein’s book a great lesson for the “I” who wants to write, surely a more stimulating lesson, today, than what we might get from Hemingway’s books. Ernest’s mistake is to succeed by prudently respecting the rules of an old, well-known game; Gertrude’s virtue is to succeed by sticking to the old, well-known game but in order to disrupt it and bend it to her purposes.
—Elena Ferrante (In the Margins, trans. Ann Goldstein, 56%)
in the dark
8 September 2023, around 6.20.
Quid, cum fictas fabulas, e quibus utilitas nulla elici potest, cum voluptate legimus? quid, cum volumus nomina eorum, qui quid gesserint, nota nobis esse, parentes, patriam, multa praeterea minime necessaria?
But what of fiction, from which no utility can be extracted, that we read for pleasure? What of our eagerness to learn the names of people who have done something notable, their parentage, birthplace, and many quite unimportant details beside?
—Cicero (De finibus…, trans. Rackham, 5.52)1
It was dark as I returned home from my morning run. Around quarter to five is when I head out, and the effort grounds the remainder of the day, makes anything that happens more explicable. But that is not to the point. It was dark, I say, as I was walking home, and in the amiable glow of soreness, I was thinking about Shelley Trower’s article on reading and forgetfulness2 from the 2020 issue of Book History. The article presents some of the findings for a part of the Memories of Fiction project, a qualitative study of ‘reading lives’ based on interviews with participants in library reading groups.3 Trower focuses particularly on the prevalence of forgetting what one has read, its causes and consequences, and what it means for reading as such. A key point of the article was that, although many of the respondents did not have clear memories of the individual books they had read, they did have very distinct memories of instances of reading and the associated sensations – a window streaked with rain, a sunny field, a comfortable chair, etc.
As I avoided stumbling on cracks in the sidewalk heaved up by the roots of trees, I was troubled by two things: first, the selection bias in the study population, and second, the precarity of interviews as a source of data, particularly about information the subject has forgotten. As to the first concern, library readings groups draw a particular sort of reader, one who is not necessarily equivalent to the readers found in other groups or to the reader in isolation; this difficulty is not avoidable (one can imagine the principal investigator sighing: ‘How else are we going to define our study population? Do you really imagine we have the funding to explore the universal common reader?’), and although a source of minor irritation, one can set it to one side.
It is the season when nuts and other fruits are falling from the trees, and certain corners must be approached with caution. I skirted the shadows cast by the hulk of a walnut tree as I pondered the second point, which I suppose consists of several subpoints – indeed, too many subpoints to articulate fully to oneself during one’s predawn perambulations.4 Some of them were:
- Social desirability bias. One of the pieces of evidence used to support the notion that many of the readers do not recall the books they read is an interview with a woman who repeatedly answers ‘No’ to the interviewer’s increasingly flailing questions about what she has read, although she ultimately ‘recalls’ that the one of the books was green. Trower seems to interpret this as meaning that the respondent has no recollection of what she has read, but there are other equally plausible ways to interpret the exchange: the respondent is ambivalent about the books she has read; she does not want to talk to the interviewer and is trying to bow out of the conversation without saying so directly; the respondent is socially awkward;5 or she thinks the interviewer will (negatively) judge what she has read and does not want to venture down that particular avenue of interrogation (after all, one probably forms a slightly different opinion of someone who reads Colleen Hoover and one who reads Fleur Jaeggy). I am not saying that Trower’s interpretation is incorrect, just that I did not find it convincing. 6
- Mnemonic apparatus. Some mention is made of strategies used to remember books, including keeping the books around (instead of getting rid of them) or making lists of what one has read; indeed, Trower mentions one reader who had been maintaining a list of the books he had read for over fifty years, but does not connect that information with how well he remembered (or to what extent he forgot) his reading. The strategies are also treated as though they were in some way ‘cheating’ or illegitimate, examples of faulty memory instead of long-standing approaches to intensive reading (and misreading), which doubtless the researchers use themselves, although their notes and lists are tucked away in reference software.
- Readership binary. Related to both of the previous points was the implied distinction between the participants in the study and the researchers in terms qua readers, one that implied a reduction of reading to binaries – extensive vs. intensive, professional vs. amateur (or ‘common’) – that is not, perhaps, helpful in understanding what and how and why people read. The article in question, for instance – suspended in the web of scholarly interrelationships, it might be able to bear the weight of a reader’s close attention, but cut free from that web, viewed from the outside, with the frayed edges showing, it seems a very different sort of thing.7
As I approached the final block towards home, the first glimmering of dawn behind me, the neighbor’s black cat skittered along the sidewalk, nervously running up to me and then slipping away, reduced to two points of brightness as it turned to watch me. I gave it a scritch before it disappeared up the stairs and quite forgot what I had been thinking about.
- Some slight modifications, to ensure the inclusion of pleasure. [↩]
- Paywalled, my apologies. [↩]
- There has been the expected linkrot throughout the site, so the interviews are perhaps less accessible than they were intended to be. [↩]
- Indeed, most of them were not in fact articulated at all, but swirled uneasily, inchoate and only half recalled. [↩]
- I am thinking here particularly of a conversation I had with an acquaintance at a post office, when I responded to the question ‘what have you been reading lately?’ with ‘nothing much’, which wasn’t really true, but was true enough in the sense that I hadn’t read anything I wanted to talk about while waiting in line at the post office. [↩]
- Although it was not explicitly mentioned if fieldwork as such was involved, it would also have been interesting to know if the researchers had participated in the book groups as well, as that might have improved their rapport with their subjects, which seemed, based on the limited excerpts, somewhat shaky. Naturally, that could cause its own problems. [↩]
- I am not being fair to it, I’m sure. Sometimes (often) one isn’t fair to things one reads, and that says nothing about the value of either the text or the reader; well, very little, anyway. [↩]
15 September 2023, around 19.29.
cut to the chase
23 September 2023, around 6.34.
Normally when I get an idea, I charge ahead and scribble about it, tangling words together in the hopes that I will net my quarry – that is, some sort of sense (even if it is nonsense). Usually it works (more or less), but sometimes it doesn’t. This is one of the times when it didn’t.
* * *
In rummaging through the books to clear out space, I happened upon a copy of James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks, purchased some years ago at the library book sale in a fit of preciosity, which gathers together a broad assortment of terms of venery (from venari, to hunt) or collective nouns – think ‘pride of lions’, ‘bevy of ladies’, and the like – and advertises itself as a reference book. I started to flip through it, ready to be edified or at least amused, and found that I wasn’t. Edified. Or amused. I was bored. Irritated. Beginning to get a headache from grinding my teeth and rolling my eyes, because what I should have found funny (or, at a bare minimum, a bit of drollery), wasn’t – a circumstance that led me to wonder whether my sense of humor, never particularly robust to begin with, had at last atrophied entirely.
My irritation, like ancient Gaul, could be divided into three parts. The first part was rooted in the arch playfulness of using the word venery, nudging and winking at both the chase and the unchaste – this might have its moments, but it took too many of mine. The second part stemmed the book’s claim to be a work of reference. If this were indeed the case, one would expect the inclusion of supporting material and quotations for pretty much every item, which, given that I am complaining about it here, you may safely assume was not present in quantities that I would consider sufficient.1 I am not averse to a whimsical dictionary, but one needs to make clear what is a ‘real’ reference and what is frankly made up. Or file the book under humor.2 The third part branched off from the second: most of the items listed are not, have not, and will not be used – because they are (a) not funny and (b) not necessary.3 The whole thing was lousy with a sort of ersatz nostalgia4 or logophilic kitsch that made me uneasy without, as I mentioned, providing edification or amusement.
But then of course, just to be fair, I had to have a look at one of the earliest lists of collective nouns in English, which appears in The Book of St. Albans (associated with the perhaps apocryphal Benedictine prioress Juliana Berners) and dates to the fifteenth century. Naturally, it includes equally silly terms that are equally unlikely to have been widely used – a worship of writeris, an execucion of officerys, a bhomynable sight of monkis – and repetitions (a sculke of foxis (or freris)) sufficient to suggest that it should be taken with a grain of salt or tongue in cheek or however else you would like to express a suspension of credulity or seriousness. So I was wrong about Lipton, and all my tripartite reason-mongering was just cussedness or indigestion. The book is pretty much in the spirit of its genre, and, if it currently possesses less historical interest, it might acquire a greater patina with age. I won’t be able to confirm that, though, because it is still going into the sell pile.
- It was good in places, though, and that was one of the things that made it particularly frustrating. I would make a joke (i.e., ‘a misprision of revisions’ ) but, as I said, I did not find it amusing. [↩]
- The dangers of a misleading BISAC. [↩]
- I defy anyone to provide an example of, e.g., ‘a helix of geneticists’ that does not mention (or post-date) Larkin. [↩]
- Christman has an amusing discussion of a recent (perhaps also apocryphal) conflation of whip-ass and kick-ass as an instance of misplaced nostalgia for the 1980s, although it would require far more evidence than seems to be available to support that hypothesis; I will admit to spending an amusing afternoon flipping through The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang merely to confirm that it did not contain ‘whip/whoop-ass’, while ‘to kick ass’ is ‘to be especially energetic and exciting; to succeed by your vigorous effort’, which is of course all that anyone could ask for (and confirms that Green is the better option to slake the thirst for slang). [↩]
A view (59)
27 September 2023, around 9.28.
Certainly there are good and bad times, but our mood changes more often than our fortune.
—Jules Renard (Journals, trans. Louise Bogan & Elizabeth Roget, January 1905)
30 September 2023, around 4.17.
‘The parallel reader. He has ten books open at once and reads one sentence in each, then the next sentence in the book beside it. What a scholar!’ —Elias Canetti (Notes from Hampstead, trans. John Hargraves, p. 68)
‘That poignant sensation which makes you take hold of a sentence as though it were a weapon’ —Jules Renard (Journal, trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, December 1889)
‘There are innumerable ways to write badly. The usual way is making sentences that don’t say what you think they do. […] Knowing what you’re trying to say is always important. But knowing what you’ve actually said is crucial’ —Verlyn Klinkenborg (Several Short Sentences about Writing, 4%)
‘Our impression is that writers talk about writing too often in an unsatisfying way’ —Elena Ferrante (In the Margins, trans. Ann Goldstein, 22%)
‘A line of verse is always to a certain extent a cage for thought’ —Jules Renard (Journal, trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, January 1898)
‘Good people, always giving something away, until suddenly they bitterly regret it and hate everyone for it’ —Elias Canetti (Notes from Hampstead, trans. John Hargraves, p. 42)
‘One enters a book as one enters a railway carriage, with glances to the rear, hesitations, and a disinclination to change one’s place and one’s ideas. Where will the journey take us? What will the book turn out to be?’ —Jules Renard (Journal, trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, February 1890)
‘And worse—the end of the sentence commonly forgets the beginning, as if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place’ —Verlyn Klinkenborg (Several Short Sentences about Writing, 7%)
‘Your actual affection for people overcomes you when they are no longer around’ —Elias Canetti (Notes from Hampstead, trans. John Hargraves, p. 110)
‘I mean a pale and nameless unease, as if a poorly constructed sentence could make you slightly homesick’ —Verlyn Klinkenborg (Several Short Sentences about Writing, 41%)
‘The fear of boredom is the only excuse for working’ —Jules Renard (Journal, trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, September 1892)
‘The bildungsroman seems to me on the right track when it’s clear that no one will be built’ —Elena Ferrante (In the Margins, trans. Ann Goldstein, 28%)
‘The memory wants to come undisturbed in its own moment, and must not be bothered by anyone who was present then’ —Elias Canetti (Notes from Hampstead, trans. John Hargraves, p. 161)
‘The little premonitory shiver that comes when a beautiful sentence is about to take shape’ —Jules Renard (Journal, trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, March 1895)
‘In writing, it’s impossible to express sincerity sincerely’ —Verlyn Klinkenborg (Several Short Sentences about Writing, 29%)
‘Writing is, rather, entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned. Writing is getting comfortable with everything that has already been written—great literature and commercial literature, if useful, the novel-essay and the screenplay—and in turn becoming, within the limits of one’s own dizzying, crowded individuality, something written’ —Elena Ferrante (In the Margins, trans. Ann Goldstein, 60%)
‘I desire nothing from the past. I do not count on the future. The present is enough for me. I am a happy man, for I have renounced happiness’ —Jules Renard (Journal, trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, April 1895)