Sunday, August 2, 2009

Convention Wisdom

convention--an agreement among publishers and readers for mechanical usage such as punctuation; an accepted common wisdom relative to acceptable norms and understandings.

The convention for eating peas generally suggests the use of a fork or perhaps chopsticks--but not a knife. The convention for point of view in a short story was first-person or third person, shifting to include omniscient after the significant contribution of William Trevor in that area. The convention for verb tense in fiction was based on the calculus of past tense representing present moment, with past perfect indicating completed past action, and the imperfect tense--used to, or would--being action occasionally but not habitually done in the past. These conventions apply to Indo-European languages and are not in immediate danger of changing or shifting, but along about the time Bobbie Ann Mason's short story, "Shiloh, appeared in the New Yorker, a convention was developing that allowed Ms. Mason and any other writer who chose, to use the present tense--Fred gets up--to indicate events supposedly taking place before our eyes.

After reading works first written or published in earlier centuries, it is possible to determine the zeitgeist of that century, the use and organization of language being a literary dipstick used to measure the oil. For those who experience difficulties with the conventions of other centuries, say the fourteenth, it is possible to secure a modern--twentieth or twenty-first-century--recasting of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, rendering them in modern convention.

For some time, the conventional wisdom was that the three things not to be written about, particularly with humorous intent, were sex, religion, and politics. In the twenty-first century, it has become nearly impossible to write about politics without mentioning sex and religion; there are clear-cut politics in discussions of religion and sex, there are at the very least gender politics in discussions of sex, but just as often there are religious connotations. Just ask D. H. Lawrence.

Convention has become the elephant in the literary living room; if a particular convention is taken on merely for the sake of being contentious, the result is apt to become polemical, evangelical, or screed, and we all know how these sound. If the taking on of a convention makes for a more illuminated story, the result is apt to become inspirational. Unfortunately, there is too much of the former. In mitigation, the writer has humor.

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