Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Up the Dumbed-Down Staircase



A thesaurus is, among other things, a compendium of words arranged in strategic order, which forms a conceptual skeleton of a particular subject.  If you were to take the index of any particular nonfiction title, then delete the page numbers, you’d be left with a thesaurus/ Your book The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, about to go into second printing, could be called a thesaurus. 

Note the conditional tense in the use of the verb to be.  Some editors and some publishers would argue that the readers for whom you intended the book in the first place would not know what the word thesaurus meant and would therefore be uninterested in looking it up to see if a thesaurus would be of any value to them.

At one point, feeling somewhat snarky about this take, you suggested that they would according to that logic not be interested in a book called A Thesaurus for Writers or even the more direct, A Writer’s Thesaurus.

You were not so much “brought up” on the famed Roget’s Thesaurus, as aware of it as a useful tool since about age nine.  Indeed, you may have been given the proverbial fountain pen as a unit of the cornucopia that came your way when you achieved the coming-of-age ritual of your culture, the bar-mitzvah, but the gifts you remember at this remove were Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Other Stories, Huckleberry Finn, and three copies of Roget’s Thesaurus.

At one point, an editor told you of her belief that beginning writers were too interested in learning how to write stories to worry about vocabulary, a fact that confirmed your suspicion about the publishing house that was temporarily interested in an earlier work of yours, and from that point on steered you away from their monthly magazine for writers.

This is a presidential election year, bringing forth from both sides of the ideological aisle statements reflecting the cynical belief that working and mid-tier classes are two or three ants shy of a picnic.  You are in substantial agreement, a sentiment forged when you read some of the commentary on the political blogs you follow.  You’ve in fact stopped following some of these blogs; the Huffington Post comes early to mind, because of the lackluster logic and execrable writing.  In summary, even those of a seeming like mind make you cringe.  Only on rare occasions do those of an opposite or tangential bias to yours cause you to read and process with interest and admiration.

There are politics aplenty within the writing community, conventional publishing, and the so-called legacy publishers, versus self-publishing being a single example to demonstrate the point.
Yet another thing to be wary of are the politics of dumbing down for the massmarket, doing so with concept, the use of foreign words (which opens up another contentious debate because where do we draw the line?) and vocabulary.

You are a devoted subscriber to the London Times Literary Supplement, a weekly book review, notable for its squabbles in the Letters-to-the-Editor Department, its review of scholarly and recondite titles as well as those tending toward the commercial, all of which are mixed with literary and reference work titles.  There are occasions when The New York Review of Books has sent you scurrying to the dictionary, which is a fact you appreciate.

In your own editorial activities, you have in fact compiled more than one thesaurus, which became an index for a book.  You have also, to get at the farthest interior point of this essay, compiled over the years a thesaurus of words you are most comfortable using to describe concepts, sensations, ideas, and hypotheses as you attempt to bookmark the universe about you by describing some of its functions to you.

Sometimes you’ll see on an edited manuscript of yours a notation, ”better word?”  This is the editor asking for you to rethink a word you’ve used. Only rarely do you consider such requests an implicit suggestion to “dumb down.”  Often there is a better word and you are grateful for being asked to find it.

Often as well, you think of Dashiell Hammett sneaking things into his manuscripts that had double meanings.  Gunsel comes to mind, a word he used in The Maltese Falcon, as a reference to Wilmer Cook, the young associate of Caspar Gutman. 

Gunsel was thought by Hammett’s early editors to be Yiddish slang for a gun-carrying hoodlum.  In his wily way, Hammett encouraged this belief and gave his editors something that sounded sexual and naughty to delete.  The “gooseberry lay,” means stealing clothing from a clothesline.  When Sam Spade asks Wilmer Cook how long he’s been “off the gooseberry lay,” our antenna of naughtiness goes up and the editor’s pencil comes out.  Gunsel may have Yiddish roots but its origins in America came from shall we call then unauthorized passengers on trains.  Calling Wilmer Cook a gunsel, Caspar Gutman’s gunsel, did not mean Wilmer was Gutman’s gun man, unless you were thinking of gun man as a sexual metaphor.  A gunsel was a punk, or the young companion of a pederast.

You’d not thought to introduce mischievous slang into your work, at least not with the deliberation of Hammett. Rather, you thought and still think to introduce mischievous language into your work because mischief is one of your key ingredients.  You have a thesaurus of words which you think of, in fact regard, as a part of your toolkit.
Editors asking you to look for better words when they in fact mean more simple words are nevertheless challenging you to get on with the mischief.

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