Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Watch Your Language: Story for All Occasions

Long before you got to know and hang out with Tony Gibbs, son of the once-legendary, now almost forgotten editor/writer for The New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs, you were aware of his father's 1936 parody of Time Magazine.  Gibbs' concluding sentence was the perfect coda for the inverted sentence structure of the Time Magazine  narrative style.  "Backward ran sentences,"  Gibbs wrote for the penultimate, "until reeled the mind."  Then, he dropped the bomb.  "Where all it will end knows God."

Time's politics were more or less the politics of its creator, Henry Luce, redolent of so many things the emerging you found distasteful, including an overall sense of patronizing the reader with facts, logic, and what you'd come to think of as the language of the Eastern Establishment. Time's language was not your language.  Gibbs gave you license to enjoy an inner giggle each time you read a piece in its pages.  Once again, humor had served its purpose by toppling a presence inflated by its breath of pomposity.

The language of The New Yorker was more your language, thanks in large measure to E. B. White, James Thurber, and the seeming regularity of short fiction pieces from John O'Hara.  The language of F. Scott Fitzgerald was the equivalent of a Siren's song; you pursued it by writing long, rambling tales in which the language trumped the outcome.

Sad to say now how much time and energy you spent with the language and cadence of Ernest Hemingway, reading and rereading his short stories in between your systematic pursuit of the longer works, beginning with Death in the Afternoon and carrying you through the novels, all the way, in fact, to Across the River and into the Trees, which had the same effect on your overall vision of Hemingway as the Gibbs piece had on your vision of Time style.

Hemingway's effect on you reached its peak when you discovered by accident that a classmate of yours was his son, who'd sent him a parody of The Old Man and the Sea you'd written for the undergraduate humor magazine.

However much your own narrative has improved since your days of imitation, you feel comfortable with the admission of how important the sound and cadence of your narrative has been to you.  In a real sense, you feel comfort in saying it sounds like you and to complete the equation, you sound like it.  When the time comes for editorial notes on something you've written, you experience that momentary twinge of wondering which thing or things will need modification (one editor was close to vehement about your use of the semi-colon).  You also feel a sense of anticipation at the thought of sounding even more like yourself than you'd thought possible or hoped.

There is yet another side to style and usage, the more mechanical one called copyediting, which is of another, significant matter to you.  The main goal of copyediting (beyond accuracy standards) is consistency of use.  This may seem a trivial point, but not to you.  When teaching, editing, and composing your own material, the concept of the reliable narrator is a strong presence.  Narrators should be reliable unless there is a specific dramatic reason for making one or more of them unreliable and or naive.  Works of nonfiction can produce an unintended sense of unreliability when the writer fails to observe consistency of use with regard to such matters as punctuation, abbreviation, use of numbers, even captions and headings.

Thanks to the presence or lack of presence of copyediting, you can tell if a book has been self-published or has passed through the hands of a reliable copyeditor.

Most publishing ventures have some form of usage conventions.  In a nod of something you have to assume is affection, the local weekly for whom you've been reviewing books these last eight years, allows you to use the serial comma, thus A, B, C, and D as opposed to the conventional newspaper style of A, B, C and D.  Through your own experiences in which you not only edited manuscripts for content, you also performed copyediting functions, you've become accustomed to following the usage conventions of most book publishers, CMOS, also known as The Chicago Manual of Style, a product of the University of Chicago Press since the late 1870s.

Magazines often follow The New York Times Style Guide or The Associated Press Style Guide.  Some magazines and newspapers may have their own style guides.  The book publisher Random House, even though now a part of a conglomerate, uses the style guide that appears in The Random House Dictionary of the American Language, unabridged edition.  Various scholarly and scientific journals have their own style guides and indeed a major presence in academic writing is the style guide from The Modern Language Association.

Language evolves through usage or lack of usage, which is one of the reasons so many individuals and institutions like to keep a copy of The OED around; this dictionary, its full name The Oxford English Dictionary,  carries a subtitle telling all who notice such things that the work is based on historical principals, meaning one can trace a word from the time it first appeared in print in the English language and, through close reading of the accompanying definitions, trace the evolution in meaning of a specific word.  Some words have undergone political and philological transformations.  Some words have taken on meanings not reflected in their origins.

Language is driven by a number of forces, among them intent, emotion, and etymology.  Your intent is to express your ideas and feelings in a manner that sounds as much like you as you can manage.  This goal brings you to an occasional moment of concern, in particular when one friend refers to your book reviews as occasions in which he is sent running to the dictionary.  Maybe you need an editor.

Language is lightning in a bottle, capturing the style and voice of a writer along with that writer's sense of the universe.  Language is like life; both are what we make of it.  Both are what we get out of them.

Your example:  In New York, when someone says fuck you, they mean, "Let's have lunch."  In Los Angeles, when someone says "Let's have lunch," they mean fuck you.



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