27 February 2012

Why Everyone But Me Is Wrong; Or, Why Professors Shouildn't Be Allowed in Public

This one is not directly book-related because I, like most writers, hate reading. This is a story about two English professors who hate each other. The first English professor is a writer with the sort of passion for grammar usually reserved for librarians and characters with an IQ above 110 in every single Hollywood movie ever made. The second English professor is a reader with the sort of disdain for grammar usually reserved for 7th-grade gangstas and characters the audience is meant to relate to in every single Hollywood movie ever made and isn’t that just about the biggest implied insult to the cinema-going population that could ever be?

These two professors work together at one of the (5) universities I attended, and being the sort of petted anthrophobes that make up the vast majority of university faculties take every opportunity to make little jabs at one another. I had the singular pleasure of taking classes from both simultaneously (Classic lit and the mandatory comp class which was to writing what the robots in a GM factory are to painting) and hearing both sides of the story.

On the one hand was the (less insufferable, but no less wrong) latter professor, the one for whom grammar was, on alternating days, a benighted relic of the dark ages or an active enemy attempting to tear down the edifice of modern expression. In either case, he took every opportunity to point out that anyone who had a firm dedication to grammar was no more capable of writing a work of literature than a robot was of writing a symphony (no, stop, do not link me to the robot who wrote a symphony; applying a formula to music is not art, it’s math, and we don’t like math at Not a Review Blog).

This is partly true, in that an unwillingness to deviate from the established rules is at the very least a significant limitation on your ability to be expressive (which is to say, stop emailing me about Enki I’m well aware it’s missing commas and has sentence fragments WORKING AS INTENDED I HATE YOU) and perhaps just as likely indicative of a mindset not conducive to art. After all, ‘rules people’ and ‘art people’ are two sets with an absolute minimum of overlap. Show me a writer who has never been detained by the authorities and I’ll show you a writer who… well, who grew up in the Czech Republic, land of freedom and abject lack of police presence.

Anyway, where he went wrong (why yes, I do feel comfortable correcting a man twice my age with a PhD, 40 years teaching experience, and numerous non-fiction publications, thanks for asking) is that he assumed that using grammar and knowing grammar were the same, and that by simply not knowing it one’s writing would be better.

Now, as you recall, there is a second professor in this story, one who fancied himself a writer but whose writing was, I understand, abysmal. I didn’t read it personally because fuck books but I take the word of the people I strongly hesitate to call my peers. Actually, as I think of it, that might not be a great idea. Still, we’re here now. Now, I know what you’re (probably not) thinking.

“Gabriel, what made it so bad? He was an English professor; surely he knew how to write? I’ve never met an English professor so I’m just acting on blind assumptions!!”

Well, Uneducated Reader Who Lives in My Head, his writing was terrible because it rigidly adhered to the precise rules of grammar and rectitude and thus had no verve, no spirit. It was also terrible because he was a painfully dull man whose capacity for creativity stretched no further than a slightly more inspiring version of the MLA handbook, which was rejected, incidentally, for being ‘too spicy.’ Thus, the idea that people who know too much grammar are shit as writers is not necessarily true, but the idea that knowing grammar will make you good at writing is at least as untrue. Knowing how the language is supposed to work and choosing not to do it properly is art, and allows for nuanced, expressive writing. Not knowing how it works in the first place is how we got the internet (HAHA internet joke straight off the cuff bitches).

Here’s the lesson section, children, so those of you who have been reading the last 700+ words on autopilot may want to begin paying attention now. Actually, you may want to look into how you’re spending your time because not reading things is apparently rather time consuming for you. Anyway, it’s important to differentiate there, because at the very least knowing most of grammar is, if not necessary, at very least quite helpful in writing. After all, much of grammar was added in not “to give halfwits like Dr. Bumblefuck something to ‘teach’ so they don’t go out and inflict themselves on the literary world” but rather to make things more expressive. If you grasp what it was trying to do, and decide you don’t want to do that, you can always “say to hell with it and just write whatever you feel like a real artist,” but if you don’t know why it exists in the first place you’re not so much writing as stringing words together because you like the sound of them (you know who you are with your ‘overcoming miasmatic vagina vapors’).

24 February 2012

Fuck Originality; Or, Why Being a Pretentiously Judgmental Fuckwit Ruins Your Reading Experience

First up is the book I just finished, Shotgun Gravy by Chuck Wendig. I linked to it on G+ on the 23rd with a relatively positive note, which you could take as a sort of recommendation. It didn’t change my life, but then neither do most books. However, this is Not a Review Blog, so if you’ve been paying attention you’re now asking yourself where I’m going with this. If you haven’t, this is the time to start.

What I mentioned, and what may or may not have been taken as a positive, is that it reminds me greatly of the work of Stephen King, who is a rather subliterate sort of man but nonetheless quite brilliant at what he does. Relevant to that, the thing that I wanted to touch on was the overwhelming sense of King–ness that pervades it. It is impossible to miss, that sort of Kingian echo, and whiile one would perhaps not mistake it for King's work outright, it's still hard to deny the parallel. That established, we have to ask ourselves a question.  Can a work of literature borrow so heavily from its contemporaries and still be art?

I would tend to say yes, and while your mileage may vary (though if it does you are wrong) I’m going to tell you why. At the end of the day, what are we really doing here? We’re expressing. We’re taking people to emotional places that they wouldn’t go otherwise, whether remembered or imagined, and that fundament is not undermined by borrowed voices. Yes it would be better and more engaging if it had a more unique voice, and yes we could ask ourselves what impact it has on the blah blah blah, but that’s not the point. The point is that the book has something of its own to say, and the way in which it says it is not enough to overrule that. It can, perhaps, be distracting, at least for those of us who obsess over such things,but that's a problem which largely lays at the feet of the reader.

Meeting a work halfway, accepting it for what it is rather than what it could be, is the responsibility of all readers, and if we refuse to do that our experience will never be complete.

Introduction; Or, Actually Let's Stick With Introduction

When I first considered starting this blog I envisioned it as a review blog with an emphasis on constructive lessons to be gained from each work, and perhaps periodic updates on my own work. I realized, though, that my relentlessly critical approach to reviews was rather unpleasant to read and not all that constructive. That in mind, this is Not a Review Blog, and it will Not tell you whether to buy a book.

Instead, it will focus on the intellectual and artistic edification which I see in books, whether through their flaws or their strengths or just the subject matter they cover. It will be, in a very real sense, the philosophy of literature.