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’).