Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"T" is for "Tyranny"

To me, there is no more repulsive experience than touching newspaper.  I know this is a little odd.  I know millions upon millions of people, across the centuries, have enjoyed nothing better than the feel of a crisp Sunday paper in their hands.  Lord knows I've read about it often enough.

The tactile feel of that strangely thin, almost gray paper is repellent to me.  The smell, the touch, the sloughing off of newsprint is grotesque and malodorous.  It doesn't come up very often anymore, as we've switched away from printed media, but I still have to fetch and immediately dispose of the pennysaver from our mailbox each week, which I do clenching it between two envelopes and holding it away from my body.

I have a distinct recollection of a near panic attack when very young and reading about Sherlock Holmes, hanging out in a train car, surrounding himself with dozens and dozens of newspapers.  That was Doyle's way of showing us that Holmes was well-read, and kept abreast of all of the kind of Victorian minutia that he would seem to pull out of his ass at the end of every story.  For me it sounded quite a bit like a personal hell.

I also remember a near physical revulsion watching an episode of "The X-Files" when carny geek The Conundrum began to make a papier-maché cocoon out of newspapers by licking them.  The very idea that I might someday find myself in London and order fish and chips and have to that repulsive material is enough to give me a shudder.

But here's the thing: I don't pretend this is universal.  I'm well aware this is a personal, albeit odd peccadillo.  I don't feel bad about it, because I know people who are equally disgusted by mushrooms, which I relish, or the word "moist" which I feel quite frankly completely neutral about, or, as was made famous by an episode of "The Three Stooges," some people will go into a fighting rage after hearing the song "Pop Goes the Weasel."

We all have and understand that other people have these, well, "preferences" isn't the right word, and I already used "peccadillos," so let's just say, proclivities, when it comes to food, music, and a whole variety of other little ordinary, everyday things.  What I don't understand, or, frankly, just find exasperating, is that no one seems to project this understanding onto language.

If I had one wish for the literary community, it's that more writers and editors were linguists.  We often call ourselves "linguists" in the sense that we use language, but I wish the study of language, actual linguistics, were more widespread in the community.  I say this because I often find myself embroiled in debates that are completely devoid of the context that this greater understanding would provide.

As a metaphor, imagine you were trying to advocate for, say, parliamentary government.  And you engage in a conversation with someone who literally can't understand anything outside of the Democrat/Republican dichotomy of American politics.  You'd be trying to explain to someone who wants to debate about Social Security that there are, in fact, other methods of governance beyond our own.  This is how I often feel when we get locked into debates about comma placement and spelling and that sort of thing.

French is an interesting counterpoint to English. France has a department of their government called the Académie française which dictates what is immutably correct in the French language.  English has no such academy, which while it allows some flexibility even in our formal writing, means that we will forever be plagued by silly appeals to a non-existent authority.

I've often debated on this very blog things like the double spaced sentence and the Oxford comma, things which I feel strongly about.  For that matter, I've pointed out how exhausting I find people who want to tell me to pronounce "sherbet" as "sher-bay" instead of "sherbert" or who argue that "ain't" or "irregardless" aren't words.  If we limited ourselves to this kind of prescriptivist nonsense, we'd barely be able to communicate.  Imagine having to justify yourself every time you used "LOL" or "selfie" in a sentence.

And I don't say this to be ridiculous.  I say this to point out an important truth.  Language is organic, and ever-changing.  People are fond of saying that "gay" technically means happy...but no one uses it that way anymore.  Not in close to a century.  What point are you attempting to prove by making that argument?  That you can't change with the times?  That you're incapable of communicating with your fellow English-speakers?

The purpose of language is ease of communications.  I have no issue with, say, a publishing house insisting that I use their house style.  Where I take issue is when they insist that their house style is in some metaphysical way "correct."  There is no "correct" English.  We have rules that we generally adhere to in various situations, but overall the point is to communicate our ideas to other people.  I wouldn't use 7334speak in a wedding invitation, and I wouldn't use the Chicago Manual of Style to compose a text.

I often think that ee cummings eschewed punctuation and Cormac McCarthy eschewed dialogue rules to prove a point about the futility of descriptivist tyranny over language.  No one McCarthy or cummings dense or unreadable because they ignored the rules.  Which is not to say that we should blanketly ignore rules, because, of course, a general set of rules allows for (say it with me now) ease of communication.  I'm writing now in my blog style, which is different from my novel style, which is different from my work style, which is different from my speaking style, which is different from my texting style...and being aware of that, due to just my limited grounding in linguistics, means that I'm not walking around all the time talking about what's "right."

There is no universal "right" because there is no academy in English.  There's just a variety of (often contradictory) style guides and an even greater variety of publishing house styles and a near infinite variety of personal styles.  The only time you can truly be "wrong" in English is when you fail to communicate your point.  Know what'm sayin'?

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