Saturday, September 13, 2008


I take the title of this "As I Please" from the great early technical critic of science fiction J. D. Blight (this is my amalgam of James Blish and Damon Knight), who defined it ". . . as the systematic avoidance of the word 'said,' in a misguided search for variety" (pp. 125-127). This is from Blish's The Issue at Hand (as by "William Atheling, Jr."); Blish's other other critical books are More Issues at Hand and The Tale That Wags the God. Damon Knight's great early critical work is In Search of Wonder (3rd ed.). Both men were superb writers and unrelenting, trailblazing technical critics of science fiction. More than one hapless hack quit the field after being dismembered by them. If I refer to them henceforth, it shall be collectively (and lovingly) as "J. D. Blight". By the way, if I mention obscure or out-of-print books, go to your public library and look for them! or other online booksellers often have amazingly cheap and good used books--try them. To return to said-bookisms . . . they are also known as speech-tags. There are only a limited number of legitimate verbs that can be substituted for said: whispered, shouted, yelled, etc. The rest, including such favorites as snapped and grated, make the speaker sound as though he's communicating from the zoo at feeeding time. Even worse are the adverbs appended to these clinkers: "A shining example," he smiled sunnily. Another oft-abused example: "Where are you going?" he asked. If there is a question mark, this verb is not needed. Said is fine. Speech tags are really only needed to differentiate speakers, so the reader knows who is saying what. Let your context indicate inflection, intonation, and emotional states. Otherwise, you are repeating yourself.

The above diatribe concerns an aspect of style. Content and style are, or should be, inseparable. Writers, unfortunately, reflect the molar splitting or schizophrenic duality of this fallen world. Thought and feeling are sundered; form and content are wrenched awry. We get popular novels that are travelogues or heavily-researched compilations. At the other end of the spectrum, though rarer, we suffer through stylistic confections so idiosyncratic as to be unintelligible to the average reader (often produced by university writers). The infrequent book in which style and content blend seamlessly is a jewel, flashing from its facets and refracting from its hidden heart. My favorite example is an early novel by the English novelist Susan Hill, The Bird of Night. I find the novel flawless and highly moving; I could not imagine changing a word. It shows us a great, though schizophrenic, poet, Francis Croft, through the eyes of his companion, the Egyptologist Harvey Lawson. Harvey's language is precise and descriptive, if a touch pedantic, as we watch Francis phase in and out of creativity and madness. Perhaps this novel affected me profoundly because I am a poet. Another work about a poet which melds style and substance perfectly, though in a comic vein, is Anthony Burgess' Enderby. This is made up of four short novels detailing the lunatic--and very funny--travails of a shy, middle-aged, flatulent English poet. Burgess was one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century. He should have had a Nobel Prize and much more popularity (more on Mr. Wilson anon). What I'm trying to tell you, people, in my rambling way, is this: You cannot separate how you say something from what you say. It's like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: the very act of measuring a thing changes its value, its measurement. Therefore, speak like a dramatist, observe like a poet, and narrate like a novelist; be economical; and strive for unity. God will honor it, and so will men. Cheeers--Dan

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