SAID-BOOKISMS.

I don’t know if there ever was such a thing as a “said book” listing innumerable substitutes for the simple and useful verb “said,” but that concept is the basis of the term “said-bookism,” known to most professional writers as something to avoid as a sure sign of amateurism. You can get examples and explanations many places, e.g. here and (in inimitable TV Tropes style) here; google the term for more. I’m posting about them because I’ve finally gotten irritated beyond endurance by an (otherwise excellent) book I’m reading, Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation by Donald J. Raleigh. Raleigh has interviewed a bunch of Russians who graduated from high school in 1967 (a year before me)—specifically, from the well-known Moscow School #20 (now 1239) and Saratov School #42, both elite institutions focused on teaching English and full of nomenklatura kids—and the information presented is riveting, to me at least; I’m getting a real sense of what it was like to grow up and go to school for my coevals in a country I’ve always been fascinated with.
But the writing! Raleigh has the expected academic sins of plodding prose enlivened by occasional attempts at slang or wit, but what really gets my goat are the said-bookisms; I’ve never seen so many collected in one place before, and they’re almost all wretchedly misused. I wouldn’t mind an occasional “exclaimed” or “complained,” but these are so awful you wonder whether he understands the meaning of the verbs. Let’s take “quipped”: “As Sofiya Vinogradova quipped, ‘Children with grandparents had a better childhood than those without.’” “Repeating a popular saying, Father Valentin quipped, ‘There are no atheists in the trenches.’” “The majority of members of the B class (BESHnik/beshniki), however, called attention to the distinction between the two groups [children of the Party elite and others]. As Irina Tsurkan quipped, ‘It’s probably the children of the Party officials who claim there was no difference.’” “‘It was never interesting there,’ quipped Tatyana Artyomova, ‘because the other kids were strangers.’” The mind boggles. Of course, there are normal, merely awkward and pointless said-bookisms like “‘If I see in a store evaporated milk made in Verkhovie, I buy it,’ stated Starik.” But the verb that infuriated me enough to post comes at the end of this paragraph:

But the elite schools did not prepare the interviewees for the oppressive politicization of college-level instruction that Anna Lyovina called “awful.” Going against the current [most students wanted to switch from night to day classes], she switched from the daytime to the evening division of Moscow’s IFL. “I did so after my freshman year. I thought I’d go out of my mind, because of the History of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], History of the CPSU, and History of the CPSU. It was torture. I couldn’t stand it. Then there was Military Science. There was far less of it in the evening division,” she said. Yet even there, “they constantly tried to indoctrinate us, ‘You are translators on the ideological front. You will interact with foreigners and you have to be careful, you have to be grounded.’” An old Bolshevik who taught Party history regaled her charges about how she carried out collectivization. As a child, however, Lyovina had been exposed to a counternarrative: “My dear nanny would tell me that all of her relatives from Tambov province, hard-working peasants who fed Russia, were exiled to Siberia. I couldn’t happily reply, Hoorah! Collectivization!” rationalized Anna.

“Rationalized Anna”?! All I can say is: what

Comments

  1. Garrigus Carraig says:

    I’m going to go ahead and call out the publisher: OUP USA. – Hat, you are exactly the person to ask. If I speculate that things have gotten worse, that this kind of editing catastrophe is more likely now that 30 years ago, am I suffering from Golden Age syndrome? I am not a copy editor nor a particularly voracious reader, yet it seems like the publishing industry is collapsing and copy editing budgets are being slashed or something. Forgive my cri de coeur.

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    There may or may not be an actual book about how to substitute for “said” but there is in fact a sheet of gibbering nonsense that English teachers are supposed to circulate and most of them do. There’s a lot of words on there which are not even grammatically correct — transitive verbs which don’t make sense dropped in the position of “said,” as well as a lot of words that don’t actually mean “said.” When I was teaching English I was generously given that sheet by every other teacher in the department, all of whom were so happy to have it because it made their lives so much less dreary not to have to read “said” over and over again.
    I didn’t use it, myself. I never even alluded to the non-problem of that word.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    Unless we think it’s the publisher’s fault in the sense that the manuscript they received just said “said” over and over and they actively demanded that poorly-chosen alternatives be swapped in, I’m not convinced it’s the role of an academic publisher to improve an author’s prose style in this sort of area. (Prof. Raleigh’s previous books have apparently been published by a variety of other academic presses, which I suppose could provide a way to test the publisher’s-fault thesis.) But if it’s just the author’s own ill-starred sense of “elegant variation” or whatever, maybe you should send your complaints instead to his dean or department chair (he’s currently in the Dep’t of History at UNC-Chapel Hill) or any surviving members of his dissertation committee (Indiana-Bloomington 1978). Or whatever Miss Thistlebottom he may have had for 8th grade English, although even fairly complete academic CV’s tend not to give up that sort of information.

  4. His use of ‘regaled’ is rebarbative.

  5. I don’t like being barbated even once myself (hence the bheard).

  6. Jeffry House says:

    Wasn’t this the reaon they invented Tom Swifties? http://www.fun-with-words.com/tom_swifties_a-e.html

  7. I’m sure I’ve seen advertisements for these things back when I was a lot younger. I personally think that the jeremaid against using any verb except said, asked and, very occasionally, exclaimed, has gone way too far, but seeing the example you quote at least shows me the motivation.
    Tom Swifties are a different phenomenon: they’re verb + adverb where the adverb makes a play on the rest of the sentence and probably has nothing to do with the actual manner of the utterance: “‘Let’s go,’ Tom said swiftly.”
    There’s a separate proscription against using adverbs of manner with generic motion verbs even when there isn’t a more specific verb that gives the same shade of meaning.

  8. Yes, dearieme, I stopped reading at regaled, jumping to the conclusion that I’d reached the point of the post. To be honest, I can’t even figure out what ‘rationalized’ means in this context.
    I confess that I used to use ‘opine’ as an adolescent. I think I got it from Capt. W.E. Johns.

  9. Oh “opined” is a fine word. He opined.

  10. I can’t remember Biggles & Ginger opining.
    Bathrobe, that book you mentioned to me a while back, Architecture in Uniform by Jean-Louis Cohen, turned out to be really interesting and well written. I read little bits of it at breakfast or in bed. I think he wrote it in English too, clever sod. It certainly doesn’t sound like a translation

  11. I’m not convinced it’s the role of an academic publisher to improve an author’s prose style in this sort of area.
    I dunno — allowing all those “quips” is borderline (maybe they’re hilarious in the original Russian?) but I would like to co-opine with Bathrobe that “rationalized” feels more like an error — the sort of thing that makes you wonder if you missed some crucial context earlier that would make what she said an actual rationalization for something.
    Not a serious error, mind you, but something a good academic publisher with an appropriate budget etc. should at least bring to the author’s attention. (Especially in a book of oral history.)

  12. maybe they’re hilarious in the original Russian?
    No, the guy simply doesn’t know what “quip” means. And there are other words like that in the text.
    But no, it’s not the publisher’s job. And it’s not my job, as copyeditor; if I had worked on this book, I would have queried the clearly incorrect usages (like “quipped”) but wouldn’t have said anything about the general issue of said-bookism (or the even more general issue of turgid academic prose). The author is responsible for being a good writer, and if they’re not, you can’t make them be one.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    I have read (and hopefully not written) my share of turgid academic prose, but it seems astonishing to me that an academic writing in his own language would make so many mistakes about the meaning of relatively common words. Nobody knows the entire vocabulary of a language, so one or two slight misunderstandings of rare words would not cause much of a problem, but the many possible synonyms for ‘said’ here seem to be picked at random. The author in question is a historian, apparently a good one: perhaps he only reads works of history, where “quip” or “rationalize” are not likely to occur with great frequency? perhaps he had Roget’s Thesaurus at hand and just picked words here and there, without double-checking them in a real dictionary.

  14. No, the guy simply doesn’t know what “quip” means.
    That aside actually was a quip. (He pleaded.)

  15. and (in inimitable TV Tropes style) here
    At the same site there’s a German version of the dialog with a cute pun. Said-bookism is called Ent-SAG-ung [renunciation], to be understood here both as “removing ‘said’” and “abjuring the use of ‘said’”.

  16. So far as I remember, Compton-Burnett’s characters alway “said” what they said. She never used any verb other than “say”.

  17. … when reporting dialog.

  18. Tom Swifties don’t have to have an adverb. One of my 6th grade classmates came up with
    “Oh, my girdle!” she snapped.
    We all thought that was very funny back in 6th grade.
    Or perhaps
    “Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
    Quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus
    Insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
    Impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?” he mused.

  19. “Come in” he said, entranced.

  20. “Easy serve”, he returned.

  21. “I use only e-mails now” he expostulated.

  22. One for Crown: English isn’t German it’s Norwegian.
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/12/language-history

  23. Just ran across another said-substitute that grates on me, “shared”:
    “My mother had an acquaintance who married someone in the military,” shared Poldyaeva.

  24. Here’s a new one:
    “People had money,” inserted Aleksandr Babushkin, “but there was nothing to buy.”

  25. I wonder if he used a thesaurus, and if so, how.
    I’ve been reading about Wittgenstein’s attempt to define art (and jolly clever it is) but I had to give up because I so hate the word “Wittgensteinian”. It’s overkill, by approximately three syllables. In worst case “Wittgenstein-spawned” would do ok.

  26. How about getting it down to three syllables by using Wittian? You know, like Crownian.

  27. Garrigus Carraig says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Hat. Perhaps there was no way they could guess that a fellow who had already cranked out a few books would make that kind of error.

  28. Frankly, I don’t think many people involved with the production of books even notice such things any more.

  29. From a paragraph about Saratovite Gennady Ivanov, who (unlike almost everyone else interviewed) justified the invasion of Afghanistan:
    “I was there as an advisor on criminal investigations. We had to deal with all sorts of contraband, he related.[...] “But in Afghanistan,” he lectured, “they overthrew the [legitimate] ruler.”[...] “We needed to go in so that we’d have a base there. After all, from the mountains all of Central Asia is visible with radar. It’s our weak underbelly,” he opined.
    Trifecta!

  30. I like Crownian. Crownian motion. It’s like Brownian motion, only faster.

  31. “That head wears a crown” he said, lying uneasily.

  32. Tom Swifties don’t have to have an adverb. One of my 6th grade classmates came up with
    “Oh, my girdle!” she snapped.
    We all thought that was very funny back in 6th grade.
    Or perhaps
    “Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
    Quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus
    Insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
    Impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?”
    he mused.

  33. “Don’t send that telegram again!” he said, remorselessly.

  34. Best one yet:
    “We sat from morning until night in front of the television set and watched all of the congresses and wanted Sakharov to speak,” Irina exalted.

  35. “I’ve stopped brushing my teeth”, he said, crestfallen.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    Would that last one be less hideous if Irina had “exulted” rather than “exalted”? Maybe THAT one we can blame on the copy-editor . . .

  37. You overestimate this guy’s ability to wield the English language with even minimal competence. From p. 326:
    In July [Yeltsin] demonstrably resigned from the Communist Party.
    From p. 327:
    Seen as an emerging epithet for the Yeltsin era, already in 1997, 40 percent of those polled preferred living in Brezhnev’s Russia.
    (My emphasis.)

  38. I thought “what” had to be, in your words, “on a line of its own”.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    epithet : perhaps confused with epitaph? But that sort of confusion does not explain all the other problems.

  40. Trond Engen says:

    “This is bland”, she said, exalted.

  41. Trond Engen says:

    “Salt”, she added, shaking.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    “I’m losing my spirits”, he expressed, still dripping.

  43. “I always enjoy Adorno on Beethoven,” postured Said bookishly.

  44. epithet : perhaps confused with epitaph?
    Very likely, but even if you substitute “epitaph” the sentence is ungrammatical (there is no noun representing what is “seen”).

  45. marie-lucie says:

    The sentence is poorly written, but I think that what is “seen” is the fact that there was a high percentage of dissatisfied people, as given later in the sentence. At the time, this fact could have been considered an “omen” rather than an anticipated “epitaph” for the regime (certainly not an “epithet”).

  46. From the author’s website:
    During the summer of 2011, Professor Raleigh launched research on a biography of Soviet leader Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, who lorded over the Soviet state between 1964 and 1982.

  47. It’s as if Raleigh had read the same Russian writing/journalism textbooks as Vedomosti reporters or their Soviet predecessors. “Деньги-то водились у людей, – вставил (or: вмешивается) Бабушкин, – купить было нечего, вот беда”. “У мамы знакомая вышла замуж за военного”, – делится Полдяева. (Or признается; откровенничает; доверительно сообщает; понижает голос; говорит, закуривая…) It’s almost Dovlatovian (as in Compromise) in its intimate репортажность. The inimitable late Soviet style, now in an English translation.
    These days, Vedomosti and Kommersant also use “know”: “The cabinet won’t change its mind,” knows a high-ranking source. Знает sounds very odd, but one gets used to everything over time.

  48. The sentence is poorly written, but I think that what is “seen” is the fact that there was a high percentage of dissatisfied people, as given later in the sentence.
    That’s not how grammar works. You can’t just pick some chunk of a sentence and decide it’s a “fact”; facts aren’t part of grammar. There has to be a noun or noun phrase to be the object of “see,” and there is nothing even vaguely resembling that. Furthermore, even if there were such a noun, using “seen” that way sounds like the worst sort of journalese: “Seen at the Piggly-Wiggly at 3:05 that afternoon, Miss Daisy was…” To make the sentence any kind of acceptable English, you’d have to completely revamp it: “The fact that 40 percent of those polled preferred living in Brezhnev’s Russia can be seen as…”
    Alexei K.: I think you’ve got it; this poor fellow has absorbed late Soviet officialese into his very flesh, and it sweats out into his prose whenever he tries to write. Now I feel sorry for him.

  49. narrowmargin says:

    I’ve never heard of the phrase “said-bookism”. I’d always known them as “attributive phrases”.
    That said, perhaps the two novels (in English) that completely avoid them are Finnegans Wake and JR. (The latter is about 99% dialogue with almost no attributive phrases, and a GREAT comic novel, to boot.)

  50. marie-lucie says:

    LH, I agree with you. I was talking about the semantics of this sentence, not the grammaticality.

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Seen as an emerging epithet for the Yeltsin era, already in 1997, 40 percent of those polled preferred living in Brezhnev’s Russia.

    Hat: [... T]he sentence is ungrammatical (there is no noun representing what is “seen”).
    m-l: I think that what is “seen” is the fact that there was a high percentage of dissatisfied people, as given later in the sentence.
    Hat: That’s not how grammar works. You can’t just pick some chunk of a sentence and decide it’s a “fact”; facts aren’t part of grammar. There has to be a noun or noun phrase to be the object of “see,” and there is nothing even vaguely resembling that.
    m-l: LH, I agree with you.
    Not so fast! I think I can see how it works for the author and what you were aiming at. “Seen as an emerging epithet for the Yeltsin era” is an adverbial clause used as a sentence adverb, and it could be replaced with a simple adverb like ominously, or sadly. What is thus “seen” is the whole situation of the main clause. It may well be innovative, but if so, it looks to me as a fairly straightforward development of existing syntax. (This “sentence-adverbial clause” doesn’t fit too well with what comes after, but that’s another matter, reflecting bad writing.)

  52. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules For Writers, Rule No. 3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    I think the kind of pathological synonymizing you describe comes out of a fear of being thought of as “simple,” which is the kiss of death in the fashion show that is modern academic writing.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Actually I think that the worst period for “said” replacement was the Victorian era, in keeping with the superabundance and ornateness of everything (words, food, furniture, house construction, men’s facial hair, women’s clothing, etc), which passed for hallmarks of civilization at the time.

  54. Actually I think that the worst period for “said” replacement was the Victorian era
    A strange, bald assertion. Evidence? A single author or citation?
    “It also suggests you’ve never had occasion to read any contemporary romance novels,” he moaned, intoned, ejaculated, countered, rejoined, averred, parried, doubted, and expostulated.

  55. The worst case of said-avoidance I’ve encountered was in Hebrew, the one time I tried my hand at translating a novel (from Hebrew into English). The author’s disdain for the Hebrew equivalent of said was such that he regularly substituted for it, not a fancier verb, but a whole verb phrase, usually one that restated in the narrator’s own words the content of the preceding bit of dialogue. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she put an end to the conversation. (This is borderline grammatical in English, of course; it’s slightly better in Hebrew, but not much.) I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the large majority of dialogue lines were followed by these bits of authorial self-exegesis. What to do with them in translation was a dilemma; I ended up dropping only the very worst ones.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    laowai: Victorian said-words
    I don’t have a reference, but I remember reading Dickens and other Victorians as a student and being struck by the abundance of verbs such as the ones you cite about romance novels. I am not terribly familiar with the latter, but from the few I have seen they are rather conservative in style, closer to the 19th than the 20th century ideal.

  57. The Turkey City Lexicon, a primer for sf writing workshops on the Science Fiction Writers of America site, says (or claims, postulates, tells us, asserts, thunders, opines, fact-states etc) that “said-book” comes from pamphlets “sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.”
    The Lexicon comprises snippets on various issues: “Burly Detective” Syndrome, Brand Name Fever, Roget’s Disease, Hand Waving, White Room Syndrome, Plot Coupons, Idiot Plots, Funny-hat characterization, “As You Know Bob”, and more.

  58. David Marjanović says:

    Actually I think that the worst period for “said” replacement was the Victorian era

    The worst and funniest example, however, is much younger. I’m talking about The Eye of Argon. Find the Wikipedia article at your own risk.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks David, but unfortunately the article only gives a couple of sentences, not quite enough to judge of the style, especially since there is no “said” replacement.

  60. Here‘s the whole thing, if you dare.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    Wow!

  62. I think you mean: “By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!”

  63. David Marjanović says:

    The Wikipedia article has a list of “External links” to several versions of the text.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    I think that once is enough for me.

  65. Not bad for a 16-year-old. He might have been good had he kept going, but apparently the ridicule discouraged him.

  66. These days he’d have self-published it, it would have gone viral, and he’d be a millionare today.

  67. Christopher Paolini has made a fortune on fantasy novels of nearly the same quality that he wrote at about the same age–although by the time he got to the last few, he should have been old enough to know better…

  68. Better than what? Obviously Pasolini was weeping about his prose style … all the way to the bank.

  69. Muzozavr says:

    This might be because Russians use said-bookisms ALL THE TIME, to the point that it’s almost a rule for Russian writers. My native tongue is Russian and the way English-speaking people want to avoid said-bookisms is BAFFLING to me. Sure, overusing them is bad and the nonsensical ones like “smiled” are just terrible in such a context, but why do English-speaking writers want to kill said-bookisms on sight? It wasn’t always like this, too… when did they fall out of favor?

  70. why do English-speaking writers want to kill said-bookisms on sight?

    Well, some do and some don’t, the former because of the latter’s work. If more than a very few substitutes for “said” are used, the effect is ludicrous and repellent.

  71. The whole said-bookism concept is just another piece of prescriptivism, like not using and at the beginning of sentences or relentlessly avoiding adjectives and adverbs. Some people (notably school kids) tend to overdo some verbal behavior, so teachers ban it. In this case, though, it’s double-barreled: some people tend to repeat the same words too much, so repetition is forbidden (prescription #1) and lots of synonyms are required; then people use too many synonyms for said, so synonyms are banned (prescription #2). Both prescriptions are obviously too rigid; if anything, I lean toward more rather than less in my personal taste.

    When writing fiction I myself tend to avoid “said Mrs. Grundy” altogether, on the theory that a writer who can’t indicate by word choice, syntax, and tone who is talking at any given moment and how they are talking needs to understand their characters better.

  72. I’m not clear on what you mean. Surely you’re not defending “he opined… he vociferated… he ejaculated… he inserted…” over the plain, unremarkable use of “said”? Because that’s what we’re talking about, not some “piece of prescriptivism, like not using and at the beginning of sentences or relentlessly avoiding adjectives and adverbs.” If you want to get your animosity toward such prescriptivism off your chest, don’t let me stop you, but said-bookism is a very specific disease that has nothing to do with what you’re talking about.

  73. marie-lucie says:

    Such a fun thread!

    … said …

    Some years ago I used to listen to CBC Radio in the evenings. There was a program every weekday from 10 to 10:15 during which a book was read aloud, usually over two or three weeks. I got to know or rediscover several authors that way. The readers were obviously professional, usually quite good. But I remember one who was quite annoying, reading Chaim Potok’s My name is Asher Lev. He read quite slowly, leaving more time than usual between phrases and sentences. What was most annoying was hearing dialogues along the lines of (I am not actually quoting): What … is your name? …… he said…. — My name … is Asher Lev …… I said (etc with the rest of the exchange), with all those “saids” emphasized by the slowness of the delivery. I must have skipped some of the chapters, as I don’t remember anything else about the book, and I have never felt like reading it on my own.

    I don’t mean that the style would have been improved by variations over said, if read in this manner!

  74. Sure I’m defending it. It wouldn’t be appropriate mixed with Old Low Hemingway, no, but absolute avoidance regardless of the surrounding style, as if it (or any other device) were inherently bad, is prescriptivism. Florid verbs like these (okay, ejaculated is out nowadays, but that’s due to semantic change) are part of the rococo style, and You Of All People are well in evidence as enjoying that style.

    I took a look at Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, a stylist though certainly not a rococo one. In addition to plain said and said with an adverb or adverbial phrase like earnestly, smartly, slowly, quickly, in a liquid tone, etc., I find replied, continued, repeated, demanded, resumed, chimed in, murmured, pleaded, added, recommenced, returned, cried — all in Book I only. Granted, plain said greatly outnumbers all the others put together, and that’s as it should be: “Such epithets, like pepper / Give zest to what you write / And if you strew them sparely / They whet the appetite: / But if you lay them on too thick / They spoil the matter quite!” (Lewis Carroll, “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur”)

    But after all, since when are generic verbs considered superior to specific ones in clear and forceful writing, hey? As usual when prescriptivism is concerned, consistency is entirely out the window.

  75. “What is your name?” he inquired.

    “My name is Asher Lev,” I returned.

    “Yer name is Jams O’Donnell!” he roared.

  76. replied, continued, repeated, demanded, resumed, chimed in, murmured, pleaded, added, recommenced, returned, cried

    Those are not said-bookisms, especially when “plain said greatly outnumbers all the others put together.” The whole point of said-bookisms is that they add nothing semantically useful, they are simply there to avoid the word “said.” You seem to be distorting what’s being discussed in order to shoehorn in a point you want to make about prescriptivism. Which is fine, this is Liberty Hall, but I wish you’d just make your point without the distorting lenses.

  77. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I don’t think the reader I was talking about would have been able to indicate the difference between those said-replacements! It was a little early in the evening to try to induce sleep in the listeners.

  78. Pffft. Now we’re playing No True Scotsman. Googling [said-bookisms], I find the following lists of said-bookisms on different web pages: (a) exclaimed, emoted, shouted, whispered, sighed, rumbled, hissed, pontificated, replied, enquired; (b) hissed, croaked, inquired, averred, rasped, lamented (though this author defends whispered, muttered, called); (c) whispered, hollered, bawled, cried, shrieked, snarled, barked, growled, sniffed; (d) exclaimed, rejoiced, intoned, smiled, chortled, wheezed, gasped, snickered, barked, retorted; (e) snorted, snickered, sobbed, muttered, murmured, vowed, cried, shouted, screeched, declared, promised, whispered, wailed. These are not on the same plane with your writer’s quipped, rationalized, which are simply un-English. And for every page that gives such a list, there is another page that eschews one: Elmore Leonard, for example, simply bans everything except unqualified said unconditionally. Sure makes it simple.

    One page is quite direct about it: every time the reader might pause to reflect on the verbal texture, the editor or agent will pause too, and may well discard the manuscript. Such writers and editors and agents are actually dealing not in prose fiction but in the first drafts of movies (great FX, low budget), in which preserving the waking dream is everything. But books, actual books, are made from words.

    There’s a Fritinancy page referencing this one that quotes something called “the Letter Go blog”:

    Remember that the writer’s job isn’t to wow the reader with beautiful prose and punchy word choice. The writer’s job is to tell a story so real that the reader lives it.

    But some writers do think that’s part of their job, and I think those writers get it right.

  79. Hmm, I tried scouring the Runet for the prescription to replace “said” and couldn’t find anything commonly cited. A stylistic advice to avoid unnecessary repeats & to to consider using synonyms is there, but it’s in now way related to “said”. Maybe my search terms were wrong? I have never heard of it in the old USSR. Mind you, in my generation we all had to write prescriptively-styled literary essays – it was a part of grade school curriculum and a must-ace written examination at college entrance. And the scoring was relentlessly nitpicking on style. I lost a whole friggin’ point on my fiercely competitive entrance exams series at the Moscow State because I used one “low-style” word “пронесла” “carried through” (as in carried some high ideals through the years of misfortunes). The reviewer explained пронести ~~ “carry through” is reserved for smuggling / carrying stuff undetected where you aren’t allowed to (пронести можно только через проходную, the red ink said LOL). My point it that said-bookism wasn’t actively taught or enforced in the old country.

    The phrase LH quoted do look as imperfect translations from Russian (“rationalized” rather than “explained”, “inserted” rather than “interjected”) but the would-be Russian original wouldn’t have said’s either – just more appropriate synonyms of it. And no, it wouldn’t have sounded officious in Russian – just “educated”. The uneducated speech would have still avoid great many said’s through a different list of synonyms: говорил / грит, рассказал, or just omitted verb. Like in this example from Vysostsky where “said” is used 3 times, but omitted verb – also 3, yelled – twice, and then told, reported, objected, whatnot:

    Мишка также сообщил
    По дороге в Мневники:
    “Голду Меир я словил
    В радиоприемнике…”
    И такое рассказал,
    До того красиво!-
    Что я чуть было не попал
    В лапы Тель-Авива.

    Я сперва-то был не пьян,
    Возразил два раза я -
    Говорю: “Моше Даян -
    Сука одноглазая,-
    Агрессивный, бестия,
    Чистый фараон,-
    Ну, а где агрессия -
    Там мне не резон”.

    Мишка тут же впал в экстаз -
    После литры выпитой -
    Говорит: “Они же нас
    Выгнали с Египета!
    Оскорбления простить
    Не могу такого,-
    Я позор желаю смыть
    С Рождества Христова!”

    Мишка взял меня за грудь:
    “Мне нужна компания!
    Мы ж с тобой не как-нибудь -
    Здравствуй-до свидания,-
    Побредем, паломники,
    Чувства придавив!..
    Хрена ли нам Мневники -
    Едем в Тель-Авив!”

    Я сказал: “Я вот он весь,
    Ты же меня спас в порту.
    Но одна загвоздка есть:
    Русский я по паспорту.
    Только русские в родне,
    Прадед мой – самарин,-
    Если кто и влез ко мне,
    Так и тот – татарин”.

    Мишку Шифмана не трожь,
    С Мишкой – прочь сомнения:
    У него евреи сплошь
    В каждом поколении.
    Дед параличом разбит,-
    Бывший врач-вредитель…
    А у меня – антисемит
    На антисемите.

    Мишка – врач, он вдруг затих:
    В Израиле бездна их,-
    Гинекологов одних -
    Как собак нерезаных;
    Нет зубным врачам пути -
    Слишком много просится.
    Где на всех зубов найти?
    Значит – безработица!

    Мишка мой кричит: “К чертям!
    Виза – или ванная!
    Едем, Коля,- море там
    Израилеванное!..”
    Видя Мишкину тоску,-
    А он в тоске опасный,-
    Я еще хлебнул кваску
    И сказал: “Согласный!”

    …Хвост огромный в кабинет
    Из людей, пожалуй, ста.
    Мишке там сказали “нет”,
    Ну а мне – “пожалуйста”.
    Он кричал: “Ошибка тут,-
    Это я – еврей!..”
    А ему: “Не шибко тут!
    Выйди, вон, из дверей!”

  80. There ya go.

  81. “Rationalized Anna”?! All I can say is: what

    For “rationalize”, Multitran offers back-translation into the putative Russian source as “оправдываться, приводя правдоподобные обоснования своего поступка” ~~ find excuses / apologetically explain one’s choices or actions. Not exactly an officialese word in Russian, even though “rationalize” looks weird in English. A sampler of recent usage:
    “Дом, — оправдывалась, — под снос идет. Тут гостиница будет” (from a Russian Booker Prize judge who seems to really like the word – but it’s all over Google Books, from classic to contemporary fiction)

  82. That’s very interesting, and the only plausible scenario (other than illiteracy) I can think of. But Raleigh must really have been immersed in Soviet officialese.

  83. jamessal says:

    Obviously some people, like Elmore Leonard, make silly decrees about alternatives to said (as well as some punctuation marks, like exclamation points) — decrees that could even, in their all-purpose certainty, be called prescriptivism: the belief, in short, that one way of using language (in this case in writing) is always best. But nothing Hat or anyone else, from what I’ve gleaned, has said even remotely approaches that threshold. The fact is a lot of amateur writers feel self-conscious about repeating said often, even though it’s by far the best verb to describe the vast majority of speech. Pointing out the lengths amateurs or just bad writers will go to avoid repeating said by listing the synonyms these writers use — synonyms that add nothing semantically and, to the vast majority of readers and writers, simply sound ridiculous — isn’t prescriptivism: it’s teaching. That there’s a shorthand for this phenomenon changes nothing. That a few people disagree with this lesson doesn’t either. Nothing is agreed upon universally, but conflating a common writing lesson with reactionary ignorance just because you happen to disagree with the lesson — one universally agreed upon by writers I respect (as far as I know and for what that’s worth) — is either sloppy or disingenuous.

  84. I call ‘em as I see ‘em. Leonard is only the most extreme manifestation of the attitude, that’s all. But when I note one person saying whisper is acceptable (because it represents a manner of speech) where both his neighbors in Google Search put it on their Index Expurgatorius, I know there’s something unreal about the whole rule.

    Now Hat’s claim about my lists a-e is that they are not said-bookisms at all, though they are drawn exclusively from pages denouncing said-bookism. So if they are not examples of the phenomenon, what is? Both Hat and James also speak of these verbs adding nothing semantically, but the manners of speech verbs certainly do add semantic information, and so do the speech act ones like declared, promised, pontificated, etc. So there seems to be something about this I don’t get. Can anyone try again to enlighten me?

  85. Now Hat’s claim about my lists a-e is that they are not said-bookisms at all, though they are drawn exclusively from pages denouncing said-bookism. So if they are not examples of the phenomenon, what is?

    I’m finding it hard to grasp why you’re finding it hard to grasp what’s being said. Do you really not get that it’s not a matter of a particular list of words but of a pattern of use? It’s as if you reacted to the statement that murder is bad by finding examples of people killing other people that weren’t being objected to (in war, say, or by legal execution, or in self-defense) and saying triumphantly “Aha, you see, you do approve of murder!” and then when the other person pointed out that those were not examples of murder, saying “No true Scotsman!” If you enjoy writing where the word “said” is avoided and there’s an endless series of “he smiled/pontificated/retorted/quipped/stated,” that’s fine, to each his own. But it’s still said-bookism whether you like it or not, and most people still don’t like it.

  86. The reason I don’t think said-bookism is merely a pattern of words is that the people who actually use the term define it as “any word other than said or asked that is used to describe how a character speaks a line of dialogue”: not a pattern, but an individual fault. That quotation comes from the top Google hit, written by one D.B. Jackson, a published author. It’s moderate in tone, acknowledges that it is a fairly recent prescription, and provides a defense of the prescription which I’ll get back to at the end.

    Let’s look at the first page of Google hits. Discounting the TVTropes and Wikipedia pages (the latter of which doesn’t even pretend to be NPOV) and this very page, we have seven. Here’s what D.B. Jackson has to say:

    I first heard the term said-bookism back when I was revising what would be my first published novel [it was written under another name, but apparently before 1997], and as I say, I was baffled. Hadn’t I read literally hundreds of books in which authors attributed lines of dialogue in just this way? [I very much doubt that he had read hundreds of published books in which said was actively avoided, by the way.] Had they changed the rules just to mess with my head? As it happens, my entry into the publishing world did pretty much coincide with this change in the market [really? I smell a Recency Illusion], so I could be forgiven for my confusion (if not for my sense of self-importance that I would think the entire industry had changed to make me suffer….)

    And once I had the issue explained to me, I began to see why said-bookisms had fallen into disfavor. If you write, you’ve heard people tell you “Show, don’t tell.” We convey emotion, drama, and all the other goodies that drive our narratives by letting readers experience our characters’ reactions first hand. By writing, “No!” he roared, we are, in effect, telling our readers how he said the word. If instead we write “No!” His voice hammered at her, we give the reader a sense of how our point of view character experiences that roar, without even having to use the word. Let’s try another, longer example.

    I wrote a comment now stuck in Jackson’s moderation queue to the effect that he roared is an objective fact, whereas hammered at her is an overblown metaphor: loud voices have little to do with hammerblows unless you have a splitting headache.

    The next hit is Fritinancy’s, so it comes from the editors’ side. She defines the term as “A verb used in place of ‘said’” and adds “almost always a needless distraction.” That almost saves her from Leonardism, I suppose. I’ve already quoted her quotation from the Letter Go blog above; I don’t have much to add here except my admiration for one of her commenters, who suggests that if said in a dialogue tag is really no more than a piece of punctuation, we should go whole hog and replace it with “§”.

    The third hit is by Urban Psychopomp, evidently also a published author. S/he starts by telling us that nowadays editors let asked slip by without comment, which might have been said by an editor two generations ago about say, damn: it’s not really proper, but we’ll allow it “because it’s necessary here”. Of course, the verb ask outside a dialogue tag has never been considered taboo, but then again ministers are allowed to threaten their congregations with hellfire and damnation (not merely heckfire and darnation) even in the most Victorian prose.

    Urban goes on to raise the classic prescriptivist slippery-slope argument, using those very words:

    And finally, I’d warn my fellows to be aware that [said-]bookisms can be a slippery slope. First, it’s just a ‘whispered’ here and a ‘muttered’ there. But the next thing you know, ‘pontificated’ and ‘excreted’ and, yes, my favorite, ‘ejaculated’ have crept into the mix, all to satisfy our desperate fear that ‘said’ will sound too boring [...]

    Okay, the words are ironic, but the message is not. Don’t write “she muttered” because the next thing you know you’ll be typing “she ejaculated” and giving your poor editor seizures of the blowhole. By the same token, “And …. And …. And ….” is intolerable repetition, so we’ll prohibit and at the beginning of a sentence altogether, or allow it only in the most limited cases. The slippery-slope argument is classic prescriptivism.

    To continue:

    [...] when in fact that only point of a dialogue tag 99% of the time should be to keep tabs on who is speaking, period. Not to outshine the dialogue. Not to demonstrate our stellar vocabulary. Not to dazzle and dressed up and distract.

    This is a mild version of the dialogue-über-alles notion, which leads (by a slippery slope) to the elimination of all narration: novel as filmscript. (Me, I think writers who don’t dazzle are tedious, but it seems many people enjoy tedium in their prose.)

    But Urban’s strongest argument is the commercial one I paraphrased above:

    Anything that jars the reader out of the world of the story, anything that makes the reader stop, is an opportunity for the reader to put the book down. At that point, the reader may or may not come back. If that reader is an agent or editor, we don’t want to give them an excuse to stop, because it’s very likely that stopping points will result in rejection letters.

    Again, don’t let the customer (that is, the editor/agent, the only true customer a writer has) fall out of the fictional [i.e. movie] dream even for a moment. If the whole thing doesn’t hypnotize the reader, they may shut the book — and if so, then forever. Hypnosis is of course best achieved by lulling repetition. (I myself prefer to remain awake while reading; “This book put me to sleep while I was turning the pages” is not a convincing advertisement for its worth.)

    Our next prescriptivist, one Anne M. Marble, is a guest poster, so I don’t know her credentials, though internal evidence suggests she is involved with the romance genre. She says:

    He whispered, “Let me hold you.”

    That’s all right, isn’t it? Most of the time, it’s not OK. [...]

    As those of us who remember the 70s know, those last two words are words of strong condemnation indeed.

    Phrases like “she shrieked” make the heroine sound strident.

    Indeed. There are people who are strident and even shriek. (Though perhaps not heroines of romance novels, only their hated rivals.)

    Phrases like “he snarled” make the hero sound like the domineering “alpha heel” heroes that went out of style in the 1980s.

    They have? Think big, writer: your book might be the next <insert boorish male lead of the moment> movie! And some males who are not alpha heels have been known to snarl from time to time. Even me. Even here.

    I’m going to skip the next author, Jeffrey A. Carver, except to note the use of “deadly peril” and “temptation” in his text: the characteristic comparison of writing faults to mortal sins. Nobody fulminates against specific spelling errors: we make them from time to time, we correct them, we move on, like paying a parking ticket. But using a verb other than said, or using it too often, is described with the very vocabulary of my abovementioned hellfire-and-damnation preacher. (When I wrote the last sentence, I went back and changed “preachers” to “ministers”. Why? To avoid a clanging repetition.) This too is how prescriptivism looks and talks.

    And that leads quite naturally to the final first-page hit, Kevin Andrew Murphy, to whom all kudos for denouncing only said-bookisms that repeat what the dialogue already says, and especially to his commenter Green Knight, who has the courage to denounce repetition in general:

    The problem with ‘said’ is that it’s invisible only in low doses. Any text that uses ‘said’ exclusively and doesn’t vary it with the millions of way in which people can express themselves will seem repetitive and grate on my ears. And once I noticed an overabundance of ‘said’ I can’t stop noticing the word, and it turns into torture.

    I find that a skilled use of said[-book]isms enhances my reading experience. It’s one of the few things that David-and-Leigh Eddings got right in one of his more recent offerings. (The Elder Gods). Just because the act of delivering speech is one that happens frequently during a book does not mean it is absolved from the tenet of finding exactly the right words to describe the act. More things might be said and miles be walked than any other method of delivery, but let’s hear it for skipping, crawling, creeping – and promising, observing, apologizing…

    Not that repetition is always bad either (Roger Zelazny uses it most artistically in his prose), but that’s another rant altogether.

    The last of the seven top hits of said-bookism, James Alan Gardner’s, is the one I am personally most in sympathy with, as he thinks dialogue tags should only be used sparingly anyway, about once every four lines of dialogue, just to keep the reader straight (see my original comment, way, way above). But he still says that said it “doesn’t sound repetitive”; James, Green Knight begs to differ with you, and he’s not alone; I’ve seen other such comments elsewhere.

    In short, our authors and editors are not (for the most part) denouncing misuse. They are denouncing use, with occasional tolerated exceptions. And of course they use fallacies like slippery slope and straw man to do so: no published author from Chaucer’s day to the present has ever systematically avoided the use of said).

    Look, not all prescriptivism is bad. Prescriptivism in spelling is nothing but a virtue: it improves readability if the same word always has the same shape (BrE/AmE differences are a tiny minority of all words). This particular prescriptive rule may be defended, and Jackson defends it thus:

    But I try to avoid using any said-bookisms to convey emotion. That I do with facial expression, gesture, and the spoken words themselves. And again, that is what the market prefers right now. Could this change again? Certainly. But for now, you should try to remove said-bookisms from your writing. Doing so will improve your chances of selling that first story or book manuscript.

    But of course you could say the same of which-hunting, or the overuse of third-person-limited narration or the first person present tense, or any other fashion of today. (Indeed, the denunciation of said-bookisms is just a part of the denunciation of the involved (“omniscient”) narrator that is also fashionable today under the name of “head-hopping”, though that is a rather different fault.) Just because they’re today’s fashions doesn’t make them any less prescriptive than all of that Strunk and White stuff we like to mock around here.

  87. Wow. If the “properly written” dialog must avoid narrator’s words describing emotional and acoustic tone (such as “whispered”, “asked”, or even “growled”), then shouldn’t the authors also do away with exclamation marks, question marks, and ellipses? The ancient classic didn’t even use periods, or spaces between words for that matter, should we remove those too to leave the readers with the bare-bones direct speech? But for now, they keep the basic crutches of punctuation, and add a very complicated top layer of “facial expression, gesture, and the spoken words themselves”, in order to purge specifically the middle-layer of said-words?

    Hypnosis is of course best achieved by lulling repetition.

    :) Oh. Have we mentioned Aristotle in this thread yet? What he wrote about repetitions grabbing the listeners’ attention so they wait for the anticipated repeats, and tune out of what’s between the repeats?

    The repetitiveness of “said”, interestingly, doesn’t play out as strongly in Russian, because of inflections, suffixes, prefixes, reflexives … сказал, сказала, сказанул, высказался, проговорил, проговорилась… so perhaps the Russian literature avoided said-bookism witchhunt because it also avoided the preceding pendulum swing, the quest to eliminate “said”‘s?

  88. But for now, they keep the basic crutches of punctuation, and add a very complicated top layer of “facial expression, gesture, and the spoken words themselves”, in order to purge specifically the middle-layer of said-words?

    Yes, but only the period, the comma, and (in dialogue) the question mark and quotation marks. Colons are suspect and semicolons banned as eeeeevil. And purge is le mot juste.

  89. jamessal says:

    But when I note one person saying whisper is acceptable (because it represents a manner of speech) where both his neighbors in Google Search put it on their Index Expurgatorius, I know there’s something unreal about the whole rule . . . Can anyone enlighten me?

    I can try. Once a useful lesson is turned into a rule, and it involves language, prescriptivists are bound to cause trouble.. But there’s still a good lesson here — one I learned years ago from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction — and that’s not to worry too much about repetition when it comes to said. Of course people do quip, exclaim, retort, decree, and complain from time to time, and of course, even when characters haven’t done such things literally in their speech, such verbs can hint at psychological dynamics or emotional under-currents and the like — in short, plenty of words describing speech (other than said) can be le mot juste — but said is by far le mot juste more often than any other word used for speech, and if you haven’t learned not to feel self-conscious about using it as often as would be natural, you’ll probably find yourself reaching for synonyms that not only aren’t just the right words but also, if you let them accrete sufficiently, may turn your dialogue a wee bit silly. That’s my understanding of said-bookisms. I could even see someone writing up a list of words most often used where said would be better with an understanding that sometimes those alternative words can be better too, i.e., not to vilify them universally but rather to help with the aforementioned lesson (if you haven’t learned it, and you’re over-using these words just out of habit, you might just learn the lesson right then and there) and just to have a little fun. Prescriptivists have doubtless taken this too far. But again, to call the former prescriptivists because of the latter is misguided.

    James Alan Gardner’s, is the one I am personally most in sympathy with, as he thinks dialogue tags should only be used sparingly anyway, about once every four lines of dialogue, just to keep the reader straight (see my original comment, way, way above). But he still says that said it “doesn’t sound repetitive”; James, Green Knight begs to differ with you, and he’s not alone; I’ve seen other such comments elsewhere.

    It’s John Gardner, but whatever. And of course said can become repetitive, if you use it every line; like you say, the reader should be able to tell whose speaking from the context and what they’re saying, but an occasional reminder, for a little extra help (every four lines sounds reasonable to me), doesn’t hurt. One of the reasons it doesn’t is that said is a common word, not quite as common as the and it (words we do see virtually every line) — it’s a verb, after all — but it’s one of the most common verbs. Another reason is tradition: all the novels and short stories we’ve read in which said is used about every fourth line of dialogue. As for Green Knight, no, he doesn’t differ with me, because nowhere have I said, nor do I believe, that said should be used exclusively. I too would find fault with a writer who always used said, even where another verb would obviously be better.

    Both Hat and James also speak of these verbs adding nothing semantically, but the manners of speech verbs certainly do add semantic information

    Of course varying speech verbs can add various information, but sometimes they don’t, or even imply something the writers didn’t even intend. I was talking specifically about the latter: when the writer had reached for the nearest synonym as a self-conscious tic.

    Look, not all prescriptivism is bad. Prescriptivism in spelling is nothing but a virtue

    Apparently we have different definitions of prescriptivism. To me, what you describe above is simple prescription, or teaching. I think seeing a touch of prescriptivism in every prescription is bound to lead to confusion. Prescriptivism, in my book (and in short), is the belief that some language is always better than others. You can teach kindergartners and MFA students without going anywhere near it.

  90. jamessal says:

    Again, don’t let the customer (that is, the editor/agent, the only true customer a writer has) fall out of the fictional [i.e. movie] dream even for a moment. If the whole thing doesn’t hypnotize the reader, they may shut the book — and if so, then forever.

    Well, when you put it so cynically of course it sounds bad. I can’t speak for Urban, but John Gardner, in the book I mentioned earlier, describes the novelist’s job as creating “a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.” He also describes stumbling blocks to doing that job, common mistakes writers make which rip the reader right out of the dream. I know what he’s talking about. A tortured sentence or ridiculous metaphor pulls me right out of whatever book I’m reading. I don’t drool while I read either, however. On the contrary, a subtle exquisite word choice pulls me deeper into the dream, makes me read more carefully still, I think.

    Here’s another less cynical metaphor: reading has been called secular prayer, and prayer isn’t a passive activity. An insight, or lost memory, found during prayer won’t interrupt the prayer. Something absurd and in bad taste, like a wet willy, will. Mixed metaphors and other writing flaws — like said-bookisms — are the wet willies of reading.

  91. It’s John Gardner, but whatever.

    No, I did mean James Alan Gardner. I had never heard of him, but then I never heard of any of the seven except Fritinancy. (To find his said-bookisms page, follow the Writing Advice link in the left navigation bar; it’s section 6.2 in the table of contents.) And the James I was addressing there was him, not you; sorry about that confusion.

    I have also now read the Letter Go blog posting that Hat linked to above and that Fritinancy quoted (and I meta-quoted). It too is reasonably worded when taken as a whole.

    not to worry too much about repetition when it comes to said.

    That’s eminently reasonable. But many of the people who talk about said-bookisms don’t put it that way at all. Still, abusus non tollit usum both in literature and in the criticism of literature.

    Here’s a more nuanced discussion from the second Google page. It actually mentions quipped (and the problem with that is that the dialogue it’s attached to actually has to be a quip, or else.) Comments are closed there, but I would have made my point there that opposing said-bookism is a special case of opposing involved narration.

    I think seeing a touch of prescriptivism in every prescription is bound to lead to confusion. Prescriptivism, in my book (and in short), is the belief that some language is always better than others.

    I don’t really understand your distinction. Most of us believe that standard spellings are always better than non-standard ones, unless you are just learning to put words on paper, like my grandson or my wife’s students — they have other concerns. Yet you say that insisting on standard spellings is mere prescription, not prescriptivism. Can you spell this out further? Is it because (for the most part) correct spellling is not an ideological issue?

  92. James: I have a longer comment in the moderation queue, but to repeat the essential point, I did mean James Alan Gardner, not John Gardner, and the “James” I was addressing was him, not you; apologies for the confusion (and for the redundancy of this paragraph when Hat frees up my longer comment).

    describes the novelist’s job as creating “a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.”

    Well, that’s the job of one kind of novelist writing one kind of novel, and such works have existed from Homer’s day till now. But it’s not the job Mark Twain took on in Huckleberry Finn, which is to tell you the story of Huck Finn as Huck Finn himself (if he could be so articulate) would tell it. The narration and the narrator are in your face throughout. Now it so happens that almost the only dialogue verb in Huckleberry Finn is says, which is indeed what Huck would say, so it’s appropriate for him to say it. If Twain had decided to make the narrator the Duke of Bilgewater — why, then, the more pretentious the said-bookisms the better. (By the way, in Tom Sawyer there is a passage with 24 consecutive lines of dialogue without a tag.)

  93. jamessal says:

    I did mean James Alan Gardner, not John Gardner, and the “James” I was addressing was him, not you; apologies for the confusion

    No, no, I apologize for such egocentric assumptions!

    Well, that’s the job of one kind of novelist writing one kind of novel, and such works have existed from Homer’s day till now. But it’s not the job Mark Twain took on in Huckleberry Finn, which is to tell you the story of Huck Finn as Huck Finn himself (if he could be so articulate) would tell it. The narration and the narrator are in your face throughout.

    Why can’t Huck Finn fit the dream metaphor? So what if it’s told in a dialect very different from Standard English or if the narrator doesn’t try to hide himself? It just has to be good, and it has to be consistent. If Huck started talking like Henry James, the dream would go poof.

  94. jamessal says:

    To elaborate a little further on the dream metaphor: there are as many types of dreams as there are types of writing, dreaming and reading are both altered states, and you can be ripped out of both of them. The first two similarities aren’t all that instructive — they just create the metaphor, i.e., help you think of one in terms of the other — but the third is, in that it provides a criterion for bad writing: anything that rips you out of your engagement with the text. And as I said before, noticing something subtle furthers at least my engagement, even if I have to stop for a moment to think about it, because I’m thinking about something the author wants to think about. If, on the other hand, I have to stop because of a poorly written sentence or maudlin sentiment or the like, I’m no longer engaged with the author — I’m questioning him or her, laughing even, having lost confidence. How could I see the author’s characters the same after that, or even see characters at all as opposed to bad writing trying (and failing) to create characters?

  95. Maybe I interpreted the metaphor too narrowly. I haven’t read (John) Gardner in 30 years. I was thinking primarily of works with neutral, minimalist narrators.

  96. jamessal says:

    That’s eminently reasonable. But many of the people who talk about said-bookisms don’t put it that way at all. Still, abusus non tollit usum both in literature and in the criticism of literature.

    Yes, so it sounds like we agree? I wish I’d been involved earlier in the thread, but it was Robin’s birthday this week, and the least I could do was not to get engaged with something here, so that I’d be thinking about while celebrating, only giving her a portion of my attention.

    Most of us believe that standard spellings are always better than non-standard ones, unless you are just learning to put words on paper, like my grandson or my wife’s students — they have other concerns. Yet you say that insisting on standard spellings is mere prescription, not prescriptivism. Can you spell this out further? Is it because (for the most part) correct spellling is not an ideological issue?

    I think I can. Standardized spelling is both useful and attainable, so whether you think reasonably about language or not, it just makes sense to teach children how to spell; that is, the flaws of the prescriptivist ideology just aren’t salient in most conversations about spelling, because all the prescriptions are reasonable. I could see them (the flaws) becoming more apparent in a discussion about texting, however. Believing that all the new abbreviations engendered by texting are somehow mistakes, somehow wrong — and maybe that therefore even texting itself is an abomination, pernicious to our delicate language — would be a manifestation of prescriptivism. Telling children that, though abbreviations and like are useful for texting, standard spelling is more appropriate for books and essays is simply teaching (by means of a collection of sensible prescriptions to help these children get along in the world). Does that help?

    Maybe I interpreted the metaphor too narrowly. I haven’t read (John) Gardner in 30 years. I was thinking primarily of works with neutral, minimalist narrators.

    Why, thank you. It’s always good to hear that you’re making sense! About Gardner, the book of his I return to most often is his collection of essays, most (if not all) of them reviews, On Writers and Writing; there isn’t a boring piece in it, but he’s especially good on Cheever, Roth, and Fowles. Next is The Art of Fiction, which is still the book I’d first recommend to someone just getting into writing fiction. On Moral Fiction — the only other book of his I’ve read — wasn’t his best: he took a few good swipes at some methods of criticism, if I remember right, but came up empty describing a method of his own.

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