Category Archives: writing

City of Mirrors

Remember how much I liked the first book in this series?  It wasn’t perfect, but I admired the idea of depicting the destruction of a world that’s already kind of ruined though the people in the world don’t fully realize it.  (See also:  Station Eleven.) I was going to write a long post about how lousy this book was but didn’t get around to it and now I’ve mercifully forgotten most of the worst parts.  Still, I did save a lot of highlights of terrible sentences to my Kindle so here are some.

“such was the bittersweet beauty of life”

“Here, tacked to the neutral plaster walls, are the pennants of sports teams and the conundrumous M.C. Escher etching of hands drawing each other and, opposite the sagging single bed, the era-appropriate poster of the erect-nippled Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, beneath whose lubricious limbs and come-hither gaze and barely concealed pudenda the boy has furiously masturbated night after adolescent night.”

“I’d known that Lucessi had a younger sister; he had failed to mention that she was a bona fide Mediterranean goddess, quite possibly the most beautiful girl I’d ever laid eyes on — regally tall, with lustrous black hair, a complexion so creamy I wanted to drink it, and a habit of traipsing into a room wearing nothing more than a slip…. striding through the house in tall riding boots and clanking spurs and tight breeches, a costume no less powerful than the slip in its ability to send the blood dumping to my loins.”

“Though I knew I had done well, I was still astonished to see my first-semester report with its barricade of A’s”

“Between these carnal escapades — Carmen and I would often race back to her room between classes for an hour of furious copulation — and my voluminous classwork and, of course, my hours at the library — time well spent replenishing myself for our next encounter — I saw less and less of Lucessi.”

“On a Saturday afternoon, escorted by my father, I entered this sacred masculine space.  The details were intoxicating.  The odors of tonic, leather, talc.  The combs lounging in their disinfecting aquamarine bath.  The hiss and crackle of AM radio, broadcasting manly contests upon green fields.  My father beside me.  I waited on a chair of cracked red vinyl. Men were being barbered, lathered, whisked.”

“Caleb had peeked at her journals a few times over the years, unable to resist this small crime; like her letters, her entries were wonderfully written.  While they sometimes expressed doubts or concern over various matters, generally they communicated an optimistic view of life.”

The combination of pretentiousness (“manly contests upon green fields”), cliche (“hiss and crackle”), thesaurus-wrangling (“barricade”,”traipsing”), and general vagueness (“various matters”) is really something special.  It is not just bad but BAD in the sense of Paul Fussell.

Oh yeah and also he’s obsessed with the word “possessed” where he means to say “had” or just express the idea in a defter way.

“Something about this place felt new and undiscovered; it possessed a feeling of sanctuary.”

“His flesh, a sickly yellow, possessed a damp, translucent appearance, like the inner layers of an onion.”

“His thoughts possessed a lazy, unmoored quality.”

“His limbs possessed a thin-boned delicacy”

So much more is wrong!  The way characters are often referred to as “the man” or “the woman,” the general concern with manliness throughout, but manliness of a very bent kind:  a weird you-know-how-it-is sympathy towards characters when they get so frustrated that they just have to hit / strangle / kill / sexually assault a woman?  Which culminates in the big action set piece at the end — so of course the big giant ship they have to escape on has been tiresomely personified as a woman,  Michael’s actual one true love for 400 pages — then the big moment comes and the ship can’t consummate, all seems lost, until Michael solves the problem by calling the ship a bitch and hitting it with wrench, at which point it immediately settles down and behaves.  Then the end is an epilogue set 1000 years in the future where a tenured professor (yes, there’s still tenure in 1000 years) gets lucky with a young journalist who’s captivated by his hidden depth and middle-aged loneliness.

 

 

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Portuguese vs. Portuguese

The Portuguese edition of “How Not To Be Wrong” just arrived at my house.  “Portuguese” as in “from Portugal” and as distinct from the Brazilian edition.  Interesting how two versions of the book in the same language can be rather different!  Here’s the opening paragraph in Portugal:

Agora mesmo, numa sala de aula algures no mundo, uma estudante esta a reclamar com o seu professor de matematica.  Este acabou de lhe pedir para usar uma parte substancial do seu fim de semana a calcular uma lista de trinta integrais definidas.

And in Brazil:

Neste exato momento, numa sala de aula em algum lugar do mundo, uma aluna esta xingando o professor de matematica.  O professor acaba de lhe pedir que passe uma parte substancial de seu fim de semana calculando uma lista de trinta integrais definidas.

Ok, those are not too far off.  Here’s how some lines of John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” are translated in Portugal:

E vimos que ambos temos razao, ainda que nada

Tenha resultado em coisa alguma; os avatares

Do nosso conformismo perante as regros,

E ficar sempre por casa, fizeram de nos — bem, en certo sentido — <<bons cidadaos>>

and in Brazil:

Esta vendo, ambos estavamos certos, embora nada

Tenha de algum modo chegado a nada; os avatares

Da nossa comformidade com regras e viver

Em torno de casa fizeram de nos … bem, num sentido, “bons cidadaos”

I don’t know whether Ashbery’s poems have official Portuguese translations.  The only one I could find of “Soonest Mended” was in a book of criticism by V.B. Concagh, where the last two lines were rendered

Deste conformarmo-nos as regras e fazermos a nossa vida

Ca por casa fizeram de nos — bem, num certo sentido, “bons cidadaos”

The line I hit very hard in English is  “For this is action, this not being sure.”  That last phrase is rendered

  • (Portugal) esta incerteza
  • (Brazil) essa falta de certeza
  • (Concagh) este nao esta seguro

I don’t read Portuguese but the last, most literal rendering seems best to me, assuming I’m right that it captures something of the “not the way you’d normally say it”-ness of the Ashbery:  “this uncertainty” or “this lack of certainty” in English don’t have at all the same quality.

Note:  Because I was feeling lazy I have omitted all diacritical marks.  Lusophones are welcome to hassle me about this if it makes the quotes ambiguous or unreadable.

 

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Wall words

When I was a kid I had an anthology of Cyril Kornbluth stories and one detail in the introduction made a big impression on me:  Kornbluth had lots of random notes among his papers, ideas, words, and phrases, and the editor of the anthology found it kind of poignant to look at these and wonder what stories they would have been.  Especially — and this phrase has stuck with me all these years — “ghosts in a Martian department store.”

Anyway:  while cleaning up the basement, I came across a pile of Post-its, which were on my wall when I was a creative writing grad student at Johns Hopkins in 1994.  Each of these, I guess, was something I meant to use for something.  I have no memory of what any of these mean.  But here they are.  Maybe you can use them.  None of them is as good as “ghosts in a Martian department store.”

  • “every third person in the world”
  • The Admonitionist
  • assapanic
  • “Bald men, a lot of them — yeah, that might work!”
  • Rick Ziggurat
  • The First Church of Christ Plaintiff
  • Community Reaction to a Horrifying Event – Arndt
  • out of the fishy-smelling steam
  • reckless use of a highway
  • THE UNDERTAKER’S BIRTHDAY (Did the stripper shoot the corpse?)
  • The grandfatherly crook gives a motivational lecture to fifth-graders
  • “you slug in a ditch!”
  • Solomon “Duck-Duck” Goos
  • A first line:  “Here’s something you might not know.”
  • “luz” — “an unidentified bone…”
  • The hobo community, waiting /expecting (esperar) for rich couples to pick them up.
  • The apocalypse counselor “If the sun went supernova, we wouldn’t know for eight minutes.”
  • “Of course, there is some element of risk involved in building a house out of oily rags.”
  • steeped in regret
  • Chief Louis Anemone NYPD (red)
  • “This guy’s been shot.”  “No kidding — you think he’ll make it?”
  • HIDALGO – hijo de algo
  • fetus/treatise
  • fuckadelphia
  • abacinate
  • “Victory without a whimper…the only sound:  excellence.”
  • “The ghost of Knute Rockne is living and he is smiling.”
  • “That’s a big number, but it’s a heck of a lot better than infinity.”
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Creeping and boiling

Then the cannon-ball smashed through the window-sill, the opened glass panes shattering into fragments with a crash.  The ball itself rolled on until the stone wall stopped it with a heavy thud, then it burst into pieces, and a creeping gray smoke came boiling out.

I have a lot of issues with this passage.

First of all, it seems like the cannonball smashed through the window, not the windowsill.  As for the panes — if the cannonball smashed through them, doesn’t that mean they were closed, not open?  How would they shatter if not into fragments?  I object, too, to the “with a [sound effect]” construction being used in two consecutive sentences, especially given that the chosen sound effect (“crash,” “thud”) is the most obvious choice in both cases.  The second sentence has too many different actions carried out by too many different objects (the ball, the wall, then the ball again, then the smoke.)  The smoke — is it creeping or boiling?  By my lights it can’t be both.

The lines are from Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a fantasy novel which despite this paragraph has a lot of good things about it. and which won this year’s Nebula Award.

Two idiosyncratic reactions:

  • Agnieszka’s magic is set up as being the inheritance of Baba Jaga, a kind of intuitive, sing-songy, kitcheny kind of magic, explicitly opposed to the formal, rule-governed spell-casting of Sarkan, the broody sorcery dude who kidnaps, then mentors, then eventually falls in love with her.  This works well in the story, but I’m not on board with the suggestion that formal, rule-governed manipulation is a masculine activity that needs a feminine complement in order to achieve its full power.  Math has an improvisational, intuitive aspect, to be sure; but that aspect, like the formal aspect, belongs to men and women equally.
  • Weird feature of this book:  its setting is a magical version of Poland, and Agnieszka is explicitly presented as being “rooted” in the village, the hearth, the homeland; this is, in part the source of her power.  Sarkan, by contrast, is explicitly “rootless” — without a connection of his own to the land, he has to feed on the young women of the village, one after another, cutting their connection to the village and leaving them sort of ruined, suited only for big-city life.  So my mind naturally wanders to the question of “what group of people were thought of in rural Eastern Europe as rootless cosmopolitans who hide out behind walls looking at books all day and who corrupt our women and we just have to accept it because they have access to mysterious secret powers?”  Now maybe I’m overthinking this, but I do have to point out that after I noticed this I looked up Novik on Wikipedia, and her mother is Polish and her father is Jewish.  Make of it what you will.

 

 

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A free writing tip, or: the extraordinary m*****f*****s who founded this country

It gets under my shirt when writers use “individuals” as a synonym for “people.”  It sounds bureaucratic, like a police report:  “Several individuals were observed entering the vehicle in the vicinity of the establishment…”

But people do this all the time, especially when they’re trying to sound a little formal.  I have a writing tip:  every sentence in which “individual” is used in this way is improved by replacing the word “individual” with “motherfucker.”

For example, the New York Times business bestseller list describes the book Succeed On Your Own Terms as an account of “The defining qualities shared by highly accomplished individuals.”

Now try:

“The defining qualities shared by highly accomplished motherfuckers.”

Doesn’t that sound like a better book?

Or consider the remarks by Republican National Committee chief of staff Katy Walsh, about the Koch brothers:

“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.”

Strong words, but

“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed motherfuckers who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how,”

would have been stronger.

A great source of “individuals” is the amazing database of Presidential speeches and proclamations at UCSB.  Here’s Ronald Reagan, on October 24, 1986:

And when it happens and we’re able, for the first time, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons threatening mankind, it will be a result of the realism and commitment of solid motherfuckers like Don Nickles, motherfuckers who understand that peace through strength is not just a slogan, it’s a fact of life.

That’s what Reagan should have said, at any rate.

Bill Clinton on Flag Day 1997:

Adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, the Stars and Stripes became the official flag of the young United States and a compelling symbol of our new independence. Woven into its folds were the hopes, dreams, and determination of the extraordinary motherfuckers who founded this country.

And Barack Obama, proclaiming National Maritime Day this May:

Our Nation is forever indebted to the brave privateers who helped secure our independence, fearlessly supplying our Revolutionary forces with muskets and ammunition. Throughout history, their legacy has been carried forward by courageous seafarers who have faithfully served our Nation as part of the United States Merchant Marine—bold motherfuckers who emerged triumphant in the face of attacks from the British fleet in the War of 1812, and who empowered the Allied forces as they navigated perilous waters during World War II.

But perhaps nobody did it better than John Quincy Adams, in his inaugural address of 1825, pleading for Americans to put aside their political differences and work together:

There still remains one effort of magnanimity, one sacrifice of prejudice and passion, to be made by the motherfuckers throughout the nation who have heretofore followed the standards of political party. It is that of discarding every remnant of rancor against each other, of embracing as countrymen and friends, and of yielding to talents and virtue alone that confidence which in times of contention for principle was bestowed only upon those who bore the badge of party communion.

John Quincy Adams was one bipartisan motherfucker.

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“Losers often grow up to be writers”

My first cousin once removed Marilyn Sachs, on writing:

One final word of encouragement to those of you who are cowardly, cry babies, and liars, as I was. These are extremely promising qualities for future writers. If you are a coward, you will probably spend more time at the library than you would ordinarily, and if you tell lies, it just shows that you have an imagination even if others don’t always appreciate it. Cry babies tend to be sensitive, which is also a plus for writers. When I grew up, I found that I had become a great expert on bullies, and my books are full of them.

So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.

Her books are mostly for kids.  Have you read them, parents?  Some of the classics:  Laura’s Luck (1965), my favorite alienated-kids-at-summer-camp book.  The Fat Girl (1984), a truly creepy YA novel about brutal psychosexual guerilla war in high school.  The Bear’s House (1972).  I remember almost nothing about this but just hearing the title makes me choke up so I know it was really sad.

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Sure as roses

I learned when I was writing this piece a few months ago that the New York Times styleguide doesn’t permit “fun as hell.”  So I had a problem while writing yesterday’s article about Common Core, and its ongoing replacement by an identical set of standards with a different name.  I wanted to say I was “sure as hell” not going to use the traditional addition algorithm for a problem better served by another method.  So instead I wrote “sure as roses.”  Doesn’t that sound like an actual folksy “sure as hell” substitute?  But actually I made it up.  I think it works, though.  Maybe it’ll catch on.

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William Deresiewicz gets David Foster Wallace now

Just looking at William Deresiewicz’s piece on Mark Greif in Harper’s, where he writes:

Like David Foster Wallace, albeit in a very different key, Greif is willing to be vulnerable, to forgo the protections of irony and nihilism.

True!  (At least of DFW; I don’t know enough about Greif.)  And satisfiying, because I complained before about Deresiewicz mischaracterizing Wallace:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

Maybe he reads my blog!

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I will never find all the bad sentences

Even now, a year after the book came out, two weeks before the paperback arrives, I’m still finding bad sentences in it.  The one I just noticed:

It was scary when a statistical model deployed by the Guest Marketing Analytics team at Target correctly inferred based on purchasing data that one of its customers—sorry, guests—a teenaged girl in Minnesota, was pregnant, based on an arcane formula involving elevated rates of buying unscented lotion, mineral supplements, and cotton balls.

I must have written “based on purchasing data” and then tried it again in a higher pitch with “based on an arcane formula … cotton balls” but forgotten to take out the original, leaving a sentence with a weird, redundant double “based on.”  Who knows how many mistakes like this are left in the final text?  How many will I never catch?

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David English

Got the Sunday Times, which I don’t usually do, and in the Book Review letters section I saw a familiar name:  David English, of Somerville, MA.  I started noticing this guy when I was in grad school.  He writes letters to the editor.  A lot of letters to the editor.  Google finds about 10 pages of hits for his letters to the Times, starting in 1993 and continuing at a steady clip through the present.  He wrote to the New Yorker and New York Magazine, too. And I thought I remembered him showing up in the Globe letter column, too, but Google can’t find that.

Who is David English of Somerville, MA?  And has he actually had more letters to the New York Times published than anyone else alive?

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