September 29th, 2010 17:22 EST
A Grammarian Calls Dan Brown "Almost Ingeniously Bad"
Language Log: on guard against boors
The Language Log, which I read gleefully from time to time, has been risibly unkind to Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and other fabulously popular books.
In their 2006 book, Far From the Madding Gerund, published by William, James & Co. , Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum skewer Brown mercilessly, calling his writing almost ingeniously bad. "
The Log, founded by the authors, originates from the University of Pennsylvania, where Mark Liberman is a professor of phonetics in linguistics. " Geoffrey Pullum is a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh.
I`m never happy to see a writer roasted. I don`t have the stomach for it. I just try to ignore writers whose work is distasteful to me. But Pullam and Liberman were and are on a mission, and Dan Brown just happened to be in their path. When you take up as much room as he does someone is bound to body-check you.
Grammarians don`t necessarily share the impulse of poets and other writers to test the limits of language, but they`re not all fusty. And Liberman and Pullam are far from pompous. They`re funny, and they believe in the restorative powers of linguistics. They`re guardians of what works and what in their view doesn`t work. Dan Brown, in their view, doesn`t work.
I confess to liking some of Brown`s worst impulses, but when it comes to his wooden pummeling of language I put him right up there with Ayn Rand, although I find his characters a lot less toothpicky than her selfish-bastard caricatures. Brown`s people have better inclinations. Rand`s people are repulsively autoerotic.
I return to Far From the Madding Gerund as I would to a sweet fountain. It helps restore my sanity. Grammarians have their work cut out for them, and so do poets. I`m not sure how far a poet could go relying on H.W. Fowler`s Modern English Usage or the Strunk and White Elements of Style, but I`d be willing to take my chances with Pullam and Liberman.
Bear with me. I`m inching up to a point. Dan Brown enjoys the approbation of millions. I count my own fans in the dozens, at best. I don`t know how Mr. Brown views his good fortune, but it seems to me he can hardly despise it. At least, I hope not. I relish my handful of fans. I find the idea of even one person reading my novels Saraceno or Alice Miller`s Room thrilling. No, it won`t put bread on the table, but a long career in journalism barely did, however much politicians might like you to think of journalists as overpaid commie rat bastards. (I can vouch for many of them as fascist rat bastards, and so can Fox News.)
I spend a great deal of time wondering why a society would honor T.S. Eliot but not Sylvia Townsend Warner. I leave it up to biographers and literary historians to explore such matters. But I have lived long enough to notice that it happens. The canard that writers who deserve to be published and revered are published and revered serves no one but what Warner`s editor and biographer Claire Harman has marvelously called the canon-mongers. "
Accredited courses based on that single phrase should be taught in universities, but of course they won`t be for the same reason that canon-mongers have influence "money.
Dan Brown`s success belongs to him. He earned it, whether he wields his gerunds and newspeak properly or not. But I am wondering about the nature of success and whether it ought to be measured in $100 bills. Oh sure, we`re a capitalist society, so that`s how we measure stuff. But is that all we want to be? And if that`s all we want to be, what will we amount to?
I have this fancy that something I write in a book or a poem will make a difference in someone`s life. Nobody is going to put that on my tombstone, assuming I have one. Just as nobody is going to put on Brown`s that his page-turners made millions. But I know that somewhere in my contemplation of this is my reason for being, my definition of success. So when Harman starts a collection of Warner`s poems with a poem about listening to the clock in a neighbor`s home, I think that changes the cosmic equation. It makes as big a difference, if not more, than the current headline news.
I like to think of one of my poems or perhaps just a stanza as a firefly in the moonless night. Some sentient being will have seen it. It will have made a difference. It will have contributed to the whole. And if it is only a firefly and not a comet with a name, who is truly qualified to admit one to the canon and not the other? When I think of Harman`s dead-on phrase I think that hubris poisoning must surely be as dangerous to us as global warming.
Success is to me having made the attempt to transform my experiences into something other than base metal, the attempt to ennoble my materials. Will it matter when I`m gone? I think so. I think it will matter the same way it matters how we treat a child or the elderly or the sick "or our returning soldiers. I think it goes on mattering through the ages, long after our grave sites vanish. I think it is one definition of forever.
How we choose our words is as important as how we choose our paint, our tools, our partners, our pursuits, particularly in an era when words have been cheapened by a dissent-mongering press and body politic. That is why I admire Pullam and Liberman "and Harman, because they are involved in a dicey reclamation project. The grammarians are reclaiming a language debased by commerce and overweening ambition, and Harman is reclaiming an important and enigmatically neglected writer of fiction and poetry.
Here is an example of the festivities at Language Log:
Gerunds vs. participles
Filed by Mark Liberman under Syntax
In some comments on yesterday`s Possessive with gerund " post, the traditional distinction between gerunds and present participles was assumed. Because all English gerunds " and all English present participles " have exactly the same form, namely VERB+ing, and because the space of constructions where these forms appear is large and not obviously subject to binary division, my few attempts as a schoolboy to distinguish the two in English were mostly random guesses. I always suspected that the teacher`s answer key had no better foundation.
Therefore I was happy when Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, presented a clear and compelling argument that A distinction between gerund and present participle can`t be sustained " (pp. 80-83 and 1220-1222). They therefore use the merged category gerund-participle ". I hope that most of you will be as happy about this development as I was.
Some may think the nasty ranting of ideologues more important than discourse like this; I happen to think that respect for the language, and for using it honestly and respectfully, denotes a respect for society.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com