In Defence of Language

I’ve just started reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I am once again astounded by how skilled CS Lewis was at taking complex concepts and explaining them in ordinary, accessible language. The man was certainly intelligent.

At the beginning of the book he talks about the importance of the definition of words…

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone ‘a gentleman’ you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not ‘a gentleman’ you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully- ‘Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edwards is far more truly a gentleman than John?’ They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man ‘a gentleman’ in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is a ‘gentleman’ becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes). A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

As a writer I am rather sensitive about the use of words. Some may call it old fashioned, but there is a certain beauty to the written word, which I feel ought to be protected. I don’t profess to be an expert, merely an admirer. People who write ought to be passionate about words and the rules which govern their placement. We can admit that some rules are crazy, but we should protect the overall cohesion of the language. Which is why I despair when I hear that ‘experts’ suggest that SMS (or text)-speak should be considered a new language.

Language, they say, is an evolving thing. I accept that I can’t change it; but I wish that someone – presumably authors, editors and publishers – would ensure that the evolution of the language is beneficial. And I have to say, some are not pulling their weight.

For example some of the words added in June 2016 to the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • air punch: an act of thrusting one’s clenched fist up into the air, typically as a gesture of triumph or elation
  • bish bosh: used to describe an improper or unfinished piece of work usually due to laziness
  • bish-bash-bosh: used to describe the efficiency of a process you have just explained, often used if there are 3 steps to the process
  • consessus: a body of people who sit together, an assembly; esp. a council of church elders

(I was going to report some of the more recent entries, but then I’d have to make this post MA15+). Now, in its defence the OED does call itself the “definitive record of the English language”. I suppose that in order to be definitive therefore, you have to repeat just about all sorts of tripe, because someone, somewhere is using the word.

And just to show the OED isn’t the only offender, the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

  • dogtor: a veterinarian who treats only dogs
  • noice: extremely good, very nice

I apologise for entering semi-rant mode, but I am of the view that not just because a word is used – even in common language – that it should be dignified in a Dictionary.  Compare these recent ‘efforts’ to some of the words invented by Shakespeare.

Is it just me being crazy or are we losing the quality of the English language?

Inspirational Reading

Recently the skillful poet Thom Sullivan wrote about the poetry that he found inspirational in his development as a poet. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery and I thought it was an interesting question to consider: what novels have been influential to me in my writing?

Adventure

Notwithstanding the frailty of my memory, the earliest novels which I remember enjoying were Australian author John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began series. The teenagers-turned-freedom-fighters mixed together with the maturing hormones captured my imagination. In my experience a heady blend of (limited) war, independence from adults and finding yourself developing into a hero speaks to every young adult male.

A lot of books seldom fit precisely into genres, and so I shall take liberties with a little genre-crossing on this list. The pre-and-post apocalyptic adventure/war/faith-based Left Behind series by Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins also spoke to my prepping instincts, and merged my love of reading and faith. After all, what plot could provide more of a challenge than being a minority group of people vs. the rest of the world in both the physical and spiritual realm?

Fantasy

Naturally, Tolkein’s The Lord of The Rings must rate a mention in fantasy. It is a grand epic adventure which blends together aspects of good and evil, loyalty and betrayal into a story of sacrifice and struggle. Tolkein opened my eyes to the fantasy world like so many other readers before me. Though at times he was a bit of a waffler, he is the grandfather of the fantasy genre. (To a lesser degree was CS Lewis’ Narnia which I probably enjoyed first, but which pales in comparison).

I remember also being captured by the sweeping and deep world-building of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (WoT) series in my early twenties to the detriment of other important things. Sadly the belated publishing of the latter books stretched out to the point where now the final books by Brandon Sanderson remain unread; awaiting a time when I can re-read the series in its entirety.

The WoT series was my first introduction to an in-depth and heavily interrelated world building. I loved the fact that multiple cultures all revered the same character, though knowing them by different names. I also appreciated the way that the environment was woven into the culture but still avoided existing clichés; for example the Ariel who lived in the desert and used expressions of endearment such as ‘shade of my heart’. Excellent!

Science Fiction

This list would be grossly incomplete without mentioning the epic masterpiece of Frank Herbert’s Dune, by which all science fiction is measured against in my mind. (Not to say that it is the best in all aspects of writing and story-telling, but is a very sound measuring stick; especially as a series). The beauty of Dune is in its complexity and time-scale over generations. The world-building in Dune is like an elaborate ecosystem; a multitude of gears where turning one cog results in all of the others moving also. Each concept is tied together into a beautiful interconnected tapestry of cause-and-effect throughout the entire Dune universe. Frank Herbert was indeed a formidable world builder, and one worthy of great respect.

Few minds are as great or imaginative as Isaac Asimov who wrote a plethora of amazing short stories. I think especially of the Foundation trilogy; which shows deep insight into human nature and projects it outwards far beyond his own time. I am only a novice at writing short stories – two of which I am especially proud of available on this site – but Isaac Asimov was a master.

Faith-based

I could say that is started with Jesus and all of his parables ‘There once was a man…’, but it was probably earlier than that… In modern terms, Francine Rivers showed me how powerful story-telling could be in the Mark of the Lion series. A story, told in the emotive perspective of characters that you fall in love with, can speak to reader in ways that a cold essay could not. Philip Yancey wrote it best when he said that ‘a piece of flattened pulp can penetrate the mind, bypassing its defences and lodge deep inside the psyche’ (paraphrased and expanded).

When I look back over my reading history, these are the books which stand out brightest in my memory. As I consider them, even now they beckon me to read them again.

What are the books which you have most enjoyed?

 

 

Pseudonyms or Real Names

For three years I blogged under a pseudonym, which is now floating around in cyberspace like so much flotsam. I did so because I wanted to be able to express myself more freely, without those thoughts coming back to haunt me professionally or personally. (I wanted the illusion of anonymity, anyway).

When I decided to get serious about writing I thought I’d start using my real name. Given that I have the benefit of a fairly unique surname, I thought that was something I should take advantage of. That is unless a whole host of aspiring authors all decide to use Ben Ezard as a pseudonym now 🙂

But there is of course dangers in choosing to go without a pseudonym. It’s kind of like jumping into a jungle river and hoping that the water is deep enough: you’ll find out soon enough if it is, but you can’t click undo if it’s not.

My writing could easily offend people. If you take enough people and expose them to my writing, I expect that there will be a covering of the continuum between love and hate of my style and/or content. The amount of covering may vary at differing points, but as the saying goes “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Honestly, I’m not chasing after the dollar. While I’d love to be a writer as more-than-a-hobby, I’m not going to compromise my beliefs and priorities in life, or my love of writing by succumbing to some formulaic  recipe to “make it big”. (I’d go into more detail, but that’s a whole other post…)

So with my convictions set and non-negotiable there is every chance I will offend some… who I hope will be polite in disagreement, or simply choose to ignore my writing.

I don’t want to be typecast. I love writing for the imagination that it unleashes and how the stories that play out in my head can be transmitted and evolve in the imaginations of my readers.

I want to write many stories in different genres and with different flavours without being cast as a certain type of author. Pseudonyms can be used to remove perception-bias or privacy concerns. J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame writes crime novels under the name Robert Galbraith. C. S. Lewis of Narnia wrote A Grief Observed under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk in order to write on the intensely personal subject.

So my plan while I am learning to write is to experiment.  Every time someone wants to put me into a box, I plan on jumping out… at least for the immediate future.

I could taint my name. It would be enjoyable to my ego if the name Ben Ezard was associated with good writing. I’d be more than a little embarrassed if Ben Ezard became known as a bad and never-to-be-good writer. I’d prefer anonymity to that, as would most aspiring authors. I did consider writing under a pseudonym early in my writing career and then switching to my real name. Probably that would be the smart thing to do, but I choose to be brave/stupid instead.

A point in case: though her writing has unequivocally re-cast her name, Francine Rivers was once known for her erotic romance novels sold through a popular publisher. Now she is known and loved as a Christian author of great talent. She however summarises her successful past works in this way:

They are all now out of print, are never to be reprinted, and are not recommended.

Several published works, covered in a single sentence; a footnote, and no doubt that is how she would prefer them to be considered: small, past and unobtrusive.

Rivers’ experience is one which haunts me a little. I don’t want to regret anything that I write. Intellectually, I suspect there will always be some regrets, but it is a pause for caution.

If you are going to be writing under your real name you need to be doubly careful what you write. While your opinion may change over time (which is entirely reasonable and normal) for some people it won’t be enough.