08 March, 2006

Sous les pavés, la plage!

Moments of shame, moments of triumph: thus is my memory structured. These two types of event I recall better than all others. (And so it was, I assumed, for all people, until a particular interlocutrix assured that these were the moments she tried to forget.) I recall one triumph with peculiar relish. In October 2003, the entire English Literature MA program at York University was called to afternoon assembly, wherein we were to be taught how to write by one Dr. Lawrence Rainey. As my readers can perhaps imagine, I was incensed by the proposition that some spore-nogginned academic, and a scholar of Modernism at that, had the temerity to tell me how to write! Even before attending, I was looking for a ruck. And I got one.

Rainey wanted to know how long the academic sentence should be. And before this presumptor had the opportunity to inform his credulous audience of the correct answer (24 words, if you must know) I raised my hand and observed that, of course, anyone who knew anything about prose style would be aware that an ideal prose varies the lengths of its sentences from one to the next. Again, when Rainey attempted to demonstrate the folly of long sentences with one desultory example plucked quite not-at-random from some incompetent lit-crit tearjerker, I replied insolently and out of turn, almost suffocated with contempt, that I had read, and indeed written, sentences twice as long and of perfect lucidity, because really, the quality of a sentence, of a prose, lies not in word-length but in structure, style, emphasis. "Well," he snorted, "if you want to write like Thomas Browne. . . !" I wonder now how many in the room had heard of Thomas Browne. But the triumph was sealed, as quite a number of disenchanted students approached me afterwards with congratulation. "I wanted to stand up and say Amen brother," said one.

This anecdote, despite what my readers may think, is related not to demonstrate my superiority as a human being. It illustrates, I believe, a serious problem. Readers, we are being coerced towards the writing of telegrams, passport-applications. This, from a Modernist! We are 'up to our ears' in cliché, too. Just the other day, on my way into the cinema to see the latest assault on imagination that is Tristram Shandy (I urge my audience not to see this: read or re-read the book instead, please), I caught sight of a promotional poster for the latest 'life-affirming' working-class British comedy, On a Clear Day, the tagline of which is 'All or nothing. Now or never. Sink or swim.' Amazing: three bone-dead expressions in a row, without a soupçon of irony. I felt raped. Depucelated, even. A little part of me was, as they say, gone forever. What is this monstrosity being forced upon us?

Now, everywhere I look, there I see the same. I sign up for a university e-mail account, so as to penetrate official mailboxes without being spammitized. Guidelines are provided for me:
* Cover only one topic per message, which facilitates replying, forwarding and filing.

* Type in upper and lower case. Text in all upper case gives the impression that you are shouting.

* E-mail does not show the subtleties of voice or body language. Avoid attempts at irony or sarcasm. The most effective e-mail is short, clear and relevant. If you receive a message that makes you upset, do not respond immediately.
Gentlemen, we are becoming inured to the stuff of life! We are being made to capitulate to the tyranny of a received pronunciation, a Museum English, an Ethics masquerading as Grammar: we are becoming Strunked and Whited. Eschew obfuscation—split no infinitives—abolish the passive voice—write 's/he', 'he (or she)'—never use a preposition to end a sentence with—this is 1968, people, and our foe is a compassing Mabuse of words, the Academy, the electronic and disembodied voice of a HAL/IBM, and the committees churning and churning out endlessly—Ni Dieu ni maître! Mort aux vaches!

1 comment:

Ann said...

I like the 71 word sentence, but regret that I do not understand the significance of the title.