18 April, 2007


What does our prose say about us?

Clemency Burton-Hill, who has penned a variety of articles for the British press, is young, blonde, attractive but not striking; she is the daughter of the renowned music maven Humphrey Burton, and has a double-barrelled surname. She speaks in moneyed tones. Thus she represents the core of the cultured bourgeois London élite, the intelligentsia, and to prove it she has a double-first in English from Cambridge, and a scholarship at Harvard. Not only a journalist, she is also a professional violinist, and an actress—from a string of embarrassing cashinhands like Until Death and Dungeons and Dragons she has lately graduated to prominent television rôles. All this can be gleaned from her crowning achievement to date—a Wikipedia article. So, how does she write?

I begin with an older piece, from the Telegraph a couple of years ago:
I turned 23 recently and very frightening it was, too. Apparently I'm now certifiably an Adult and supposed to behave accordingly; to be both Big and Clever at all times.
Here, Clemency is feigning childishness. This is obviously not how a woman with a double-first from Cambridge thinks. It is an ironic pose, struck so as to bond with her reader. Note that odd comma: 'was, too'. She is using an oral phrase, but she has not considered clearly how to transcribe its rhythm; she has introduced a pause before 'too' so as to disguise the slangy nature of the expression. Her use of 'supposed to behave accordingly' has the humorous suggestion of mumsy disapproval. The words 'adult', 'big' and 'clever' are capitalised for added ironic effect. The piece goes on to describe Clemency's infatuation with older men, such as Michael Ignatieff:
[T]here I was at Hay last month, tongue practically hanging out of my mouth, barely registering what he was saying about the democratic imperative of open adversarial review, so entranced was I by those blue, blue eyes. All rather embarrassing, really – and Ignatieff must be, what, in his forties at least?
The rhythm of her prose, as before, is hackneyed enough. The key point here is that Clemency is both trying to be funny, and vaunting her own urbanity. Not only does she slip in the fact that she attended Hay Festival with her cultural peers, but she abbreviates it to 'Hay', demonstrating her cosy familiarity with the literary event and its climate. Similarly, although 'democratic imperative of open adversarial review' is contrasted to the teenagerish 'blue, blue eyes' for comic effect, we are left in no doubt that Clemency fully understands the democratic imperative of open adversarial review. How else could she have remembered the phrase? The rest of her tone is gossipy: 'there I was' and 'All rather embarrassing, really' both reek of the garden fence. The 'what' inserted into the last sentence conjures an off-the-cuff oral estimate.

A final example from this article, in which Clemency meets one of her idols, Tom Stoppard—the living embodiment of middle-class British artistic ideals:
Nevertheless, before excusing himself, he squeezed my hands one more time, looked deep in my eyes, and said, with what can be described only as a flirtatious twinkle: "I think you'd be perfect for the part [in Arcadia], I hope you get it."
Ah—the excitement of being approved by Stoppard himself! Clemency swoons.

Another article, a meditation from last year on political conflicts in Kenya, opens in a different key, that of ekphrastic description—
The sun is rising lazily over Soysambu, a private estate which yawns across 100,000 acres of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Out of the corner of my eye I watch a gazelle lollop towards the horizon, where Lake Elementaita shimmers against the dramatic backdrop of the Mau escarpment. In front of 'Delamere’s Nose' — a squat peak so named because of its resemblance to a supine male profile — a herd of waterbuck graze on the acacia xanthophloea bush alongside plentiful buffalo, eland, zebra and giraffe. Apart from the agreeable cooing of cape turtle doves overhead, the silence and sense of peace is absolute.

Peace, however, is not quite the mot juste for this ravishing land.
Clemency's prose has been rising lazily over the reader, who was yawning across 100 words of boilerplate African exquisitries—complete with the pointedly technical xanthophloea, a word so ugly on the page but so beautiful to hear, darling—when all of a sudden the inevitable presaging note is wrung from her bow. The problem is that Clemency's heart isn't in it: she wants to move from the beauty of the landscape to the strife of its people, she wants to say, 'Peace, however, is not quite the mot juste for this troubled land'—but what she really must emphasise is how lovely it is. (Peace, of course, cannot be a mot juste; only 'peace'. But let's not be pedantic.) This is not an authentic voice.

Neither is it authentic when she writes, in an earlier review of Maile Maloy's Liars and Saints:
As she has previously demonstrated with her short stories, she is a keen observer of human emotion, but here she diffuses any potential melodrama by both understatement — ‘Henry had thought he understood grief, but nothing had ever shaken him like Abby’s death’ — and use of objective correlatives.
I leave aside the clichés ('keen observer') and the fact that the quoted line is quite the opposite of understatement, and focus instead on the expression 'objective correlatives'. In a flash it betrays Clemency's double-first in English, and her need to bring specialist knowledge, embodied in antique jargon, to bear on her appreciation of cultural phenomena. She uses the expression with no confidence, with no grasp of the irony of language; rather, she is still an undergraduate marvelling at the greatness of T. S. Eliot.

Similar examples could be multiplied endlessly.


Now my readers will wonder why I have chosen to pick apart the slapdash prose of a woman in her mid-twenties—a woman who, despite her expensive education, her brains and her cultural upbringing, has no reason to be a good writer. After all—she's also an actress and a violinist, and a political analyst, and a model and everything else. Isn't all this a bit churlish?

I cannot entirely absolve myself of this charge; on the other hand, my motives are greater than mere whimsical caddishness. You see, I'm a believer, with Buffon, that le style, c'est l'homme même—or in this case, la femme même. I think Clemency's style reveals a lot about who she is. And this is particularly interesting to me because who she is is related to who I am. I shared a class with Clemency, or Clemmie as she was universally known then, back in school, eight years ago. We barely knew each other, although given the nature of our respective positions in the social hierarchy, I knew more of her than she did of me. She was always perfectly friendly to me, and quite likeable, which is more than I was at that age. We'd share a walk to the Tube, or chat idly for a few minutes, and that was the extent of it. So I bear her no ill will, and yet she continues to intrigue me as a successful product of the schooling we shared.

Clemmie's journalism exists to propagate a certain set of cultural values—she loves to travel, she loves the performing arts—Bach and Chekhov—and she loves 'breakfasting at the Wolseley'. She's passionate about politics, and concerned about the plight of the Third World. She fancies older and especially elder men. This is the ideal envisioned by today's public schools. This is, in short, who I was supposed to be—except for the 'fancying older men' part, of course. Recently she wrote,
Having steadfastly refused to settle into any one profession since graduating a few years ago, I’m used to the identity crisis that comes with juggling careers. . .
Again, she is overtly telling us, 'having lots of careers is not so great', but she is really saying, 'I have had lots of careers—isn't that marvelous?' There is no identity crisis. I just don't believe it. I've no doubt she has as many problems as the rest of us, but not this one. For of all people, Clemmie has her place in society, and is celebrated for it. I am deeply jealous.

And her prose demonstrates, with utter transparency, the tensions of a woman who has been corralled into playing a set part. It possesses the irony of the lesser, of the courtier—the irony of 'certifiably an Adult'. It tells us that she knows, but pretends at the same time that she does not; thus she conceals her superiority as she reveals it. She shows herself to be intelligent, astute, well-read, cultured, talented, warm, hard-working, ambitious, confident—and reassuringly average. This is the conclusion we wanted to reach, isn't it? Even Clemmie would take it as a compliment, or at least part of her would. That part, not yet swallowed up by ambition, would be relieved to think that for all her accomplishments, she still 'has two feet on the ground', that she has not 'disappeared up her own arse', as she would likely say herself. Like the rest of us privileged brats, Clemmie has learnt to be ashamed of her education, and especially of her intelligence. This is why she plays the ditz with Ignatieff and Stoppard—or at least why she tells us she does—and why she makes goo-goo noises at her 23rd birthday. She is far more comfortable in this chatty, dissimulative style than she is in the idiom of serious criticism, or of political reportage. She has surrendered herself.

'Clemency', it seems, was a name well chosen.


Anonymous said...

If Clem weren't female, though, I'd suspect her of rehearsing the important technique of down-angled mediaspeech used by the Uppers to their Lowers. It's a special language (deliberately banal, self-effacing, hoary with received opinion and from time to time bathetic) providing an interface between mutually exclusive sets. This interface is a class-esperanto and a salve. What are politics and advertizing but this interface language writ large?

Again, Clem's gender complicates parsing her exact place in all this, but the active distinction is between the initiated (the cream of Clem's class) and the serf-naif (comprising the work-herd she is playing to). The hackneyed literary style is also called "democracy" and the Americans are spreading it to all corners of the planet, I hear.

The Uppers will continue to use this language until they lose entirely their dwindling habitual fear (spectacularly vindicated in 1789 and 1918) of the Lowers. The time is coming when they won't bother talking to the Lowers at all; the technology isn't quite there yet.

Nabokov is known for two things, chiefly: his extravagant literary style, and his naked elitism. Clem would never indulge in anything nasty as that.

(There's a dystopian comment for you, Conrad!)

Languagehat said...

And Nabokov would never have indulged in anything as petty as this. Really, this is the sort of thing that belongs in one's handwritten journal, unless your goal is to have smug Clemmie read your putdown and think "Oh God, what an appalling person I am, I should have paid more attention to that Unreligious chap and learned from him the art of silence, cunning, exile, and decent prose!"

Anonymous said...


I rather liked it. It is like a slow, controlled striptease, in which we are distracted from the artfulness by the flashes of naked flesh.

Read it a few more times, and it reveals itself to be a parody of (or homage to?) the confessional blog.

Clemency attempts to hide and downplay her talents. Most bloggers and the goal of blogging (me included) tends toward exaggerating our own talents.

A small correction should be made about just how low-brow Clem's acting career managed to be. She didn't appear in the original Dungeons and Dragons movie, but rather in the 2005 straight to DVD sequel, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon Lord. Actually, having seen it on the Sci-Fi Channel, I actually think that it was somewhat better than the original, in the same way that The Godfather II was better than the original, if the original had been total drek.

John Cowan said...

You mean you don't fancy older men, Conrad? I'm crushed, crushed.

I wouldn't put too much weight on that comma before "too"; it's an Idiot Copy Editor God rule to always put one before any sentence-adverbial "too".

Finally, in my opinion, what a highly mannered style tells us about "us" is that "us" wants to write in a highly mannered style, for whatever reasons, and has succeeded in learning to do so.

John Cowan said...

Oh, and Hat: it's time to call Conrad an exile in that context when he has not seen London for forty years.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: "a highly mannered style"

That's my point. Hers is not a mannered style, it's a relaxed one, which is exactly why she shows herself so clearly.

Steve A: "down-angled mediaspeech"

Yes, that's what I was saying, only Clemmie's is a particular form of it, which not only self-effaces but also shows you clearly the self it is effacing.

Steve L: "as petty as this"

As so often when I criticise others, you read me too one-sidedly. I never suggested Clemency was an 'appalling' person: she's quite the opposite, bright, charming and accomplished. I have no personal grudge against her whatsoever. It is her one failing that interests me, for what it says about the environment I myself grew up in.

Pretzel Bender said...

Clemency's writing is merely the opposite of the deliberately remote and high falutin' "I'm cleverer than you" academic prose that is the common coin of the realm in academia.

Is it better to pander to elites than non-elites inherently?


I think I would have liked her. She was nice to you when she didn't have to be.

And I wish deliberately self-effacing (in the aim of getting people to connect with my writing) were the worst thing people could say about me.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Clemency's writing is merely the opposite of the deliberately remote and high falutin' "I'm cleverer than you" academic prose that is the common coin of the realm in academia."

PB, you miss the point. Academics, when writing to each other, almost never write in an 'I'm cleverer than you' style. When writing to the public, for instance with Richard Dawkins, they often make a fine attempt of expressing themselves without being patronising. The Butlers etc. of the world write abstrusely so as to disguise lack of argument, not merely for the sake of bombast.

What's wrong with Clemency's writing is not that it is self-effacing--it is that it is not really self-effacing. It lacks perspective. This doesn't make her a bad person (let me stress that again)--rather, it reveals how she sees herself, and how she wants others to see her, in a particularly candid manner.

Pretzel Bender said...

I disagree with you on this.

I think a significant percentage of academics "write abstrusely so as to disguise lack of argument, not merely for the sake of bombast", especially when they are trying to impress other academics.

When they are writing for the public, less so.

Dawkins is more of an exception to the rule here. And I am obviously thinking mostly of the social sciences and humanities where obscure language appears to be a competitive sport.

And again, Clemency's overt appeal to non-elites is less offensive to me than overt appeals to elites. That was my point.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Clemency's overt appeal to non-elites is less offensive to me than overt appeals to elites."

But she makes appeals to both at the same time. It's a mark of anxiety, of trying to cover all bases. That's my point.

"I think I would have liked her."

No doubt you would have. Everybody did, including me, and I suspect everybody still does. As I said, she's very likeable.

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

If I might add my opinion here, I would suspect that my dear Conrad is simply using Clemency to make a larger point about his environment and that this post should not be construed as an attack of her as a person...I think he's primarily interested in what she represents.

Mrs. Roth

Anonymous said...

To those reading the Clem post as a kind of diary entry about a bird Conrad once sort-of fancied I say: dull beans. What's "petty" about doing a certain kind of conclusion-drawing character study? Are surfaces inviolable? And is it difficult to grasp that people (or types) have traceable etymologies, so to speak, as well?

Anyway, what the hell. Did he call her a "nappy-headed ho"?

Conrad H. Roth said...

"a bird Conrad once sort-of fancied"

Ha! The very idea of it... Sadly, in my shortsightedness I missed that this was what Steve L. had been suggesting. Believe it if you want to, readers.

chris miller said...

Maybe I'm thrown off by her exaggerated interest in old guys -- but aren't all of her intellectual concerns trumped by her preferred role of sexy young thing ?

(which, of course, I want them to be -- as I would much rather spend a moment savoring the African landscape with her rather than fretting about some dismal racial politics)

Sue said...

I know you said you were "deeply jealous" of the young lady, but should a blog be so transparently destructive? I'm thinking of William Soutar's wise words; "A diary is an assassin's cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen" Also part of the title of an excellent collection of diarists incidentally.

Anonymous said...

i liked this post. Clem's garish style is just the sort of thing to bring on the shudders in me.

i see no reason why anyone should apologise for being well-read or intelligent. Maybe in Cambodia back in the Pol Pot days, not now, in the 1st World.

Languagehat said...

I would suspect that my dear Conrad is simply using Clemency to make a larger point about his environment and that this post should not be construed as an attack of her as a person... I think he's primarily interested in what she represents.

Oh, no doubt, no doubt. But were I Clemency, I would certainly construe it as an attack on me as a person. I guess if I felt like attacking what she represents, I would give her a false name that might perhaps be transparent to the old gang from school but that would prevent unnecessary Google-grief. But we all have our own ideas about internet etiquette (interquette?).

As so often when I criticise others, you read me too one-sidedly.

Maybe. But maybe I'm just pointing out a side that you perhaps neglected to give sufficient consideration to in your enthusiasm for your idea for the post.

I missed that this was what Steve L. had been suggesting

No, actually it wasn't. I was just going by your "deeply jealous" remark.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris: "aren't all of her intellectual concerns trumped by her preferred role of sexy young thing ?"

It's a nice melting-pot, I think.

Sue: "should a blog be so transparently destructive?"

Why not? Less 'destructive', I think, more 'analytical' (ana-luo, I break up). My blog is not a diary, Clemmie is not a comrade, and I've stabbed her (or tickled her) fully in the front.

Steve: "attack on her as a person". It was an attack on (I'd prefer to say 'criticism of') Clemmie personally, but I wouldn't have made it, or been interested in doing so, if it hadn't had wider implications for me.

"your enthusiasm". My enthusiasm, hmm. You won't believe this, but I didn't much enjoy writing this post.

"deeply jealous". I think it's necessary to be honest in the matter, to prevent giving the impression that I see all this (or want you to believe that I see all this) with some detached, coldly superior air. I am jealous, in truth, but not resentful--and it is resentment (even ressentiment) that is the mark of pettiness, not jealousy.

Robert said...

Conrad, I think this is my favourite so far. It would make a great play, on radio, TV or stage. A one act play in which the commentors, “Muppet like” in their theatre box, rant at the players with waffly moustaches. The “striptease”, and perhaps an intuitive Mrs Roth.
As for the player, her sins are immaturity and vanity. We love them surly? As for beauty in all her assets we must but gape!

John Cowan said...

Well, the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford say that mannered in this sense means artificial, affected, or over-elaborate in style, and that's exactly how all three of your quotations strike me: they bear signs, as Thurber said of Woolcott's insulting letters to Ross, of the sweat of rewrite.

Perhaps this is merely something about British culture I don't understand (and you are my master there), but I don't see how anyone could see any of the three passages as natural, simple, unaffected. Nonono. This prose is derivative to the last degree; je maintiendrai.

Anonymous said...

Conrad: I think that, despite the somewhat exaggerated length of your original analysis, you have managed to miss the real point about Miss Burton-Hill's style.

It is not that she is feigning a chatty naivete to hide a great intellect and knowledge about which she is embarassed; rather, she hovers between chatty naivete and high discourse because she is not capable of excelling in either. It is a double bluff: a posture designed to make you think that she could be a hilarious, saucy hoot if she wanted to be, as well as hold her own with the great thinkers of the land. As neither of these is true, she is consigned to this unfortunate hinterland.

Conrad H. Roth said...

This is certainly a valid perspective on the issue, and in fact I don't think it's entirely incompatible with my own analysis. As I said in an earlier comment, "she makes appeals to both [elites and non-elites] at the same time. It's a mark of anxiety, of trying to cover all bases"--which is equivalent to your "double bluff".

I wouldn't have gone so far as to say 'great intellect', just reasonable intelligence combined with first-rate education: I said that she wants us to know that she is intelligent or well-educated (while being coy at the same time), you say that she wants us to think so. Either way she isn't being honest about her intentions.

Whether she really is a 'hoot', I can't say. She thinks (correctly, no doubt) that her daily doings are inherently interesting to her readers (not to us) for the mere fact that she is hovering on the outskirts of glamorous celebrity.

And perhaps 'outskirts' is important: readers can 'relate' to her because she isn't a real celebrity, but on the other hand they enjoy peeking into the world she represents. The papers are full of this sort of person. So in a sense we can agree that hers is a 'hinterland': unfortunate to us, but rather more fortunate to others.