Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The blind leading the blind

If you think we should be optimistic about the future of written English, think again. The lost and the afraid who hope Google will lead them into the light may be doomed.
(Click images to see them bigger.)

First we have "5jj", a (please God, self-styled) "teacher", moderating a web forum dedicated to helping people trying to learn English as a second language. MariaTeresa, the poor sap on the receiving end of 5jj's wisdom, reinforces my long-held view that foreigners learning my language tend to have more respect for it than do its native speakers. She posts an excellent question.
"I have a spelling doubt, 'semicolon'/ 'semi-colon' :
 are both words accepted; is one of them BE
[British English] and the other AE [American English]"

5jj's initial responses, like those of many insufferable show-offs who populate online help forums, are to pour scorn on the person asking for help, and explain why the question should not have been asked.
"How many times a year do you actually have to 
write the word? Stop worrying; if you get it
 wrong, it's not exactly the end of the world."

 Dear 5jj, if that's your attitude, why did you (allegedly) become a teacher, then set yourself up as moderator on this forum? Forget SOPA and PIPA. What the Internet most needs is a law making this patronising and unhelpful attitude a capital offence.

The original thread can be found here.

Meanwhile, at, a dimwit even more anonymous than "5jj" is sticking a knife into the definition of a sentence. Hey, at least the nameless one is well-meaning though, right? Here's his attempt to put the word subpoena into a sentence:
Subpoena witnesses to attend court in person to give evidence.

OK, so maybe I'm being a little harsh here. After all, if it's arguable that a string of words doesn't have to contain, say, an object, to qualify as a sentence, maybe it doesn't need a subject either. (That's a big maybe though - a big, bullshit-covered maybe!) But the point here is this: If your brief is to sit down and compose a sentence containing the word subpoena, the world's your oyster! If the reason for doing it is to help people to understand, why, oh why, would you go out of your way to deliver such a poor example of a sentence?  

The website has a contact form which invites users to submit comments and corrections. Perhaps this explains the situation - it's a wiki by another name.

The original page can be found here.

English (or perhaps every language) is vulnerable because native speakers often assume that being a native speaker means they're good at speaking (or writing) it, and/or that their opinions about it are inherently correct. The examples given above show otherwise.
The real point here is that the Internet's ability to give everyone a voice isn't always a Good Thing. Me, I'll take the piss when I see a mistake online, just as I'd nudge someone and point to a mistake in a book. And I'll do it in public, using the Web as a platform. It's my way (my only way!) of fighting back. But set myself up as an expert? Slap the word "Teacher" on my profile and swagger around a forum offering to bestow my expertise on lesser beings? I may be cocky, but I'm not that cocky. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Two shades of grey?

I've just read a blog entry by author Max Barry. The entry is called Book Sadist and contains photographs of books literally coming apart at the seams. Max discusses the interesting distinction between the terms story and book - words we often use interchangeably. He observes that stories can be owned in ebook form, but that a certain tactile experience is absent from that form, as is the potential cumulative visual pleasure of having a shelf full of books. So far, so good.

But then Max proceeds to talk about two types of book owner. Just to be clear on this point, I must stress that Max implicitly states there are only these two extremes, describing "people who have treated books with reverence, laminating their covers, turning their pages with care, and never cracking their spines" then continuing "And there have been people like me." From a strictly logical standpoint, this doesn't claim every book owner is one of these types, but it's clear from the tone that this is what Max believes.

Max then proudly displays pictures to illustrate what a real story-lover's books look like. He says he doesn't deliberately destroy books, and I believe him. What I don't buy into is the idea that a tatty book shows that the story is loved or that a pristine one shows the opposite. (Max gives the clear impression that if you ask him to autograph your copy of his next book and it's not in tatters, he'll know you don't think much of it.)

I'd like to suggest that viewing the book-owning public as comprised of two extremes is a bit naive. Maybe there are uptight people to whom a book is merely a bookshelf decoration. And, as Max's post shows, there's at least one person incapable of reading a book several times without destroying the thing. But then there's the vast majority: Normal book lovers (in Max's terms, story lovers - far out, man!) who enjoy the stories just as much as anyone (yes, Max, including you!), yet have enough self-control to read and re-read without shredding the pages or dismantling the spine. (As an aside, one has to wonder why someone who didn't mean to read a book over and over would bother to laminate its cover. I laminate books precisely because I intend to read them a lot.)

Max's attitude is curiously at odds with his behaviour. He seems to claim the intellectual or moral high ground, valuing the meaning and emotion of a story above the mundane object which stores it. But his pride in the battle-scarred condition of his books betrays at least some degree of materialism, albeit of an unconventional form.

I just want to come back to the subject of ebooks before I sign off. While we're all busy patting ourselves on the back for valuing content over medium, Amazon is laughing all the way to the bank - or at least getting ready to. When they're old enough to appreciate them, my sons can have my favourite books. And if they don't love the stories as much as I did, they can give the books away - possibly to a charity shop, to be bought by a complete stranger who might but might not have enough money for an ereader.

But the books can only find their way into the lives of these people...

  • IF they haven't disintegrated through needless abuse. And yes, Max's books have been abused. I have books (ok, ok, stories!) I've read just as many times, and (sit down for this, Max!) loved just as much, which are still in a decent state.
  • IF they exist in physical form at all. There are many seductive arguments for buying ebooks, from tree-saving, to weight-saving. But valuing story over medium isn't one of the best. And even the (sometimes) lower cover price isn't the be-all-end-all of cost the to reading public. A book I buy for my Kindle can't be passed, via a second-hand shop or charity shop, into the hands of strangers who share my love of fiction. This is the bit Amazon and its like find so amusing. The reading public, as a whole, must buy, buy, and re-buy these books. (oops, sorry - "stories", man.) As an author, I suppose I ought to side with the corporation on this particular issue. I ought to be citing that front-matter small-print no one ever reads - the bit that says "this book shall not be lent, resold, etc". And I do love ebooks*. But I'm a story lover at heart, and story - as Max rightly says - trumps medium. That's something we seem to forget in our headlong rush to the sunny slopes of Mt. Technology. 
One thing I think Max and I share is a bewildered amusement at anyone who'd buy a book simply because it looked good on the shelf. Or, worse, so that it would make the shelf's owner look good. On an intellectual level I can understand the behaviour, but - as Max wrote of people taking care of stuff, I have to admit I don't quite get it. 

* Mostly because my weak old eyes can see 'em better! 

Friday, 11 January 2013

Less voodoo, more rocket science

Thanks to a tweet by Joanna Rossiter, I've just seen this (rather dated) piece in The Spectator, by established novelist Allan Massie, and feel the time has come to start venting spleen in this-'ere blog.

Like many others, Mr Massie pours scorn on the idea that creative writing is something that can or should be taught. I don't agree with him.

Just to be clear: I'm not defending my OU diploma. (At least, not in the way the secretly dismayed owner of an overpriced-but-sexy computer or mobile phone will defend their purchase with increasingly evangelical fervour rather than admit they pissed their money away on tat that doesn't work properly.) For the umpteenth time, I'll go on the record and say The Open University's creative writing courses were lacking. (Particularly A363, the "Advanced" one. In the case of A363, "lacking" is standing in for "shite"!) The peer contact and support, together with (postcode lottery permitting) tutor encouragement was great - almost worth the course fees on their own if I'm honest. But the actual courses (sorry, "modules"!) compare very poorly with the books on my list of Recommended Creative Writing Books, which can be bought in its entirety for £120 (about a third of the cost of each OU course when I did them; not even a tenth of their current prices). If you're prepared to even entertain the idea that I may be right making this comparison, then, with careful shopping, you could probably get the entire list for well under £50 - well worth a flutter? I have digressed a bit, but hope I've convinced you that I'm no university fanboy.

Whether or not creative writing can be taught, it's undeniable that it can be appraised. Subjective though the process may be, it wouldn't be too difficult to find a body of opinion holding that, say, Jane Austen's handling of character motivation is pretty bloody nifty. (Or that reading Dr Seuss is more fun than reading Miss Austen.) Bear with me - I am going somewhere with this, honest! Whether the literary merits of my own own writing are closer to Pride and Prejudice, The Cat in the Hat, or a note Tommy Robinson left out for his milkman, everyone who's read it, friends and strangers, siblings and spouse, would tell you it's better now than it used to be. And here's the thing: It's not down to some slippery concept like "experience"; I've lived a shamefully sheltered life in many ways (especially in terms of relationships) and did BUGGER ALL writing between the utter crap I wrote before my twenty-year textbook orgy and the crap I write now. Go figure!

For me, even hallowed stuff like "inspiration" turned out to be something that could be achieved (though not, I hasten to add, with ease) by dint of adopting the right attitude and techniques. Hell, many established authors admit as much! Douglas Adams modestly attributed his greatest success to a flash of inspiration but was quick to point out that it was a one-off. Ideas don't usually come to you while you're lying in a field, he said, "you just have to sit there and think of the little bastards."

It's understandable that some who (think they) are "naturally" good at writing should wish their craft to be unteachable. They never come up with any reason that any aspect of their arcane vocation is beyond the reach of mortals - unless you count an "It just is!" stance as reason. They hate the idea that the pedestal upon which they sit might have room for more. That is all.