Monday, January 23, 2012

Everyone's a Critic

I've been thinking about books and readers, and how and why they come together. Why does one person love a book that the next person hates? (Writing a novel will do that to an otherwise normal person.)

The truth is, there's no knowing. Even if my novel turns out as close to perfect as I can make it, some people—actually, lots of them—will not like it. That's a bitter pill to swallow, but grab a big glass of water. It's got to go down. And if one of those admittedly strange people happens to be the acquisitions editor to whom I have submitted my manuscript, well, that's all she wrote. Literally.

A fellow author provided a generous helping of perspective by mining readers' reviews on sites such as Goodreads. I checked, and these reviews are real from actual people (or, in the case of the first example, some life form cleverly disguised as a human).

I am the original Jane Austen freak. I am on record as saying that Pride and Prejudice is the most perfect novel in the English language. It is the fiction pearl-of-great-price. But here's what one reader had to say: "This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. I would rather read Twilight twelve more times than read this again."

I cannot fathom that. Insipid? Did she miss all the humor? The social commentary? The unblinking assessment of human nature? I guess so.

Here are few of the more astounding comments: “Just people acting stupidly for no apparent reason except to be disagreeable.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll. “It is incredibly flowery, particularly strange given the “thriller” genre that it tries being a part of.” Dracula, Bram Stoker. “First, C.S. Lewis… is not a good writer, plain and simple.” Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. “What is seriously lacking in Tolkien’s world is any original idea or just imagination in general.” The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.

So I'll be in pretty good company if (when) someone says they hate my writing. Many writers consider a bad review a badge of honor. I'm beginning to see why.

It might surprise the Goodreads reviewer that Tolkien responded to his criticism long ago: "Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, found it boring, absurd, and contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their work, or of the kind of writing they evidently prefer."

Ouch. Another of my favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse, characteristically responded to critics with humor. In a novel foreword, he wrote, "“A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cigar Time 2012

Another year has burst upon us, and what better way to celebrate than to pass out virtual smokes to those who got "close, but no cigar"—hapless speakers and writers who missed their targets by a millimeter or a mile.

The "Bless Your Heart" Award goes to the decorator who wrote in an e-mail that she had found a pretty bedside table at a "flee market." I think that means the mall.

The "Well, That's the Way It Sounds" Award is shared by a couple of bloggers. The first detected "deep-seeded hate" in someone who was not even a gardener. The second wrote on relationships, noting "Grant it, in many situations these long-term couples were young when they met and may have grew apart." (The WTTWIS Award is for the "grant it," not the "have grew." That's a different problem altogether.)

The "I've Never Seen This Word in Print" Award goes to a radio host who clarified that the "and" in a Web address was an "ampersign."

The "What's a Mixed Metaphor?" Award goes to another radio personality who assured his audience that "No team has the corner market on lunatic fans." Worthy of mention, of course, but he got the corner market on this award by declaring that someone "bit the farm." I just can't manage a visual on that one.

The "SpellCheck Can't Help You" Award goes to a celebrity gossip site that someone must have told me about because I would never waste time on that rubbish. Here's what I, um, I mean, somebody found there: "Craig found two new targets: Tony Blair, and, low and behold, politicians in general."

The "SpellCheck Can Make Things Worse" Award is presented to the Travel Channel's Web site. “Serial killer Albert Disavow, The Boston Strangler, murdered 13 women in Beacon Hill and other areas of Boston.” Um, that’s Albert DeSalvo. I figure the only way to get Disavow out of DeSalvo is through the magic of Spellcheck.

The "Give My Regards to Broadway" Award goes to a commenter to an online opinion piece, who declared "For too many years members of all media have hidden behind our belief in their pledge to just get the story regardless of who came out looking bad as a result. You know… 'just the facts mame’…" Sure. Put the blame on Mame.

Go ahead, award winners, smoke 'em, 'cause you got 'em.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Posh talk? Pish-tosh.

It's January, and we are in the high season for that winter parlor game known as the making and breaking of New Year's resolutions. Some party poopers refuse to play, but most of us join the game with varying levels of enthusiasm and hope. Personally, I'm afraid of what my life would devolve into if I gave up the game altogether.

That doesn't mean I resolve to do anything earth-shaking. No, my resolutions have become fairly modest—there's the usual "eat better" and "exercise more," but since the baseline for comparison is my December diet and exercise regimen, i.e., eating enormous quantities of high-calorie food and strolling through department stores, those resolutions are not as ambitious as they might seem. 

But I haven't stopped there. I am truly committed to self-improvement. I also have resolved to use, mostly, the proper fingers to type numbers in 2012, and to give "hallowed" the right emphasis when reciting the Lord's Prayer. No more sing-song "hal-LOWED" for me from now on.

Of course, if someone had given me Pocket Posh Word Power: 120 Words You Should Know for Christmas, I'd really be approaching perfection. The book description on Amazon starts off like this: "Words such as propinquity, armillary, and farrago should be vocabulary staples."

Wow, really? Those are great words, make no mistake, but staples? I'm particularly fond of "farrago," defined as "a confused mixture." Yes, that could come up quite a bit. "Sweetie, I love you, but your place is a farrago of dirty clothes, dirty dishes and dirty dirt." I'm not sure I want to have to take that from my friends and family.

As for "propinquity," well, I've got less use for it. "Honey, your propinquity with the TV screen is going to hurt your eyes." Meh. Doesn't work for me.

But the prize has to go to "armillary." Seriously? An armillary sphere—its friends call it simply "armillary" for short—is that farrago of metal hoops and arrows representing the heavens that astronomers used before they had computer programs for that sort of thing. An armillary certainly is a posh bit of home decor, but since I don't have a posh house, I don't own one. And even if I did, how often would I talk about it? "I don't think I can make it to your party. I've got to dust my armillary."

I guess I won't be doing any posh talking in 2012. It's just as well. I'm pretty sure no one would understand me if I did.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

That does not translate

Happy New Year, one and all.

As today is a Sunday, it is fitting that my first grump of 2012 comes from the Bible. I am tempted to go Old Testament on the translators of the New Revised Standard Version who gave us this: "Then Ahab said to Obadiah, 'Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the wadis; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.'"

Wadis? This passage is from 1 Kings, chapter 18, which, most likely, was written in the 6th century B.C. Why have the translators inserted an Arabic word that can be traced back no further than the 17th century? (The language did not coalesce into early Arabic until centuries after Christ's birth.) Did they think it would lend a little Middle Eastern flavor to Ahab's orders? Sorry, guys. Despite Ray Stevens' song (which I trust will now be going through your mind, as it is mine), Ahab was not an Arab.

Maybe a message I received in the course of business can shed light on the translators' motives. After an exchange of e-mails, my e-correspondent sent me this gem: "I hope you aren’t offended by my explanation marks, I am not being rude by any means, just think they look better than periods."

I had not previously heard exclamation points called "explanation marks," but I was dumbfounded with the explanation of the marks. She just likes the way they look! Isn't that how we all choose our punctuation?

Those translators just liked the sound of "wadis" ever so much better than "stream beds" or "valleys." Never mind if it's a weird anachronism that probably does not communicate to many English speakers. It rolls off the tongue so nicely! And looks so much better with explanation marks!

It's 2012. Do you know where your sanity is?