Tag Archives: genre

Writing “smart” versus smart writing

An impression of intelligence is readily achievable, even in the absence of significant information value, through the expedient of adhering to the expected usages of a genre associated with intellectual output.

Let me put that another way: You can sound smart without saying much by just following the rules of the “intelligent writing” game.

We all know this, of course. You can use ten-dollar words instead of two-bit ones, and the mental effort associated with their retrieval and decoding will stand in for the mental effort associated with working out information-rich content. More than that, though, words are known by the company they keep; words seen in “smart” content will cue your mind that what you’re reading is smart. It’s just like going to a restaurant with expensive décor and smartly dressed waiters: they could serve you frozen dinners and cheap wine and you’d still assume, at least at first, that the food and bev were of high quality.

But wait. There’s more. Continue reading


Is it art? Well, how does it feel?

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the official blog of Editors Toronto.

There has been much discussion of the Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to Bob Dylan. I have no interest in weighing in on whether his work is Nobel quality—I won’t pretend to understand the judges’ criteria—but I do have some thoughts on the question of whether a songwriter is even eligible to be awarded the prize.

There is no Nobel Prize in music, or in songwriting. So we can’t say that he should be considered for a different category unless you think songwriting is more appropriate to the Peace Prize, or perhaps to Economics. No, if he’s getting a prize, Literature is it. The question is whether songs qualify as literature—whether, to be frank, they’re good enough, or whether they’re “just songs.” There’s something of a privileged-genre attitude, a white-marble image of literature (that is, the truly worthy kind of text) as being cool prose in dry books that silently dissects humanity’s problems, not in the noise of a musical performance.

This has about as much basis as the white-marble image of Greek statuary, which, we now know, was originally painted bright colours. We ought to remember that the novel, as such, has only existed for a few centuries. Narrative texts pretending to any literary merit were expected to be written in verse until early modern times. And why was that? Because the written literature was, originally, the lyrics of songs and chants and declamations to music. The vaunted Greek drama had not one word that was flatly spoken. The psalms of the Bible were for singing. Beowulf was incomplete without a harp to aid the recitation. The fact that we have peeled the spoken from the sung, and ultimately the silently read from the spoken, does not have any bearing on the human insight conveyed in the words. Poetry has been deemed worthy of the Nobel: Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, and Wole Soyinka have all won it, and it is terrible to think that they might have been ineligible if they had, like Leonard Cohen, been driven by economics to set their poetry to music.

Beyond this is the broader question of what is and is not of artistic merit. I usually avoid the question of what is art because most people pretend to argue about the merits of specific objects while in fact they are jousting with different definitions of “art,” a thing that has no solid discrete objective existence. But it is sometimes necessary to address it head-on. I recall once arguing with fellow doctoral students in drama who were insisting that architecture doesn’t count as art. Why? Because, well, you know, you use it. You do daily life in it. If it’s useful it can’t be art. (I did not agree with the implications this had for drama, either.)

A little attention to history and ethnography teaches a person that in many times and places—and, in fact, in our own, if we would admit it—the category of prettily made useful objects bleeds into the category of beautiful useless objects. Museums are full of beautiful spoons, bowls, cups, and furniture, variously useful, and of awe-inspiring objects made to be used with efficacious intent in religious rituals. The aesthetic inheres in everything. Everything. You can see quite clearly which of your kitchen flatware is pretty and which is plain. You have no trouble making judgements about which buildings are dull and which exciting, which pretty and which ugly, which loaded with clever references and which unendurably trite and self-regarding. None of this is subject to universal agreement; all of it is informed by your own learned tastes and prior experiences. That’s how we evaluate it. That’s how we evaluate everything. We just happen to have come of age in a society that, for some time, has been rich enough to afford items that have no function other than the aesthetic: stimulating responses at leisure and with no real-world sequelae attendant (you can see a frightful scene depicted without needing to call the police, for instance). A kind of learning through emotional inoculation. And we justified this luxury through imputing it to the ancients, who were in reality somewhat different from how we tend to picture them. They painted their statues and buildings, for instance.

Words are like this too. We are editors. We know that all words have flavour, all words have effect, all can carry emotions, all can be as dull and cheap as a dollar-store knife or as fine, bright, and sharp as a ceremonial sword. We may not think of an annual report as having literary merit and yet we can tell the difference between a well-written one that is enjoyable to read and a leaden, deadening, trite, repetitious, obfuscatory one that is made to be a Jersey barrier on the highway to communication. Given the challenge, most of us probably fancy that we could craft an annual report that would have genuine “literary merit” and would give fresh insight into the human condition.

I’d like to think we have no difficulty seeing how popular songs, like popular novels, could be worthy of a prize for the artful use of words. If we’re wondering whether the words are aesthetically effective, Bob Dylan has already given us a criterion: “How does it feel?”

Omitting periods? It’s about genres.

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada.

Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style,” declared a New York Times headline. Noted linguist David Crystal had made some comments noting that the period is not requisite in text messages, and as such is used only “to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression,” as article author Dan Bilefsky paraphrased Crystal. From this, Bilefsky – who, just to be cute, left the period off the end of every paragraph in the article – drew the conclusion that the period is going out of style in English generally. As did (obviously) the headline writer.

Which is rather ironic. Tell me: how often are periods used at the ends of newspaper headlines? (Rarely, in case you’re not sure.) And yet this insistent omission has not, over the course of the past century, ushered in the demise of periods in the language generally, or even in newspaper articles in particular. (Bilefsky’s is an ostentatious exception, but that is not because its headline doesn’t end in a period.) Nor has the programmatic omission of forms of ‘be’ in headlines led to their omission elsewhere, although they are left out in other forms that are equally “telegraphic” – for the same reason: economy of space trumps smoothness.

And there is the point. Not all occasions of use of English (or any other language) are the same. Different occasions of communication for different purposes use different components, structure, vocabulary, grammar, and – yes – puncutation. In short, different purposes use different genres. Of course they do! You don’t write a shopping list like a personal letter (“Dear Me: It has been a while since I’ve been shopping, hasn’t it? Could I by any chance manage to pick up some eggs, milk, onions, celery, and fenugreek? That would be splendid if I could. Thanks so much, Yours, Me”). You use what you need, add things as befits the occasion (for politeness, clarity, ornament, what have you), and leave things out for the sake of effect or efficiency.

And if you have declared a particular item unnecessary for the run-of-the-mill functioning of the text, you have it available to use for special effect. Your full name on a government form is a simple requirement of the genre; your full name when spoken by your mother is not required, so it can carry a connotation of concern or disapproval. Poetry, with its line breaks, has less need for capitals and punctuation, so their use and omission can have stylistic significance.

And so it is with periods in text messages. As they are superfluous to the needs of the genre, they have gained expressive potential. Since a simple “end of message” is conveyed by (wait for it) the end of the message, a period can be extra firm, pointedly conclusive. Wilf Popoff has recently given us some instruction in this and similar details of the text message genre, and Frances Peck has addressed the related sub-genre of email salutations. These genre-specific recastings of pieces of punctuation are not losses to the language or even the genre – how can an increase in expressive potential be a loss? But it is also unlikely to spread to genres that need periods to separate sentences in paragraphs, such as the body of news articles… even if it has long since been a feature of headlines.

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.