In Praise of the Language Police
by Tim Parks
New York Review of Books
By the same token, very little is said of the mediating work of translators, even though we know that where a great piece of literature has been translated more than once, the various versions can sound quite different and obviously owe a great deal not just to the technical expertise but also the personality and mindset of people we usually know nothing about. In general, we don’t like to think of creative writing as a joint venture, and when it emerges, for example, that Raymond Carver allowed his work to be drastically edited, our appreciation of him, and indeed the work, is at least temporarily diminished. We want to think of our writers as geniuses occupying positions of absolute independence in relation to a tediously conventional society. Conversely, we abhor, or believe we abhor, the standard and the commonplace.
Yet nobody requires the existence of a standard and a general pressure to conform more than the person who wishes to assume a position outside it. It is essential for the creative writer that there be, or be perceived to be, a usual way of saying things, if a new or unusual way is to stand out and to provoke some excitement. So when D. H. Lawrence in Women in Love writes of Gudrun’s insomnia after first making love to Gerald that she was “destroyed into perfect consciousness,” he needs the reader to sense at once that this is syntactically anomalous; a person can be “transformed into,” “turned into,” “changed into” but not “destroyed into.” The syntactical shock underlines Lawrence’s unconventional view of consciousness as a negative rather than positive state, which again is emphasized by the unexpected use of the word “perfect,” rather than a more immediately understandable and neutral “intense.”
Naturally, anyone writing with this level of creativity needs a copy editor willing to accept that rules can be bent and broken. But that doesn’t mean such editors have no role. It is important that the “special effect” stand out from a background of more conventional prose, and that a deliberate departure not be mistaken as something merely regional, British perhaps, or simply that there not be so much clutter around it of one kind or other that it is hardly noticed. George Orwell, a champion of strict grammar as a vehicle of clear thinking, memorably begins 1984 with a very simple, almost embarrassingly conventional novel-opener of a sentence in order that the anomaly constituted by the last word pack a big punch: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” In a different field, David Hume, when presenting his radical and unconventional philosophy, did everything to remove from his writing any indication of his Scottishness, sending drafts to friends to have them check his writing for “Scottishisms.” It was not that he thought standard English superior, just that he did not want a reader’s attention to be distracted from his main purpose.
The editor’s job then becomes one of helping the writer to see where an unessential, perhaps unconscious departure from the norm is actually draining energy away from places where the text is excitingly unconventional. That is, the editor reminds an author that to construct a coherent identity he has to remember his relationship with society and with the language we share and cannot express ourselves without. To go out on a limb linguistically, accepting no compromise and creating an idiolect that really is entirely your own, may win awed admiration, as did Finnegans Wake, but will likely not attract many readers, and arguably does not allow for the communication of nuance, since all the ordinary reader will understand is that you are indeed off on a trip on your own; even Joyce’s hitherto staunch supporter Pound had no truck with it.
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