Friday, 7 June 2013

In the beginning were words - by Bill Kirton


At one point in Alan Bennett’s play, Habeas Corpus, the housekeeper, Mrs Swabb, bows deeply and says, ‘Sir Percy. Could I crave a boon?’ It’s a priceless moment, created by that wonderful archaism and it’s one I’m repeating here as I crave both a boon and your indulgence. Why? Because the paragraph that follows this one may well try your patience and, probably from the very first word, get you clicking the exit button. In fact, it may alienate several followers of this splendid and ever-stimulating Authors Electric blog for good. Please, though, try to resist the urge, read it and then I’ll explain why I risked stretching your tolerance through such flippancy. It’s a spoof opening to a supposed review of a non-existent book called Ambiguity and Gastronomy in Tennyson’s 'In Memoriam'. If the book had ever existed, it would have been written by Professor V. Nonchalant. (If any such person exists, I apologise unreservedly for hi-jacking his/her name.) Here, then, is how my review of his/her book would have started had such a thing existed:

Teleological inadequacy in the quest for meta-fictional catharsis is a trope too frequently associated with linguistic excess. In his previous studies of root vegetables in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his monograph entitled Descartes and the Bay Leaf, Professor Nonchalant posited the extensory variability of post-cultural deviance in the seventeenth century’s sporadic yet transitional dalliance with anarchic conceptualisations of disassociated herbivorous phenomena. Here, he extends his exegetical analysis of textual malfunctions to encompass the twin themes of literacy and indigestion, arguing persuasively that the Victorians’ semi-precocious insistence on the iconography of laissez-faire nutritional expediency both complemented and contradicted their equally fervent adherence to the vertiginous monotony of the iambic pentameter. That, in simplistic terms, is the point de départ of this 642 page study.
If you’re still reading, thanks for your persistence and good will. The paragraph, of course, means absolutely nothing. It’s unadulterated garbage masquerading as learning. In a moment, I’ll get to why I’ve quoted it here but first, why write it at all? Well, I contribute book reviews to the excellent booksquawk.com and, when it celebrated the arrival of its 25,000th visitor, I suggested one way to mark the occasion would be for all its regular contributors to send in a parody of the opening paragraph of the worst type of reviewing they could think of – not nasty or vicious stuff, simply something typical of the most pretentious or plain silly garbage. The idea was just to have a bit of fun.

So I wrote the above as an example and posted it to the group. But here’s the interesting thing. Two of the other contributors – both friends and excellent writers – knew that it was only a parody and therefore not supposed to make sense but they tried to read it as if it did, and one of them said ‘my brain couldn't HELP trying to make sense of what you wrote...and it *almost* did’, a fact which she said was sort of frightening.  So it brings us back to another aspect of the power of words. If we see them laid out in seemingly normal structures, we want to unlock what they’re saying. The tendency is to assume that they ‘mean’ something so we do what they implicitly ask and try to give them that meaning. And if we can’t, we think it’s our fault.

But what if I hadn’t confessed that the paragraph was just crap? I’d (deservedly) have suffered the same fate as a lecturer in my novel Shadow Selves, which is set in an academic institution. I wrote of him:

Early on, he’d learned that students and colleagues alike could be kept at bay by words. The longer the words and the more intricate their context, the greater the security they provided. No one was ever willing to admit they didn’t understand anything and Christie moved through his days pushing before him a bow wave of verbal pretence and leaving in his wake students who either worried about their own intellectual inadequacy or dismissed him as a wanker.

And all because of words. They’re powerful,  they shape our experience and they’re the only things that try to fix meaning in the accidental chaos of the world we live in. My old mate Sisyphus had his rock; we have words. Let’s respect them.

Learn more about Bill Kirton's books (the ones that make very good sense) here.


14 comments:

Reb MacRath said...

Bill, the super-annuated elongations of male critcality-minded thought purveyors out of touch with their inner womaninity has resulted from time immemoriam in delightful posts like this. Loved it!

Lee said...

Words are hardly the only things that try to fix meaning in our chaos - what about photos, for example? music and dance? maths? Mind those words, please!

CallyPhillips said...

Fantastic Bill. Brought back so many (happy?) memories of the days when I pored through academic tomes which SEEMED to be as meaningless as this but were just written abstrusely in order to force ones brain to a deeper level of (yes, of what we ask?) Anyway, this certainly made me think. And more than that. Got me reaching for the 'click' button for Shadow Selves. You know me, I don't 'do' thrillers but previous conversations on here and elsewhere where folks talk about how it's not all about the 'murder' etc but about the character and you know what, I think I'm about ready to give Carston a try! Your WORDS have had a power to reach where other thriller writers have failed! (It may just be that I'm staking out rabbits who have got into my polytunnel that I'm in a 'murderous mood' but whatever - I'm going to download it and if the sun comes out again I'll sit in the sun and read it. So all your 'gibberish' has achieved a sale. I'm sure that will give you a decent laugh. Sometimes words won't do eh? Then, just LAUGH.

Bill Kirton said...

Reb, I have no idea what you're suggesting but thanks.

Lee, you're right - sloppy of me.

Cally, what can I say? God bless rabbits, I guess. Thanks.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Oh, Bill - so true! So thought-provoking. Anyone who has worked on a Royal Lit Fund fellowship - you have, I have and I know other Electric Authors have - will recognise this instantly. I can't tell you how many of my students seemed to think that in order to do well, they had to use six long words where a single short one would have been perfectly good. This even extended to some of the essay questions. I used to sit and try to unpick them with the students. Sometimes they seemed deliberately designed to confuse. The really sad thing was that when essay topics were clear and simple, the students always suspected the lecturers of some trickery. 'It can't be that easy,' they would say, even when it was. Occasionally, when the question consisted of a whole paragraph of waffle, I would suggest that they go back to the academic who had framed it and politely ask him or her to explain exactly what it meant - and say I had sent them. I also used to think that the laudable attempt to avoid plagiarism sometimes lead to students (and academics too) joining the Office of Circumlocution in finding ever more ingenious ways of translating some perfectly clear sentence into a paragraph of nonsense.

Bill Kirton said...

Yes, Catherine, speaking as an ex-academic as well as an ex RLF Fellow, it's always exasperated me that academic literature (as well as university lectures) was (were) synonymous with incomprehensibility. They were the precursors of today's management-speak and Blairite policy-babble. At least when footballers et al do it, it's funny, e.g. 'He had no alternative but to make a needless tackle' or 'I've never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body'.

julia jones said...

"A bow wave of verbal pretence" - LOVE IT!

liebjabberings said...

For a moment I had the horrid thought you were expecting - for some characterization point - readers in a NOVEL you were writing to plow (American spelling) through this paragraph to get to the story (although Nonchalant was a dead giveaway).

Phew.

If you WERE going to put it in a novel, I would suggest making it shorter - and clearly identifying is as a character's thoughts, etc., as quickly as possible.

Like a snowdrift, it is possible to push through this sort of thing - but only if it isn't too long.

OTOH, don't you find it frightening that you can WRITE such?
ABE

Chris Longmuir said...

Oh, Bill! That's far too deep for my poor little brain. I only understand words of 2 syllables!

Diane Nelson said...

In the beginning were the words ... and the words were good.

Reb MacRath said...

You're welcome, Bill. Now back to my hopeless passion for one and two-beat words.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Julia. I know you know exactly what I mean.

liebjabberings. I was exposed to so much of that sort of thing when I was an academic that I could almost write a computer program to generate it (that's if I knew how to write a computer program). Don't worry, I wouldn't want to spend much time with a character of mine who wrote or spoke like that.

Chris, I'm nearly half way through your Missing Presumed Dead and it proves that your 'poor little brain' has some very deep, dark recesses.

Thank you, Diane (and I know you know whereof you speak).

They're the best ones, Reb - straight, to the point and just as powerful.

Kathleen Jones said...

Brilliant Bill!!! Words are inadequate . . . .

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Kathleen - but they'd better not be or we're all in trouble.