The Outrider Podcast is a monthly conversation between Jason Quinn Malott and Stephen McClurg on literary topics of all sorts.
Today’s topic: Resistance.
The Outrider Podcast is a monthly conversation between Jason Quinn Malott and Stephen McClurg on literary topics of all sorts.
Today’s topic: Resistance.
For a long while now, I’ve been in a kind-of-sort-of debate/not-debate with a long distance poet friend of mine over the Oxford Comma. This friend, Shaindel, and I have never met in person, but the argument goes like this: “We’d be perfect for each other if only I would use the Oxford comma.” She is firmly on the side of always using the Oxford Comma while I am – let’s say – comma flexible.
I’m not opposed to the use of the Oxford comma. It is, indeed, needed in order to provide clarity . . . sometimes. The problem is that it is not needed in certain contexts, and most of the examples floated around as memes to illustrate the need for an Oxford comma are sorely lacking in validity.
A normal person might give the whole thing a rest and let it be, but I’m a bit pedantic sometimes. Also, as a writer who will often spend an hour fiddling with one sentence in one of my stories, comma use is of particular interest to me. There are the standard, approved uses and then there are the artistic uses for things like dramatic pauses, rhythm, pacing, etc. Your high school English teacher may have tried to beat the run-on sentences out of you, but I sometimes find run-ons useful as a form of mimesis (rapid continuous thought, rapid continuous action, and even slow, stream of consciousness musings).
Years of instruction in English based on the personal preferences of an Eighteenth Century Anglican Bishop, and those who took his opinions too deeply to heart, have made us think English is one of strict, unbending rules: don’t split infinitives, don’t dangle participles, don’t end sentences with a preposition, avoid double negatives, and so on. Generally, yes, the rules should be followed (the dangling participle/modifier one is a good example of a rule that should be followed in nearly all cases), but context can often excuse, or even negate, some of those rules – especially in English. In English, word order is perhaps the most important rule to follow and, in a way, it’s the least subjective of the rules. It kind of makes English a free-for-all in other regards. So, as someone who more or less naturally follows the rules, but has always had trouble articulating them, finding out that English is a free-for-all as long as the words are in the right order was revelatory and liberating.
One thing to complicates all of this is that English is an “analytic” language that no longer has a case system. Everything in English basically collapsed into the nominative case during the roughly 300 years that English disappeared from the written record after the Norman Invasion. Before 1066, English had a case system similar to German (English is a Germanic language after all, even now). The generative plural “s” ending is all that’s left of the Old English case system. That lack of a case system is why English has to rely on word order to create meaning in our sentences. “He bit a dog” makes sense in English, but “Dog a bit he” is nearly gibberish. In “synthetic” languages, those languages with a case system (German, French, Spanish, Russian, etc.), the word order in a sentence is more flexible as long as the words (nouns, adjectives, articles and pronouns) are given the proper endings to match them to the appropriate direct or indirect object (the thing acting, or the thing receiving the action) and the sentence’s case (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, etc.) (see here).
Furthermore, punctuation is a tool of written language, not spoken language. In spoken language we use pauses, hand gestures, and body language to effectively “punctuate” sentences. Punctuation in writing is there to keep things clear, but just because punctuation can sometimes appear to clear up confusion on the page, it doesn’t actually clear up the more basic confusion when spoken. And remember, a living language is always struggling with a state of orthographic lag – that is, the difference between the way the language is spoken and the way the language is written. Although that concept doesn’t really apply here, I mention it only to reinforce the idea that, even if there was no lag between spoken and written language, word order is still more important than punctuation.
So, now let’s look at the joke sentences often used to make the supposed case for “always” using the Oxford comma.
These are the three most common joke sentences I’ve seen that propose to illustrate the requirement that the Oxford Comma be used at all times:
“I’ll bring the strippers, Lenin and Kennedy.”
“I’d like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.”
“I like eating, my friends and family.”
Speak those sentences out loud. You might mentally project an Oxford comma into those sentences when you speak them, but that doesn’t mean the listener will register it, and so the confusion persists.
The bigger flaw in those sentences is that they are intentionally out of context and, more importantly, intentionally in a bad order.
In the first two, we have a plural noun (strippers, parents) followed by two proper nouns. The “joke” here is based on a purposeful erasure of context that then creates confusion about how to read the sentence. The pro-Oxford comma people want you to read the sentences as a list of individuals (X number of strippers, plus someone named Lenin, plus someone else named Kennedy – a set of parents, plus God, plus Ayn Rand), but are taking advantage of the words being placed in an order that allows the sentence to be read as an introduction of two people (Lenin and Kennedy, and God and Ayn Rand,) who fall into a category (strippers, and parents). In other words, the syntax in those sentences is the syntax is that of the introduction of couples or pairs – “Here are the strippers, Lenin and Kennedy.” – “Meet my parents, God and Ayn Rand.” – “Our specials today are my friends and family.”
Purposely created confusion is no reason to force or demand the use of a comma.
If we rewrite the sentences keeping the intended context in mind – and use the appropriate syntax for providing a list of things we’re bringing or a list of people we’re thanking, then we erase the contextual confusion, and the need for an Oxford comma becomes legitimately debatable – – especially in a short list.
“I’ll bring Lenin, Kennedy, and the strippers.” (Oxford comma)
“I’ll bring Lenin, Kennedy and the strippers.” (AP Style)
Now it’s clear, with or without the Oxford comma, that the speaker is bringing two named individuals and an unknown number of unnamed strippers. The only question we have now is the relation between Kennedy and the strippers. Are they separate? Is Kennedy their manager? Or is “Kennedy and the Strippers” a band name? But those questions are not as funny as drawing Vladimir Lenin and John Kennedy in garters and stockings. Now, our next sentence will be rewritten.
“I’d like to thank God, Ayn Rand, and my parents.” (Oxford)
“I’d like to thank God, Ayn Rand and my parents.” (AP Style)
Now it’s clear this person was abused as a child and is now a master of ignoring their cognitive dissonance, and not someone struggling under the delusion they were born of a deity and a selfish, raging twat waffle.
In the cannibal sentence, we’ve got a verb acting as a noun (gerund) first, followed by two nouns (OR, we’ve got a cannibal that incorrectly used a comma). Again, it’s a forced contextual confusion. The supposed joke comes from inserting a comma so that the reader is forced to wonder if the word “eating” should be read as a verb, or a noun. Into this confusion steps the Oxford comma champions who say that placing another comma in the mix will miraculously make the word “eating” clearly understood to be a noun. But what if you’ve actually got a cannibal’s confession and that cannibal either doesn’t understand how punctuation works or is purposefully trying to obfuscate?
If we place this list of favorite things in an order to match the context in which they might be logically used, then the sentence is clear with or without the Oxford comma because now the verb/noun confusion is irrelevant.
“I like my friends, family, and eating.” (Oxford)
“I like my friends, family and eating.” (AP Style)
Eating what, we don’t know. It could still be this person likes to eat his friends and family, but at least the list is in a clearer order.
Relying on the Oxford comma to fix a problem created by a confusion of context and syntax, is lazy, sloppy writing. I’m more offended by lazy, sloppy writing (and speaking) than I am about the placement of punctuation that is the equivalent of bacon bits on a salad.
To continue with the context issue, let me say that I can hear all the Oxford Comma champions clicking away on their keyboards hunting for the recent news article about the court case that was decided solely based on a missing serial comma (here, I’ve found it for you (link)).
Let me be clear: the Oxford comma is essential . . . sometimes . . . and, sometimes, it’s a matter of style. Context matters. Especially when making a joke.
In sentences where all things in a list are of the same grammatical class (parallelism), but a distinction is needed to ensure separation of the items on the list, then an Oxford comma is, absolutely needed (Hi Shaindel). In fact, let’s use the sentence in question from the recent court decision that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford Comma (that final, serial comma).
Here’s the offending sentence:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agriculturally produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
First thing to notice here is that there is no combination of gerunds and regular nouns, no combination of plural nouns and proper nouns. Everything in the list is a verb – an action. As you should know, this is parallelism (see def. #3). Changing the order won’t fix the problem created by the missing serial comma. The problem is that, without the final serial comma after shipment, the intended understanding that “packing for shipment” and “distribution of” are separate acts is made unclear. The lack of a comma makes everything after “storing” read as a phrase describing a single act, i.e. the “packing for shipment or distribution.” Even if the sentence had used “and” instead of “or” the result would be the same. In the court case, that was enough to exclude truck drivers who don’t, of course, pack the food either for shipment or distribution. The truck drivers only distribute the food. The contract had intended to cover the drivers, so distribution needed to be understood as separate from packing. If the serial comma had been used, that would have been the case.
Now, let’s see if I can simplify it in a way similar to our joke sentences because, well, I’m a pedantic ass like that. And yeah, it probably won’t be funny.
Here’s my sentence, with a list that contains grammatically similar words:
“When I die, send my two cats to Alice, Ted, and Sarah.”
Wait? What? Following the rules of the Oxford comma police, it looks like I’ll have to cut one of the cats in half, right?
What happens if I take out that Oxford comma? “When I die, send my two cats to Alice, Ted and Sarah.
Phew! Now we might be able to assume that Ted and Sarah are, most likely a couple – a single unit – and they will be sharing one of the cats whole.
I know. Nuance is nitpicky and it kills the funny of an internet meme. I’m a horrible person, and Shaindel and I will never move in together with our Squatty Potties and our Love Toilet (that’s a way, way inside-ish joke).
After the year of monthly posts, and the year of sporadic posts, I have just about completed the year of no posts. I also let the podcast fall into disservice. It looks like I’ve been lazy as hell.
My own sense of the last year or so would back that up, except it’s not really true. Since that September of 2016, I’ve completed one novel, revised that one and another. Each one is over 120,000 words. I suppose that, to some, editing and revising some 250,000+ words isn’t much. However, I’ve been balancing that against a full-time job and an existential, emotional upheaval.
No, the existential upheaval wasn’t over Trump, not entirely. A great deal of it arose from a kind of desperate need to be social and the angst at failing at it. In other words, I’ve been attempting to date. The less said about that the better, I suppose. At least for now.
So, what HAS been going on?
Well, I’ve started to send out queries for the first of the two completed novels. I’ll start sending out queries for the second as soon as I get a synopsis that I’m happy with. Querying agents is going to be my primary focus for the next few months (it is a slow process for me – anxiety, doubt, self-consciousness, etc. all have to be fought with each opening paragraph. The synopsis and bio are easy. It’s the first paragraph and all the weight it has to carry that gives me trouble). I’m also beginning to dive into some serious reading, which I’ve been half-assing for longer than I’d care to admit. The reading will, most assuredly, recharge those creative batteries especially since there’s a lack of face-to-face literary challenge in my personal interactions (more on that later). And, at last, I’ll be rebooting the podcast with my friend Stephen McClurg because, again, I need some literary challenge even if it’s only face-to-face via Skype.
Recently, I migrated my author website to a new host, and redid the whole thing. You can check out the “New Work” page to read the current descriptions of the two projects I’ve just spent the last 18 months or more working on.
I first started writing vignettes and flash piece for what became The Palace of Winds in about 2008 or 2009, but the first completed draft didn’t get started until 2010, right about the time my father died. According to my files, it looks like I actually started the other recently finished project, Far Nineteen, about 2007 or so, right about the time I sold The Evolution of Shadows.
It’s astounding how time rolls by so quickly. When Shadows sold, I had a completed novel called “By The Still, Still Water” that I thought was pretty good. My editor didn’t think so, but I spent about eight months as Shadows was making its way to press attempting to revise Water until I found the spot near the middle of the book where it was basically too broken to fix with the skills and knowledge I had at the time. Maybe my editor knew that, or suspected it. Either way, that novel got put in the failure file. I must have returned, for a bit, to Far Nineteen, but got pulled into Palace about the time my father went into the hospital for hydrocephalus. That was February 2010. He died that April after a car accident in March.
I threw myself into Palace after that, and concocted a plan to make it the first of a trilogy. The second book would be about my father. Perhaps the half-assed moments of the last seven years, along with the frenetic energy, fear of isolation, and the approaching mid-life WTF moment (I’ll be 46 in October), have all contributed to my rather uneven nature and the hyper concern over a perceived lack of production and effort.
A quarter of a million words in seven years (not including the words written and discarded). Should I consider that productive even if I’ve not managed to get any of those words published?
On September 10, I finished the most recent draft of a novel I’ve been working on called Far Nineteen. It’s a big one, 113,000 words, 370 pages. On a whim, I went back and looked through the back-up files for the project and found the earliest files dated from 2008, the year I sold my first novel, The Evolution of Shadows, to Unbridled Books.
If my memory is correct, I set it aside for a number of reasons. The primary reason was that it is a thematically challenging story dealing with race and white privilege which can be, for a white male writer, be a problem if he does not force himself to be awake and to listen. Privilege can be blinding, stealthy, and subtle all at the same time. The other reason was that, after selling Shadows, I fired off a completed manuscript I had “in the bank” (as Hemingway used to say) that turned out to be irreparably flawed. Then, in my stubbornness, wasted a good nine months or so attempting to revise it, mostly out of spite, until I hit the point where it was sticking. It was a lesson in trusting a good editor.
By The Still, Still Water was an ambitious project, dealing with war, sexuality, guilt, and how unspoken family history can twist and damage relationships. In my early 30’s when I wrote it, I may not have had enough experience to pull it off. I’ve gone back and looked at it again over the years and find myself still pondering ways to fix it because, honestly, there is some strong writing in there.
I remember talking with people about what would become The Palace of Winds sometime in September of 2009, just before Shadows came out. That means I had already done some preliminary sketching on the idea, maybe for as long as a year. I went back and looked for the earliest files because there was an exploratory scene I remember writing about two hobos taking shelter in an abandoned shack during a dust storm in 1930s Kansas. It would have given me a rough timeframe for when I began The Palace of Winds, but I couldn’t find it.
In February 2010, I began writing The Palace of Winds in earnest, while Far Nineteen languished on the back burner. Palace took off, for me, after my father’s death in April 2010. I worked on it solidly through 2013 and in to 2014. It went through several drafts, friends read it out loud to me, it got submitted and rejected, revised again, and so on. In late 2014, I believe, I returned to Far Nineteen and completed a draft in September 2015, which involved first revising everything that had been previously written.
Now it’s time to bring in my early readers who will read the entire manuscript and rip it apart, and my volunteer narrators who will read sections back to me out loud so that I can hear my language.
I should have been done with this earlier, but in January of 2016, a friend read the first few pages of The Palace of Winds out loud to me, and I was shocked. It was one of those cases where, after having read to me, then revising and revising again, I’d fucked up the pacing and language (no wonder it was being rejected so much). So, I went back in and did another line revision of the whole damn thing.
Now, I have three complete manuscripts. One in purgatory, one I need to keep sending out, and one that needs to be critiqued. In the meantime, I’m going to wander back over the scenes and pieces and notebooks for other ideas until one grabs hold. There’s the Minotaur story, the dead girlfriend story, the Spanish story, the trench story, the Wichita noir story, and then there’s my rock b and serial killer story that’s been simmering since 2004. Or maybe I’ll spin my wheels for a while and see what comes up. I was thinking about my Haibun for the Missing idea a few days ago. I’ve been wanting to flex my poetry muscles again. I’ve also thought about writing that college band screenplay I’ve been kicking around.
The biggest drawback, of course, is always time. Work life, personal life, and writing life form this hopeless tug-of-war when living alone. I write, I work, I exercise so I don’t die, I read, I do laundry, I cook meals, I sleep, I clean the apartment, I run errands and I see some friends once a week who are thoughtful enough to drag me out of the house. The last year has been so focused on getting these manuscripts finished that I dropped the podcast I’d been doing. I want to get it fired up again, but I’m not sure what kind of format I want this time. The conversation format was fun, but the reading schedule needed to read an author’s book before getting them on the show tended to crowd out my personal reading. My biggest fear was reading something and not liking it enough to really be interested in talking to the writer. I loved talking with Stephen McClurg on a regular basis, but I felt we were losing the audience and struggling to make our conversations interesting to anyone but us.
So, there it is. Now, I’m off to see about some new adventures.
Today would have been my father’s 69th birthday.
For years now, I’ve tried to write about him and about our relationship. The scrapped essays, blog posts, and fictional flights have piled up, but none of them have been read by anyone. They’ve all felt incomplete, or far too long and rambling.
I keep coming back to this line from John Berger’s novel, Once in Europa.
“Sometimes to refute a single sentence it is necessary to tell a life story.”
For me, the single sentence is this: My father and I didn’t get along. While it is true, it is also not the
whole and only story. It’s also not the story I want to be left with at the end of my own life; however, unknotting it, untangling the threads of it, will take telling a life story.
Perhaps even two or three life stories.
It’s probably not true for all fathers and sons, but since it’s true for my father and me, there must be others out there who have navigated similar rocky paths. All I can say with certainty is that there were things we wanted from each other and sometimes we failed to deliver those things because of fear or blindness or maybe even, after a while, spite. Those things, those emotional, spiritual, personal things are, I think where all the mystery lies.We, as a society, often think of men’s internal, emotional lives as simple and easy to understand. Even making jokes about it.
The truth, and the problem, is that men’s internal and emotional lives are not simple. If they were, the conflict between my father and me wouldn’t have lasted for twenty-five years, which was long enough that, by the end of his life, it was hard for us to figure out how it all started, how it continued, and, at times, how we were before.
I’m still working on understanding my father, and myself. Still trying to tell the life story that will refute our sentence.
Well, I made it a year doing this thing on the first Saturday of every month. A lot of other things didn’t stay as consistent, but at least I did this.
And, of course, what does anyone do at the end of the year? They look back and take stock.
Because I’m the kind of person who tends to go dark easily, lets start with the failures.
I failed to find an agent again this year. This isn’t really surprising. Submitting my work is an anxiety producing, self-conscious affair. And, like dating, which I’ve given up on completely, I get discouraged and over analyze my failures. The biggest difference . . . ah, who am I kidding? There is no difference. To me, both acts – querying an agent and asking someone on a date – are opportunities to fall madly in love or suffer humiliation. I’m drawn to the former and utterly terrified of the later. This is why I don’t send out queries as frequently as I should. Yes, I’ve put too much pressure on myself in this aspect. I’ve invested the other with too much power. This character flaw, this fear of rejection is why I need an agent: someone to put a wall between me and rejection.
I averaged a query a month in 2015. That means my odds are shitty.
Somewhere, off in the distance, I hear someone revving up their “why don’t you self-publish?” engines. To be crass and base about the comparison: that’s like telling me the next time I strike out on a dating site I should just take up regular masturbation. And don’t think for a moment that the comparison isn’t true. What is Live cam porn but self-published masturbation videos?
Let’s admit it, the podcast is floundering. I’ve been failing to get interviews. The audience, if there ever really was one, has dwindled to almost nothing. Time and technical problems have been the killers. It may be time to hang up the mic, or go some other direction.
Ok, now for the good news, such as it is.
I am still on my writing vacation after finishing the initial draft of Far Nineteen. I’ll start revising it in January sometime. Right now, I’m letting myself be aimless. I’ve jotted down a few notes for a couple of ideas. I made a no-pressure attempt at writing a short story. Let it die. The one thing I’ve been doing is making a bit of an effort to journal more regularly. It keeps the words moving.
I’ve been reading Hopscotch on my lunch breaks at work, and I’m nearly finished. It’s hard to tell though since I’m bouncing around the book following Cortazar’s numbering sequence. Ok, I just looked at the chart. I’m still somewhere near the beginning.
Began reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at The End of The Lane in the mornings during my usual writing time.
Evenings are for watching movies or the latest episode of from a TV show I’ve subscribed too. Since I don’t have cable, there’s no temptation to just sit and veg-out to whatever is on. I actually just watched the season 4 premiere of Arrow last week. I’m behind. And I’ve only seen two episodes of Jessica Jones.
Truth be told, I’ve been dedicating my evenings to playing Fallout 4, and, with the holidays, spending time with family and friends.
There’s an old saying that goes “In France, every writer is important. In England, no writer is important. In America, only the successful writer is important. In Australia, you have to explain what a writer is.”
The same reason I fail at relationships is the same reason I fail at finding an agent. The desire to be accepted is so strong, I’ve given the act of being rejected more power than it deserves. The only difference is a narrow one and it goes like this: rejection by a romantic partner is a rejection of me personally, and I’m flawed beyond repair, so I can, in a way, accept that more easily. My writing, however, is still perfectible, if only someone will take a chance on representing it (and by extension, me). Creating is hard, but revision and editing is the glorious part of art. I love good critiques, constructive criticism – – I want to hear from someone who is as invested in making my work better as I am. I value anyone who can point out the flaws I can’t see. And so, getting my book rejected by an agent feels so much more painful because it is the rejection of the imperfect but perfectible thing I have devoted myself to making.
My parents and the world I grew up in made me, so if I can’t meet a woman who can decide that what I am good enough to work with then that’s kind of beyond my control. I’m doing the best I can with the emotional and physical tools I was given (and denied) and I’m making efforts to sand down the rougher edges, but some things simply have to accepted. But, I made the book, and I know very well what the flaws and limitations are. I also know that a book, a text, is mutable, and I’m willing to listen to, accept, and incorporate suggestions to make those flaws better (or, in some cases, spin them into advantages) – in fact I demand it. So, throwing a novel out there to an agent and getting rejected feels like being told my efforts are not worth their time, energy, or devotion. It especially feels that way after having taking the agent’s advice and researched them, and their list.
I don’t shotgun queries. I don’t have a standardized letter (I do have a standardized description of the novel), I try to personalize each letter to the agent. Now, here, again, is a parallel to dating. I’m a quiet man who lacks a strong sense of entitlement. I’ve heard, very clearly, the horror stories from women on online dating sites. I do my best to be respectful, take no for an answer and search out some common ground for conversation. If those things don’t work, I don’t blame the woman. I blame the fucking boys who acted like jackasses and made her jaded. The same goes for agents. Once, I may have blamed the agents, years ago, but I’ve wised up, as they say. I’ve heard the stories, registered the complaints and have come to the conclusion that it’s not the agents I should blame. It’s the fucking jackasses who don’t understand the publishing business, have some bizarre sense of self-important entitlement, and who flood the agent’s inbox with garbage.
I’m from a flyover state, I didn’t attend a prestigious school, I don’t have a list of unread magazine publications, and I don’t have known, respected writer waving my flag at agents to vouch for me. On the surface, I look like every other naive hack from the middle of the country who thinks writing a book and making a million dollars is as easy as taking a dump (or uploading a file to Amazon).
It sounds pretentious, but I’m trying to make art. I’m trying to make something that is, like the best paintings, and the best novels from the past, pleasing and entertaining as well as profound and moving. I want something that will leave a permanent legacy. If I knew why that was important to me, maybe I could thwart it and become happy with quick returns and empty stories.