This month, we talk about meditation.
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A friend pointed out some grammar and spelling errors to the Don’t Call Me a Feminist post. I attempted to correct them, but something went wrong with the iPad version of the MacJournal app that I use, and only part of the updated post ever showed up on the site. I’ll repost the corrected essay this evening when I get home from work.
This is Why I Roll My Eyes at the Whole Oxford Comma Thing (for Shaindel because I like to kill the joke)
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).
A couple of days ago I got myself in a pretty serious funk. Took myself right out of the rhythm I was in that had me thinking I was nearly done with this latest novel.
Sad fact of working on any long project is the inevitable funk, followed by a dead end. At least for me. An emotional crash leads to the creative energy getting sapped, and then I write myself, seemingly, into a corner. So, here I am, taking a few mornings to write a one-off blog post that may or may not make it up on the blog. I need to move some words and get some thoughts down. If you’re reading this then success! I needed a success, such as it is.
Everything gets questioned at times like this. Why have I spent so much of my life trying to be a writer? Why is it so hard for me to write query letters? Why can’t I just stop writing and be happy as a corporate automaton making “useful” or “utilitarian” things? Does living in Kansas hurt my chances of being taken seriously? Why is searching for an agent so much like searching an online dating site for a date?
In the past, when I’ve trotted out concerns or insecurities about writing, I’ve had at least one person respond with the directive to self-publish. I wrote a long post about why that most likely won’t happen, and I won’t rehash that particular argument here or even give a link. It’s down there somewhere. But there have been some things related to the idea of self-publishing that have been creeping around the surface of my consciousness lately. which may have finally come to a point.
During the first day of this funk, I listened to a podcast episode of the Wisconsin Public Radio show To The Best of Our Knowledge, which was about why people write fiction. They had Hugh Howey on to talk about self-publishing and his series Wool. He doesn’t bullshit about his choices, and I respect that. He also has, in some of his posts, stated that self-publishing isn’t right for everyone, just like traditional publishing isn’t right for everyone, and I agree with him on that, too. The big thing that has come up in listening to him and reading a couple of things he’s written about self publishing, especially his piece on author earnings back in 2014 (http://authorearnings.com/report/the-report/), is that he has a very . . . utilitarian view of what he’s doing.
When I was last assaulted by the highly sensitive and defensive champions of self-publishing for attempting to explain why I, personally, will never self-publish, I read a number of comments that sounded an awful lot like Howey did in the TTBOOK interview. The primary thing being espoused was that a writer should write a book a year with the implication being, at least in the way it was, rather aggressively thrown at me from a darker corner of the self-publishing world, that if someone isn’t writing a book a year then they aren’t a “real” writer (at best) or, more pointedly, they’re a snobby pouty literary MFA princess who is stamping his feet because the world won’t admit his arty-farty brilliance (at worst).
One thing I’ve come to dislike, and especially since grad school have tried to avoid, is making prescriptive statements about what a writer should do in order to be a writer. Really, the only thing a person needs to do to be a writer is to write. Now, if that’s too broad a postulation for those who want to think calling oneself a “writer” shouldn’t be so easy because then that makes a five year old who writes a six word email to grandma a writer, let’s go with this: A writer is one who practices writing whether they think of it as a hobby, an art, or a commodity. That’s it.
Hugh Howey and I both “practice” writing. Now, maybe someone who has a view of writing that is more similar to Howey’s would say that I practice and Howey does since he has far more books out in the world being read at the moment than I do. But that’s just snark, at best, or, plain old counter elitist elitism at worst. Howey writes a book or two a year, maybe more, I don’t know for sure. I write a book every three years or so. Michael Ondaatje publishes a novel, on average, every six years. Ernest Hemingway, published novels, while he was alive, about every 4.5 years (he had 2 novels in 1926, and I’m not counting the story collections, nor the two posthumously published novels).
I’ve never read Howey’s work, and I probably never will. I also think it’s safe to say that he’ll never read anything of mine, and that’s cool. I’m not really into series sci-fi anymore, and he’s probably not into quiet literary novels about emotional cripples. But I have, for years, read a series of post-apocalyptic sci-fi books called “Deathlands.” At the moment, I’ve got about 24 unread books from the series, and no plans to read them. Their stable of writers come out with a new one almost every three months, which might be part of the reason I’ve lost interest in reading them. Back when the series started, books came out erratically (sometimes two in one year, sometimes more), but it was under the control of one writer only for almost a decade. In 1996, though, the series made its first steps toward being a team-written story mill. Several writers have worked on the series since (see this list): some have been more skilled than others, and so the writing has become inconsistent to me. Of course the writing itself was never, shall we say, “artistic.” I used to say that it was solid and functional. The primary writer before 1996 was pretty good at what he was doing, the writing did its job of keeping me in the story, and it had some life to it. I could pretty easily slip into that imaginative space and be content. When they started rotating writers, and I got older and read more widely, I began to lose interest.
It wasn’t that the writing got sloppy, exactly, or even awful, it simply became, I suppose, what best could be described as utilitarian. It had ceased to have any life to it and became mechanical and predictable. But it’s that word, that concept, utility, that has been on my mind a lot lately in relation to writing in general, and the profession of writing specifically.
My day job is in the business and manufacturing world, and in the business and manufacturing world, everything is utilitarian: toilet paper, hammers, vacuum cleaners, fertilizer, watches, computers, cars, plungers, drugs, and so on – even dildos, to an extent, are utilitarian. If you need a roll of toilet paper, and usually you buy Charmin, but the store is out of Charmin, you’re not going to stop wiping your ass until they restock the Charmin. You’ll buy a few rolls of Northern to get by. Brand names are mostly meaningless in a world of utility anyway. The brand name painkiller Aleve is naproxen sodium, which comes in a cheaper, generic brand as well. There’s really very little difference between a hammer made by Stanley and one made by Black and Decker, and if you need a hammer, but wanted one made by Stanley that isn’t available, you’ll get the Black and Decker rather than wait to finish your roof until the there’s a Stanley hammer. Utilitarian things are interchangeable, that’s the whole point of utility.
Utilitarian objects have an objective use. Any old hammer will drive in a nail, whether you mine and forge the materials to make the hammer yourself or buy the top-of-the-line model from Home Depot, and it’s within that scope that business and manufacturing try to differentiate themselves, knowing that, really, the only difference between them is the illusory “image” created by the company’s advertising. In this utilitarian approach, the company has a few simple requirements: 1) their object must do what it is supposed to do 2) it must be produced cheaply and quickly and in sufficient volume to satisfy the demand created by the advertising department’s mythology, and 3) it must turn a profit.
That is a fine model for legitimately utilitarian objects. However, for a certain cadre of people it also applies to writing. James Patterson, Hugh Howey, the guys writing the Deathlands series, and those aggressively defensive self-publishing champions who tried to rip me a new one, seem to all be approaching writing in this utilitarian fashion. Or at least trying to by putting the production model into play, at least. They’ve found a niche (thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.), developed a production schedule and streamlined it, created a mythology they hope an audience will buy into and shell out money for the next installment, and they measure their success by their profits almost exclusively. In this utilitarian model, profit is the result of being a “good” writer in the same way that a hammer is judged to be good.
For some people, I think, reading is something like an itch and any old thing will scratch it whether it’s the back of a cereal box or the 125th book in a well plowed series where each book follows the same basic rhythm. Escapist genre fiction can be fun, if it’s done well . . . but, of course, everyone’s definition of “writing done well” is different. Some people have a much lower bar than I do, and, of course, there’s no accounting for taste – as the saying goes.
I read for pleasure, for edification, for escape and entertainment, for the chance to exercise and expand my empathy, to more deeply understand and relate to the world. I read to test my emotions, and to challenge my intellect. I read for the thrill and surprise that comes when a writer puts the right words in the right order and says something that shifts my view of the world into a new alignment. I write for a lot of the same reasons, and yes, I want to be read. The caveat there being that I don’t want to be read because I produced a utilitarian piece of fiction that simply entertains someone and, more or less, passes through them, like a candy bar, to be shit out the back end and forgotten. I want to be read because I’ve written something that resonates with the human experience. Rather quixotically, I write and want to be read with the hope of being remembered. For me literature is Art, not a utility that will buy me a yacht.
To me, it’s a bit delusional to get into writing because you think it’ll make you rich. Of course, it’s also a bit delusional to get into writing because you think it’ll make you somehow immortal.
One self-publishing champion told me that Stephanie Meyer’s books would be remembered longer than anything I’ll ever write. That may be true, if only by a few decades and by virtue of her books being made into popular movies. But that is the gamble one takes when they make art.
As opposed to things of utility, art is, well, useless. I used to balk at that description of art. To me, art is incredibly useful. The problem with art though is that it’s very personal and subjective. If you’re in need of a hammer, any old hammer will do, but if you want to hang an original painting by Picasso in your home, and not a reproduction or facsimile, you’ll have to wait for one to go on sale, but in the interim, you’ll probably leave the wall blank instead of buying a the next available painting that might be by some artist you don’t like. Do you see where I’m going? If you’ve lost all your favorite albums by New Order, replacing them with Travis Tritt isn’t going to work. Sure it’s “music,” but it’s not music that touches you, or moves you, or resonates. It’s like that with books. I like Raymond Chandler, but he’s not writing anymore, obviously, but Sue Grafton isn’t an adequate substitute. And, I bet, there are people who love to read Hugh Howey, but if he stops writing, I doubt they’ll simply drop down to the next author in the alphabetical list and be as happy, right?
A few years ago, Michael Korda wrote a book called Making the List where he looked at Publisher’s Weekly’s annual bestseller lists (you can see the lists here, but the book is enlightening and you can also access a more detailed list, including non-fiction bestsellers here). What I got from the books was that being on the bestseller list is not necessarily a sign of being a lasting writer. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is an important American novel, one of those definitive 20th Century books, but it never made the annual bestseller’s list. Only three of Hemingway’s novels ever made the annual bestseller’s list when he was alive (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and into the Trees, and The Old Man and The Sea), and the fourth made it after he died (Islands in the Stream, in 1970). Of the four, only For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea are classics. The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, To Have and Have Not, The Torrents of Spring, and none of his story collections or non-fiction ever made the annual bestseller’s list when he was alive (A Moveable Feast was in 1964, and Papa died in 1961). Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World did not make the annual bestsellers list for 1932, the year it was published. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t sell enough books the year it was released to make the annual bestseller’s list, and neither did Animal Farm. On the other hand, Thomas Dixon, Jr. was a bestselling American writer in the early 20th Century, and now, no one reads his work except maybe white supremacists and those who study their history and psychology (Dixon wrote “The Clansman”).
It’s an interesting form of anthropology to comb the lists and see who you recognize, who you’ve never heard of, and who isn’t there that you think should be there. It might be an interesting exercise to count up who had the most bestsellers in each decade, and see if the writer is one whose name we recognize and still read today.
Even if we think of writing as a utilitarian thing, its basic subjective nature will win out when it gets into the hands of the reader. As a writer, we have this basic choice to make, and both cases involve that old cliche of catching lighting in a bottle if our goal – stated or secret – is to “make money.” We can approach our craft in a utilitarian model and hope that we’ve picked the right genre and built an interesting enough world that it will capture the imagination of the most people, or we can approach our craft as a singular act of art and hope that our expression resonates as true with those who read it.
If you haven’t read the book yet, or listened to Episode 19 of The Outrider Podcast, you should.
The running app I’ve downloaded, and plan to start using, says I can be running for thirty minutes at a time by the middle of May. Considering my injury prone failures to this point, I’m skeptical.
I plan on supplementing my three running days a week with bike rides. It’s not like I have anything else to do.
I had originally planned to release Episode 8, my conversation with Colin Dickey on December 23rd; however, I just got word this Friday morning, that the iTunes podcast submission service will be down from December 21 to December 27. No matter how much I try to avoid Christmas, it just keeps intruding.
So, rather than rush to get the podcast out the evening of the December 20th, I’m postponing Episode 8 until December 30th.
Happy whatever it is you do.
P.S.: although the back catalog is small, you can always go back and pick up one you missed. Might I suggest Episode 4: Delia Tramontina. She’s one third of the poetry beast that is Poet As Radio.