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Measures thou see art but trifles

Thanks to Ian Sales I have just caught up with the controversy regarding Liz Bourke's review of Michael J. Sullivan's novel Theft of Swords. For those who want to read the full debate, which has spilled far beyond the review's original publication on Strange Horizons, Bourke herself has helpfully listed all the links she could find here. I am impressed by Bourke and baffled (and slightly worried) by some of her critics.

I want to pick up one of her arguments in particular, because I think it's important. Bourke takes issue with one particularly purple paragraph of the book which begins with the immortal sentence "Measures thou see art but trifles." She says,
If you're going to write in a dialect with which you're not familiar, whether archaic or foreign, it behoves you to become familiar with it. If you're writing in Early Modern English (a language still read and performed, and not just by Shakespeare buffs), it behoves you—and your editor, and your copyeditor—to get the basic grammatical structures right. Early Modern English does have a grammar. And if you don't know the grammar offhand, the internet does.
As she points out, the sentence should have been "The measures thou see'st be [or are] but trifles." A couple of Sullivan's defenders jumped on this point:
This is a FANTASY BOOK. He can make up whatever f*ing language he pleases quite frankly.

The language isn't real. The world isn't real. Guess what, magic isn't real. Sullivan can make up whatever phrasing he wants in this world.
As another commenter and I have pointed out, they are objectively wrong on this point, and Bourke is objectively right.

Perhaps I can help with an analogy. If we were talking about an sf novel where astronauts landed on the surface of Jupiter and walked around, that would simply be wrong. The argument can be made that the author is free to make up what he or she likes about the surface of a planet that nobody has visited ("It's a made-up Jupiter!"). But in fact we know enough about the conditions of Jupiter to be sure that it will never be possible for human beings to land on it and walk around. The visible parts of Jupiter are cloud and would not support an astronaut's weight; the solid surface is so far down that it is subject to colossal pressure which would squash any traveller. It doesn't matter how well such a book is written in other ways; anyone who knows anything about Jupiter will find that their appreciation of the book is very negatively affected by the author including such a scene.

So it is for the use of Early Modern English. It's not a made-up language; it's a real language, just as Jupiter is a real planet. There are rules about how you can use the word "thou" - for instance, it changes the verb "see" to "see'st". There is a rule about how you use the word "art" as a part of the verb "to be" - it goes with second person singular "thou", not with third person plural "measures". If the author breaks those rules, it is impossible for anyone who knows Early Modern English to ignore, as bad as describing your characters walking around on the surface of Jupiter.

And if the author has broken those rules, the copy-editors and the rest of the editorial team have a duty to spot and correct it, a duty which was clearly not discharged in this case.

Comments

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
peadarog
Jan. 18th, 2012 11:55 am (UTC)
I don't fully agree with your Jupiter analogy.

In a fantasy world, the characters (if they existed) would be speaking a language, which is not English (i.e. Westerosi, Elvish, Common etc.), which the author kindly translates for us.* When the POV encounters characters whose accents differ, the author will often throw in a few dialect words or constructions. They're not meant to be complete. It's not real English, after all, it's a "translation". The writer is simply trying to add a bit of flavour. Verisimilitude -- the measure of which is vastly different for English majors than normal folk -- and clarity, are enough.

Of course, I haven't read the book in question and have no clue what the author intended. I just wanted to comment on the "Jupiter" question :)




*I know you know all of this, I'm just trying to be clear.
nwhyte
Jan. 18th, 2012 12:27 pm (UTC)
Peadar,

With respect I completely disagree. Your distinction between "English majors" (which as a matter of fact I am not and have never been) and "normal folk" is misleading. If a writer chooses to add a bit of flavour by using Jupiter as a setting, or archaic English as a means of expression, they should know what they are doing to the point that readers who know about Jupiter or archaic English are not put off. Otherwise it is simply sloppy work.

Truly great literature can get away with bending these rules sometimes, but I haven't seen even Sullivan's defenders arguing that Theft of Swords is truly great literature (indeed one or two of them openly admit that it is not).

Edited at 2012-01-18 12:28 pm (UTC)
coalescent
Jan. 18th, 2012 12:30 pm (UTC)
I can imagine a novel in which astronauts walked around the surface of Jupiter as self-conscious retro pulp fantasy. Is there a linguistic equivalent? (If there is I'm pretty sure Theft of Swords isn't going to be it, I'm just interested.)
tortoise
Jan. 18th, 2012 08:50 pm (UTC)
Thy Dungeonman is sort of like that...
yea_mon
Jan. 19th, 2012 04:04 am (UTC)
Vance has a hero confronting a villain at his lair on the burn-out husk of a star.
liadnan
Jan. 19th, 2012 01:15 pm (UTC)
Maybe not quite what you meant but episodes in TH White's Once and Future King spring to mind. Eg when Sir Grummore and Sir Pellinore fight they start talking in cod-Malory. I think Grummore corrects Pellinore's grammar.
peadarog
Jan. 18th, 2012 12:57 pm (UTC)
Your distinction between "English majors" (which as a matter of fact I am not and have never been) and "normal folk" is misleading.

Oh, wasn't trying to imply that you studied English in the US ;). Only that verisimilitude varies with education, experience etc. I regularly spot errors in my own areas of interest, sometimes in books that are otherwise excellent. It's not always that the authors haven't been making an effort either.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 19th, 2012 02:38 pm (UTC)
which the author kindly translates for us
But what has he translated it into? He's either translated it poorly into Early Modern English, which is what it reads like, and which an editor should have corrected, or he's translated into a made-up language which is not Early Modern English, but is similar enough to strike readers as being Early Modern English done wrong.
peadarog
Jan. 19th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
but is similar enough to strike readers as being Early Modern English done wrong

This is the nub of the issue, isn't it? How it strikes the readers. From reading the review (which I loved, btw), it looks like the author was throwing in archaic *sounding* phrasing to highlight the fact that the speaker is from ye olden times*. The vast majority of his readers are unlikely to know or care that the grammar is inauthentic.

On the other hand, if he were to use genuinely authentic Early Modern English, the same readers who have trouble understanding Shakespeare would struggle with the dialog.

So, why use archaisms at all then?

Well, as any linguist will tell you, failing to use archaisms of some sort for a character that has been isolated for hundreds of years, would also be wrong. Unless magic is involved, of course.



*probably wrong ;)
raycun
Jan. 18th, 2012 12:18 pm (UTC)
Is anyone defending "His father is a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions."?
After all, in the author's made-up language this is a perfectly cromulent sentence.
liadnan
Jan. 19th, 2012 01:20 pm (UTC)
I don't know but I think its a wonderful image.
ninebelow
Jan. 18th, 2012 12:31 pm (UTC)
I wonder if Sullivan and his editor haven't made an additional error and what he wants to say (in contempory English) is: "Measures, you see, are but trifles." Clearly wrong either way.

The defence is remarkable though and I'd like to see it applied to other areas. "The dialogue in this fantasy novel is terrible." "How dare you, that dialogue is in a made up language which is completely naturalistic, it just coincidently very closely resembles bad English."
nwhyte
Jan. 18th, 2012 12:42 pm (UTC)
I fear that the truth is more awful than that.

I have found what appears to be a pirated ebook of the original self-published edition on a Ukrainian site. The paragraph which I think we are concerned with here, in its original form, is:
And thou art aware of only a small fraction of the measures used to contain me. All thou sees art the walls, guards, and the abyss. There art also magical forces at work. Magical locks art on all the doors here, just as ’twas on the door through which ye entered the gaol. They disappear upon closing. ’Tis the same enchantment on the bridge ye came across. Go look and ye wilt find it so. ’Tis no longer there. ’Tis not invisible—’tis gone.
Compare with the version quoted by Bourke from the Orion edition:
Measures thou see art but trifles. Walls, guards and the abyss stand least among the gauntlet. Lo what works of magic ensnare me! Magical locks claim all the doors here as smoke and dream they vanish with passage.
The first version is not good; "all thou sees art", "there art", "locks art" and "ye wilt" are all wrong (and "'twas" is a bit dubious if referring to plural locks). But the second version is far worse, and it looks very much as if the author has consciously and deliberately revised it between the two editions.

Edited at 2012-01-18 12:55 pm (UTC)
hawkwing_lb
Jan. 18th, 2012 02:16 pm (UTC)
...

The wizard's dialogue in the earlier edition - oh, my. All of it's much easier to read, even with the grammar fail. So much less purple and bizarre.

(Puzzling thing I did not mention in the review, but is now brought once again to mind: how does the sister get in and out multiple times when the prince is trapped after just one visit?)
marypcb
Jan. 18th, 2012 08:57 pm (UTC)
it reminds me of the cod-Shakespearean dialog a friend wrote for a Romeo & Juliet pastiche for a school play
wherefore art thou Romeo?
I art here!

twas brillig!
ninebelow
Jan. 19th, 2012 10:33 am (UTC)
Latest comment on the review: "Maybe he's an old wizard who has been locked in a dungeon for a thousand years and his grasp on language has decayed." Amazing.
gareth_rees
Jan. 18th, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC)
The botching of Early Modern English is unfortunately commonplace, particularly among American writers. (Here's me complaining about it in the English translation of Super Paper Mario.) There seems to be a constituency with no real awareness that it was a real language with real grammatical rules, and who think that all they need to do is to throw in a few "thee"s and "thou"s to give their dialogue a medieval flavour. After a while this kind of thing becomes self-perpetuating, because there are generations of readers whose only encounter with the language is via popular culture rather than Shakespeare and the Authorized Version.

The reaction to Bourke's review is equally commonplace. There's a standard playbook that gets applied to bad reviews: the critic is an arrogant out-of-touch academic; the critic is a failed author who is jealous of the success of the author under review; the book is just a bit of fun so how dare you take it seriously?; the popularity of the author shows that the critic is wrong; something that happens in the next book in the series contradicts one of the critic's points, thus invalidating everything the critic has to say; everyone is entitled to their opinion (except the critic), so how dare the critic say that people who like the book are wrong?

But why such a vitriolic and personal response, and why so common? It's as if people feel that an attack on a book they enjoyed is an attack on their taste, and so a personal attack on their competence as a reader, and so they feel justified in making a personal attack on the critic.

Edited at 2012-01-18 01:20 pm (UTC)
nwhyte
Jan. 18th, 2012 01:50 pm (UTC)
I have some sympathy with "the book is just a bit of fun so how dare you take it seriously" as a counter-criticism. However those who say this almost always reveal themselves as taking the discussion much more seriously than this argument would allow them to!
gareth_rees
Jan. 18th, 2012 01:56 pm (UTC)
There's nothing wrong with the argument "the book may have the flaws you identify, but it has these other virtues, and they are good enough for me to enjoy it". It's the "how dare you", the suggestion that the critic's views are illegitimate, that I object to.
marypcb
Jan. 18th, 2012 09:01 pm (UTC)
well it kind of *is* an attack on their taste; this is wrong as to grammar and shoddily written to boot, so if you really like it you're either remarakably forgiving or by implication iggerant. plus there's the Penny Arcade Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory at work (normal person + anonymity = grotesque fukwaddery)...
gareth_rees
Jan. 18th, 2012 10:30 pm (UTC)
I disagree: if the cap doesn't fit, you don't have to wear it. It's not a reflection on you if you like a work that has flaws: every work has flaws.
chess
Jan. 19th, 2012 09:21 am (UTC)
I blame 'Ren faires' for spreading cod-Medieval like this...
pingback_bot
Jan. 18th, 2012 06:24 pm (UTC)
Some Interesting Points About Detail In Fiction
User redfiona99 referenced to your post from Some Interesting Points About Detail In Fiction saying: [...] sting comments were made about it in his post here - http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/1880791.html [...]
(Anonymous)
Jan. 18th, 2012 09:40 pm (UTC)
What about Science Fiction written in earlier periods? We know now certain facts about Jupiter that would make you Nicholas uncomfortable reading it today. But what about, say the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells? Can we still enjoy their work even if some of their 'science' no longer holds? Does science fiction have to be 'scientific'?
nwhyte
Jan. 18th, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
It's a good point. I'm prepared to cut some slack for authors who could not have known better and whose work has been overtaken by later discoveries. That doesn't excuse later authors failing to get their settings up to date, though. On the other hand I am very dubious of the claim that scrupulous attention to scientific detail makes great literature; that seems to me to miss the point of what literature is about.
pwilkinson
Jan. 19th, 2012 12:37 am (UTC)
I'm with you about half way. From what I have now read about Theft of Swords, Liz Bourke's review is roughly what I would expect and want from Strange Horizons - intelligent, expecting relatively high literary standards of what it is reviewing, and willing to be robust in its criticism. I would have been rather worried if Strange Horizons had given Theft of Swords a good review. And while this does seem to have been a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the publisher, Orbit, had presumably presented the nut to the sledgehammer. And given Orbit's track record with SF and fantasy, Strange Horizons could reasonably expect its readers to want to know whether this specific book met its standards. It clearly didn't.

From the other end, though, I have some sympathy with Sullivan and his fans. I would suggest Orbit have made two or three dubious decisions, though not the one you highlighted (at least in the form you mentioned). The least dubious of these was the decision to buy the book (or rather the series) in the first place - or rather, while the decision was almost certainly dubious on literary grounds, it probably made commercial good sense. Sullivan had obviously already established himself as a successful pulp fantasy writer through his own efforts - so Orbit were buying not only the books but Sullivan's existing readership. However, this means that Orbit and Sullivan need to continue satisfying his readers' expectations - which, for instance, probably ruled out extensive copy-editing. Sullivan's language may be clunky, his characterisation poor and his tropes outworn, but he is obviously doing something right (pacing? plot structure?). Consciously or not, his supporters are obviously tuning out (or even completely oblivious to) his bad points and concentrating on his good ones.

Rather more dubious, obviously, was the decision to have Strange Horizons review the book. However, the one that is pure speculation on my part but the worst if it happened, is the possibility that Orbit actually did ask Sullivan to rewrite the book to a higher standard. If so, from the passages quoted, Sullivan got this distinctly wrong - polishing up language that was already over-mannered. On seeing the "improvements", Sullivan's editors should probably have found some way of telling him that, on second thoughts, his first version was perfectly good enough after all. They obviously didn't.

And the fans? For at least some of them, coming across Liz Bourke's review and Strange Horizons seems to have produced a culture clash. Because they rarely come near our usual haunts, I think it's easy to miss how many people are essentially unfamiliar with intellectual argument styles - for them, arguments are always eventually a personal scramble for position. And, unless they simply back away quickly, they start fighting back on that basis.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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