29th November 2013
I quote 2 Thessalonians only in deference to Thanksgiving this week - I don't want anyone to think I have gone back to my evangelical ways. But then I share my birthday with evangel Billy Graham, so the compulsion is always there. Then again, Joni Mitchell was also born on my birthday, or I was born on hers, so there is no compulsion whatever.
This thanksgiving is being spent in Ithaca, New York, which is a use of the passive tense, and an aberration in the eyes of Strunk and White in their much celebrated book on the elements of style. Writing in the passive tense is also eschewed by Stephen King in his fantastic book on writing, but then he is pretty much a strict devotee of the two grammarians who both lived and worked at Ithaca New York's prestigious university, Cornell. Which is why I bring it up (a sentence that would have brought the Strunk and White house down around my ears.) Avoid the passive tense at all costs, say the two gentlemen, for it is a weak tense and lowly of heart. Refrain from using the passive voice or else Microsoft will underline your words with a green squiggle. In the world of tenses, la voix passive is an invalid, stuck in its literary wheel chair and unable to stand.
But tenses don't evolve for no reason, and using the passive tense is not always a sign of weakness. Lately critics have been taking Strunk and White grammatical dictates back and chastising the ancient gentlemen for throwing the populace into a state of grammatical angst. G Pullam laments the state of affairs whereby this land of the free lies in the grip of Strunk and White. He says fifty years of stupid grammar advice is quite enough, thank you, and why should our spoken English be always one step away from a gnawing unease at every utterance of the passive voice or downright disgust at the split infinitive. Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise recognises no such bounds and boldly goes where no grammar has gone before. So why shouldn't we? It wouldn't have the same ring, would it, "to go boldly"? It loses its adventure. It makes you want to grab the English back like a security blanket from the parental hands of Strunk an White and cry, "No! Mine!"
They don't care for adjectives and adverbs either, our Messrs. S&W. They want you to keep it simple and not get too off-beat. They not only want you to kill your darlings, but to entertain no darlings at all. Many have been the well meaning readers of my writing that have groaned in red ink at my overuse of adjectives and adverbs.
Okay. They are right to a point:
"I am on to you," Sally said to Joe knowingly.
We don't want to be hit over the head with how on the ball Sally is. But, "I love you," Sally said with a sneer - this qualifies the spoken word to the point of changing it. And adjectives? Why the disdain? Adjectives are, in the parlance of kindergarten, describing words. What a luscious job they have - describing. Someone in my writer's group years ago used to write OTT (over the top) on my manuscripts. Strunk and White were peering down at my style over his shoulder and clucking their dead tongues. But the best parts of books to me are the describing passages. Take the adjectives from Paul Harding's Tinker's and the frame of the book would collapse. You want to steer clear of cliches, of course, because cliches are phrases that, though once new, have lost their edge. But don't skimp on adjectives or adjectival phrases. Describe - it's what sets an author apart from everyone else. Hell throw in a cliche every so often. Cliches have a hidden beauty - there is a reason they have been overused.
In terms of creative writing, conventions in any case go out the window. The language is your own, and that's what makes it interesting. Ask James Joyce, a veritable Strunk and White nightmare. And he knew thing or two about words on a page, at least, he knew how to go down in literary history.
But enough about Strunk and White and the elements of style. Enough about Ithaca New York.
Thanksgiving will be spent here, whether the infamous gentlemen are here to see it or not.
On the publishing front: Short of a couple of outstanding reviews, the cover of my book is set, so I have a good one-liner on the front and three full length reviews on the back. The previous line on the front about One Woman, Two Worlds and a Love that Knows no Bounds has been replaced by Jillian Medoff's line about how reading Veil of Time is like falling into an enchanted place from which the reader doesn't want to awaken. If any prospective reviews come in late, they will go on the Amazon page or in the inside of the book. So I am told. So the passive voice is employed. So, while you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, what goes on the cover of a book goes a long way to promoting it.
While castigating Strunk and White, I should have mentioned that the White of Cornell fame is also the EB White of Charlotte's Web notoriety - a book with no small comet's tail: a publishing history of more than ten million books sold in twenty-three languages. The man had a way with words. He knew a thing or two about the power of description, about adjectives with resonance, life-saving adjectives, like Terrific, Radiant, Humble. One could argue that better adjectives could have been used, and one might use that passive voice to take the edge off the accusation.
We need the passive voice, like we need so many things that have fallen into disrepute by the dictates of convention. Like the sacred feminine. Like Scotland. And though we probably shouldn't start sentences with a conjunction, we do need to be footloose and free-floating with words. They should be daffodils tossing their heads in the rain, not dried flowers on the sideboard.
We need all of this and we shouldn't forget at any time that the most important of these is to give thanks. (Stuffed to the gills with turkey and pecan pie, that's as close to spellcheck and a poignant ending as I'm going to get, the elements of style notwithstanding.)