The above downloadable Word document comprises an inventory of books by and about the late Victorian writer George Gissing in my personal home library.
— Roger W. Smith
The above downloadable Word document comprises an inventory of books by and about the late Victorian writer George Gissing in my personal home library.
— Roger W. Smith
Downloadable Word document of this post is above.
In this post, I would like to consider and respond to criticisms of my writing which have been made by readers of this blog from time to time. In responding, I have used my own writing and writing of acknowledged masters as a basis for drawing conclusions about matters such as verbosity, big words versus little ones, simplicity versus complexity in style, supposed pomposity, when one is entitled to have an opinion, and so on. By explaining what I feel are legitimate reasons for writing the way I do, I hope to be able to shed some light on the writing process.
You have stated, “concision is a desideratum in writing.” Sounds pompous. Using “desideratum” is not as clear as saying “concision is essential to good writing.”
I stated, responding to one my critics, “Concision is a desideratum in writing.” The critic pounced on this. He said it sounded pompous and that it would have been clearer if I had said, “Concision is essential to good writing.”
English happens to have lots of fancy Latinate words. There is nothing wrong with using them when appropriate. Connotation as well as tone is important here. Desideratum and essential mean essentially the same thing, but they are not exact equivalents. The connotation I was striving for was embodied by the choice of a word meaning something that a writer seeks to achieve, a sort of authorial ideal.
Saying that concision is essential would not convey my meaning as well, since I happen to feel that while concision usually is desirable, it is not always essential. This point has been made by composition theorists such as Brooks Landon, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, who has stated, in a series of lectures for the Great Courses series, that “in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.” In view of this, I am wary of saying, as a general proposition, that concision is essential to, is a sine qua non of, good writing.
Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. My critic, in his eagerness to “lay down the law” in Strunk and White fashion, did not perceive that there may have been a good reason for my using the “fancy” word desideratum.
In a novel by Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, the term “a porcine martyr” is used to describe a drowned pig. A barely educated woman character has been eagerly telling a story in which a pig which her husband was trying to get out of its pen was swept away by a deluge and drowned. Alcott’s use of the fancy phase is humorous — ironic; her wry authorial voice contrasts with the speaker’s raw narrative tone. The irony is clever and appropriate.
Sometimes, your writing appears to be pompous and self centered. The pomposity comes through in the frequent use of highfalutin outmoded phrases, such as “as it were” (usually adding no apparent value to whatever you are saying); or “may I interject a comment here?” (as if the reader were in a conversation with you).
The critic objected to my writing, in one of my posts, “may I interject a comment here?” He felt as if I were guilty of being supercilious. What the critic fails to appreciate is that I want the reader to get the feeling that we are having a conversation.
A conversational tone and the use of “highfalutin outmoded phrases” do not necessarily amount to pomposity. And, a conversational tone is often (depending upon context) desirable.
The critic thinks that by affecting to directly address the reader I am guilty of pomposity or conceit. It is conceit of a sort, a rhetorical conceit — or, more precisely, a rhetorical device.
The best writers often adopt a conversational tone. This is to be desired and is not an indication of affectation or pomposity.
Consider the following complex sentence of mine, from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.
Note the deliberately conversational tone.
Similarly, in my post “I am not the center of the universe,” I address the reader directly, in the second person, as follows:
Did you ever have an experience in the course of life, at a particular moment on a particular day — something seemingly inconsequential — that permanently altered your fundamental outlook on life?
The intent is to draw the reader in, to suggest that perhaps the reader may have had a similar experience, which would help or encourage him or her to “get” the piece.
One has the feeling, with the best writers, that you, the reader, are being privileged by having a conversation with the writer, or, to put it another way, that the writer is conversing with you, his or her interlocutor. There is no off-putting pretense or stuffiness. And, the writing seems to flow naturally the same way a good conversationalist or raconteur can keep his or her listener riveted. It is not surprising that the best writers have often been good conversationalists and, plain and simple, good communicators. “Good writing invites interaction,” in the words of Professor Dorsey Armstrong in her series of lectures “Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything” for The Great Courses.
I want the reader to be able to feel that he can share and follow my thoughts and thinking. So, when I say “may I interject a comment here?” or “did you ever have such an experience?” I am inviting the reader in, so to speak, drawing him or her in, as Walt Whitman did when he would write, for example, in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (addressing the reader in the second person), “Closer yet I approach you.”
And, in his great poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman says:
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
Again using the second person and increasing the power and impact of the poem and its message by addressing the reader directly, as if it would have been possible for the reader to share the experience with him. He invites readers, current and future, to join him, figuratively, using a rhetorical conceit by which he fuses his personality and enthusiasm with an imagined reader’s.
Talking to your audience is not equivalent to talking down to them.
The following is an example of Charles Dickens addressing the reader directly in a fashion which suggests that he and the reader are having an actual exchange:
It was on a fine Sunday morning in the Midsummer time and weather of eighteen hundred and forty-four, my good friend, when—don’t be alarmed; not when two travellers might have been observed slowly making their way over that picturesque and broken ground by which the first chapter of a ‘Middle Aged’ novel [by which reference Dickens meant to evoke the typical opening of a historical novel in the manner of one by Sir Walter Scott, in which the narrator/observer would be seen viewing things from a distant vantage point with respect to space and time] is usually attained; but when an English travelling-carriage of considerable proportions, fresh from the shady halls of the Pantechnicon near Belgrave-square, London, was observed (by a very small French soldier; for I saw him look at it) to issue from the gate of the Hotel Meurice in the Rue Rivoli at Paris [by which assertions Dickens styles himself as a narrator observing things, as a journalist would be, at close range]. — Charles Dickens, The Daily News (London), January 21, 1844
If Dickens can do it, why can’t I?
Here is an example from the opening paragraph of George Gissing’s novel Workers in the Dawn:
Walk with me, oh reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week in which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this ‘Truce of God;’ our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.
Note how Gissing deliberately, at the very beginning, adopts a conversational tone, addresses the reader directly, which works and draws the reader in.
“By Jove” is an archaic word no other writer has used in a hundred years. You used it in the USA is the greatest country piece. The word “indeed” would have sufficed.
I used the expression “by Jove” in my post “the greatest country in the world.” The critic suggests the use of a more common word/expression and implies that I am putting on airs.
The word “indeed” could have sufficed, along with many other choices. The critic missed the point that words are used in context and must be taken that way. “By Jove” was used playfully by me for effect, not pompously. If you read the blog, you can see that I was almost making fun of myself, the jejune fellow with a new idea striking like a thunderbolt. In this context, “By Jove” is actually a better choice than the more neutral word indeed.
This is consistent with thoughts about writing that the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham expresses in his Style: An Anti-Textbook:
American pragmatism insists that words are for use, not enjoyment. … Surely we ought to move in the opposite direction from such moral earnestness, stressing not words as duty but words as play. …. “Speech in its essence,” Kenneth Burke tells us, “is not neutral”; it is full of feeling, attitude, emotion. Drain this out in the name of useful unmistakability and you end up with composition class prose, a dismal grayness.
Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in the Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.
To the critic’s “Why not,” I would reply: Why?
Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. The use of arcane or highfalutin words is not necessarily a sin.
Big words and archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided. It depends on the context. An example would be my use of autochthonous to describe Theodore Dreiser as a writer in my post “On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.” It’s the perfect word. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able when appropriate to use such words.
Words are not equivalent and cannot be substituted, as is the case with substitution in an equation, as the critic seems to think. This was made clear by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, a language, Newspeak, is invented that is intended to replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with ungood and, “if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ [the character Syme tells Winston Smith] what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still.”
Similarly, consider a phrase from the New Testament (Matthew 7), as translated in The New English Bible: “do not throw your pearls to the pigs.” Do you think this is an improvement on The King James Version: “neither cast ye your pearls before swine”? I don’t. Yes, pigs and swine mean the same thing, and pigs is the commonly used word nowadays. But, the antiquated word sounds better, whereas the commonly used one makes the passage sound flat to the ear, if not idiotic, as if a rapper were saying it.
What my critic does not fully understand is that words are not only fun to use; they have an extra-literal dimension. It is not as if your journeyman writer is a sort of processor of words working on an assembly line, with the words being components or parts lined up on a “vocabulary conveyor belt” from which one selects words needed and slots them into the constituent piece (e.g., a sentence) in assembling the writer’s end product, a piece of prose. With the choice of words being dictated by some theoretical framework, so that the one chosen must be not only the closest fit conceptually but the most readily available. So that the writer selects the common word original because it is in the inventory, but is not allowed to deviate from “production constraints” and choose a less common word such as autochthonous.
The reality with the best writers, as they actually write, is that it is not a case of interchangeable parts. The writer should actually enjoy and exercise great freedom in choosing words. My ear told me that autochthonous was the right word. It is the one that came to me, and it fit perfectly.
Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in one of your emails. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?
What I said, in response to a critic’s remarks about supposed pomposity in my writing, was that I promised henceforth to write “sans pedantry.” The French word sans (without) was used playfully by me. Using another word than the usual one unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep him or her awake, and sometimes help to emphasize or make a point. The critic was tone deaf and completely missed the irony.
Note that great writers sometimes use foreign words for no apparent reason. For example, there is a famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene 7), where Shakespeare describes old age, the final stage of life, as “second childishness, and mere oblivion,— / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It has been said that Shakespeare himself wasn’t perfect. Was he guilty of showing off when he used sans?
Walt Whitman used foreign words for novelty and effect. For example, in the line “Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs [French for sidewalks; italics added]!” in his poem “Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun.” And, in “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote: “no dainty dolce affetuoso I,” using Italian terms. Should he be accused of affectation? After all, he could have said: “I am not an effete snob.”
As James Perrin Warren points out in his book Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment, Whitman in his poems used the following foreign borrowings: kosmos, debouch, Americanos, Libertad, programme, philosoph, finale, evangel-poem, en-masse, omnes, camerado, ma femme, ensemble, adobie, sierras, dolce affettuoso, vistas, and arriere.
And in Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road,” we find the line: Allons! whoever you are come travel with me! [italics added].
Here’s an example of me doing the same thing in one of my posts, “writers: walkers”: “I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.” And then said, “Por favor, read on!” I used the Spanish por favor (meaning please, or kindly) for no special reason other than variety. And, perhaps, to stimulate the reader, to wake him or her up!
Your writing is laden with filler phrases such as “so to speak,” “say,” “as it were,” etc.
Qualifiers are not necessarily bad. They actually, quite often, serve a purpose, syntactically speaking.
As it were is neither pompous nor superfluous. It is a qualifier that conveys the idea that an assertion should be taken in a certain sense — not exactly or precisely — as, for example, in the clause they discussed areas that had been, as it were, pushed aside in previous discussions.
As it were means in a way, or in a certain sense, but not literally. It is used by a writer who wants to be less precise. (So to speak is an equivalent phrase which I also often use.) A writer uses as it were to make what is being stated less definite, to avoid absurdities in meaning if the statement were taken literally. An example would be the following statement by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”
As it were is not a highfalutin, outmoded, or superfluous phrase.
Here are a few more examples of acknowledged masters using as it were:
“… I confess I once or twice fancied that I caught glimpses of bliss round the corner, as it were; but, before I could decide, the glimpses vanished, and I was very sure I was conceited coxcomb to think it for a moment.” — Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience
“The things he invented were as real to [Balzac] as the things he knew, and his actual experience is overlaid with a thousand thicknesses, as it were, of imaginary experience.” — Henry James, “Honoré de Balzac,” in The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction
“In general, one’s memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them. … But it can also happen that one’s memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others.” — George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys …”
And along with these and all as quickly as possible making the world safe for democracy as it were, came King Boris in Bulgaria, King Zog in Albania, King Feisel, ruler of Irak, a stooge king for Great Britain. Also King Farouk in Egypt, King Alexander in Greece, and so on. — Theodore Dreiser, “U. S. Must Not Be Bled for Imperial Britain” (1940)
“The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages.” — Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942
And, in a book review of mine, published in The New York Sun, I wrote: “In true Johnsonian spirit, [the author] has mined every conceivable scrap of information about [the subject of his biography], bringing him as it were back to life.” Should my editor have blue-penciled “as it were”?
So to speak is another qualifier that I often use which the critics of my writing object to, finding it to be another filler phrase that amounts to padding. An example would be my post “I am not the center of the universe,” in which I wrote: “One should not assume that people one meets in public, so to speak, are that interested in or focused upon you.”
The same observations apply here.
Similarly, in a blog post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?” I used the often overused filler phrase the fact that:
I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen.
The fact that seems to work here, notwithstanding the fact that (!) Strunk and White and my high school English teacher would not have hesitated to edit it out. It acts as a sort of “divider.” Sometimes the writer and reader need to be able to pause and “catch their breath.”
My guess is that a high school English teacher would do a good bit of editing on some of your longer posts. Some of your posts could be shortened without losing context or texture or meaning.
I would tend to respond to this comment by saying: Shrinkage may or may not be desirable. It depends.
In his series of lectures for the Great Courses, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Professor Brooks Landon says:
Unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.
Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” [italics added] … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].” …
[S]imple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense. …
Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … [I]n many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.
There is a pleasure, as the critic Kenneth Burke notes in his book on rhetoric Counter-Statement, in writing which “in all its smallest details … bristles with disclosures, contrasts, restatements with a difference, ellipses, images, aphorism, volume, sound-values, in short all that complex wealth of minutiae which in their line-for-line aspect we call style and in their broader outlines we call form.” What Charles Dickens calls “the indispensable necessity of varying the manner of narration as much as possible, and investing it with some little grace or other.” In other words, rich writing, showing a pleasure taken in using words. The opposite of a corporate memo studded with bullet points.
The goal of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was yo get rid of words. Doing so has the effect, as another rhetorician, Richard A. Lanham notes in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, of paring away not only words, but paring away “all sense of verbal play.” Paraphrasing the famous slogans of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have a couple of my own:
We don’t all have to write like Hemingway.
Complexity of syntax is not forbidden.
The key is not amount of words or, necessarily, syntax. It’s clarity.
Consider the following sentence of mine from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.
Or the following sentence from a post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?”:
I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen. (I have a dream, one might say.)
From my recent post “Beethoven; nature,” about music and poetry devoted to pastoral themes:
With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution.
The last sentence may or may not be too long. Perhaps it could have been broken up, simplified. But, as Professor Brooks Landon says, we don’t have to always write (or ever write!) like Hemingway. Sometimes, long, convoluted sentences can be intriguing to read — just plain fun.
And from a published book review of mine:
[The author] has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Notre Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at The Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it.
A long, convoluted sentence or two, but I think they work. And skillfully pack a lot of information, embed it, within a sentence.
Which raises the question: Does a long sentence necessarily mean convoluted syntax? It depends what you mean by convoluted. The above sentences of mine are convoluted, but they are clear. You will find this in the prose of many good writers whose sentences are dense and tightly packed with meaning — not diffuse, they are tightly constructed — but dense and complex. (See appendix.) Complexity in syntax can challenge and (yes) delight the reader. The good writer can do this without sacrificing clarity or becoming incomprehensible. The writing should be clear, not opaque. Or, as the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham puts it, clarity in writing means simple, not plain.
And here’s a passage from a book I have been reading:
The greatest defect in the SEASONS, respects the cast of its moral sentiments; but in this respect it is not the less adapted to the more numerous class of the readers of poetry. The Religion of the Seasons, is of that general kind which Nature’s self might teach to those who had no knowledge of the God of Revelation. It is a lofty and complacent sentiment, which plays upon the feelings like the ineffable power of solemn harmony, but has no reference to the quality of our belief, to the dispositions of the heart, or to the habitual tendency of the character; still less does it involve a devotional recognition of the revealed character of the Divine Being. But on this very account “the Seasons” was adapted to please at the time that Pope ruled the republic of taste, and to the same cause the poem is still indebted for at least some of its admirers. — John Sharpe, “Critical Observations”; introduction to James Thomson’s The Seasons, 1816 edition
Writing such as this consists of passages that are dense and packed with meaning. Should one require of such passages that they be written in telegraphic or perhaps even outline form, so that no one is confused and everyone gets the point or points?
George Orwell said, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” He achieves this. But does this mean that prose must be vitiated by overcutting?
Your writing can be needlessly redundant.
Repetition can be effective. As Richard A. Lanham has observed, in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, “People, even literary people, … repeat things for the pleasure of repetition.” And, I would add, for emphasis.
In my post “thinking “too energetically,” I wrote as follows, about the writings of Ralph Colp Jr.:
They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation.
Note the intentional, deliberate repetition by me of superb.
The following is a passage from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
Some people have the human touch — in fact many, if not most, do, I would be inclined to say. One may not realize it, but I have found from personal experience that many service people in lower paying jobs actually enjoy being able to deliver and are eager for human interaction and reciprocity. I have found that, if I make it a point to ask how they are doing, or to thank them for the service — as I have been doing more frequently lately — they brighten up and let you know that they appreciate being appreciated and acknowledged. So, I will ask, for example, at the counter of a store or a restaurant, “how is your day going” or “how was your weekend?” And, if I can find something nice to say, truthfully, about good service, I try to do so. There is something very pleasant about being recognized at a business establishment.
I stopped briefly in a local restaurant the other day to purchase a takeout item. Two persons served me, one with respect to the item purchased and the other one being the cashier. They were all smiles and said, we haven’t seen you in a couple of days! Trivial perhaps and not uncommon, but it is remarkable how good such interactions can make one feel. Good business practice for them, but it’s more than that. It’s the pleasure of being able to share one’s common humanity with casual acquaintances, such as in this case. It helps to decrease feelings of alienation and the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that one often experiences when dealing with the business world, its advertisements, and its products.
The “good” businesspeople enjoy helping others, serving them, being able to ameliorate things for you while engaging in a business transaction. Knowing that they made you happy and gratified themselves at being thanked and appreciated. Feeling that being able to benefit mankind makes their life worthwhile. Showing their humanity.
There is repetition/redundancy here. I make a point that is more or less obvious, then make it again in different words, and restate it several times. To me this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because, in what was the peroration of the piece, I wanted to drive the key point home. Think of a concluding passage in a symphony, where the main theme comes back and often gets hammered home, so to speak.
Here is example of Walt Whitman using repetition:
I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. — Preface to Leaves of Grass
He uses repetition/restatement for emphasis.
There is nothing wrong with arguing strongly to make one’s point, or using irony or highly critical language. But when it is embedded in a spirit of “I am the true intellectual and you (or they) are not” and when your conclusions are presented as definitive facts rather than opinions, and when your posts comment on how much smarter you are than the academics or editors you abhor, you come across as arrogant and positive.
When you are talking about others’ opinions in your blog, your strong feelings often come across as definitive conclusions rather than strong opinions, especially when you are talking about editors at the NY Times or academics with advanced agrees or other cohorts for whom you seem to have a special loathing. And sometimes you sound pompous and arrogant.
Opinions are just that. To express an opinion does not amount to arrogance. Even when one is being a contrarian.
Some people, it seems, don’t want or don’t feel that a writer is entitled to have an opinion about anything, with the possible exception of a cardiologist writing a book on heart disease, a psychiatrist a monograph on schizophrenia, or a geology professor writing a treatise on rock formations.
And that, if you should be so presumptuous or rash as to have one, you should begin (they seem to be saying) — wasting words and probably guaranteeing that few will read the piece — with a totally unnecessary introduction explaining (in the manner of someone writing advertising copy for a pharmaceutical company) that these are merely your personal thoughts which, you hope, will not unduly disturb anyone who happens to disagree and that you realize that some, if not many, readers will disagree, which (you hope they will realize that you realize) they are entitled to.
I let my thoughts take me where they may.
Consider George Orwell, whose essays are assigned to freshman composition students as models of excellence and clarity in writing, of burnished prose. Without fail, a strong opinion comes through, not only in Orwell’s essays and in short pieces such as his “Such, such were the joys …,” where he lays bare the injustices of the English boarding school system of the 1930’s, but also in novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where (in the latter work) he calls attention to the pettiness of middle class sensibilities. Should Orwell have begun with a prologue asking the reader to excuse him should the latter be inclined to disagree or (heaven forbid) take offense? Didn’t our English teachers instruct us not to keep saying “In my opinion,” “I think,” etc. over and over again, since it should be evident to the reader that you are presenting your opinion.
Sometimes, it sounds as if you consider yourself to be more knowledgeable than most people. Nothing wrong with having opinions, but sometimes it does sound like you are boastful or consider yourself intellectually a notch above “most people.” You appear to be talking down to your reader. As if you are the scholar expert and your reader should feel privileged to be learning from on high.
Sometimes, your style gives the impression that you are trying to impress your reader with your extensive vocabulary and depth and range of reading. This can get in the way of the point you are trying to make.
There are several criticisms (directed at my writing) embedded in these comments: bosting or showing off about what (allegedly) I regard as my superior knowledge, talking down to the reader, trying to impress the reader with my vocabulary and reading/scholarship. I will take them up all of a piece, so to speak.
Mustering all the learning one can is desirable.
I do, of course, draw, as is entirely appropriate, upon all the learning and knowledge I can muster. Would one counsel me to do otherwise? But, when I am unsure about something, or cannot claim to know it with certainty, I will say so. I do not pretend to experience or knowledge I don’t have. I make every effort I can to draw upon my experience, my reading, my learning (such as it is) and scholarship to flesh out and elucidate what I am saying, and to provide corroboration for my views.
I do think that when someone writes about something, such as literature and music, one should exhibit a modicum of intelligence and prior knowledge, as well as discernment, and a more than superficial knowledge. The writer should not just leap in midstream and go off half cocked.
Be that is it may, I have opinions that I am eager to share in the case of, say, music, one area of aesthetics I enjoy writing about, and even more so about literature, about which I know the most. I do not let the fact that I am not a musicologist or English professor stop me. Because, intuitively, or experientially, I may possibly have seen or perceived more than them.
What about polemical pieces? I have written quite a few, on everything from the criminal justice system to (occasionally) politics.
A polemic is an essay where you argue strongly for something, often an unpopular position rather than the majority one. It should be clear to any reader that I am expressing my opinions. All good writing arises from personal experience or reflection, and writing without a point of view is bland and uninteresting. I do quite often find that I strongly disagree with the opinions of many persons who are regarded as authorities or who hold positions in academia and journalism. What’s wrong with that? It’s called thinking for oneself.
Regarding the charge of trying to impress the reader with my extensive vocabulary, I can only speak from my own experience, as a reader. Many of the best essay writers in the English language use big, recherché words where called for, as well complex grammatical constructions, and write long, convoluted sentences. And yet, they are admirably clear. They take great pains to be so. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Samuel Johnson (to mention one of my favorite writers) challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. It seems to me that the only criterion to be taken into account is the following: Was the word used correctly; does it fit?
Pomposity is not true of me in person or of my writing. A better word for what my critic describes as arrogance might be invective. Invective used where appropriate. In certain posts, that is. I will use irony and invective to try and make a point when I feel that they are appropriate.
Some of my posts, such as my posts about Janette Sadik-Kahn’s plan to remake Fifth Avenue, about the “cultural misappropriation” movement, about the protest against the Emmet Till painting at the Whitney Museum of Art, about the call for destruction of politically incorrect statues and monuments, and about the Anthony Weiner prison sentence, are polemical. To make one’s point — arguing often with fierce “winds” of contrary, often entrenched opinion blowing back at oneself — irony and invective are not inappropriate. Think of Swift writing “A Modest Proposal,” Tom Paine “Common Sense,” or Zola “J’accuse!” The thing is not to be mealy mouthed. A good writer has to say something, assert it.
I do often find myself strongly in disagreement with politicians, policy wonks, social engineers, judges, prosecutors, etc. Writing under such conditions should have an edge. A writer has to be clear and make points forcefully; also, it is hoped that one’s writing will stimulate and provoke the reader to perhaps look at things with a fresh eye.
You can be quite a good writer and have a decent memory, but your writing can be full of braggadocio and totally self-obsessed.
Self-centered (or, as the critic says, “self-obsessed”)? Because I use my own my own experience as fodder for my writings? A writer should not be afraid to write about himself or herself. Honestly. Braggadocio should not be a concern, as long as the writer is honest.
Any writer or writing instructor will tell the beginner: write about what you know best, beginning with your own experience. With yourself.
For some reason, the writings of Theodore Dreiser come to mind. Almost all of his writing drew, directly or indirectly, on his own personal experience.
Take his two autobiographical works, Newspaper Days (originally published as A Book About Myself) and Dawn. The books are notable for their candor, honesty.
For example, Dreiser talks about how he was eager to get a reporter job with a Chicago newspaper, with no experience — he had practically no hope. Then, he was given one or two spot assignments with one of the lesser daily papers and achieved a scoop that earned him immediate recognition. It makes a good story. Dreiser also tells about his personal insecurities and mistakes he made, such as quitting a reporter job with a respected newspaper in disgrace because he faked a theater review. The story about the scoop — it was about the 1892 presidential election — is well worth telling since it shows how Dreiser got a foot in the door as a reporter, leading to a short lived journalism career, and to his establishing a vocation as a writer.
In my autobiographical post “My Boyhood” and other posts of mine which are wholly or in part autobiographical, I discuss successes as well as failures. Personal successes and failures. Honestly. Showing my strengths, some of them noteworthy, as well as weaknesses. Almost all of them make good stories, and that’s what’s important. Examples: an exam I took in a high school history class in which I answered a question about Charles Dickens that no one else could, impressing the teacher; the time I did something similar in a college Spanish course; how I gave a lecture on Tolstoy in Russian from memory in a course at New York University when the professor thought I couldn’t do it and that I couldn’t have written the essay myself. (I noted, in my post: “To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.”) I also discuss, in autobiographical posts and anecdotal material about myself, all kinds of mishaps and miscues in my early years. Embarrassing myself. Showing marked weaknesses in certain areas requiring aptitude or skill. And so on.
In the posts where I talk about my accomplishments and where I came of well, it is usually because there is a narrative interest to them. They reveal something about me, but they also make for good reading, since they are good stories.
I have a preference for the writing style of the essays of E. B. White over the essays of Johnson or Addison or Steele. Their essays are well worth reading and every bit as valuable as White’s but their style is clearly dated. [A middlebrow comment from someone whose exposure to English letters did not go much beyond college English courses.] Sometimes your style sounds dated.
E. B. White is no Joseph Addison or Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson outdated? One can’t use Addison or Johnson as examples because they’re out of date? Or Edmund Burke?
I am not a priori inclined to give much weight to the views of a “critic” who prefers E. B. White to Samuel Johnson.
The works of great writers don’t become obsolete, and they are the best models. To improve my writing, at this advanced stage in my writing, I find it much more worthwhile to read Samuel Johnson’s essays. Or those of other great prose writers, such as Burke, Hazlitt, Emerson, or Thoreau.
To repeat, my maxim is study the greats. You can’t go wrong. You can’t do any better.
Why would anyone advise elsewise?
A final thought. We all make judgments about literary and artistic productions, and have opinions about writers, ranging from whether we liked a novel to whether we agree with a magazine or op-ed piece or not, and how well it was written.
But, it’s probably not a good idea, when it comes to an avocation, to try to advise someone for whom the same activity is a vocation how to do it.
Many of the criticisms of my writing (e.g., those quoted above) come from readers of it who, because they majored in English or have read good books, think that makes them experts on writing. They may write well themselves. But such knowledge is, in a sense, passive, by which I mean to say that an active, professional writer will probably have a deeper knowledge of writing from the point of view of a practitioner; and of everything it involves, from style and usage to fine points of punctuation and grammar. I get communiques from English majors who write very well and are highly literate, but in which they make a mistake in usage or punctuation that a professional writer has been trained or has learned from experience (an editor looking over their shoulder, a publisher’s stylebook) to avoid. Some of their comments reveal actual ignorance, despite their educational background, of grammar and style.
— Roger W. Smith
March 2018; updated October 2020
The following are some examples of writing in which the writer uses long sentences and/or complex syntax that challenges the reader without being obscure.
He was chosen again this Parliament to serve in the same place, and in the beginning of it declared himself very sharply and severely against those exorbitancies which had been most grievous to the State; for he was so rigid an observer of established laws and rules that he could not endure the least breach or deviation from them, and thought no mischief so intolerable as the presumption of ministers of state to break positive rules for reason of state, or judges to transgress known laws upon the title of conveniency or necessity; which made him so severe against the earl of Strafford and the lord Finch, contrary to his natural gentleness and temper: insomuch as they who did not know his composition to be as free from revenge as it was from pride, thought that the sharpness to the former might proceed from the memory of some unkindnesses, not without a mixture of injustice, from him towards his father.
— Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (begun in 1641; published 1702-1704)
Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces, or infirmity suffers, in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings; and Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved, in a private and familiar interview, that reputation which his works had procured him.
— Samuel Johnson, “The difference between an author’s writings and his conversation” (Rambler no. 14; May 5, 1750)
When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and their bed, with the blood of their favourites, there is a saying recorded of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan’s presence without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders. The experience of every day might almost justify the scepticism of Rustan. Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the tranquillity, of the Persian. The monarch’s frown, he well knew, could level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour.
— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)
Posted here as a PDF document (above) is:
Roger W. Smith, “Tribute to Pierre Coustillas,” Supplement to The Gissing Journal, Volume LIL, Number 4, October 2018
Pierre Coustillas (1930-2018) was a French literary scholar and emeritus professor of English at the University of Lille. He was the world’s foremost authority on the works of the late-Victorian novelist George Gissing.
— Roger W. Smith
By dense, I mean the word in the sense of “closely compacted in substance.” which is the first dictionary definition given.
Not dense in the sense of stupid, referring to a person.
I realize that I prefer “dense” writing. By which I mean, not necessarily turgid, but packed with descriptive details and meaning.
I tend to read slowly and deliberately. I often stop to read pages and passages over again, and to think about or study them. Sometimes I only read a page or two at a sitting.
The words are worth such effort and attention.
The following are two examples from novels I am reading simultaneously at present.
From Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, Moods (1865, revised 1882)
IN A YEAR.
The room fronted the west, but a black cloud, barred with red, robbed the hour of twilight’s tranquil charm. Shadows haunted it, lurking in corners like spies set there to watch the man who stood among them mute and motionless as if himself a shadow. His eye turned often to the window with a glance both vigilant and eager, yet saw nothing but a tropical luxuriance of foliage scarcely stirred by the sultry air heavy with odors that seemed to oppress not refresh. He listened with the same intentness, yet heard only the clamor of voices, the tramp of feet, the chime of bells, the varied turmoil of a city when night is defrauded of its peace by being turned to day. He watched and waited for something; presently it came. A viewless visitant, welcomed by longing soul and body as the man, with extended arms and parted lips received the voiceless greeting of the breeze that came winging its way across the broad Atlantic, full of healthful cheer for a home-sick heart. Far out he leaned; held back the thick-leaved boughs already rustling with a grateful stir, chid the shrill bird beating its flame-colored breast against its prison bars, and drank deep draughts of the blessed wind that seemed to cool the fever of his blood and give him back the vigor he had lost.
A sudden light shone out behind him filling the room with a glow that left no shadow in it. But he did not see the change, nor hear the step that broke the hush, nor turn to meet the woman who stood waiting for a lover’s welcome. An indefinable air of sumptuous life surrounded her, and made the brilliant room a fitting frame for the figure standing there with warm-hued muslins blowing in the wind. A figure full of the affluent beauty of womanhood in its prime, bearing unmistakable marks of the polished pupil of the world in the grace that flowed through every motion, the art which taught each feature to play its part with the ease of second nature and made dress the foil to loveliness. The face was delicate and dark as a fine bronze, a low forehead set in shadowy waves of hair, eyes full of slumberous fire, and a passionate yet haughty mouth that seemed shaped alike for caresses and commands.
A moment she watched the man before her, while over her countenance passed rapid variations of pride, resentment, and tenderness. Then with a stealthy step, an assured smile, she went to him and touched his hand, saying, in a voice inured to that language which seems made for lovers’ lips–
“Only a month betrothed, and yet so cold and gloomy, Adam!”
And from the first chapter of George Gissing’s first novel, Workers in the Dawn (1880):
Walk with me, reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation in the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this “Truce of God;” our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.
As we suddenly turn northwards out of the dim and quiet regions of Barbican, we are at first confused by the glare of lights and the hubbub of cries. Pressing through an ever-moving crowd, we find ourselves in a long and narrow street, forming, from end to end, one busy market. Besides the ordinary shops, amongst which the conspicuous fronts of the butchers’ and the grocers’ predominate, the street is lined along either pavement with rows of stalls and booths, each illuminated with flaring naphtha-lamps, the flames of which shoot up fiercely at each stronger gust of wind, filling the air around with a sickly odour, and throwing a weird light upon the multitudinous faces. Behind the lights stand men, women and children, each hallooing in every variety of intense key — from the shrillest conceivable piping to a thunderous roar, which well-nigh deafens one — the prices and the merits of their wares. The fronts of the houses, as we glance up towards the deep blackness overhead, have a decayed, filthy, often an evil, look; and here and there, on either side, is a low, yawning archway, or a passage some four feet wide, leading presumably to human habitations. Let us press through the throng to the mouth of one of these and look in, as long as the reeking odour will permit us. Straining the eyes into horrible darkness, we behold a blind alley, the unspeakable abominations of which are dimly suggested by a gas-lamp flickering at the further end. Here and there through a window glimmers a reddish light, forcing one to believe that people actually do live here; otherwise the alley is deserted, and the footstep echoes as we tread cautiously up the narrow slum. If we look up, we perceive that strong beams are fixed across between the fronts of the houses — sure sign of the rottenness which everywhere prevails. Listen! That was the shrill screaming of an infant which came from one of the nearest dens. Yes, children are born here, and men and women die. Let us devoutly hope that the deaths exceed the births.
Now back into the street, for already we have become the observed of a little group of evil-looking fellows gathered round the entrance. Let us press once more through the noisy crowd, and inspect the shops and stalls. Here is exposed for sale an astounding variety of goods. Loudest in their cries, and not the least successful in attracting customers, are the butchers, who, with knife and chopper in hand, stand bellowing in stentorian tones the virtues of their meat; now inviting purchasers with their — “Lovely, love-ly, l-ove-ly! Buy! buy — buy!” now turning to abuse each other with a foul-mouthed virulence surpassing description. See how the foolish artisan’s wife, whose face bears the evident signs of want and whose limbs shiver under her insufficient rags, lays down a little heap of shillings in return for a lump, half gristle, half bone, of questionable meat-ignorant that with half the money she might buy four times the quantity of far more healthy and sustaining food.
But now we come to luxuries. Here is a stall where lie oysters and whelks, ready stripped of their shells, offering an irresistible temptation to the miserable-looking wretches who stand around, sucking in the vinegared and peppered dainties till their stomachs are appeased, or their pockets empty. Next is a larger booth, where all manner of old linen, torn muslin, stained and faded ribbons, draggled trimming, and the like, is exposed for sale, piled up in foul and clammy heaps, which, as the slippery-tongued rogue, with a yard in his hand turns and tumbles it for the benefit of a circle of squalid and shivering women, sends forth a reek stronger than that from the basket of rotten cabbage on the next stall. How the poor wretches ogle the paltry rags, feverishly turn their money in their hands, discuss with each other in greedy whispers the cheapness or otherwise of the wares! Then we have an immense pile of old iron, which to most would appear wholly useless; but see how now and then a grimy-handed workman stops to rummage among it, and maybe finds something of use to him in his labour.
Here again, elevated on a cart, stands a vender of secondhand umbrellas, who, as he holds up the various articles of his stock and bangs them open under the street-lamps that purchasers may bear witness to their solidity, yells out a stream of talk amazing in its mixture of rude wit, coarse humour, and voluble impudence. “Here’s a humbereller!” he cries, “Look at this ’ere; now do! Fit for the Jewk o’ York, the Jewk of Cork, or any other member of the no-bility. As fo my own grace, I hassure yer, I never uses any other! Come, who says ‘alf-a-crownd for this? — No? — Why, then, two bob — one an’-a-tanner — a bob! Gone, and damned cheap too!” This man makes noise enough; but here, close behind him, is an open shop-front with a mingled array of household utensils defying description, the price chalked in large figures on each, and on a stool stands a little lad, clashing incessantly with an enormous hammer upon a tray as tall as himself, and with his piercing young voice doing his utmost to attract hearers. Next we have a stall covered with cheap and trashy ornaments, chipped glass vases of a hundred patterns, picture-frames, lamps, watch-chains, rings; things such as may tempt a few of the hard-earned coppers out of a young wife’s pocket, or induce the working lad to spend a shilling for the delight of some consumptive girl, with the result, perhaps, of leading her to seek in the brothel a relief from the slow death of the factory or the work-room. As we push along we find ourselves clung to by something or other, and, looking down, see a little girl, perhaps four years old, the very image of naked wretchedness, holding up, with shrill, pitiful appeals, a large piece of salt, for which she wants one halfpenny — no more, she assures us, than one half-penny. She clings persistently and will not be shaken off. Poor little thing; most likely failure to sell her salt will involve a brutal beating when she returns to the foul nest which she calls home. We cannot carry the salt, but we give her a copper and she runs off, delighted. Follow her, and we see with some surprise that she runs to a near eating-house, one of many we have observed. Behind the long counter stands a man and a woman, the former busy in frying flat fish over a huge fire, the latter engaged in dipping a ladle into a large vessel which steams profusely; and in front of the counter stands a row of hungry-looking people, devouring eagerly the flakes of fish and the greasy potatoes as fast as they come from the pan, whilst others are served by the woman to little basins of stewed eels from the steaming tureen. But the good people of Whitecross Street are thirsty as well as hungry, and there is no lack of gin-palaces to supply their needs. Open the door and look into one of these. Here a group are wrangling over a disputed toss or bet, here two are coming to blows, there are half-a-dozen young men and women, all half drunk, mauling each other with vile caresses; and all the time, from the lips of the youngest and the oldest, foams forth such a torrent of inanity, abomination, and horrible blasphemy which bespeaks the very depth of human — aye, or of bestial — degradation. And notice how, between these centres and the alleys into which we have peered, shoeless children, slipshod and bareheaded women, tottering old men, are constantly coming and going with cans or jugs in their hands. Well, is it not Saturday night? And how can the week’s wages be better spent than in procuring a few hours’ unconsciousness of the returning Monday.
The crowd that constantly throngs from one end of the street to the other is very miscellaneous, comprehending alike the almost naked wretch who creeps along in the hope of being able to steal a mouthful of garbage, and the respectably clad artisan and his wife, seeing how best they can lay out their money for the ensuing week. The majority are women, some carrying children in their arms, some laden with a basket full of purchases, most with no covering on their heads but the corner of a shawl.
But look at the faces! Here is a young mother with a child sucking at her bare breast, as she chaffers with a man over a pound of potatoes. Suddenly she turns away with reddened cheeks, shrinking before a vile jest which creates bursts of laughter in the by-standers. Pooh! She is evidently new in this quarter, perhaps come up of late from the country. Wait a year, and you will see her joining in the laugh at her own expense, with as much gusto as that young woman behind her, whose features, under more favourable circumstances, might have had, something of beauty, but starvation and dirt and exposure have coarsened the grain and made her teeth grin woefully between her thin lips.
Or look at the woman on the other side, who is laughing till she cries. Does not every line of her face bespeak the baseness of her nature? Cannot one even guess at the vile trade by which she keeps her limbs covered with those layers of gross fat, whilst those around her are so pinched and thin? Her cheeks hang flabbily, and her eyes twinkle with a vicious light. A deep scar marks her forehead, a memento of some recent drunken brawl. When she has laughed her fill, she turns to look after a child which is being dragged through the mud by her skirts, being scarcely yet able to walk, and, bidding it with a cuff and a curse not to leave loose of her, pushes on stoutly through the crowd.
One could find matter for hour-long observation in the infinite variety of vice and misery depicted in the faces around. It must be confessed that the majority do not seem unhappy; they jest with each other amid their squalor; they have an evident pleasure in buying and selling; they would be surprised if they knew you pitied them. And the very fact that they are unconscious of their degradation afflicts one with all the keener pity. We suffer them to become brutes in our midst, and inhabit dens which clean animals would shun, to derive their joys from sources from which a cultivated mind shrinks as from a pestilential vapour. And can we console ourselves with the reflection that they do not feel their misery?
Well, this is the Whitecross Street of today; but it is in this street rather more than twenty years ago that my story opens. There is not much difference between now and then, except that the appearance of the shops is perhaps improved, and the sanitary condition of the neighbourhood a trifle more attended to; the description, on the whole, may remain unaltered.
The writing in these two exemplary novels speaks for itself. But, what I like about Alcott is the richness of description; the almost poetic use of descriptive details to create a mood; the combination of the natural, which is to say non-human but very much alive (i.e., nature, the ambience created by it) with the human. How description simultaneously becomes (and is cleverly made so) exposition: “… a black cloud, barred with red, robbed the hour of twilight’s tranquil charm. Shadows haunted it, lurking in corners like spies set there. … a tropical luxuriance of foliage scarcely stirred by the sultry air with odors that seemed to oppress not refresh. … An indefinable air of sumptuous life surrounded her, and made the brilliant room a fitting frame for the figure standing there. …”
In Gissing: the pains he takes and the lengths to which he will go to make us feel as if we are joining him in a walk along Whitecross Street: the richness of telling descriptive detail; the human element; the choice, selection, and skillful use of a plethora of details to make us experience fully what it was like in that place in that time, in London in the nineteenth century. How pure description strongly conveys with the author’s sure touch his impressions and feelings to us, so that it is more than an accumulation of details: “Let us press through the throng to the mouth of one of these and look in, as long as the reeking odour will permit us. Straining the eyes into horrible darkness, we behold a blind alley, the unspeakable abominations of which are dimly suggested by a gas-lamp flickering at the further end. Here and there through a window glimmers a reddish light, forcing one to believe that people actually do live here. …”
As an offhand remark, I would be inclined to say that I prefer such writers to more modern ones.
— Roger W. Smith
Roger W. Smith to Charles Davenport, Jr.
August 6, 2017
Dear Mr. Davenport,
You wrote: “In the realm of fiction, George Gissing is in a league of his own; no other author even comes close.”
— Charles Davenport Jr., “I am what I read,” Greensboro News and Record, August 6, 2017
I am thrilled to find that someone else shares my high opinion of Gissing. Some of his novels are still popular, as you know, but I feel that he does not get — by any measure — the recognition he richly deserves.
I am a long time fan of his and have read many of the novels plus “The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft.”
Thanks for bringing this to your readers’ attention.
Roger W. Smith
New York, NY
P.S. You might get a kick out the following posts of mine:
“George Gissing, book covers”
“Roger Smith, translation into Spanish of passage from George Gissing’s ‘The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft’ ”
Charles Davenport, Jr. to Roger W. Smith
August 7, 2017
It’s a rare and high honor to hear from a fellow Gissing enthusiast! You’ve made my day. “The Private Papers” is probably my all-time favorite book: I weep on one page, and collapse in laughter on the next! No other writer has moved me as deeply or as often as Gissing. I just finished Paul Delany’s “George Gissing: A Life,” which is brilliant, but profoundly sad. It’s hard to believe a writer so gifted — it’s nothing short of necromancy — struggled to pay his bills (and the bills of family members). It’s a cruel, unjust world.
I can’t wait to read the links you provided. How did you hear of my News & Record piece up there in New York?
Charles Davenport Jr.
Roger W. Smith to Charles Davenport, Jr.
August 7, 2017
Dear Mr. Davenport,
Thanks much for your email. I was very glad to hear from you.
Thank you so much for telling me about Paul Delany’s biography of Gissing. I did not know about it.
You undoubtedly know about Gissing scholar Pierre Coustillas. He has published a three volume biography of Gissing, which is intended to be the definitive biography. I have purchased only the first volume so far. I made several stabs at reading it. It is incredibly detailed and also dry. I could not get past the first hundred pages or so.
Like you, I love “The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft.” The diarist is — I am certain — Gissing, which is to say, the book is autobiographical. Among other things, I admired Gissing’s prose style.
I have some difficulty keeping the many novels of Gissing that I have read separate in my mind. They are all good. The starving writer in “New Grub Street” is, of course, Gissing. Has there ever been a truer picture of the literary vocation?
I am eager to read “Workers in the Dawn,” which I understand to have been Gissing’s first novel. I just ordered a copy from an on line bookseller.
I have revised my post
“Roger W. Smith, translation into Spanish of passage from George Gissing.” It is at
Thanks again for responding to my message.
Roger W. Smith
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Posted here (above) as downloadable PDF documents is an assignment of mine in an advanced class in Spanish grammar and composition taught by Professor Susana Redondo de Feldman, Chairman of the Spanish and Portuguese Department at Columbia University.
The assignment was to translate a lyrical passage from George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft from English into Spanish. It was a challenging assignment, and a fun and rewarding one.
George Gissing (1857-1903) was an English novelist who — while he has by no means been forgotten and is still read today — should be much better known. The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft is a semi-fictional autobiographical work in which the author casts himself as the editor of the diary of a deceased acquaintance.
I had hitherto been unacquainted with Gissing. The assignment, giving me sudden exposure to Gissing’s prose up close, made me want badly to read him. But, the book from which the passage was taken was not identified. It took me a long time to find which of Gissing’s books the passage came from.
I became a great admirer of Gissing — both as a storyteller in the realistic mode and as a masterful prose stylist (I admired, for example, his impressive vocabulary in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft) — and have read many of his novels.
— Roger W. Smith
George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft, Chapter XXIII
Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence. This is my orison. I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense on returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. Noises of wood and metal, clattering of wheels, banging of implements, jangling of bells–all such things are bad enough, but worse still is the clamorous human voice. Nothing on earth is more irritating to me than a bellow or scream of idiot mirth, nothing more hateful than a shout or yell of brutal anger. Were it possible, I would never again hear the utterance of a human tongue, save from those few who are dear to me.
Here, wake at what hour I may, early or late, I lie amid gracious stillness. Perchance a horse’s hoof rings rhythmically upon the road; perhaps a dog barks from a neighbour farm; it may be that there comes the far, soft murmur of a train from the ether side of Exe; but these are almost the only sounds that could ever force themselves upon my ear. A voice, at any time of the day, is the rarest thing.
But there is the rustle of branches in the morning breeze; there is the music of a sunny shower against the window; there is the matin song of birds. …
Todas las mañanas cuando me despierto, yo doy gracias a Dios por el silencio. Esto es mi oración. Recuerdo aquellos días londineses, cuando mí sueño se interrumpía por fuertes sonidos metálicos y penetrantes gritos agudos, por ruidos y chillidos, cuando mi primera sensación al recobrar el conocimiento era el de odio hacia la vida que me rodeaba. Ruidos de madera y metal, el traqueteo de ruedas, el golpetazo de utensilios, el cencerro de campanas–cosas semejantes son suficienmente malas, pero aún peor es el clamor de la voz humana. Nada me irrita, nada es más detestable que un bramido o chillido de ira brutal. Si fuera posible, yo no oiría nunca jamás la manifestación de ninguna voz humana, salvo de los pocos que me son queridos.
Aquí–no importa a que hora me despierte, temprano o tarde–reposo en medio de una tranqulidad grata. Quizá los cascos de un caballo resuenen rítmicamente a lo largo del camino; acaso un perro ladre desde una granja vieja; tal vez llegue de lejos del otro lado del Exe el murmullo suave de un tren. Pero estos son casi los únicos sonidos que podrían imponerse a mis oídos. El sonido de una voz, a cualquier hora del día, es algo rarísimo.
Pero hay en cambio el susurro de las ramas en la brisa matinal; hay la música de una lluvia soleada tocando en mi ventana; hay la canción matutina de los pájaros. …
— translation by Roger W. Smith
My latest purchase. A steal at $45 plus shipping.
… I take pleasure from the fact that I can enjoy [books] when it pleases me to do so; my soul is satisfied merely with possession. I never travel without books, neither in peace nor in war. Sometimes whole days go by, even months, without my looking at them. But it might be at any moment now, or tomorrow; or whenever the mood takes me…. Books are, I find, the best provisions a man can take with him on life’s journey.”
— Michel de Montaigne
I was watching a Ken Burns documentary the other day. There was a photo of FDR’s study in his home in Hyde Park, NY. The walls were lined with bookshelves. As often seems to be the case in such situations, the books were behind something or other: a mesh? glass?
J. P. Morgan’s library, in his residence (now a museum) on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, looks just the same. Books everywhere. Many, probably all of them, priceless.
It looks, however, as if most or many of the books in such studies did not get read by their owners.
I am definitely a bibliophile, but I do not collect books solely to be able to say I own them, or for money, as an antiquarian might.
If I “adopt” a certain author — add him to my all time favorites/must read list — I find that I then want to acquire everything by or about the writer that I can lay my hands on. This includes — with respect both to the acquisition of books and actually reading them — minor as well as major works.
I have found that sometimes, indeed often, reading a writer’s early works and ones considered to be minor can be very satisfying. And, I have found that works deemed “minor” can turn out to be among the author’s best and most revealing ones.
I am interested in the man and his life as well as the works. So, I will obsessively look for works of a biographical nature and books that provide ancillary information about the writer. It might be a book by or about someone with whom the writer was closely associated or by whom the writer was influenced.
I won’t stop once I have started. Which is to say, I will acquire every book by or about that particular writer that I can find.
This often seems to bear fruit. So that acquiring books as a sort of “futures contract,” based upon the idea that you may want to get back to the writer, seems propitious. This recently happened to me, for example, in the case of a Russian-American scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin, whose work I have long been interested in. I recently got an inquiry from a visitor to this site, based in Moscow, who was interested in my posts on this site about Sorokin. I was able to go to my storehouse of Sorokin books and found much valuable, pertinent information there to share with her. Many of the books are out of print, or hard to obtain even in libraries. Some of the out of print ones are obtainable on the internet, but at what are now expensive prices.
I can remember approximately what I paid for most of my books, going far back, and where and under which circumstances I bought them.
I once remarked to a therapist I was seeing that I had acquired many books in the manner described in my comments above and that I was unlikely to read a majority of them. I was thinking, ruefully, that it was perhaps foolish of me to be buying so many books without the likelihood that I would ever get around to reading most of them.
The therapist, an intellectual and writer, who himself had developed a private library in similar fashion — and for the same reasons — replied by saying emphatically (in so many words), “you’ll get around to reading them eventually.” He dismissed my concerns that I was overdoing it.
His comment made me feel better and less guilty about my sometimes extravagant book buying. And, I do realize that just having certain books on one’s bookshelf makes one feel good. There is a sense of security about it. You know that certain books, especially those of your favorite authors, are there waiting to be read. It’s a nice feeling. (I have had similar experiences and feelings in compiling a classical music collection.) And, I do get around to reading many of them.
It also surprises me that I turn to books on my shelf more frequently than I would have expected, to look up something or other or to remind myself of what a writer said about something (sometimes unearthing a pertinent quote).
My therapist also made the point that there is something very pleasant and cozy about having a book lined study. I myself feel this way. It is pleasant to be able to contemplate and, indeed, to admire one’s own book collection; to view one’s bookshelves; to peruse them and think about authors and their works, as well as thinking about what one might like to read next.
I actually like to feel books, to have them in my hands.
I have become a shrewd book buyer over time. You have to know when to “pounce.” If you see a book that you really want, and you can afford it, I have found that you should buy it without further deliberation.
An example of would be Walt Whitman’s Blue Book: The 1860-61 Leaves of Grass Containing His Manuscript Additions and Revisions. This is a two-volume boxed set that was beautifully and expensively produced. It was published in 1968 by the New York Public Library. It has tipped in pages which show revisions in Whitman’s own hand that he made in a copy of his of Leaves of Grass which he kept in his desk drawer while working in a government office in Washington during the Civil War. There is extensive editorial commentary as well.
I wanted to obtain a copy of this book, but they are quite rare. I found that there were — if I remember correctly — two copies for sale on the Internet, both priced at around $300 for two volumes.
Then, I saw that the Stand Bookstore in Manhattan had a copy. I went to the Strand to check it out — it was in their rare books department — and found that it was in perfect condition. The Strand’s price for the two volumes: ninety dollars. I bought the book without hesitation.
Another example is a monograph by Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law, Literature, and Empire in The Age of Johnson. I have wanted to obtain this book for some time — I read a previous book by Curley about Samuel Johnson and was greatly impressed. The more recent book by Curley — the one about Chambers (an acquaintance of Samuel Johnson) that I have been seeking — is for some reason very hard to find. If you look for the book from on line second hand booksellers, it is egregiously priced. The available copies that are in “good” condition (which means good, but not mint, condition) are priced at around $550 to $650 — this for a one volume book published in 1998.
I saw a copy on line the other day for around $200. I ordered it. I knew that I was not likely to find the book at this price again and that, relatively speaking, $200 — while it seemed very expensive — was a good deal. I know from experience that I will not regret the purchase.
The bookseller charged me over $200 for the book plus shipping. It never came. I had great difficulty with the bookseller, but was ultimately able to get my money back through arbitration. Then, I miraculously found an online bookseller who sold me the book — a beautiful edition, in mint condition — for $100 including shipping.
It’s like the eighteen dollars I spent during my senior year in college for a beautifully produced book comprising a facsimile of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The book seemed very expensive then, but I had to have it. It was solely a question of did I have the eighteen dollars, never a question of would I purchase it. I do not regret the purchase — it seems that you can’t find this particular edition anywhere nowadays. Nor can you find other editions that are so beautifully produced with magnificent reproductions of Blake’s color plates.
And, it seems that, for cherished books that I have paid a lot for, there are many others that I was able to buy cheaply.
And, then you get lucky. On May 7, 2017, for example, at the Strand Bookstore, I purchased An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer (1904). Forty dollars. Two volumes, illustrated. Over 1,100 pages. Nice wide margins typical of books of those days and splendid black and white illustrations — books were well produced a century ago! In very good condition. A serendipitous, unanticipated acquisition. I was looking for a different book in the social science section. It’s the sort of purchase one makes in used bookstores.
Worth reading? Will I? I’m not sure. Spencer was once a widely read and influential social scientist; his books were very popular among the general readership. I have run across books like this before and am glad of having bought them. Given the condition that the book was in and its rarity, I knew I was a good deal. But, I don’t purchase such books thinking of possibly selling them. Would not purchase if I didn’t think I might want to read them.
You have to be persistent and continually on the lookout for books you want that may become available. An example is a nine volume work by Horace Traubel (sometimes referred to as “Walt Whitman’s Boswell”): With Walt Whitman in Camden. The book was originally published in 1906 in three volumes. Then, over the years, six more volumes were published posthumously, the last one in 1996.
I bought several volumes at random at the Stand Bookstore, whenever I saw one for sale. Then I bought the first three volumes, in mint condition, from an online bookseller for three hundred dollars. It seemed a lot to pay, but I was glad to have them.
I now owned eight of the nine volumes of Traubel’s diary cum biography. I checked an online global library catalogue, WorldCat.org, and it seemed that hardly any libraries — perhaps none — owned a complete set. I was missing only Volume 4. I found that only about seven libraries in the world owned Volume 4, including just one library in New York City: the Lehman College Library in the Bronx. They had two copies!
Finally, in June 2017, after several years of looking, I found Volume 4 for sale on line! I couldn’t believe my eyes. This completed my set of all nine volumes of With Walt Whitman in Camden. Probably some Whitman scholar has them, but I doubt that a library anywhere does.
An opinion I have long held is that books are a cheap commodity, comparatively speaking. When you consider how much pleasure you can get from them — their “entertainment value,” so to speak, compared to other things like movies — and how long that pleasure lasts (you can keep the book, you can reread it, often with profit and pleasure), they seem like an awfully good way to spend one’s money.
When you think of all the expense and effort involved in producing a book — research, writing, editorial, production, and so on — it seems remarkable to me that they are priced as low as they are. Yes, “expensive” books fifty years ago cost five or six dollars; now they cost thirty or thirty-five dollars, perhaps. But, when you consider their relative value, and how much prices have risen in other areas, the cost doesn’t seem prohibitive.
–– Roger W. Smith
June 2017; updated June 2022
Addendum — Booksellers:
I have always had a nose for books and have made many serendipitous acquisitions. Among my best places to find books, currently, I would include:
(1) The Strand Bookstore at Broadway and 12th Street in Manhattan. I have been going there since the late 1960’s. It seems to be one of the few used bookstores left in Manhattan. I keep making finds there. Everything is reasonably pieced — underpriced (almost always) compared to the online used book market; this includes books just off the press. The books they carry are in excellent condition — they don’t seem to acquire books that are not. A great thing about the Strand is that the books are very well organized, alphabetically by author.
You have to get a feel for their system, to know what section to look in. For example, if you were looking for a biography of Walt Whitman by Justin Kaplan, you have to know to look under “Whitman,” not “Kaplan,” and you would have to know that it would be in the literary nonfiction section. Books are rarely where they should not be. Plus, the Strand now had an excellent web site so that one can buy books from them on line. I often order on line from them. You don’t have to worry about getting a worn, beat up book delivered to you.
(2) Amazon.com is good for most book buying. I find their reviews quite helpful — I have written quite a few myself. Their books are reasonably priced, often at a discount. They seem to have most books that are in print. I find them less useful for used books. I would say, avoid buying (on Amazon) from secondary sellers.
(3) abebooks.com is, in my opinion, the best site by far for finding used books, especially out of print ones. If it’s available and for sale, the book will be there, or not at all.
The search engine is great. Just now, I was looking for a paperback edition of Platero and I, , a book by one of my favorite poets, Juan Ramón Jiménez. An English translation was published in paperback in 1962; it is virtually unobtainable now. It happens to be an edition I like because of the translation (among other things). I couldn’t find it anywhere until I went to abebooks.com. There were several editions available on the site. Quite a few were expensive. But, there was one in excellent condition that was reasonably priced.
You can sort the search results by price, date published, condition, etc. The booksellers are very accurate in describing a book’s condition.
I do not like to buy a book with a torn or tattered cover, underlining, crumbling pages, etc. — I don’t want someone else’s beat up book. I am willing to pay more to get a book that is in mint condition.
Posts re books in my private library are on this site at:
addendum, May 1, 2020:
This past month, I was able to purchase the original four-volume edition of Pitirim A. Sorokin’s magnum opus, Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1941).
The books arrived yesterday. The thrill of now owning such a book was palpable.
There were only two copies of the set for sale on the internet: one priced at $500, and the other, which I purchased, for $150. As an experienced book buyer, I didn’t hesitate.
I have become personally acquainted with quite a few Sorokin scholars, most of them abroad. I know they would be thrilled to own this work of Sorokin’s, which is for all practical purposes only available at the present time in a paperback one-volume abridgment.