Against Grammar Nazism

(A modified version of this article was first published on Book Riot under the title “Learning Grammar Rules to Break Grammar Rules“.)

We all know them. Some of us have suffered under them. The frowning school teacher who constantly rampaged our scripts for run-on sentences and double negatives; the vulture-eyed editor who swoops down on the slightest punctuation mistake. Woe to anyone who puts a semi-colon out of place! Failure to conform to the grammar Nazi’s (often arbitrary) rules will immediately be condemned for ‘bad writing’.

I remember the profound sense of irritation I had whenever I got back my essays to see my teachers’ invasive red ink marring my carefully penned scripts. In Singapore, students must stick to the conventions of formal writing if they want to ace English, despite being tasked to write fiction. (I don’t know why it doesn’t seem to have occured to our Education Ministry that if they wanted to test our formal writing skills they should set that for exams instead.) So teachers here are often what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Stylemongers’. Besotted with grammar, they’d give no thought to whether the repetitive words and run-on sentences they so enthusiastically slash out contribute to the expressiveness of the language. They’d underline sentence fragments with furious relish, replace commas with full-stops for no good reason other than that they had to prepare us for exams and change ‘guys’ to ‘boys’ regardless of the story’s context or narrative voice.

I don’t blame the teachers. They have to play by the rules laid down by the Ministry. But it’s scary this attitude lingers on even outside of school. Recently, a friend of mine submitted a script for an educational film to be shown to school students, and the school teachers who made the edits corrected words like ‘thanks’ to ‘thank you’, complaining that the former was too informal; and, of course, throwing believable dialogue out of the window. This is an extreme case of linguistic Nazism, but we see variations of this all the time: book-bloggers picking on oversights in editing but paying scarcely any attention to the book’s contents; critics or Goodreads reviewers attacking a book for its meandering narrative, for deviating from accepted plot structures. Hunger for social media approval has churned out titles like 10 Rules for Writing FictionThe Golden Rules For A Good PlotTop 5 Grammar Rules Not To Break; guided, of course, by articles like 5 Data Insights Into Headlines Readers Click. Who’d dare create the next literary revolution, the next Ulysses equivalent, with all these rules in place? That poor book would probably be–God forbid!–ranked lowest on Amazon. At most we’d probably just get a Ulysses copycat; then maybe it’d get some award and get chucked to the rank number #500,000.

We need guidelines, yes. The ability to write and speak according to set linguistic conventions is no doubt a good practical skill, as is the knowledge of effective story structures. But if we are going to set exams that involve the writing of fiction, then these conventions should not be imposed as incontestable laws. Writers and readers alike should see them as tools, or stepping stones, towards greater creativity; perhaps to be followed temporarily by students for training purposes, but able to be artfully used, manipulated or broken after they’ve been mastered. And if an author seems to make a mistake or two, let us consider them with open minds instead of shredding his manuscript at once.

It’s part of the job of Language Arts educators to mark the works of young writers. This means evaluation. Which means, like it or not, they contribute almost as much as critics do in setting the course of literary taste and standard for next generation. The way young writers are graded would influence their judgment of other works. If what we are teaching is a greater concern for arbitrary rules than with the sound and signification, the poetic style and usage, of language, then one generation of grammar Nazis would breed another; and soon we may find ourselves suffocating in a dreadfully dull, colourless literary landscape, with far fewer than fifty shades of grey.

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Trigger Warning: What’s in It? 

(This article was first published on Book Riot.)

Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection is introduced, aptly, with a trigger warning that sounds in tone like he’s addressing children (he isn’t, of course). This book, Gaiman warns, may awaken “monsters in our cupboards” and so cause unwanted distress. The mishmash of prose and poetry assembled here are connected only very broad and subjective thread, which mostly does live up to its disturbing promise, though sometimes it fades or even disappears entirely into a disappointing muddle. For those considering whether to read the book, here’s a list (without spoilers) of what’s in it.

Making a Chair
A rather inane poem about writing books.

“The Lunar Labyrinth”
A very pale tribute to Gene Wolfe’s “A Solar Labyrinth,” which is so much more than just a suspenseful story.

“The Thing About Cassandra”
Sweet story with a twist, about made-up romances, enriched with just little twinge of nostalgia at the end.

Down to a Sunless Sea
About a woman who lost her son. Can’t be faulted for style, but while the “you” of the story stumbles out with “the rain run[ing] down [her] face like someone else’s tears,” my own eyes remained dry.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Gaiman’s award-winning novelette, rich enough to deserve a whole article on its own. For now, we shall have to be content with just a brief summary. In this story, a dwarf journeys with a guide to a cave supposedly filled with gold. There is a mythical quality to his language here, with striking images that remind one of the futility of greed and wealth, and, less obviously, of revenge.

My Last Landlady
A story dressed as a poem. Seems like it got squeezed into the wrong clothes.

Adventure Story
An apparently boring mom recalls her husband’s adventures. Meh. 

“Orange”
About aliens, told in questionnaire format. Quirky, playful and original.

“A Calendar of Tales”
An assembly of 12 tales, each written from a reply to a tweet asking people about their experiences during a particular month of the year. Interesting project, disappointing stories. The March one was especially weird. I mean, why ducks?

The Case of Death and Honey
Written as an ending to the Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes investigates the solution to eternal life from bees, and though this process wasn’t very interesting, I like how the story closes on an ambiguous note that leaves us wondering if death is really such a crime after all.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury
Another tribute. This one’s better; I can sympathise with the narrator. How we love our favourite authors!

“Jerusalem”
Where we all want to go; but is it as good a land of milk and honey as we think? Jerusalem Syndrome is an intriguing phenomenon, but the story itself is unimpressive.

Click-clack the Rattlebag
Delightfully creepy.

An Invocation of Curiosity
Deserving winner of the Locus Award for Best Short Story. This strange little tale, full of potent imagery and motifs, pricked me with a curious sense of sorrow; sorrow for loss of wonder and curiosity, for buried longing, and for our timidity in invoking it in ourselves.

“And Weep, Like Alexander”
About uninventing things. An uninspired rehashing of Gaiman’s favourite theme; I didn’t care much about the lost things here.

“Nothing O’Clock”
This one seems like it’s just catering to Doctor Who fans. As a story it’s frivolous and insubstantial.

“Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”
Much more disturbing than the original tale of toads and diamonds. Overturns traditional didacticism for a grimmer, contemporised portrait of life.

The Return of the Thin White Duke
A few mawkish clichés here and there but overall a great fairy tale reflecting the journey of artist and audience. Like the king in the story we too are transformed after the tale, emerging with larger hearts, into a world both old and new.

Feminine Endings
A living statue writes a love letter to a woman. “Life imitates art,” writes Gaiman in his introduction to the story, “but clumsily, copying its movements when its not looking.” In this story it does so in way that’s sad and beautiful and just a little bit sinister.

“Observing the Formalities”
Short rant in free verse from the POV of the witch in “Sleeping Beauty.” The persona is one-dimensionally self-righteous and bitter–something I’d expect from a Disney cartoon or nursery rhyme, not a poem with any claims to seriousness.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”
One of the treasures in this collection. The tale artfully merges “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in a fresh, empowering way that would make feminists happy.

Witch Work
This poem is full of stock phrases, and some words just seem stuck for the rhyme; but the idea of a witch in a house full of clocks is interesting, and the repetition, metre and rhyme give the poem a suitably chant-like quality.

In Relig Odhráin
What’s up with all these poems? This one is about the legend of Oran of Iona, who was rumoured to have been willingly buried alive under the foundations of a chapel that Columba wanted to build.

“Black Dog”
A gratifying ghost story set as a sequel to American Gods. The ending was a bit of a cop-out but I like the suspense-building and the way feelings of guilt, fear and depression are amplified through Gaiman’s representation of the Grim.

Overall, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances yields more treasures than junk. Be warned, though, before you pull the trigger: some stories are disturbing, and some would need to be read twice.

On Kvothe

Warning: the following may contain spoilers!

It seems that Patrick Rothfuss’ notorious protagonist is one of those characters you either love or loathe. In a quiet inn tucked away in an almost forgotten rural town, the mild and unassuming innkeeper Kote tells a scribe the story of his past as the legendary Kvothe. And in the beginning, it seems the bright-eyed, brilliant, proud and precocious young Kvothe can be no more further from the silence of the wind that he spends the rest of the next two books struggling to grasp.

All fantasy is, in a sense, “wish-fulfilment”, as Tolkien would agree. In his poem “Mythopoiea” the father of the Fantasy genre as we know it today declares proudly that “Yes! ‘Wish-fulfillment dreams’ we spin to cheat / Our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!” Kvothe, as a character who in the beginning seems too perfect to be true, is everything we would wish to be: a musical prodigy and academic genius, skilled both in magic and rhetoric, brave and flawlessly handsome, defender of justice and heroic rescuer of distressed damsels. When met with difficulty he conquers them without much difficulty with his wit and his talents. If one didn’t know he was going to end up as Kote, the meek and despondent innkeeper who seems to have lost all hope, ambition, confidence and talent, one would think Kvothe not a very likeable character indeed. This seems to be one of the major criticisms of the protagonist – perfection that doesn’t allow one to suspend disbelief.

But a star only makes waves when it falls from great heights, and a tragedy that doesn’t fall with a resounding crash would hardly be tragic at all. In the beginning Kvothe has to be perfect – just as Agamemnon was before he died, just as Oedipus was before he was brought low and exiled. And though it is not yet clear what the fatal flaw of Kvothe is exactly, Rothfuss does seem to be setting the stage for a great fall. The framing narrative of Kote, which not only frames the story of Kvothe but also intersperses it, serves as a constant reminder of dread. The future, fixed and immutable, embodied by the most frightening creature the Cthaeh of which even the Fae fear to speak, hangs threateningly over all of Kvothe’s successes – so that the more triumphant his success, the more chilling the dread.

So if I were to criticise the character at all it would not be his perfection, which is necessary for a tragic fall; if I were to pick a fault with him at all, it would be his likability. Don’t get me wrong, I love and admire the guy; but it seems some hate him with a vengeance. Okay, so I get that that some people just don’t dig cockiness, just as some just don’t get why Denna, the wild and elusive love of Kvothe, should be so desirable to all the men in the story. (Some people prefer the aloofness of cats, the elusive grandeur of eagles in flight; some like the dramatic swag of peacocks, and others like panting, affectionate and down-to-earth dogs. I’m a cat and eagles person, myself. ☺️) But these are just personal preferences – no reason to trash the book! Chill, people.

Besides, a hero doesn’t have to be likeable; he just has to be relatable. And although Kvothe is a genius he certainly is relatable. The fact that he’s a genius doesn’t make him any less relatable any more than I wouldn’t be able to relate to Einstein if he tried to engage me in conversation. Genius as he is, he is nevertheless human and subject to pain, fear and death; and the beautiful thing is that although he is perfectly gifted he is not too perfect to learn. And he does learn, eventually. It is a long journey, but he learns humility. He learns to let go of his desire for mastery, for control of a thing, and to embrace it instead with all its mystery.

In fact, it is in this, his pride, that he is most human. Pride is our fatal flaw. It makes man a Saruman, seeking always to dominate the world with our knowledge and our science and our belief that we can and should understand all things. But during his visit to Fae, Kvothe learns from Felurian, just as we do from fantasy, that even the simplest things cannot be totalised; that the name of even the smallest piece of stone, as Elodin at the start tries in vain to teach Kvothe, has a name more complex than our conscious, rational or ever-rationalising, totalising minds can ever imagine, and more complex than our language can ever grasp – a name which can only be comprehended in the silence of dreams, which are the seed of fantasy.

On the whole, though Rothfuss’ prose isn’t particularly beautiful save for the occasional few lines, and may at times be a little too trite or lacking in subtlety, his style works. Characterisation is vivid, there’s plenty of witty banter, and his language is clear, memorable, and sharp enough to make me laugh and cry not just once but repeatedly and uncontrollably (and in public – how embarrassing). Will definitely be getting the next novel.