Friday, May 1, 2015

Shakespeare Read No Crap and So Should You

Let's pause at the outset to consider the grammar of my title. Admire, admire! Grammar's not everything, but it's the start of everything. Writing well begins with knowing how to write grammatically. Don't break the rules of grammar because you have no choice. Break them for some other reason (if you must).

Now you're expecting me to say Shakespeare wrote grammatically. The truth is, I don't know whether he did or not. The rules seem to have been a little different then, back in fifteen-ninety-something. There were fewer of them (rules). Shakespeare didn't even spell his own name the same way every time. He wrote, "Who does the wolf love?" because "whom" hadn't been invented yet, luckily for the Elizabethans. As for subject-verb agreement, forget about it. "These high wild hills and rough uneven ways / Draws out our miles." What's that, the more "s"s, the better? "Their encounters . . . hath been royally attorneyed." Hmm. Let's forget about "attorney" as a verb. It's "encounters hath" I find unsettling. I give it a big "nay," and I blame it on the printer. Then there's
this, from Julius Caesar: "Three parts of him / Is ours already." That's Cassius talking about winning Brutus over to the side of the assassins. I guess it makes sense if the three parts of Brutus got turned into a single part in the process of becoming the assassins'. This kind of thing is not really worth thinking about for long.

The main thing is that Shakespeare made his meanings precise and clear, and when he didn't, we can always blame it on the characters and say they are confused. Like Leontes in The Winter's Tale, when he goes into a jealous fit over his wife's flirtatiousness and says, "Affection! thy intention stabs the centre. / Thou dost make possible things not so held, / Communicat'st with dreams (how can this be?), / With what's unreal thou co-active art, / And fellow'st nothing. Then 'tis very credent / Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost / (And that beyond commission)." The correct scholarly interpretation of this passage is, "WTF?"

What I mean to say is, if we want to be good writers we should read only good writers. Even good writers write clunky sentences sometimes (and I'm not saying Leontes' sentence is clunky; it's insane, but not clunky; in fact, I kind of like it, even though I'm still trying to figure it out; on the other hand, this particular sentence I'm writing right now is not a good sentence). When I say we should only read good writers, I don't mean we should only read perfect writers, because there aren't any. But if you want to improve your prose, you must read writers whose prose you admire and (here's the point) ONLY writers whose prose you admire. Bad writers will just bring you down. They'll infect your writing. They'll make you worse. And by bad writers I mean writers who don't write well. Don't wait for someone to tell you who they are. Learn how to recognize them when you read them, and drop their books like hot potatoes. Drop them back into that library slot and drive away, fast! It doesn't matter if they're on the best-seller lists. It doesn't  matter if they've won one of the five million, three hundred thousand, four hundred sixty-seven book awards you can pay to be considered for. ("For which to be considered" would be a silly phrase, so I didn't use it.) It doesn't even matter if these writers have won really good  book awards and garnered stellar reviews in prestigious publications, if you see they can't construct a precise and resonant paragraph. Train yourself so you can tell. You'll discover that a lot of successful writers don't know grammar, and that some of those who do still come up with atrocious run-on sentences and hallucinatory metaphors, many of them sadly mixed. Just as there are many different kinds of great writers, there are many different kinds of bad writers. Some great writers never get published, but you know them when you read their letters, or their in-class essays, or their private journals that they keep hidden between the mattress and box-springs where they thought your prying eyes would never see them.

Yes, many good writers never get published. Unfortunately, many bad ones do, on a regular basis. These bad authors work hard to corrupt the style of reader-writers with their malicious influence, snickering satanically before their computer screens (as well as behind their steering wheels as they cruise to the bank).

My sister tried to make me read The Da Vinci Code. I said it was making me physically sick. She called me an elitist literary snob. What I say to that is, "You forgot to pronounce 'elitist' with the accent on the first syllable." I myself didn't put an accent mark on that word only because I don't know Blogger well enough to locate its diacritical marks repository, if it exists.

I think of writing this way. If you want to get better at tennis, you should play with someone who's better than you (at tennis). But though in tennis you can only play with someone who's a little bit better than you, in reading, you can always read the greatest writers in the world. In fact, they are often easier to read than the not-so-good ones. And reading those writers will make you a better writer. (Intentional sentence fragment, by the way.)

Shakespeare took no crap. Well, maybe he did. But he read no crap. He had no time. Well, maybe he did. I don't know. Maybe he read whatever he found lying around. What's clear is that he read an awful lot of really good books, even though he probably never finished any of them. What books? Plutarch's Lives of The Noble Greeks and Romans, Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Geneva Bible, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Montaigne's Essays. Erasmus. Chaucer. Shakespeare used to walk in the great outdoor London shopping mall of Paul's Yard with his "Lord Chamberlain's Men" tote bag and browse through the books. Sometimes he'd stuff a book in the tote bag when the bookseller was looking the other way or the line was too long. He had no time; he was William Shakespeare. He'd return the book later, with pages only slightly dog-eared and written-upon ("Take this back, 'tis shite!"). Shakespeare lived in London not just to be near the playhouses, but to be near the books.

What am I talking about? This. If we want to be good writers, we should be very careful of what we read. Life's too short to spend reading crappy books, and not nearly long enough for us to get to all the good ones. So don't waste time. What have we got to lose besides our wordiness?

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