06 May 2009

Adverb apoplecstasy

"Indubitably. No mean word, that, Bayliss, for the morning after."
—P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim

It was day four of the conference, and there was hardly an eye that opened willingly, but now one after another sprang to attention—as one diplomat panelist put a quiet question to the last speaker, another star in the diplomatic firmament. This was answered at the same low decibel. The questioner replied even more softly, to the almost whispered reply. In another 30 seconds, the fight was full on and even the snorer in the back of the room now sat forward, his hands pushing his ears forward to hear the clash of the verbal blades.

Thrust, parry, etc.. The opponents smiled tightly, looking only at each other—till one parried with sloppy arrogance, and the adrenaline of passion rose in the other till his eyeglasses actually flashed, and he delivered a coup de grâce so thrilling, it made swordplay dull. His opponent's response? A jaw that literally looked unhinged. And the crowd? If you'd been there, the sound of your own heart beating.

"Oh," the panel moderator said brightly, looking to the back of the room. "It's time, is it? Such a shame." The two overbooked speakers rose and said how sorry they were to have to leave before the conference was over. Their ride ushered them out, to drive them in the same car to the same plane that would eventually link to other planes going to different destinations.

"Well," said the panel moderator, once we could no longer hear their footsteps. "That was something." And that summed up the hit of the conference perfectly.

The killer blow?
Dick Cheney considered it to be "Fuck you," which sums up his finesse. I won't tell you what it was here, except to say that the one who struck the blow is French. Now, the French have a reputation for disarming by the simple tactic of being elegantly infuriating. It's hard to fight a French shrug and win, but it is known. I did it once, and with kitchen French. But it is impossible (in French, English, and most likely Martian) and this diplomat knows as well as all successful diplomats, and any journalist—
It's impossible to beat an adverb—a precisely targeted and apropos adverb, that is.
"… the Foreign Affairs Minister bravely adding an adverb to his repeating of the Prime Minister's remarks."
- Macleans, 29/04/03

"Obama, as hinted at above, also needs to watch his right flank -- especially in relation to questions of foreign policy. That adverb cannot be emphasized enough."
- P.M. Carpenter, Buzzflash

She and Felli did use a wider variety of superlatives and laudatory adjectives in Chicago than they did in Tokyo, where the praise varied mainly in the use of a different adverb to modify the word "impressed."
As in "most impressed" and "very impressed."

Maybe the commission's verbal enthusiasm already is flagging after the second of four physically demanding and mentally intense trips, with visits to Rio de Janeiro and Madrid upcoming over the next three weeks.

So El Moutawakel simply used an unadorned "impressed" to describe the commission's view of the compactness in the Tokyo plan, which she said "would make it easy for the athletes and the spectators."

Philip Hersch, Chicago Tribune
In the real world, adverbs are so important that they often appear as the only word in a sentence. And sometimes an adverb becomes so much the answer that a transcript isn't complete without it used more than an eye blinks, a person breathes, more than "you know".
"Absolutely." In cases like this, they lose power, just as "fuck" does in its most common uses: in the place of a comma, or a coherent thought.

Adverbs in fiction?
"Do not use adverbs! Especially not in dialogue attribution."— Stephen King On Writing.

"Kill adjectives and adverbs" is typical advice, telling us that "it is important to cut out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can." But we are also told, "show, don't tell", so this teacher shows bad and "good" writing:
Sample One: The Elementary School Story
Greg, a brown-haired and brown-eyed man, about five foot eight and chubby, walked slowly down the street. He was coming to pick up Pam, his blonde-haired, buxom
girlfriend who was sitting calmly on the cement steps in front of her red brick home.

Sample Three: Good Descriptive Writing
Greg strolled down the street, the wind ruffling his shaggy brown hair. A smile lifted his cheeks when he spotted Pam waiting for him on her front steps. She flicked her long blonde hair over her shoulder and Greg sucked in his gut as he walked, once more amazed that such a beautiful woman wanted to be with him.
That might be a precocious youngster, but it figures that a teacher like this would cut the tits off a woman. Eighty years ago Willa Cather described this sort—people who unfortunately love to donate the benefits of their knowledge. (Well, I'm doling out advice, too, but that's different! I don't pretend to make you a good writer. If you're a bore, nothing can. )

Writing fiction - Adverbs be gone at "Helium - where knowledge rules" begins by being less bloodthirsty; but by the end, is a manual for torture followed by many:
Adverbs - a dirty word in fiction writing circles! Working on your adverbs can really improve your writing - but it's not true that you have to banish every single one... Adverbs have a bad reputation because it's so easy to use them in a lazy way. Instead of taking the time to think of words that really describes what's happening, it's too easy to grab a plain ordinary verb and add an adverb . . . The most obvious solution is to choose a more descriptive verb that encapsulates the meaning of the plain verb and adverb combined - but be careful, it's not always the answer. If your new verb is old-fashioned, too obscure or too flowery, it may not fit your style. For instance, you could use 'he enunciated' for 'he spoke clearly', but how many people know what 'enunciated' means these days? If your new verb is going to make your average reader stop and go 'huh?', don't use it! To get around this one, you may have to change the sentence structure around completely, e.g. his words were clear. You may even have to write two or three sentences to replace the original one ...
"I have a pet peeve," Meghan Fatras writes in another how-to-write article"as a reader, as an editor, and as a writer. I would love to take all adverbs and march them out of town pied-piper style. To steal a quote attributed to Mark Twain, 'Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer." I couldn't agree more."

People who quote Mark Twain on adverbs should instead, read Mark Twain.
She was going by as indifferently as she might have gone by a couple of cows.
—Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The only advice about writing worse than that from writer wannabes, is that from successful fiction writers. Yet this Twain quote and the equally famous one ("The road to hell is paved with adverbs," courtesy of that other "great" writer, the Dickens of our time, some say) Stephen King, are glory-halleluyahed in more evangelizing tent camps of writing advisers (most of them people who want to "be a writer") than I can mention here. But these people who quote on how to write don't do the only things worth teaching: Read, and observe, and if you want to follow rules, be a swimmer. Story-telling doesn't deserve you or your narrow-mindedness, your prohibitionist zeal, your refusal to hear others, to see, not to mention your lack of love for reading. You don't even see the deaths you cause—to language used in all its power to incite.
The soup arrived, and George set about it with a willing spoon. His companion became hideously involved with spaghetti.
—P.G. Wodehouse, The Small Bachelor
Colonel Pollard snorted, apparently to clear his mind."
—Reginald Brettnor, "The Gnurrs Come From the Voodvork Out"

He was fully dressed except for the fact that he only wore one shoe. The other one was placed carefully and precisely in the center of his bureau top. "It would seem," said Doan to himself, "that I was inebriated last evening when I came home."
—Norbert Davis, Holocaust House

My mother coughed. My father slowly pushed the top half of the window shut, his gaze still level with mine.
Joe Hill, "My Father's Mask"

Last spring all that changed overnight. Literally.
Delia Sherman, "Walpurgis Afternoon"

Then he drew back, two steps, and looked me in the eye. His voice had nothing in common with his face: baritone and beautiful, melodious and carrying. I leaned forward, abruptly entranced.
Elizabeth Bear, "Follow Me Light"

The strength of the English language lies in the multiplicity of ways that we can say things. English excels in nuance. Furthermore, English has a history of anarchy and democracy, yet we gave this precious freedom away, for what? The advice of people who say, but don't do. If I were a teacher (and I'm not. I'm only a meddler) I would make my students read this article and follow its advice, or have their hands flayed:
5o Years of Stupid Grammar Advice by Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Chronicle of Higher Education
. . . Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations . . . The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules . . .
Rules rules rules
One interesting aspect of adverbs (and adjectives) is that the USA seems to be more uptight about them than the British (And Australians and New Zealanders, and who else?). "Importantly" is an example. "Tut tut!" said the USA. The correct way to say it is: "Of importance". The same prissy loquaciousness has shoved "with" in front of other perfectly good adverbs after docking their tails (with no anaesthetic).

More rules than just for words
Jeffrey Ford—a writer who revels in what English can do, not to mention story-telling—in his recent praise of "Robinson Crusoe" said, "That's the beauty of it, there weren't a lot of rules to worry about, so he just went for it."

You can read his writing with no worries that he has his mind clotted by rules. No wowser runs his mind, or the way he tells a story. But then we get to the run of the bookstore. And that is the problem for would-be readers of most modern fiction. Rules have been taught, and unfortunately, followed unfortunately. Instead of hearing stories in their heads and writing them down in the voices of the stories and their thrilling tones, they hear the rules—dulling as a bang to the head.

Writing is not like cooking
Throw an egg on an unprepared pan, and you have a welded piece of garbage. Learn some rules, and even without inspiration, you can be an excellent cook who can fool people into thinking you're inspired. But thankfully, Chaucer never had story-cooking lessons.

If Justine Larbalestier had been good, she might have turned into a welcome mat, or a supermarket medium-thick-'n-thirsty anti-bacterial sponge. Instead, she was very bad. Most certainly, her stories would never have had a chance to enthrall so many readers, especially the young, if she'd done as she was told. Read her recent call to arms: "Write what you know, NOT!" Please! In some anthologies by people who really haven't had much of a life beyond too much education, the "by __________" (author's name) is the only different element between stories. But even in "fantasy", which you'd think would enjoy anarchy, rules seem to apply, so much so that I was shocked, actually, when I accidentally walked into a teaching session on how to write a fantasy trilogy. The panel was discussing when in book 3 the hero should do x, in their template for the genre, a word I think is so obscene that I'm also shocked that it is taught to minors. Indeed, so uniform is much fiction output that any day I expect PETA to cry foul over the chains, the battery conditions.

Steve Aylett, often my favourite living writer, wonders whether there is a taboo against originality. Aylett might suffer from this, as Norbert Davis did. Sometimes Time is the ultimate satirist. Scrappy Norbert Davis paperbacks are snapped up for over US$110 if you can find them at all, while most of the best-sellers of his time are what most manuscripts become quickly, and most best-sellers published ten years ago+ are: substrate. Paraphrasing Dorothy Parker, the published are slicker, the unpublished get there quicker, but both end up sharing nematodes. Yet the writers who really do thrill (and often spawn imitators and "genres") don't write for the publishing fad, the passing norms. They transcend them. They follow the stories in their heads, telling them as they hear them and see them. And they never stopped being readers, though they do keep away from reading certain things. Every great work has its own voice, though that is hard to remember when styles are taught as "good writing", just as cubism once was taught as "art".

The road to hell is paved with writing guides
Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.
—Raymond Chandler
The worst thing about all this learning is that the fun gets lost
Fun to write and fun to read. Recently, a review of a book peeved me by its use of the royal "we" and the words arguably, indisputably, and undeniably for what, I argued, were the opinions of the reviewer but not the world. Jeff VanderMeer — who wields words (including adjectives and adverbs) with great dexterity, and makes you see with his words what he sees in his head, which is invariably (horrors!) out of this world — pointed out another reason not to use these words there. "Arguably, indisputably, and undeniably shouldn't appear in the review because they are artery-clogging adverbs."

I would argue that in the case of this reviewer, they belong as much as the adverbs in a diplomat's s/word play. I think they were deliberate, and that they suffer from prejudice not because of what they are, but because of their misuse, and the frequency of this crime. We see them all the time, in all the worst places. Well, one could say the same about "said", but it's still considered not only healthy, but prescribed. So, though VanderMeer is a writer who is a rarity—successful and original, with books and stories that live in the reader's mind—I beg to disagree with him on this point, partly because I'm sure he has used all these words himself, with style, purpose, and power. One day just for the fun of it, I must use the artery-cloggingly rich adverb that VanderMeer's visceral reaction spawned.

For more fun
This is the first line of the plot synopsis of Stephen King's upcoming Under the Dome, taken from his official site. It is rather a delicious example of adverbs used badly.
On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field.
A short story
The elephant and the raven were sorting favourites in their library.
"We must not forget," said the elephant, putting aside one book for reading aloud. "Bulwer-Lytton was the Stephen King of his time."
The raven shook his head sadly. "Absolutely."
"Cheer up," said the elephant. "The reverse isn't true. In a hundred years, even I won't remember anything King penned."


Bullyboy said...

Great post.

anna tambour said...

Thank you, Luke. I admire your bravery. Your note goes against the generals of advice. They ordered you to kill that adjective. A lesser man would have given in and written merely (without even thinking adjectively):