Baibun no Jinsei 2

Writing thoughts.
  • I hate portmanteau words. I'll grandfather in an exception for the ones Lewis Carroll actually made up, but otherwise—aside from how they sound like, again, a third-string Japanese comedian's C-game, is the fact that English does not form compounds that way. No language does, really, since half the time the part of the second word that's used is a meaningless inflectional affix. Now, Carroll never claimed to be a linguist and he was kidding anyway, but others, especially recently—I've mentioned the portmanteau fetish among Transhumanists—mistook the joke for a serious word-formational principle. As in so many things, the trouble comes from Carroll having written in English—a language whose speakers shortened "omnibus" to "bus", which makes precisely as much sense as shortening "arboretum" to "tum".

    There actually are rules for how you form compounds in English; they were described by the grammarians of Vedic Sanskrit, probably around the time they first wrote it, if not earlier, because they're the rules that govern all Indo-European compounds, and quite possibly those of every language. The three big ones are dvandva ("father-son"; in English we only do them as adjectives), bahuvrihi ("redhead"), and tatpurusa ("god-given", "battlefield", "woman-hating", "pit-spawned", "doghouse"—there's one for each of the Indo-European cases except maybe nominative; the first half of each of those compounds functions as instrumental, genitive, accusative, locative, and dative, respectively).

    The quintessential example of portmanteaux being abominations, is the British journalese neologism "nomophobia", which is the fear of being without ('no') one's mobile devices ('mo'—despite nobody calling mobile devices that). Only...we name phobias in Greek. "Nomophobia" would mean "fear of rules, laws, or customs". "Fear of being without a mobile device" would be "akinitophobia", given the Greek for "cell(-phone)" is κινητό (τηλέφωνο), pronounced "kinito (tilefono)" in Modern Greek—yeap, they literally just say "moving phone". (Phobia names, by the bye, are accusative tatpurusa compounds, but if you refer to someone as e.g. "a herpetophobe"—a person afraid of snakes—it's probably a bahuvrihi.)
  • If you do not happen to have your main character deeply changed by his experiences in your story, you will probably feel—because of the relentless thrust of practically every work about writing currently available—that it's a failure as a writer. But it isn't. It's just that everyone thinks that's the only way to write a story, and as a website I found points out, it's partly Joseph Campbell's fault.

    In reality, not every main character does have to change. And—brilliant piece of insight, wish I'd written it—a hero who doesn't change still grows, it's just by standing their ground in the face of escalating challenges. That, I think, is probably why the so-called "static" hero is more common in action stories—"escalating challenges" is kinda the definition of action stories.
  • You know a trope I hate? The "this person is good at chess, they can do the same thing in the real world" thing. The only possible proper way to portray a character like that is, when they say something in real life (as a character did in something I was reading just now) like "I'll beat you in four moves", the other person has to take out a gun and shoot them right in the face. "Throwing the board on the floor" is arbitrarily excluded from the list of possible moves in chess; it is very much not excluded from the possible moves in real life.

    Did you ever wonder why the world's militaries don't kidnap chess grandmasters to force them to plan military strategies? It's because your enemy in a war has more than sixteen pieces, and they can move to more than sixty-four places in more than eleven ways (six types of piece, and kings and rooks have one special way to move, while pawns have three). Also you don't see your enemy's pieces at the beginning of a war, and they aren't always arranged the same way every time.
  • The reason "its" gets confused with "it's" is because "its" is the only instance of that that English will let you spell properly. You did know English was still inflected for case, right? It has two. One is nominative, accusative, and oblique compressed into a common case; the other is the genitive. No, there is no such thing as a possessive. Given that, like many languages, English's genitive ends in "-s", it is a misspelling to put in the apostrophe ("-'s" ought to be an assimilated "is", and nothing else).

    Apparently we put in the apostrophe because moronic 16th and 17th century grammarians (there were another kind?) thought the genitive was a contracted "his", because I guess someone told them English doesn't have cases, or something. Then in 1762 an Anglican vicar of subnormal intelligence named Robert Lowth, who was also the origin of not ending sentences on prepositions, felt himself free to rename the case from "genitive" to "possessive". This, of course, led to the halfwitted sub-literate non-rule that you can't apply that ending to inanimate objects, since they cannot "possess"—you have to say "the leg of the chair" rather than "the chair's leg". (If we'd just acknowledged that we were inflecting for the genitive case, that unintelligence would've been avoided—since even a Grammar Nazi knows "of" is the genitive.)

    Wait (you doubtless say), doesn't the "possessive" being the genitive mean that English inflects for two cases? Whereas all the Romance languages only inflect for one (not counting Romanian, which has three). Uh-huh. English isn't much more deflected than most Romance languages, it just deflected differently, more in the verbs but less in the nouns. (It also has a subjunctive, by the way, although only in the copula and it looks like the plural past indicative—that's why you say "if I were you" instead of "if I was you".)
  • I understand, of course, why people think you should write and read about unlikable protagonists—they consider wanting a likable protagonist to be childish, and like all children they are absolutely terrified of that. But what I don't understand is why anyone falls for it, if they are not themselves children wanting desperately to sit at the big kids' table.

    I can't conceive of reading books about things you can actually do in real life, except purely for information (to help you do the thing yourself, or understand how you do it, better). And, not to put too fine a point on it, but everybody's real life already gives them lots of practice at sympathizing with a protagonist who's often pretty unlikable.

    So why does anyone want to read about that? Fiction is play; it is a break from the business of real life. Asking that all protagonists be as crummy and annoying as real people are is like asking that authors meticulously describe every time a character poops: you're not mature if you want that, you're mentally ill.
  • Make sure, when you use a piece of jargon or slang, that you know how it's used. This thought is occasioned by a Superman comic I was reading (written by J. Michael Straczynski, who ought to know better). A fighter-pilot says, as he fires a second missile at the Parasite (who's flying over Metropolis after a few sips of Kryptonian), "BOHICA, baby." This is spelled out in a footnote—"Bend over, here it comes again"—and identified as slang, which it is.

    But...BOHICA is never said to an enemy. Like, ever. Well, very rarely. Because BOHICA is a term of commiseration or complaint, a synonym for "same shit, different day", and means, "oh lovely, we're getting screwed again"—pretty much verbatim. It often has an implication of being screwed over by your own bureaucracy (see also the Marine expression "Big Green Weenie" and its synonyms in other branches, most of which are less polite, which phenomenon I suspect is unique in USMC history).
  • I was thinking, maybe the reason writing in "genre" fiction (which is kind of like saying "ethnic" people) is better, generally, than the empurpled gobbledygook of "literary" fiction, is that literary's readers have incentives other than enjoyment to read it. And also, relatedly, that genre, to be commercially successful, probably has to worry about actually pleasing the customers, because they're all competing for a slice of a relatively small pie.

    It's an example both of how markets actually do ensure quality, and yet also of how the "rational actor" doesn't actually exist. The idea that a rational economic agent, actuated solely by the quality of the goods, would actually buy something by Updike or Franzen or, God help us, Guterson, is laughable. "Literary" fiction survives solely based on snobbishness and ghettoization. The situation could've been constructed as a hypothetical reductio ad absurdum—Socrates couldn't have picked out the irony any better—of all extravagant claims made for the "invisible hand".
  • And seriously, Guterson needs to be punished. The ironic-punishment imp that lives in my soul says he should have Edward Said's Orientalism—unabridged—tattooed onto his entire body. I mean, every once in a while, you come across some piece of communication that makes you scoff just a little less at PC talk about "othering" and the rest of it, and Snow Falling on Cedars is one of those pieces.

    The quintessential example is that sex-scene, the one Myers quotes in the original "Reader's Manifesto" article? The one that ends with the guy saying "Tadaima aware ga wakatta", which is supposed to mean "I understand just now the deepest beauty"? Yeah, well, it doesn't mean that (it means "just now, pathos has understood"—the ga makes aware, which means "pathos" not "beauty", the subject of the sentence; it'd be something like "utsukushisa wo wakatta"). And more importantly...nande ya nen?! What kind of poseur douchebag says something like that right after having sex, even if it did mean what he thought?

    The answer is, well, there was an Asian person involved, so of course Guterson felt he had to go for something faux spiritual (see also the Buddhist temples inside brothels, in Firefly). You know what would actually be really culturally appropriate to say then? "Daisuki da yo." Know what it means? "I love you." You know, just like anyone else would say, in that situation. You wouldn't say "I understand beauty", anyway, even if that was the idea you wanted to express; cultures that never had Descartes or Kant are less locked up inside their own heads, so in Japanese you'd most likely just say "utsukushii", which means—because Japanese adjectives are actually "stative verbs"—"(it's/you're/we're/etc.) beautiful". That, you might realistically say in that situation.