My seventeenth blog post today

In an article on The Times’ website today, the first paragraph reads:

George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time today as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

Sadly, even if this is grammatically correct, it is wildly misleading. I am not a bad reader, but on reading this sentence I spent a couple of minutes wondering why Mr. Osborne would make five announcements pertaining to the same thing on one day. The problem is that the journalist hasn’t made clear which temporal marker agrees with which subject:

George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time today as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

The two temporal markers of “today” and “for the fifth time” shouldn’t be placed next to each other, if confusion is to be avoided. It makes me feel like George looks (I mean, murderous, not like a mouldy potato).

Osborne+axe

Perhaps it would have been better for this journalist to separate them . . . :

Today George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time  as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

. . . And then to clarify the subject to which “for the fifth time” agrees:

Today George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time in his chancellorship as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

There we go. Now I can read the rest of the article, boring myself slowly to an early grave.

Advertisements

REVIEW Roth’s American Pastoral – “an astonishing farce of misperception”

A Classically-minded friend of mine said that ancient Greek and Roman writers gave “instructions” on how to read their works.

I’m not entirely sure what texts she was thinking of, but the other day I noticed a passage in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral which fits the bill. Read it below . . . It is a standout paragraph on page 35. I mean standout because:

  1. it is a damn insightful bit of writing;
  2. and it sits so incongruously (having no mention of character, setting, or plot) that it begs to be used as an “instruction” or guide to the rest of the text.

It seems to me that the rest of the novel is impossible to comprehend without this paragraph. This is a 400-page novel about two people who will never “get each other right”: the all-American, football-playing, glove-factory-owning Swede Levov and his fanatical anti-Vietnam, let’s-put-a-bomb-in-the-local-post-office daughter Merry.

The incessant misunderstandings between these and other characters would be unbearable if it weren’t for this passage. It allows us to use these repeated misunderstandings as part of a narrative ideology, providing a sort of a philosophy on life which holds up against every piece of scrutiny that the characters, their actions, and their perceptions can give it.

This is the key to the novel. Roth explicitly states that the whole business of knowing people is “an astonishing farce of misperception”. What greater clue is there that the following novel should be read as a failed piece of perception!

It is misperception piled on top of misperception: you have a reader trying to comprehend Roth, who is writing as his alter-ego Zuckermann, who is trying to write the life of the “legendary” Swede Levov, who is trying to understand why his daughter Merry detests America, who is trying to understand why her parents don’t understand their complicity in the damage that America has inflicted on Vietnam.

No wonder Roth shows such a resigned attitude to “this terribly significant business of other people”. There is no hope in avoiding being wrong about them.

And, I think, as most readers will skim past this page without thinking about its significance, Roth is likely making a point about his novel being misread. This is the key to the novel, but it is a key which reveals only the inability of its contents to do anything adequately, most of all perceive and explain.


Consider “omnishambles”, OUP’s word of the year

This year the Oxford University Press has named “omnishambles” as the “word that best reflects the mood of the year”. The OUP’s lexicographer Susie Dent said the word was chosen for its popularity as well as its “linguistic productivity”.

Like The Guardian‘s Alison Flood, I rather like the idea of a word of the year.

I like it because people too often forget the key lesson they learnt in English at school, that words are not only conduits of information, but also objects in their own right. This forgetfulness is the reason that we tend to read blog posts not poetry, news articles not essays.

We have become habituated to words as clear vessels for our inner thoughts, imagining that we can use a word effectively without considering its definitions, etymology, and various functions.

Already one can see people relishing attention on our means of communication. Don’t the phrases “linguistic productivity” and “aesthetic enthusiasm” have a pleasure of their own? And perhaps the more we nurture imaginative new forms of expression, the greater their relative growth will be.

This is lazy. And it’s also unenjoyable. It means we don’t attend in our daily life to what George Orwell calls “aesthetic enthusiasm”, or “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”.

So while everyone has a little giggle at the crowning of a word of the year, and others join in with linguistic abnormalities (a comment on The Guardian’s article reads “As for omnishambles, it rolls off the tongue nicely but we already have a wonderful word that covers it: clusterfuck”) I think something more serious is happening: people are talking about words again.


Consider the function of writing competitions

Writing competitions are motivating. There is something about an impending deadline which will empower us to work more efficiently and imaginatively than if we were given our whole lives to write something.

This perhaps agrees with the oft-touted advice that budding writes will puzzle over: Just write! Just write a lot, often, and don’t stop!

The results can be rewarding. I was recently shortlisted for the Foyles Bookshop/Negative Press London Still flash fiction competition, which is the best news I’ve had all month. And I am also writing an essay on young people for the Financial Times/Bodley Head long form essay competition. (Deadline 18th November, if you are interested.)

Anyway, there are loads of competitions about, some of which are free to entry. Another literary blogger Rich Lakin (also shortlisted for the Still competition) mentioned these two competitions to me, and I think I’ll give them a go. Why don’t you?

The Telegraph’s weekly travel writing competition, Just Back – £200 for each winning entry

The Guardian’s yearly travel writing competition – win a holiday