Some words seem to only have a grumpy, negative version. A person can be uncouth, unkempt and ruthless, but why can’t they be the opposite?
In fact, at one time they could be. Some of these unpaired negative words were formed on the Old English layer of the language, when couth meant “known,” as well as “familiar,” “pleasant,” or “cozy.” It’s related to kith, as in kith and kin: the people you know and the people you’re related to. So uncouth was “alien, unfamiliar, strange,” and eventually today’s “uncultured and bad mannered.”
Kempt was how you said “combed” in Old English (when the verb “to comb” was kemb), and ruth was the “quality of rueing”—feeling compassion or pity—in the way that growth was the “quality of growing.” A compassionate, merciful person was ruthful. Other words formed on this old Germanic layer are hapless, unwieldy, and ungainly. Hap meant “luck” or “fortune.” Hapless was “unlucky” before it came to mean “incompetent.” There was no contrasting hapful, but there was happy—which originally meant “fortunate.” To be wieldy meant “to be capable of easily wielding your limbs or your weapons.” Light, quick, and agile. Gain meant “straight” or “direct,” as in “the gainest road.” Something gainly is direct, useful, and helpful. Ungainly is unpleasant, incompetent, and awkward.
The streak of partnerless negatives doesn’t end with the old layer. The next layer, when French and Latin flooded in, contributed an enormous number of these words. Indelible, incorrigible, disconsolate, impeccable, ineffable, inscrutable, incessant, indefatigable; these all first came in their negative forms in the 15th and 16th centuries. While there were some later forms like delible (deletable), corrigible (correctible), consolate (comforted), and peccable (liable to sin), they quickly fell out of use, except in cases where they were used extremely self-consciously for showy or humorous effect. In the 17th century we do find effable (speakable), scrutable (understandable by scrutiny), cessant (ceasing), and defatigable (easily fatigued), but no evidence that they were in regular circulation.
WHEN MY CITY EDITOR yelled out that she needed someone to help cover a shooting at the County General Hospital in East Los Angeles, I sunk low behind my computer, trying to be invisible. As a young metro reporter focusing on transportation back in 1993, I had barely typed a word about violent crime.
Forty minutes later, I lingered near one of the hospital’s side entrances, unable to spot any fellow journalists milling around. So, I popped open the door, figuring they might be inside. That’s when a tubby police officer whipped around the corner, telling me in an angry whisper that the gunman who’d already shot three doctors — one with a .38-caliber slug to the head — was holding two people hostage just around the bend. “Get down and go!” he said, his hand gripping a revolver.
I left, lucky only to have been chastised, and discovered the media scrum in an adjacent parking lot. It was now your basic hurry-up-and-wait while authorities tried to end the standoff with the gunman, a disgruntled patient who lived on Skid Row. They hauled him off in a squad car after several hours, and as I angled for a view of his face, an overly aggressive TV cameraman whacked me in the back of the head with his lens. But I still noticed the suspect resembled Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker” serial killer who had terrorized Los Angeles the previous decade.
Hosted by Andrew Keen, Keen On features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the economic, political, and technological issues being discussed in the news, right now.
In this episode, Andrew is joined by Stephen M. Fleming, the author of Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness, to discuss the vast potential of metacognition.
“Speculative Resistance”—a term coined by Malka Older—posits that one great power speculative fiction wields is that exploring other worlds and ways societies could work encourages people to question extant systems, to imagine alternatives, to hope, to act, and to reject the old hope-ending “because that’s the way it is.” The author Ursula K. Le Guin termed “realists of a larger reality” do broaden expectations, and even galvanize (as we see in innumerable places, from A.I. rights think tanks to Star Wars-themed Women’s March signs), but we can also narrow expectations when we repeat patterns, leaving the impression that even in a thousand magic and alien worlds X is still always true. We know that stereotypes do harm, for example that the attitudes of TV-watching millions are affected by the fact that 33% of Black and 50% of Latino immigrant characters depicted on American TV are shown committing crimes. This essay aims to call attention to something similar but subtler, subtle because of its very ubiquity in speculative fiction, general fiction, even nonfiction, but which—if we step up and challenge it—could do real good: protagonist stories. We don’t mean stories with main characters, we mean something very specific.
Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was one of the bestselling authors of all time. In Confessions of a Young Novelist, he shares some unique advice for writing fiction.
Umberto Eco wrote Confessions of a Young Novelist in his late seventies. But having published his first novel, The Name of the Rose, only twenty-eight years earlier, he considered himself a newcomer to fiction writing. Looking back on his career so far, Eco reveals some valuable insights into his writing process. In this post, we’ve extracted four of the key lessons for fiction writers from Confessions of a Young Novelist.
All of this hubbub about there is and there are points to the broader, almost philosophical, question: is it possible for someone to make a mistake in a language they know?
Most of us would agree errors are possible someone may think epitome rhymes with home, or say he is when they mean to say she is but it can be a lot more difficult to determine whether deeper elements of syntax constitute a prima facie error.
In 1975, Adrienne Rich wrote a letter to the editor in The New York Review of Books, scolding Susan Sontag for suggesting that contemporary feminists had played a part in promoting Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefensthal’s films. In response, Sontag called Rich, among other things, “anti-intellectual.” A few months later, Rich wrote to Sontag, asking to meet in person. In May 1975, Sontag agreed. Having already had the same lover—Lilly Engler, also Rich’s therapist and the subject of her Twenty-One Love Poems—the women met to talk. They ended up having an affair.
Roughly 100,000 nonfiction titles are published each year. And yet:
The average NYT nonfiction bestseller loses ~98% of its peak sales within a year (source)
Seventy percent of traditionally published titles fail to pay out a single dollar in royalties (source)
Vanishingly few nonfiction books sell even five hundred copies
These are not good results.
Where did it start, for you? Maybe it was when J. D. Salinger’s fiction revealed the intertwining of the fates of the siblings of Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye, and that of the Glass family from Seymour: An Introduction and others of his fictions (if I recall correctly, Holden’s brother, killed in World War II, was earlier a contestant on the same juvenile game show as Seymour Glass).
Maybe it was when Kurt Vonnegut wandered into Breakfast of Champions, a book that was a compendium of characters both minor and major from his earlier novels, including Vonnegut’s fictional neglected science fiction author Kilgore Trout. Trout was an obvious transposition of the real neglected science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, whose unlikely name was nevertheless authentic, and who’d been a friendly acquaintance of Vonnegut’s several years before. Bizarrely and wonderfully, Kilgore Trout was also credited with authorship of a mysterious satirical science fiction novel that appeared in 1975, two years after Breakfast of Champions, a book called Venus on the Half-Shell, which turned out to be written by another science fiction writer named Philip José Farmer.
This month marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Baudelaire’s birth, the French poet famous for his descriptions of the flâneur: a man of the crowd, who thrived in the metropolis’ multitude. Following Baudelaire through 19th-century Paris, Matthew Beaumont discovers a parallel archetype — the convalescent hero of modernity — who emerges from the sickbed into city streets with a feverish curiosity.
He was one of the most wildly imaginative writers of any generation but even for Douglas Adams writing could be a torturous process, requiring a “general note to myself” that he would finally get pleasure from it.
“Writing isn’t so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don’t be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don’t strain at them,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author wrote to himself. “Writing can be good. You attack it, don’t let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it!”
Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?
I try to write using ordinary words and simple sentences.
That kind of writing is easier to read, and the easier something is to read, the more deeply readers will engage with it. The less energy they expend on your prose, the more they’ll have left for your ideas.
And the further they’ll read. Most readers’ energy tends to flag part way through an article or essay. If the friction of reading is low enough, more keep going till the end….
Young authors may be self-censoring because they worry they will be “trolled” or “cancelled”, according to celebrated writer Sir Kazuo Ishiguro.
Sir Kazuo, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, warned that a “climate of fear” was preventing some people from writing what they want.
He said they may be concerned that an “anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery”.
He told the BBC: “I very much fear for the younger generation of writers.”
A writer’s room tends to be a private place, a sanctuary from domesticity and the excitements of children, pets and unwanted visitors. This is certainly how George Bernard Shaw promoted his writing hut to the world, with himself as something of a creative hermit, tucked away in his modest retreat with only a few pens, a supply of ink, a small table, a narrow bed and a wicker chair for comfort. His biographer Michael Holroyd described it as a kind of “monk’s cell”. The truth is a little more complicated.
Shaw’s writing refuge was a six-square-metre wooden summerhouse, originally intended for his wife Charlotte and inspired by the similar setup owned by his neighbour Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the naturalist who was part of Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, which he wrote up as The Worst Journey In The World. The hut was built on a revolving base that used castors on a circular track, essentially a shed on a lazy Susan. This meant the hut, at his home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, could be moved to improve the light or change the view (or indeed just for a bit of exercise). Spectacularly high-tech for its time, it also had an electric heater and a telephone connection to the house as well as an alarm clock to alert the Nobel Prize winner that it was lunchtime. Shaw particularly enjoyed the isolation since it allowed the staff at the house with some degree of honesty to tell callers that “Mr Shaw is out” to prevent interruptions. He also called it “London” for the same reason (“I’m sorry Sir, Mr Shaw is in London”).
Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey’s most skillful historical novelists, lives in solitary confinement in a cell four meters long, at Silivri Prison, Europe’s largest penal facility. In I’ll Never See This World Again, his fifteenth book, and the first he wrote from prison, Altan recalled the passing comment of a judge who held the author’s fate in his hands: “If only you had stuck to writing novels and kept your nose out of political affairs.”
The work of the literary editor is conducted in a kind of shadow, cast by the name of the author. A few editors have stepped out of that shadow, becoming perhaps more infamous than famous, for the labels “editor” and “famous” seem like a contradiction in terms, essentially incompatible. An example is Gordon Lish, who became known in the literary world as “Captain Fiction” and whose authors included Raymond Carver. Another is Maxwell Perkins, editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whose epithet was the “Editor of Genius.” One of the most celebrated editing jobs ever done was carried out by Ezra Pound, not in any formal capacity, but as a friend, his ruthless hand paring down an early version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the form in which we know it today. Gordon Lish’s editing was quite as unconstrained and uncompromising, the style we think of as Carver’s being in fact Lish’s work. Carver himself was rather ambivalent about it, though it unquestionably established his name as a writer. This became apparent when Carver’s own manuscript was published after his death, his stories there being quite differently ample and expansive, barely recognizable. There is little doubt that the editor’s Carver was better than Carver’s Carver, and how must that have made the author feel as he stood in the spotlight to receive his accolades, hailed as the great new name of American literature? The example is interesting, for the job of the editor is to exert influence, not for his own good, nor necessarily for the author’s, but for that of the book, and if we can suggest that Lish went too far, we must also ask in relation to what? After all, the book was certainly the better for it. Were the wounded feelings of its author more important? Without Lish, Carver’s books would have been poorer and he would have been a reasonably good writer rather than a brilliant one. This raises the question of what a writer is, and where the boundaries run between the author, the book, and the surrounding world.
When I first went to see him, I telephoned P. G. Wodehouse and asked for directions from New York to his house on Long Island. He merely chuckled, as if I had asked him to compare Euclid with Einstein or attempt some other laughably impossible task. “Oh, I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I don’t have a clue.” I learned the route anyway, and my arrival for lunch, only ten minutes late, seemed to astonish him. “You had no trouble? Oh, that is good. That’s wonderful!” His face beaming at having in his house such a certified problem-solver, a junior Jeeves almost, he led me without further to-do to a telephone, which he had been dialing all morning in a futile effort to reach a number in New York. He had, of course, done everything right but dial the area code, an addition to the Bell system that had somehow escaped his attention since he had last attempted long distance. He was intensely pleased when New York answered, and I sunned myself in the warm glow of his gratitude for the rest of the day. All of which is by way of saying that Wodehouse, who lived four months past his ninety-third birthday, had discovered his own secret of long life: he simply ignored what was worrisome, bothersome, or confusing in the world around him…
This essay looks at the history of the novel, starting from the influential postwar critical insistence on the importance of the novel as a nineteenth-century genre. It notes that this tradition singularly fails to take account of the history of the novel in antiquity–for clear ideological reasons. It then explores the degree to which the texts known as the novel from antiquity, such as Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Petronius’s Satyricon, or Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, constitute a genre. Although there is a great deal of porousness between different forms of prose in antiquity, the essay concludes by exploring why the ancient novel, ignored by critics for so long, has now become such a hot topic. It argues that much as the postwar critics could not fit the ancient novel into their histories, now the ancient novel’s interests in sophisticated erotics, narrative flair, and cultural hybridity seem all too timely.