Tuesday, December 27, 2011

One Star Reviews #4: Grammatical Snobbery

There are none so righteous as the newly converted...

I thought C.S. Lewis had said this, but as I dug around, I was hard pressed to locate an attribution for the quote. But it certainly holds true no matter who the quote belongs to. For those who are freshly educated in the use of language, the brand of righteousness these folks exhibit is irksome to fiction writers.

While not as pervasive as the one-star reasons I've talked about in the first three posts in this series, a refrain I am finding in one-star reviews (and also two-star, incidentally) is grammarphilia. People who stand on the premise that impeccable grammar is far more important than style. Fragments give these people heart palpitations. Prepositions at the ends of sentences are like scarlet letters of the literary world. No self-respecting paragraph would ever have just one sentence.

Now, I am completely on the grammarphiles' side in their assertions that writers should know how to make their nouns and verbs agree, that they shouldn't use words whose definitions they don't exactly know (think "inconceivable" from The Princess Bride) and they certainly need to comb their work for wonky syntax. But militant adherence to the rules of academic writing doesn't necessarily serve best in the realm of fiction. With the emphasis on voice in fiction, it's a necessity that authors have leave to play a little bit with accepted grammar rules. If the message beneath the words becomes horribly garbled due to excessive liberty with grammar, then of course the author has gone too far.

But the one-star reviewer/grammar officer doesn't see the artistry in tweaking, in starting a sentence with the occasional conjunction, in pouring words into a mold that maximizes their impact, even if it doesn't adhere to collegiate grammar specifications. It's these types of reviewers that I can't help but wonder if they just have nothing else to do than read books and become incensed over non-traditional sentence structure. Never mind the fact that the fragment or word order actually serves a specific artistic purpose (if you simmer down long enough to analyze it.)

I would ignore this type of one-star review if it didn't bleed over into another area the grammar-police also seem to partner with their hatred of loose sentence structure, and that's an intolerance for a partial reveal of information. As I came across multiple one-star reviews spurred by linguistic frustration, many of these reviews morphed into complaints about questions authors planted that did not generate immediate answers. (Now, hearkening back to #3 of this series, it is a legitimate gripe if the author never bothers to tie up anything, but just wanders around for hundreds of pages.) But I think the narrow view of grammar is logically tied into the reader frustration with "hooks" or "plants," as I've heard them called. People who think in a rigidly linear fashion have little tolerance for unexplained actions, titles, or remarks, and it seems few of these types of readers are willing to stick with a book if they have to wait too long to find out what the author was alluding to.

The take-away I get from this is that if I'm going to plant a question in my work, I need to make sure I reassure my reader that I haven't forgotten about it. An occasional hint that I will get back to that--eventually--goes a long way in reader retention. And if I'm going to ignore formality in grammatical structure, I had better do it less than I have in this blog post if I don't want the Champions of Grammar to wage war on me.

4 comments:

  1. Becky, you managed to dig out a good observation there about plants without payoffs. That you could unearth it from under mounds of grammatical peevery is a testament to your diligence.

    And I'd just like to take this opportunity to point out that many people who spend too much time complaining about other people's grammar "errors" are errant pedants. Much of what they think are "rules" aren't, really.

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  2. 'The Road' was one book that spun its own grammar yarn but the book was wonderful and bleak and sparse. At times you get lost in which of the two characters are speaking (no quotations or dialog tags), but that feeds into the statement that the two have even lost their names (they are literally ONLY called 'the man' and 'the boy')and that the reality of existence has stolen personal identity. Or at least that's how I took it. Not that most of us could get away with such things, but it worked wonderfully for The Road.

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  3. This series has been so helpful and thought-provoking. Thanks so much for the time and thought you've put into it.
    Personally, I can deal with a fragment here and there, or a sentence ending with a preposition - especially in dialogue, since that really is how people talk. And I'm a big believer in artistic license, if it's skillfully wielded. I won't pretend that sloppy grammar doesn't bother me, though, if it's just everywhere throughout the work.

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  4. I'm glad my little whim of a series has been useful to so many of you. It has been a real pleasure to read aeveryone's feedback and to offer what insight I've been able to pull from my travels through the rotten tomatoes on Amazon. ;)

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