Friday, December 9, 2016

Vocabulary: A Writer’s Plaint

     The patrons of Liberty’s Torch have seldom said anything negative about the vocabulary I wield. They probably figure it’s their job to look up any terms I might use that aren’t familiar to them – and they’re right; that is their job. Moreover, most online op-ed writers share that attitude; they select the words and phrases they’ll use for their utility and their impact; anyone with an Internet connection is expected to be able to find an online dictionary, should he decide that he needs one.

     Fiction readers tend to hold the opposite opinion. At least, I’ve been gigged more often for “obscure words” than for any of the other supposed fictional sins. The premise seems to be that a story “should” be comprehensible to anyone who was passed out of eighth grade, without any need for him to expand the size of his lexicon.

     Until fairly recently, I allowed such comments to trouble me. Then I had a flash of insight:

You cannot buy an eBook without an Internet connection.
Therefore, fiction readers also have access to online dictionaries!

     Whereupon I decided that being deemed the William F. Buckley of 21st Century fiction isn’t all that bad a fate.

     Other writers, including some of considerable fame, have allowed themselves to use words that were probably known to very few beyond themselves. Only in the postwar period has anyone dared to demand that readers’ ignorance be considered privileged. It might have something to do with the deterioration of American schooling; I, having been very well educated by a gaggle of Dominican nuns who brooked no nonsense and who regarded it as my duty to win all the county spelling bees, cannot say.

     Be that as it may. I write the way I write. I don’t limit myself to the vocabulary of a marginal graduate of eighth grade from an American public school. Readers who enjoy my work are many; readers who don’t...well, I can’t say, as I hear from very few of them.

     So when I find that I’ve written something such as:

     A Dream Of Freedom was a ship that had once been a world.
     It first entered the Solar System in 2117, moving at ninety-three miles per second, at a slight angle to the solar ecliptic. It was a near-perfect sphere with a diameter of twenty-one miles. It had a nickel-iron surface, but showed a considerable luminosity in the gamma-ray portion of the spectrum. Its trajectory would bring it to a perigee of one hundred forty million miles, about two years after its first sighting.
     The International Astrophysical Congress assigned it the identifier X3J11 and immediately dispatched grant petitions to the world's one hundred eighty States. All one hundred eighty petitions were rejected; the war with the Spooner Federation was entering its final phase, and all resources had to be husbanded toward that end.
     The IAC continued to watch the object. As it approached, the great orbiting telescopes gradually made out more details of its composition and structure. Numerous cavity radiators became apparent in the gamma-ray images. Anomalies in its trajectory as it passed the outer gas giants caused the watchers to ponder its density. Shortly before X3J11 passed the orbit of Jupiter, the watchers could tell that the interstellar wanderer was honeycombed.
     The United Nations' combined forces had pushed Spoonerite resistance back to upper Yukon. The Spoonerites dug in for a last stand above the Arctic Circle, and the States massed their forces for the blow that would put an end to Spoonerism on Earth.
     Supreme Commander Ewan MacDonnell planned for a three-pronged strike, two land forces and an enormous amphibious group. There were ample forces available, though the supply lines were a chore to maintain, especially in view of the underenthused participation of the Russians. His staff labored for three months, calculating the affair to a nicety, allowing for an overkill factor of three and permitting no conceivable routes of egress from the killing zone. The two hundred ten thousand Spoonerites in MacDonnell's sights would have nowhere to run.
     The word went out quietly to all commanders, down to the battalion level: Spoonerite surrenders should not be deemed trustworthy. The taking of prisoners was strongly discouraged.      X3J11 approached perigee. The watchers of the IAC were electrified by what they saw. The spectra from the planetoid's cavity radiators indicated an immense core of nuclear fuels. Millions of tons of something dearer than pitchblende or carnotite resided at the center of the worldlet.
     IAC petitioned the States again, and belatedly received their respectful attention. Funds flowed into the watch group. Government representatives and advisors were attached to the effort. Spacecraft that had gone unused for more than a century were pulled out of mothballs, and a frenzied effort to recommission them began.
     MacDonnell's meticulously planned triple assault began exactly on schedule. For a full day's advance, it encountered no resistance at all. For the first few miles, he and his troops assumed that the Spoonerites had run out of fuel, or ammunition, or hope. When the advance guard first came upon abandoned Spoonerite emplacements, well stocked with shot and fuel, they began to wonder.
     The wonder culminated in a pillar of fire seen on United Nations broadcasts by more than three billion people. It was followed by another, and another, and another.
     Maddened beyond all restraint, the UN forces slew and spared not. The inner core of resistance around the Spoonerites' makeshift spaceport was incredibly tough, but before the massed military power of all the States of the world, it had to fall. The victors eventually counted nearly two hundred seven thousand Spoonerite corpses within the Arctic redoubt. The Secretary-General proclaimed the viciously immoral ideology of Spoonerism to have been extinguished for all time.
     Statists say things like that.

     ...I don’t trouble myself over the terms “ecliptic,” “perigee,” “luminosity,” “trajectory,” “cavity radiators,” “pitchblende,” “carnotite,” “egress,” or “redoubt.” Learn enough to read the book and enjoy it is my mantra. Inasmuch as a healthy sample of the book is available before one is required to make a purchase decision, I sleep untroubled by the decision. If it costs me readers, they’re readers who probably wouldn’t have comprehended the rest of the story anyway.

     (I cited that passage because it baffled a writer who’d importuned me for a review of his book: a “science fiction novel” that was a waste of perfectly good pixels. But I digress.)

     But on a lighter note, would you be surprised to hear that someone actually gigged me for the use of the word slew? “What’s that? Something to do with cole slaw?” he wrote.

     Gentle Reader, I kid you not.

     Some write for “the masses;” others write for those who seek something out of the ordinary. I’m in the latter group. If I were determined to have an audience of millions, I’d write in simpler terms, the sort a bright twelve-year-old would grasp without needing his Webster’s Unabridged near to hand. That’s not my ambition. I seek readers who can grapple with a difficult issue set against a challenging backdrop. Readers who’d as lief immerse themselves in prime-time sitcoms are of no use to me.

     Some writers write entertainment, nothing more. I seek to challenge my readers’ assumptions. If I must challenge their intellects to do so, very well. Matters of vocabulary run a distant third.

     So to anyone out there who might be thinking of purchasing one or more of my novels: Of course I’m flattered by your interest, and of course I hope you’ll enjoy what you’re about to read, but please, please don’t assume that the journey will ask nothing of you.

     If you find that my fiction writer’s diction goes a bit “over your head,” before you toss my book aside – or as you do so; I’m no dictator – perhaps you might ask yourself, “Where ought my head to be?”

     Just a quick tirade, Gentle Reader. Ignore it if you prefer. We now return you to your regular Friday evening debauchery.

     (Cross-posted at my fiction-promotion site.)


Pascal said...

I've often been accused of sounding like Wm F Buckley and never cared. I do it in order to be concise where possible and thus avoid additional modifiers in any sentence I write. So as you know I long ago purchased a copy of a proper synonym dictionary so as to be assured of using word whose nuance from its brothers are as suitable as possible.

I'm mentioning this because I wondered upon your use of lief above. Simple dictionary definitions were not sufficient, so i searched with IXquick for "lief synonym." It asked me "do you mean life synonym" and insisted on giving me entries for that as if lief did not exist!

This forced me to try Google. And wouldn't you know it but I still don't have a written comparison to show me how lief provides a different nuance from gladly or willingly.

It appears to be only used where an unpleasant experience is expected, thus suggesting by its use that whatever one would lief will be unpleasant.

The lesson to be learned here is that it seems even our contemporary online dictionaries appear to disapprove of our using such words. Perhaps I've unearthed yet another avenue of conquest by SJWs.

daniel_day said...

As a matter of fact (I'll try not to enjoy this too much) ...
Your use of "perigee" clanged. confirms what I thought, that this refers specifically to a body *in orbit* around the Earth, not just the closest approach of any heavenly body to the Earth. Am I mistaken here? I wondered if you had intended "perihelion".

Francis W. Porretto said...

Yes, Dan, perigee traditionally pertains to a body orbiting the Earth. Similarly, perihelion traditionally pertains to a body orbiting the Sun. My use of perigee was idiosyncratic; a lot of scientific vocabulary purists wouldn't have accepted it. Moreover, perihelion would have been a better choice, even though the wandering planetoid wasn't in orbit around either body. But what's done is done.

Anonymous said...

It is the readers job to spend some time with a dictionary or thesaurus. This gives reading an added side benefit of increasing vocabulary. Be careful because some of those less well read may accuse you of 'trying to sound smart'. I think they mean intelligent.