Archives for category: Writing

A couple of years back a law case was decided on the basis of the absence of a serial comma. Kelly Gurnett wrote about it at The Write Life, and the following year at The Researching Paralegal. (Thanks to Gordon Johnson for the reminder.) It does seem to me that in the case under discussion the Maine dairy drivers should indeed have received their overtime. The absence of a comma in the State law does tend to treat shipping and distribution as a single operation. In this case the Oxford comma would indeed have clarified the matter — if the legislators’ intention was to have shipping and distribution as separate activities. An expanded version of Kelly Gurnett’s example “I like cookies, and cake, and pizza, and ice cream” does however seem pretty conclusive to me. Take out the comma after pizza, and however odd you might consider such a taste, you are talking to someone who likes three things, pizza with ice cream, and cookies, and cake.

A comma (which is not present in some early versions of the text) provides the notorious focus for a long-lasting debate in America about the Second Amendment to the Constitution. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” With or without that last comma this is still an oddly constructed sentence. Of course, in an ideal world, if you had drafted such a sentence you might well decide to redact it because of its potential for ambiguity, but political compromises of course are not usually carried out in ideally calm circumstances and often find their substance in a careful blurring of clarity.

Sir Roger Casement claimed that he was being hanged because of a comma. The relevant statute, dating from 1351, was translated from the Norman French, and reads “. . . if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm, giving to them Aid and Comfort in the Realm, or elsewhere . . .” The comma near the end was held to make “or elsewhere” qualify all three of the “crimes” listed. Casement’s lawyers argued that it really only referred to the giving of Aid and Comfort, and that as his treason had taken place in Germany where he had encouraged Irish captives to resist British rule, the statute didn’t apply to his actions. The comma isn’t present in the French original (which may be seen in IP Drafts’ discussion of the case), and may just have been a stray mark or fold in the original translation, but of course who can know what the framers intended?

Maybe we should make a law that the serial comma may never be used in legal documents, or must always be used if you’d prefer that way round. Of course we’d have to go back and rewrite all out old non-compliant comma-ridden laws — and this would just raise the debate about whether the comma included things in or out in each instance we came across. The debate is never ending.

See also The Oxford comma.

Unsurprisingly having their first book turn into a wild success presents any author with a psychic burden. You can’t escape the thought that everyone expects you to write another bestseller. After all, you did it at first go: must be easy. Perhaps even more insidious is the sneaking thought that if that many people liked your book it must have been pretty good, maybe even brilliant.

Harper Lee notoriously disappeared into this bag. She did apparently have the plan to write a true crime book just like her buddy Truman Capote had done with In Cold Blood. But, although she had a sure-fire story and had amassed piles of material, she could never manage to get the story down on paper. NPR and The Guardian both tell the tale, all occasioned by the recent publication a book about Ms Lee’s writer’s block which includes an examination the crime in question, which does sound eminently writeable-about. Details of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep may be found here.

Follow-up inhibition happens enough to make one wonder if it might not be better to have your success come later in life, if not posthumously! Finding a second nocturnal dog caused Mark Haddon a lot of grief. “Curious Incident was like a gold-plated ball and chain” he tells The Guardian. His latest, The Porpoise, is inspired by his recent heart surgery. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted in the New Yorker‘s article Blocked “premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will power. . . . The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining.” As they note this leaves the author with a problem when the star stops shining. Other stargazers have included J. D. Salinger (maybe), Ralph Ellison, Jeffrey Eugenides.

But suffering neglect can’t really be helpful for the young author either. At the very least, early success gives you the time to write, free from the need to earn your daily bread in the nine-to-five grind. Elizabeth Hardwick suggests “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” So get over it, and seize the day. Like everything it comes down to personality. Think of Anthony Trollope turning out his 1,000 words an hour from 5.30 till 8.30 every morning. His example suggests that determination is more important that inspiration. He recommends his method to all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

I guess everyone now knows about the somewhat surprising purchase of Barnes & Noble by Elliott Management, a venture capital group who also rescued Waterstones in UK. Vulture provides a time-line history of Barnes and Noble, starting only from Len Riggio’s acquisition of the company in 1971, at which point it was already expanding beyond its Cooper Union origins.

Mike Shatzkin‘s not beating about any bushes: he doesn’t think James Daunt can pull off the same trick with Barnes & Noble as he appears to have done with Waterstones. Actually, I don’t really think it is quite the same trick he’s being asked to pull off. Waterstones was never a transatlantic clone of B&N. Which just means I don’t think the trick will work either, just more emphatically. It’s hard to see how the constantly changing inventory advocated by Mr Shatzkin could be organized in a physical bookstore let alone a collection of lots of stores. Workers would spend all their time opening cartons and packing books for return. Trying to reproduce conditions available online in a bricks-and-mortar environment is a Sisyphean task: which of course is just the problem.

I believe that we have lived through the era of the gigantic bookstore. A meteor killed the dinosaurs; the Amazon drowned the chains. That the warehouse store model did indeed work for books in a pre-internet age is indisputable. That lots of money can be made from books is shown by this weird article from The New Yorker, recounting an odd initiative by a Riggio literary charity funded by money earned during Barnes & Noble’s glory days. It took me quite a while to decide whether the article was fiction or non-fiction. I’m still not sure though I’m plumping for real. “The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship” is undoubtedly strange.

A number of writers were invited to turn up for a “’congress of writers’ that would teach skills and speak truth to power”. Who was organizing it and why was shrouded in mystery, but Daniel A. Gross agreed to try it out. In the end the thing he got out of the experience was this article for The New Yorker, not nothing of course. Buried in the middle of his article is the odd sentence, used as a pull quote by Jane Friedman in forwarding the link, “I wish someone had told me that early-career writers are the cheap gas on which much of the writing business runs.” Maybe I’m just too dumb to be an early-career writer (or too old) but I can’t figure out exactly what this means, and I doubt, if someone had muttered this cryptic warning to Mr Gross, things would have turned out any different. So he got $5,000 from the Riggio Foundation for turning up a few afternoons for “the pedagogy” after the fellowship program was cancelled, not the $10,000 promised at the outset, but I don’t see who in the writing business (if such a business really does exist) benefitted from his gas, which as far as I can tell wasn’t sold particularly cheaply, if indeed any product changed hands. It’s fascinating to know that there are people with money who think this sort of gathering does any good — I’m forced to believe they apparently do since nevertheless such programs do take place. There’s always something new.

Depending on how you cut it there have been 21 or 23 British poets laureate. It really got going when King James I (VI of Scotland) started paying a pension to Ben Jonson. Wikipedia tells us that Henry VII had a poet laureate too, a Frenchman named Bernard André. Richard I had a versificator regis, William the Pilgrim. And of course we can imagine wind-swept Ossian-like bards urging on the warriors in the real olden days. John Dryden was the first “Official” poet laureate.

The full list of semi-official and official laureates is:

  • Ben Jonson — 1619-37
  • Sir William Davenant — 1638-?
  • John Dryden — 1668-89
  • Thomas Shadwell — 1689-92
  • Nahum Tate — 1692-1715
  • Nicholas Rowe — 1715-18
  • Laurence Eusden — 1718-30
  • Colley Cibber — 1730-57
  • William Whitehead — 1757-85
  • Thomas Warton — 1785-90
  • Henry James Pye — 1790-1813
  • Robert Southey — 1813-43
  • William Wordsworth — 1843-50
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson — 1850-92
  • Alfred Austin — 1896-1913
  • Robert Bridges 1913-30
  • John Masefield — 1930-67
  • Cecil Day-Lewis — 1968-72
  • Sir John Betjeman — 1972-84
  • Ted Hughes — 1984-98
  • Andrew Motion — 1999-2009
  • Carol Ann Duffy — 2009-2019
  • Simon Armitage — 2019-

According to The Guardian Simon Armitage will receive an annual stipend of £5,750 plus the traditional butt of sack: 600-odd bottles of sherry. The ten-year tenure seems to be a relatively recent development — or the list would have to contain forty names — well maybe with some sort of gap for the Commonwealth. Is it odd that there are just two Sirs? I guess getting the office is considered enough of a reward for a mere writer. The eighteenth century in particular is distinguished by poets we rather ignore nowadays.

In The Guardian Andrew Motion has just written an article celebrating Mr Armitage’s appointment. In the course of this piece he tells us that the ten-year limit was something he insisted upon, which now appears to have become standard. I guess 6,000 bottles of sherry could be seen as sufficient.

See also Poets laureate (US).

Simon Armitage has been appointed the U.K.’s 21st poet laureate, succeeding Carol Ann Duffy. The position “has its roots in the 17th century, when Ben Jonson was granted a pension by King James I for his services to the crown,” the Guardian reported, noting that Armitage will receive an annual stipend of £5,750 (about $7,480), “along with the traditional butt of sack: 600-odd bottles of sherry.” His tenure will be a fixed term of 10 years. (From Shelf Awareness of May 14th, 2019.) The job doesn’t include any official duties but the incumbent is kind of expected to write something to mark any significant national occasion. Does this mean it will fall to Simon Armitage to memorialize Brexit, and the consequent breakup of the UK?

Simon Armitage could be said to project a sort of blokeish image. The people’s poet kind of thing, though he done plenty of “serious” stuff like translating PearlSir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur. “With his acute eye for modern life, Armitage is an updated version of Wordsworth’s ‘man talking to men.’” said the

Having started out as a probation officer in Manchester, he has been Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, the University of Leeds, and the University of Oxford. He has written a couple of novels and a handful of non-fiction works. I fondly recall his Walking Home, an account of a walk down the Pennine Way from the Scottish Border to his home in south Yorkshire, during the course of which he supported himself by giving poetry readings in pubs along the way. Getting in out of the rain was perhaps a subsidiary motivation.

“Often, at night, solitude loses its soft power, and loneliness takes over. I am grateful for when solitude returns.” Donald Hall’s late productivity is notable. This video by Paul Szynol is published by The Atlantic.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The New Yorker published a longer article about Mr Hall’s burst of late creativity. Donald Hall died on June 23, 2018, at the age of 89.

The quotation at the head of this piece puts me in mind of Thomas Moore’s “Oft in the stilly night” sung here by the immortal John McCormack. (Don’t think there’s something wrong — there’s no image in this “video”. The sound’s enough! Perfection.)

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. We all know literary (or any other artistic) influence is essential to the development of art. Conscious or more often unconscious copying happens all the time. A hundred years ago people no doubt didn’t altogether approve of straight copying, but only rarely had to confront the evidence. If you are reading along in War and Peace, are you really going to check that tinkling bell by rushing off to read Evgeny Onegin all the way through to check on your suspicion that Tolstoy’s really quoting Pushkin? (This is a notional example. I’m not saying Tolstoy did, or did not quote Pushkin or anyone else.) But a digital world allows for word searches which can quickly bring such things to light. A special subset of this sort of search tool is plagiarism software systems, designed primarily to prevent students just copying and pasting in order to get to the required word count in their essays, and appear to have a solid grasp of the subject. I recently learned that many school pupils in Britain have to submit their essays with a plagiarism score attached. (I have not heard of publishers making this sort of demand of their authors, but who knows what goes on in the dark?) Now that it’s so easy to check the vocabulary and structure of any piece of writing, it’s not too surprising that lots of people are running this sort of check, and all sorts of “plagiarism” scandals can rise up to appall us.

Now it’s reached the top. Dennis McCarthy says he wouldn’t accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism after detecting an apparent source for bits of Shakespeare’s writing. The New York Times tells the tale. Plagiarism is a heavy charge, and you’d be crazy to level it at Shakespeare and expect not to be slammed by most of the academic community. So you decide to call it not plagiarism but creative influence.

Page from George North’s A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels which is claimed to be the source for some of the “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” speech in Richard III. If they say so! Much seems to depend on the rarity of some of the words used and the order in which they occur.


Book Business links to a Guardian article on plagiarism. As the Helen Keller story illustrates having a good memory can be a burden. Of course having a poor memory can also be problematic as you fail to remember ever having read about this brilliant plot turn your muse is whispering into your ear.

See also Plagiarism, which contains a link to online plagiarism checkers.

The Digital Reader brings us news of what is being presented as suicidal corporate greed.

I wrote about Patreon recently under the rubric Patronage. The idea behind the site seemed like a good one: funding for creative artists including authors by members of the public who believe in what these people are doing and are brought together by this site. They report over one million active patrons. But now it looks like the owners of Patreon may kill the goose because of their desire for a larger share of the golden eggs. At the moment they keep 5% of donations, with another 5% retained to cover costs. The Passive Voice has a thoughtful piece on the situation, focussed mainly on rights which Patreon take as they try to evolve into a SaaS (Software as a service) platform, helping in content creation. Rights ownership may be one method they want to use to increase profitability. While a writer might be willing to cut their patron in on some of the rights in their writing, granting that to the website facilitating the patron/client transaction might seem less obviously acceptable.

Patreon has been providing a service since 2013 and lots of artists have benefitted from it. As The Passive Voice points out, with an internet-based business “raising prices is very difficult because someone else is always ready to clone the business plan and offer the service for less”. The financial pressure may in fact be coming from the payment processors, basically bankers. Please stop at the edge and reflect on whether 5% of an amount which keeps growing isn’t better than having your client-base desert you. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. There are alternatives, including PayPal apparently, but Patreon does seem to be a useful option.

Of course there need be nothing ominous in a business offering new services. If some people want them, fine, and if nobody does, one hopes they haven’t become essential to the company’s survival. The company has raised $106 million in venture funding, and obviously needs to show some return. It’d be nice if something like bringing patrons and creators together could be done on a modest scale, but it seems like everyone with an on-line business wants to be a unicorn these days.

A Patreon reading list can be found here at TechCrunch. This piece contains an additional link to a helpful post from the same source entitled The Business of Patreon.


Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker held on Manus Island, Australia’s holding-pen for immigrants it wants to slow-track, has just won the Victorian Premier’s prize for non-fiction and their top award for literature with his book about life on Manus, No Friend but the Mountains. The Guardian reports on the prize award. This morning the BBC carried a report in its World Service Newshour broadcast. Mr Boochani appears to be a cultural phenom: articles, poetry, songs and a movie have all been created. The BBC reported on the film in October. Yes, he has his own Wikipedia page.

Without having read the book, one of the most interesting things one can tell about it about it is the method of composition. Mr Boochani wrote it on his cell phone as a long series of text messages sent via WhatsApp and other messaging services to Omid Tofighian, his translator from the Farsi in which the book was written. The authorities were not ecstatic: his phone was twice confiscated. “The main reason I wrote this book on my phone, and sent it out bit by bit, was really that I didn’t feel safe with the guards and authorities”. But after almost five years of composition the book was completed and was published last July by Pan Macmillan.

Now, of course, the judges for the Victorian Premier’s award are not members of the Australian government, but it does make for an ironical comment that the country’s top literary prize should be given to a writer who the government tried to stifle. Although the detention center on Manus Island has been officially closed it seems Mr Boochani is still there, and was not allowed to attend the prize-giving ceremony.

The Mellon Foundation has just made a grant of $2 million to The American Academy of Poets. Here’s The New York Times story, (via LitHub). “The funds are divided into two grants. The first will help start a new fellowship program to support poets laureate of states, cities, United States territories or tribal nations across the country.” “The second grant will go toward the Poetry Coalition, a national alliance of more than 20 poetry organizations, several of which are nonprofits.”

It is great to see rich dead men supporting the arts. Maybe we can raise our maximum tax rate to 70% (as proposed by AOC) and allow more of the living ones to do the same.

As it happens poetry seems to be doing pretty well on its own. Lots of publishing going on, and lots of books, periodicals, pamphlets being bought. Here’s The Guardian reporting a couple of days ago about the trend in Britain.