Archives for category: Writing

Academics who can write for a general audience are a vital resource. They know the stuff, and have the knack of explaining it to the man on the Clapham omnibus. Many such books become hugely influential without ever selling in mass quantities. These are just the sorts of book which are perceived as being most endangered by recent developments in trade publishing. Mid-list is often held to be dead. But I’ve often maintained that these are just the sorts of books which university presses can use to amortize the costs they incur for all the research monographs they exist to publish. I’m not criticizing university presses; naturally if they could always persuade such authors to publish with them they obviously would. I propose them as a refuge, after trade publishers have decided it’s no longer worth their while to attempt to publish books which only sell 5,000 or so.

The Passive Voice sends us a link to this Washington Post story about National Endowment for the Humanities grants being given to people writing non-fiction books directed at a general, non-specialist audience. Such books are perceived as being squeezed between reductions in publishers advances against royalties and difficulties with time off from your academic job.

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

While it’s always nice to hear of writers getting grants, I wonder if this sort of pre-gatekeeping-gatekeeping is really the best way to go. American suspicion of government payments for anything is not utterly misplaced, though we are perhaps a longish way from people being required to write books about themes mandated by an evil dictatorship. Still the price of liberty is good old eternal vigilance — though it’s always struck me as paradoxical that the very people who think the establishment has a monopoly of the good, are the same people who suspect it of harboring evil designs on their freedom.

The Public Scholar Program does have noble aims. One just hopes that such generosity survives the next few years of refocussing our revenues into the wallets of millionaire donors to the GOP!


MIT has put together a writing bot which is churning out horror stories. BookRiot brought the news. Future Tense at Slate has an account. Shelley, as they have named the machine, after Mary Shelley, can be visited at this link. Shelley will generate stories in collaboration with readers, via its Twitter account. The stories can be read online, or on your Twitter feed if you prefer. Here’s an image of the beginning of one of the stories.

In a world where robots are already writing quite a lot of pieces in newspapers, I wonder what happens to copyright in such things. The case of Shelley is even more complex, being a collaboration partially written by a non-human. See Copyright for robots.



This Pompeiian lady holds the putative precursor to the bound book — a polyptych of wooden-framed wax tablets fastened together as a unit — while her more conservative partner strokes his beard with a papyrus scroll, the principal means of written communication for 2,000 years prior. Obviously an intellectual couple.

Wikipedia shows a modern reconstruction of a wax tablet: hollow out a ⅛” thick board, leaving a protective rim around the edge and fill the depression with wax so that it can be impressed with a stylus. When the message has been read it can be smoothed over, and the tablet reused. In the picture the woman is warming the end of the stylus in her mouth to heat it up and make writing in the wax easier.

If you pressed too hard you’d scratch the bottom of the case, and we’ve found lots of information about everyday life in Roman Britain from such survivals found in excavations. They are of course hard to interpret because the scratches come from many different writings. This example comes from The Museum of London. You can just make out the scratches of letters in the wood. Finds have been made of simple wooden units which were written on in ink, and this appears to have been a technique used for “postal” communications. The thin slices of wood would be folded over and tied together for delivery. Homer even refers in Book 6 of The Iliad to what is probably such a thing: “Many, of fatal import, all graved on a tablet infolded”. Pope puts it more elegantly if less specifically: “To Lycia the devoted youth he sent,/ With tablets seal’d, that told his dire intent.”

The Romans appear to have referred to these memo pads pretty straightforwardly as “waxes”, cerae, though an alternative term tabulae exists; but it appears to be a bit more general referring to any tablet on which one could write in any way (stone, metal, clay, wood), narrowed down as tabulae ceratae when used specifically for “waxes”. If there were multiple “leaves” bound (tied) together, the inner “pages” might be hollowed out on both sides. “Waxes” were not invented by the Romans: they took them over from Greece where the may be seen on vases from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Inevitably this happy chappy looks to us like he’s working on his MacBook.

Douris cup, c.480BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseen

No wonder the guy in front of him looks a bit startled. But he is of course writing on a (rather large) triptych wax tablet set.

Nor did the Greeks invent them: they got them from earlier middle eastern cultures. The oldest surviving example of a wax writing tablet comes from fourteenth century BC Turkey.

Just because something new comes along doesn’t of course mean that any piece of technology instantly disappears.  People like to use tools they are familiar with, and if they work well there’s really no reason to innovate just for the sake of innovating. The everyday use of wax writing tablets continued for centuries after the invention of paper: they were apparently still being used in the Rouen fish market in the 1860s.


Knowing what you want to say, seeing it clearly in your head, and then just letting it rip at the keyboard may work with an essay (or a blog post), but with a book the length of the project will mean that sooner or later the words you just wrote will inevitably begin to influence your next line of thought, and soon you’ll be veering off on tangents on tangents. Writing an outline is something every author should confront sooner or later. Sooner’s better, as thinking it through will help you clarify your aims in your own mind. It’s also better because if changes are suggested, they are easier to implement before the passage in question has been written in full.

But it seems so cold and final. Much nicer to let your inner Heathcliff drive you along wherever he wants. Still, beware; if you want to get a publisher on-board, you’ll need to write a proposal indicating why the book’s needed and why you’re the one to fill the void. An outline will be a necessary part of that process: so you’re going to have to do it anyway — may as well get it done as early as possible when it’ll be of most help to you. So all writers, even self-publishers (perhaps especially self publishers who won’t have to go through the disciplinary step of satisfying an agent or editor), will end up benefitting from having to make a thorough outline.

Help is provided by a wide range of sources. This article from Publishing Talk by literary agent Sarah Such focusses on the writing of the outline. A more business-oriented tack is taken by Jane Friedman.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines hapax legomenon as “a word or word form which is recorded only once in a text, in the work of a particular author, or in a body of literature.” It comes from the work of Biblical scholars, perhaps unsurprisingly: obviously the smaller the corpus of a particular language, the more likely a hapax legomenon is to appear. The significance of a hapax legomenon is probably greater at the level of the individual author’s output, be it book or total corpus (though I find it hard to grant it much significance at any level). At the level of the whole language, while it might seem initially more exciting, it ends up being much ado about nothing: but of course that’s the level that commentators prefer to focus on, because superficially it looks like it ought to be meaningful.

Atlas Obscura has a piece looking mainly at classical literature, primarily Petronius’ Satyricon, hiding place apparently for several hapax legomena.

I guess scholars love to count stuff. We even have terms for two, three and four-time occurring words, dis legomenon, tris legomenon, and tetrakis legomenon. Who knew? It would of course be neat if tetrakis legomenon only occurred four times in English, but I think the internet has killed any chance of that.

The existence of hapax legomena is apparently mandated by Zipf’s law.* To me, cynically, they would also seem to be mandated by human fallibility — many a unique usage resulting no doubt from copying errors, typos, and inadvertent misspellings. Certainly we didn’t wait to start making transcription errors till after the development of print.

To suggest that James Joyce liked to sprinkle his work with hapax legomena seems rather trivial to me: and highly unlikely. Avant la lettre you can’t ever be sure a hapax legonenon will remain a hapax legomenon. If the nature of your enterprise is to twist orthography and phonology into new and suggestive vocabulary, à la Finnegans Wake, it would seem that originating hapax legomena would be the last thing on your mind. Make up your own words and it’ll not be amazing that nobody else ever uses them again: the amazing bit would be when people actually do pick up one of your neologisms.

Does Dr Johnson’s foupe count as a hapax legomenon (or actually a dis legomenon I suppose), or is it just an error? The OED does in fact contain the word, defining it as “Error for soupe (see swoop 2b) through misprint of f for ſ. Swoop in sense 2b, though now obsolete, means to utter forcibly. Although curlers (is that what people who engage in the sport of curling are called?) may utter it forcibly, when they shout “Soop, soop” they are in fact encouraging their colleagues to sweep the ice; soop being Scottish for to sweep.


* To go to the other extreme Yule-Simon distribution is apparently in part a realization of Zipf’s law. It looks like this:

{\displaystyle f(k;\rho )\approx {\frac {\rho \Gamma (\rho +1)}{k^{\rho +1}}}\propto {\frac {1}{k^{\rho +1}}}.}

Solving this will apparently display to you k, the probability that any two words selected at random in any body of text will be identical. Such matters are the domain of stylostatistics.

Wikipedia will tell you more, if more you need.

Herman Melville (1819-91) wrote Moby-Dick here at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA. He purchased the 160 acre farm and house in 1850 with money borrowed from his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw of Boston. He and his family lived there for the next 13 years and there he also wrote Pierre, The Confidence-Man, Israel Potter, and stories later collected as The Piazza Tales. The window of his work-room, which is upstairs, is concealed in this picture by the tree. The old bearded guy is just that, a guy — in the British sense of a stuffed effigy (named after Guy Fawkes); though this one’s not destined for burning on the 5th of November I suspect. He’s sitting on the piazza (veranda or porch to non-New-Englanders) from which Melville took the name of the story collection. The great thing about the work-room (and the piazza) is their unobstructed view of Mount Greylock.

In the first story of The Piazza Tales, Melville recounts how his neighbors mocked the craziness of building a piazza on the northern side of the house, but of course this view is what he was after. As he describes it, it “is my box-royal; and this amphitheatre, my theatre of San Carlo. Yes, the scenery is magical — the illusion so complete. And Madam Meadow Lark, my prima donna, plays her grand engagement here . . .”

You can just make out Mount Greylock behind that same birch tree in the photo below. Melville would lock himself in the study and write furiously, with his table right against the window so he always had Greylock before him. The fanciful have suggested the mountain put him in mind of the great white whale; in “The Piazza” he refers to it as Charlemagne though. Pierre is dedicated to “Greylock’s Most Excellent Majesty”.

It is supposed that Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville met in 1850 on a group climb up Monument Mountain, had an influence in encouraging Melville to widen the scope of Moby-Dick* from a straight-forward narrative to the sort of encyclopedic meditation on life and whaling that now qualifies it as the great American novel. The book is dedicated to Hawthorne. While engaged on Moby-Dick Melville wrote about his writing routine: “I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.” He was at this time a contented and moderately successful writer, rejoicing in a rather traditional life. He always wrote with a quill pen and was still using one when Mark Twain was already using a typewriter.

That his efforts may often have seemed in vain is evidenced by this Literary Hub post about the early reviews of Moby Dick.  These were by and large not calculated to encourage. “Who is this madman?” asked the New York Christian Intelligencer, though the Philadelphia Saturday Courier did allow that “No one can tire of this volume”. Melville himself wrote that a “book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism”.

When Melville, unable any longer to afford the life of a gentleman farmer-writer, left Arrowhead and returned to New York City and a job, his brother took the place over from him. Herman would often visit Arrowhead, his last trip north being in 1885. The house stayed in the Melville family till 1927, and was acquired by the Berkshire Historical Society in 1975.


* Paradoxically Moby Dick only seems to get his hyphen in the book’s title. His original appears to have been Mocha Dick “an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength, . . . white as wool” reported in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839.

“I call ‘commercial’ every work, not only in literature but in music and painting and sculpture — any art — which is done for such-and-such a public or for a certain kind of publication or for a particular collection. Of course, in commercial writing, there are different grades. You may have things which are very cheap and some very good. The books of the month, for example, are commercial writing; but some of them are almost perfectly done, almost works of art. Not completely, but almost. And the same with certain magazine pieces; some of them are wonderful. But very seldom can they be works of art, because a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers.”

Thus Georges Simenon in interview with Carvel Collins in The Paris Review, Summer 1955.

Is this reasonable? I’m almost tempted to put my hesitations down to a problem in translation — not that I’ve any idea what the original was. Surely almost all writers write with some kind of audience in mind, which might be described as “such-and-such a public”. Good writing almost always takes the form of an argument between the writer and the ideal reader. The real point Simenon is making is perhaps to be found in the last sentence: “a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers”. Certain groups of readers can love a work of art, but a work of art cannot be created in order to make them love it.

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Maybe Dr Johnson didn’t actually say this: after all we only have Boswell’s word for it. It always struck me as a silly thing to say: it’s obviously not true, unless we count love-struck poets as blockheads, which maybe he did. Of course not everything one says over a pint of bitter has to make total sense, even if you are Dr J. — thank goodness we don’t all have acolytes following us around recording our every pronouncement. (Naturally I consider most of his jibes at the Scots as falling into the same category; probably directed at getting a rise out of poor Boswell.)

But getting a reasonable return on your labor is obviously a rational aim, while writing in order to make money might be considered a potential drag on quality. It’s the old Edwin/Jasper debate. Just because Dickens made a bundle off his writings, are they disqualified from being works of art? Because George Eliot made £7,000 for Romola, does this mean that the book is trash? Simenon, who clearly knew a bit of commercial fiction when he saw it, “wanting to rescind an agreement that had proved disadvantageous to him . . . achieved his aim by putting to good use his intuitive knowledge of the human heart. The novelist assessed how much it would be worth for him to redeem his original contract; then filled a briefcase with banknotes and won his negotiation simply by emptying the briefcase over the publisher’s desk.” (From Simon Leys: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, NYRB, 2013.)

However dismissive we may like to be about trade publishing, it has to be admitted that the occasional trade book will aspire to and achieve the status of “art”. I suppose one could posit a work of literature, written with extreme art, whose aim was to show us our true nature by being written to appeal (and sell to) the highest possible number of people. But until that genius of public mood comes along, we will, I guess, have to go with the working assumption that a novel written in order to get onto the bestseller list cannot achieve the status of “literature”, while literature can occasionally, almost by accident, sell in huge numbers.




The Digital Reader brought us an account last year of The Oxford English Dictionary‘s adding some Singapore-ian and Hong Kong-ese words to the dictionary. The dictionary editors are really burnishing their inclusivity chops: an emoji recently became word of the year.

Of course adding loan-words to English is nothing new. A loan-word is probably just a word which we borrowed recently enough to be able to remember the connection. Few of us think of beef and pork as loan-words. If you lived in Scotland you wouldn’t think a gigot was a loan-word — it’s what you’d call a leg of lamb. Scotland probably has more French loan-words than English: the auld alliance! Did English borrow the word book from German? Did we even borrow borrow from them? Not to mention loan, and word too? And let’s not even think about Latin. Any language, but perhaps especially a world language like English will contain thousands of words lifted from other tongues. Food is a ripe source of loan-word formation, as exotics get imported and have to be called something. Eggplant is called aubergine in Britain (and of course France). Brits also talk about a courgette, while we Americans go slightly further south and call it zucchini (though Italians would refer to one of them as zucchino). A recent arrival is quinoa — the best feature of which seems to be that it’s pronounced keen-wah. The earliest reference to quinoa in the OED dates from 1598 though. If a purist wanted to be rid of all loan-words, he’d have to sit there in silence.

And now here comes news (via A.V. Club and The Passive Voice) of a new etymology tool, Time Traveller, from Merriam-Webster. You can now check the adoption dates of all those loan-words. Just enter a date, or in earlier times a century, and find the words introduced then.

The OxfordWords blog asks for your help in providing earlier sources than they have on hand for a couple of Singaporean words. If you find any print usage of a word earlier than the oldest reference in the OED they will always be happy to hear from you.

This link takes you to an OED Editor’s answers to some recent questions. They do welcome suggestions and queries.  is their Twitter hashtag.

I was aware of George Bernard Shaw’s desire to rationalize English spelling (famously his complaint that fish could be spelled ghote without phonetic alteration), but I didn’t know that he had sponsored the creation of a new featural alphabet. His requirements were that it contain at least 40 letters; be as “phonetic” as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to phonemes); and be distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that new spellings were simply “misspellings”. The alphabet was actually created after his death by Ronald Kingsley Read.


This means ghote be damned, fish would look like this: 


It turns out that  Penguin published a version of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in this script in 1962. This parallel edition was paid for by the Shaw Trust, but ended up being the only book to be thus sponsored because Shaw’s will was then contested.

I like the little price sticker on this image of the cover.

Writing about the marginal surrealist Leonora Carrington in The New York Times Book Review of 4 June, Parul Sehgal introduces us (me anyway) to the concept of exophonic writers: writers who wrote in languages other than their native tongue. Wikipedia has, inevitably, a list. Ms Sehgal alludes to the following:

  • Leonora Carrington: incomprehension brings liberation. “I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words  . . . This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with a hermetic significance.”
  • Vladimir Nabokov: was kind of forced into it. “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom.”
  • Joseph Conrad: did it to gain a larger audience (?)*
  • Yuko Otomo: English is more democratic than Japanese. “I am elated to address a professor and a dog with the same pronoun ‘you’.”
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: a sort of rebirth: She finds writing in Italian makes her “a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way”. (Which seems to have involved the rediscovery of the comma!)
  • Emil Cioran: purging the past. “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past, I changed my entire life.”
  • Samuel Beckett: a desire for self-exposure. “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

Quite interesting. I often say that I have found myself able to say things in a foreign language which I’d never say in English. So I’d add a category of de-inhibitor to Ms Sehgal’s list.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s switch has attracted some comment. The Economist examines the move, while Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books provides a devastating review of the result. Success in writing confronts the writer with the burden of expectations. People liked your first book; lots of them bought it; and they are now waiting for more of the same. Maybe switching to a different language provides a bit of cover?

Arthur Koestler is another who changed language in mid-career. The New York Review of Books has a piece by Michael Scammell. Darkness at Noon was originally published in English. It was translated as it was being written (from German to English) by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy. In the chaos of wartime they were scrambling to get the book done before the Germans authorities caught up with them. They did get rough translation off to England, and sent the original German manuscript to Swiss publisher Emil Opprecht. Everyone assumed that the original was lost, hence the need to publish from the English translation. When a German edition was published it had to be freshly translated by Koestler into German from the “original” reworked English version. As it turns out the manuscript sent to Opprecht did arrive, and has recently been unearthed. The publisher of the German edition “Ullstein noted that Koestler was using ‘a great deal of foreign words instead of German expressions’ in his translation and asked for permission to change them into idiomatic German. There is irony here, for the English translation Koestler worked from is itself full of German words and phraseology, a neat reversal.”

Zinovy Zinik in the Times Literary Supplement of 26 May 2017 raises yet more complications. “A Moscow-born assimilated Jew, I left the Soviet Union forty years ago for Israel where, for a year, I ran a student theatre in Jerusalem; the, while staying in Paris (my first novel [which was written in Russian] had just been translated into French), I was invited by the BBC World Service to cross the Channel and settle down in Britain. Ten years later I became a British citizen. Like many of my contemporaries I think, speak and write in two, if not three, languages. What unites these foreign personae is my foreign accent.” He points out that Conrad liked to visit Paris at least in part because there nobody detected his accent; they all thought he spoke perfect English. (But Conrad spoke excellent French, so I’m not sure why he’d need to be speaking in English.) My stepfather, also a Pole, never lost his heavy accent, and although not a writer, would I imagine have written in Polish where his vocabulary remained much larger. In the mill buttons were always referred to as guziki (goozh-eekee). Many’s the time I’ve run upstairs for him to “get that . . . you know what . . . that thingummy”; one would just bring objects downstairs until inspiration lit on the right one.

Zinik mentions Adalbert Chamisso, author of Peter Schlemiel, a classic of 19th century German literature, who was born of French émigré parents who were fleeing the revolution and was bi-lingual all his life. There have always been lots of people like that. Surely now the pace of population movement has accelerated to such a pitch that one can no longer rely on an inhabitant of say Edinburgh speaking English (in so far as one ever could; many would claim that lowland Scots is incomprehensible to a “real” English speaker. It is however an English dialect, whatever they say, unlike Gaelic.) So the expectation that a native citizen of any country should think, dream, speak, write in the language of that country becomes less and less tenable. And I refrain from a discussion here of Jewish identity; it just gets too complicated. Yiddish is in a similar position now to Scots Gaelic: very few speak it; many wish they did.

Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het;
The trees in rank along a ledge
Do show where woonce did bloom a hedge;
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.
The grass ageän the mwoldrèn door
’S a tóken sad o’ vo’k a-gone,
An’ where the house, bwoth wall an’ vloor,
’S a-lost, the well mid linger on.
What tokens, then, could Meäry gi’e
That she’d a-liv’d, an’ liv’d vor me,
But things a-done vor thought an’ view?
Good things that nwone ageän can do,
An’ every work her love ha’ wrought
To eyezight’s woone, but two to thought.

Is this written in English? Of course it is, but William Barnes wrote in the dialect of his native Dorset. It’s his poem “Token”. How about Burns? A dialect speaker writing in the nation’s formal language shares much with the exophonic writer. Many a folk critic would want them just to pull up their socks and write proper English. Some of us seem to find it hard to believe that people can really communicate in ways which we don’t readily understand. The demand that everyone write like “we” do is a bit like shouting English words slowly at a Spaniard, and concluding that his failure to comprehend betokens idiocy. The funniest thing I’ve read recently is this from a review in the same issue of the TLS “When de Waal asked colleagues why primate face recognition tests used human faces as the target data, he was told it was thought to be an easier test for primates to pass, since human faces differ so much.” The review does not go on to mention all these chimpanzee ethologists who are scratching their heads despairing of their human subjects’ inability to distinguish between ape faces which of course “differ so much”. (De Waal himself writes in English though he was born in the Netherlands and only moved to the USA in his early thirties. You wouldn’t know he wasn’t writing in his native language. Of how many academics must this be true?)


* But his father was a translator of English into Polish, and Conrad did spend 16 years in the British merchant marine, became a British citizen in 1886 at the age of 28, and lived in England for the rest of his life. He claimed to enjoy the “plastic” freedoms the English language provided him. All of which might seem more explanatory, or at least relevant.