Archives for category: Writing

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” as radical writer X. Trapnel used to say. Even if not sitting there looking over the reader’s shoulder, an author must wish for a reader who will bring completion to the work offered up in hope.

In his cabin by Walden Pond Henry David Thoreau reflected that “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise . . . It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

To a large extent I look on my university education as a training for reading novels. Not that I was tasked with reading a single novel written in English while I was there: it’s just that “education” is/used to be all about beefing up your critical faculties. My education (and life) seem to me to have prepared me for little more than the reading of books. Not that I’m complaining: it’s nice work if you can get it  — just hard to find someone to pay you a large wage for it. Obviously work in a publisher’s office is a good option: I can remember rubbing my hands together and giggling to myself “They’re paying me to read books; and before anyone else is able to read them too!” One is overwhelmed by the sight of a publisher’s reader like Edward Garnett directing the likes of Conrad and Lawrence to make this or that cut, such and such a rearrangement in the first drafts of texts which are now iconic. And they’d meekly follow his direction! Of course a hundred years makes a big difference in the fame and authority of an artist — Conrad and Lawrence had yet to become giants — but still . . .

Readers, even readers long after publication, can be said to have a role in creating the work of art: an intelligent, sensitive reading will make a novel come alive in ways it never could if just read through for the story only, or more extremely, just left unopened! Ralph Waldo Emerson was onto this. In “The American Scholar” he tells us “There is then a creative reading as well as a creative writing.” Kurt Vonnegut neatly described reading as “the only art form in which the audience plays the score”. John Cheever said “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone”. The reader is an essential part of the tale. Almost inevitably there’s now a branch of literary theory called reader-response criticism which maintains that only when the reader engages with the text is its real existence activated. This critical stance would seem to demand that you consider a large number of independent works of art all budding forth from the author’s single root stock: one for every creative reader. This must make the writing of criticism quite difficult, as you would logically need to talk to everyone who’s ever engaged with the text before you can confidently assert what it is!

But should the reader’s role extend back into the writing process? Here’s a piece by Vanessa Lafay about using readers’ reactions to inform the writing process. Crowdsourcing is easy enough nowadays, but is it a good idea when it comes to the creative arts? Yes, no doubt, if your primary motivation is to write a book which will sell more copies; probably not if you hope for literary immortality, though lightning can of course strike in the most unlikely places.


An abugida is a symbol system for writing a language without using an alphabet. In an abugida each symbol is both a consonant and a vowel; its shape tells which consonant, and the way it’s pointing tells the vowel. Just accept this and watch the video. Or, if you have to delve deeper, Wikipedia gives a mound of information.

This video is another brought to us by David Crotty via The Scholarly Kitchen.

For addicts of this stuff, eager to rush down the rabbit hole, there’s apparently a third system: 1. alphabet, 2. abugida, and 3. abjad. In an abjad no record of vowels is attempted.

“People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down. His decision is binding. The biographer, even at his highest and best, can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned in his own egotism. He must always be suspect. In contrast with the other two, the novelist is a god, creating his man, making him breathe and walk. The man, created in his own image, provides information about the god. In a sense you know more about Balzac and Dickens from their novels, than Rousseau and Casanova from their Confessions.”

X. Trapnel* would delight in holding forth in The Hero of Acre or another of the pubs he would frequent, and the above is a sample of what you’d get back if your bought him a drink.

Philip Roth can be found in the same vein in his autobiographical fragment, The Facts, where he has Nathan Zuckerman (his fictional avatar) write to him commenting on the manuscript “— no, this isn’t you at your most interesting. In the fiction you can be so much more truthful without worrying all the time about causing direct pain.”

Is there really no fully honest autobiographer? Jean-Jacques Rousseau is notorious for his self-revelation, but it is a revelation of which he was in control all the time. He didn’t just blab into a tape recorder and publish whatever came out of his mouth — not of course that even that method would necessarily lead to total honesty. He obviously puts in what he wants to put in — sometimes no doubt to make himself look good, but also sometimes to make himself look honest — the reader will then think “If he can say that he must be telling the truth”. Is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s stream of consciousness completely and exhaustively honest? Maybe, maybe not; probably not I suspect, because I don’t really think any such thing is possible. He says we look for truth in writing, but of course one man’s truth may be another’s bloody lie. Clearly however he’s aiming at some kind of total self-revelation by writing without intermediation. I just suspect that, if only subconsciously, it’s not possible to be totally frank.

I do believe that hiding behind a fictional character can afford you cover for some revelations which you’d be unwilling to make of your self without the cover that fiction provides. It’s that fictional character who did it, not me — though clearly I know about it and can portray it convincingly enough to make it real. I’ve noticed a willingness to say things in a foreign language which I’d monitor into silence in English. It’s almost as if a different person, a German avatar, was blabbing.

One should of course not overlook the possibility of novelists distorting the truth to make their lives look more admirable. If the narrator is the most likely authorial avatar, that doesn’t have to mean that a potentially embarrassing revelation of some conduct of the author’s, can’t be laid on a minor character. If we have to write what we know (which shouldn’t be brushed off as if that meant something like knowing how a handloom works — it’s more about knowing the murderous thoughts coursing through the weaver’s mind) then in order to write about it we have to know it. In crude terms an autobiographer will tend to suppress ignoble thoughts; a biographer won’t know about them; a novelist is free to expose them in the shape of another person, a character in the novel, “Heaven forfend, not me of course”.


* Fictional author in Anthony Powell’s A dance to the music of time. His girlfriend left him, throwing the only copy of the manuscript of his magnum opus, the novel Profiles in String, into the Grand Union Canal. He was modeled after Julian Maclaren-Ross, who, according to Wikipedia, was also the model for Prince Yakimov in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy.

Not a bad literary afterlife. Authors would no doubt prefer that their own works should be remembered, but living on as a character in novels still being read is better than obscurity.

“Lipogram is the name applied to a species of verse in which a certain letter, either vowel or consonant, is altogether omitted” W. T. Dobson tells us in Literary Frivolities, Fancies, Follies, and Frolics (1880) as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. Maybe this sort of thing is more common in verse but it doesn’t have to be restricted to poetry.

Wikipedia has examples including versions of “Mary had a little lamb” worked in various lipogrammatic ways: i.e. each one avoiding a certain letter or letters.

In what must surely be one of the oddest sentences in Wikipedia we are told “Poe’s poem The Raven contains no Z, but there is no evidence that this was intentional.” Bit of a stretch to allow that to qualify it as a lipogram surely. What evidence of intentionality might we look for? A letter from Poe saying that he was planning a poem with lots of Vs and Qs, but no Z? As far as I can see very few of his other poems contain a either. Anyway I’d say it was obviously (if trivially) intentional in that Poe clearly selected no words in which Z featured. Of how many poems could we say that they contain no Z? Certainly too many to bother with. I suspect that big-league lipogrammarians would consider their job required the omission of a letter slightly more frequently-occurring than Z!

Eunoia by Christian Bök certainly satisfies on that score: it restricts itself to the use of a single vowel. Wikipedia includes it as a lipogram, though it is in fact not a lipogram but a univocalic. Each of its five “Chapters” uses a single vowel only. Incredibly this actually manages to make sense and at the same time be interesting, or at least tell a coherent story. The title, which apparently means beautiful thinking in Greek, is alleged to be the shortest word in the English language which contains all five vowels. It is not however represented in the OED, even after this week’s update. Maybe Mr Bök’s efforts will get it there eventually. On a bellyband around the book, Gyles Brandreth describes Eunoia as “Extraordinary, outrageous, irresistible — a must for verbivores.” I guess experimental writing encourages that sort of thing.

Here’s the first page: Chapter A continues to page 30, so he keeps the performance up for a considerable time.

Haplography (chiefly to be encountered in the world of palaeography) is “The practice or an act of inadvertently writing a letter or word, or series of letters or words, once, when it should have been repeated. Opposed to dittography, which is “double writing; the unintentional repetition of a letter or word, or series of letters or words, by a copyist.” Re-reading this paragraph I find it itself sounds a bit haplographic, or maybe I mean dittographic.

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.