The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Well, nuts

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You have to understand, I really like the World Socialist Web Site. I agree with them about 90% of the time, and am actually impressed with the reporting and analysis at least once a week, often much more frequently, which is pretty damned good. So when they blow it, I take it personally.

Here is a passage from Sandy English’s review of the new book by Junet Diaz: “In his spoken language, Oscar uses ‘a lot of huge-sounding nerd words like indefatigable and ubiquitous.’ But he wouldn’t find these in most science fiction, so he must read other things—history, science, the New Yorker—to acquire these words, and these works must have an effect on him.”

I can’t blame the reviewer for not being familiar with the subculture of fandom, but, really, Sandy English ought not to discuss science fiction without having read some of it. Pfui.

corwin

Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.

0 Comments

  1. *boggle*

    Of all the bizarre generalizations to make…if there’s a genre more prone to sesquipedalianism, I haven’t encountered it. Indeed, I credit it with my vocabulary being leaps and bounds beyond that of my peers throughout my academic career!

  2. Exactly. One of the things that distinguishes us skiffy fans is that we use big words and frequently don’t know how to pronounce them.

  3. Ubiquitous? That’s their example of a fancy-schmancy huge-sounding nerd word? If they’re going to make ridiculous claims, they could at least choose words I wasn’t using back in elementary school.

    I will grant that “indefatigable” still doesn’t trip lightly off my fingers, but I’d expect any kid taking the SAT to be able to know what that means even without studying those damn vocab lists beforehand. Whether or not said kid reads science fiction.

  4. To be fair, those were the author’s examples, not the reviewers; the reviewer was quoting from the book. But, obviously, the reviewer agreed those were “huge-sounding nerd words,” so your point is still valid.

  5. Yeah, it’s not like a famous science fiction author ever used a word like “ubiquitous” in his novel.

  6. Maybe he has confused science fiction with fantasy writing? I mean JRRT only created three or four languages for his Lord of the Rings novels but I can’t say I remember too many big words. skzb’s novels are some of the most intricately twisted plots I have ever seen, but I don’t remember him using ubiquitous. Anybody?

  7. I don’t know from fancy vocab, but The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao is, so far a great read. Apropos of nothing I guess.

  8. Mudd: ever read Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun”?

  9. Nope. But I will put it on my to do list. A good read I take it?

  10. Very. Makes other, lesser authors assume the fetal position and cry. He uses words that aren’t made up, just very rare and/or archaic.

  11. Read Stephen R. Donaldson, the Thomas Covenant stuff. The man can send me to the dictionary every 3 pages, it’s humbling.

  12. I had the same reaction, Chris, as far as looking up words. What was your conclusion from all that time with the dictionary? My conclusion was that Mr. Donaldson should be going to the dictionary himself.

  13. I freakin’ HATE the word “ubiquitous”. Mostly ’cause Nevada Barr uses it at least fifteen times in every Anna Pigeon mystery. And I loves Anna. It’s a word that I know I’ll see every time I pick up one of Barr’s books. It’s effing ubiquitious.

  14. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant–all of ’em–could have been contained in 350 tight pages. The bloat that Donaldson made of those stories should be subject to criminal charges.

  15. I really really hate bloated books. A long book, is fine. But if you start, somewhere in the back of your mind, wondering if the author is striving for weight and length instead of story and plot… there is a problem.

    In Sci-fi and fantasy, which I dearly love reading, there are plenty of “name” authors out there that while I don’t think they purposefully bloat… sure could drop out huge parts of their books and have a tighter story or better characterizations.

    I’ve always felt that if you can use simple words and convey your message easier, then using the big word is just… self indulgent and or pretentious.

    But, on the other hand I’m sure there are writers who would use those same words in their vocabulary in a day to day sort of way. So it only makes sense to see it spill over into their writing.

    I’ve always envied writers so I can’t be too hard on them, even if I think their books are bollocks.

  16. Of all the numerous sins that a writer–and here I use the term to refer to anyone who uses the written word, whether for pleasure (one’s own or another’s), profit, or ideaology–surely none is worse than, either deliberately or through ignorance, to express a thought, an idea, or a set of ideas in such a way that the innocent reader is required to force his way through a veritable slew of meaningless words; or even clauses, sentences and paragraphs, beyond the minimum number necessary to express the thought in the most precise and elegant way possible.

  17. Wow. And to think that I honestly expect most science fiction readers to be, well, relatively educated (self- or otherwise) and fairly intelligent. And yet, here we have SF readers frankly whinging about writers who have *gasp* a sophisticated grasp of the language. If you’re really stumped by Stephen R. Donaldson, maybe you need to stick with Piers Anthony or something?

  18. It’s not about being stumped. It’s about the principal to me. Sometimes use of language can pull you out of a story as easily as push you in.

    I’m not a big “quotes” guy. They guy that knows lots of quotes for every event. But I have one single quote that since reading the first time in highschool I have tried to live my life by. Some writers need to sticky it up on their monitors to try to remember to use in the process of writing…

    “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

    It’s the picking of the right words that make the written word beautiful. Some writers seem to pick the words for the wrong reasons. And I think it’s to them that people are speaking of here.

    Complex structure, complex turn of phrase, etc… those things we all applaud and crave. At least I do. But using language in a book as the end and not the means to the end is what I do not like.

  19. I don’t think I was “stumped” by Stephen R. Donaldson. I just hate his main characters in the Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through so freakin’ much that I’ll probably never spend another penny or minute on anything with his name on it.

  20. corwin

    In case it wasn’t obvious, my problem with Mr. Donaldson’s use of words is that he uses them *wrong.*

  21. I loved Donaldson’s “Unbeliever” series. I read it as it came out, so I was fairly young (15ish?). I don’t recall a problem with the vocabulary. I should really read it again, I barely remember the plot.

    Two of my favorite reads are “Little, Big” by Crowley, and “The Khaavren Romances” by, well, you know who. Crowley crafts some of the most wonderful word play and turns of phrases ever, and Mr. Brust in his Paarfi mode does a wonderful update on Dumas.

    The proper use of interesting words is a part of the magic of the story. The words in a story are much like the melody in the song, they’re the hook that grabs you.

  22. Unfortunately, all I have to go on regarding Donaldon’s excursions to the far reaches of English, is the dictionary I’m driven to just to understand him. I can’t remember any specific instances where I thought his choices were wrong grammatically, according to the dictionary. That is, nouns are used as nouns, verbs as verbs, and the listed definition usually makes sense in context.

    “I saw it in the dictionary” is not, in my opinion, a great reason to pick a word–I prefer encountering the word “in the field” before I write with it. Raises the questions: does reading it in Donaldson count? and did *he* encounter it in the field?

    For what it’s worth, he passes an important test: Donaldson never uses these obscurities in the dialogue. Whether people actually read these words or not, they certainly don’t say them to each other very much.

  23. corwin

    Next time, Chris, after you’ve looked one up, stop and ask yourself, “Okay, now, just what does that sentence mean?”

  24. Mudd, Tolkien is one of the very few authors who sent me (not a native English speaker) to the dictionary to find some word…. only not to find it… comb online dictionaries… in vain… and finally find the word in question via google, after (wrongly) suspecting Tolkien of making it up.
    But yes, not *long* words. Probably because of Tolkien’s dislike of Normans.

    For *long* strange words in speculative fiction, I’d recommend Lovecraft.

    Re: Donaldson — he lost me with the Bad Guy monologe in the “Unbeliever” series around book one, chapter two. You’re evil. We got it. Now shut up.

  25. Why is it always about the principal?
    As if being eaten by hyenas wasn’t bad enough…

  26. I had hoped that turning to a random page in a randomly selected Donaldson novel would show what skzb is talking about, but on my first three tries, he was writing fine prose.

    Curse you, Stephen R. Donaldson! A foolish consistency may or may not be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it would certainly have made it easier to make a point about your writing.

    In any case, I first read SRD in junior high or high school, but I have a clear memory of re-reading Donaldson in my early to mid 20s and realizing that his use of language, while frequently colorful and/or obscure, was also frequently [enough to annoy me] incorrect.

  27. Donaldson just is a very morbid read. You can’t escape into it, you can’t identify with the characters. You know it is just going to end badly. Yes I have read many a Greek tragedy. But why? Is it for the lesson learned? The poetry? Sometimes life is like that, see the six oclock news. But yewwwww. Why volunteer for it?

  28. The funny thing about Donaldson is that is Gap series was such a joy to read. It was easy on the brain and the issue who was good and bad was not clear cut. Who would thing the rapist would turn into one of the protagonists?

    In contrast, the Unbeliever series in my mind is awful. I really wanted to crack Thomas over the head with his winging. “I’m a leaper! I’m a leaper!” Just fuckin shut up, get over yourself and get on with saving those sods from the bad guy!

    In addition to that, why should a work of fiction be there to tax my mind with hyperliterate dialog? Ok, the odd word here or there is good to expand one’s language but fuck me! Fiction is there to entertain the reader – not intimidate them with crap language we never use in real life.

  29. Oops – I meant to say “who would think

  30. Well, when I’ve looked up a Donaldson obscurity and plugged it back into the sentence, I believe the sentence does make sense, though I’m not sure that was really the question. Certainly I feel I could rewrite most of those sentences with normal-person words and not lose their artistry, if that’s the assignment. But I really don’t want to, it’s up to book 8 and there has to be about 5000 pages of it now.

    I’m really hoping not to find myself in the position of defending Donaldson’s excesses, though I think I’m already stuck, haha. I only brought him up to point out that if Sandy English thinks SF writers don’t know words like “indefatigable” and “ubiquitous,” she can’t have read Donaldson, because one venture into his lucubrium would have landed her a well-deserved contumely for her surquedry. And so on and so forth, page after page.

  31. I might be the odd man out where Donaldson is concerned in Mirror of her Dreams and A Man Rides Through because I liked it…when I was a kid. I read them when I was in Jr high school (7 or 8th grade?) and ate them up. I will also admit to creative mental editing to get to the meat of the story. If I didn’t understand the word, my mind would replace it with something that would fit in there that would match the context. I think there were only two times I stopped and looked up a word just because I really wanted to know. (and USE it) I haven’t touched them since. I think if I did now, after this, I might be a little jaded, lol.

    I loved using my sci-fi/fantasy books to learn big words rather than regular school vocabulary quizes and tests. In fact, some of the words I already found in my books came up in those. Probably one of the reason, that teacher would let me read when I was finished with work maybe? *grins*

    My son, 13 now, is getting into the same type of books, and is all about, “What does this word mean?”

    I’m such a mean Mom. “Look it up.”

  32. Donaldson’s biggest problem is thesaurus abuse–but that’s not his only one. The repetition of phrases ad nauseam, his inclusion of pointless, redundant story threads, and–worst of all–the constant and unchanging whining of his pathetic protagonist made the series an ordeal. I only continued reading in the vain hope that the end would redeem the mess. It didn’t.

    Donaldson is clearly an intelligent and motivated man. But his work gives genre fiction a bad name, because he ignores the basics of effective writing in order to create an effect that isn’t worth the effort to read, let alone to write.

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