Let’s count adverbs!

This post about this book (which I need to buy) is great.  Number of  -ly adverbs per 100,000 words:

Hemingway: 80

Twain: 81

Melville: 126

Austen: 128

J.K. Rowling: 140

E L James: 155

One might easily imagine that the writer of the “Fifty Shades” novels would use almost twice as many adverbs as Hemingway, but it’s nice to see some data.

The case against adverbs is pretty clear: they are often a flabby substitute for more succinct prose.  “Hurry” is punchier than “walk quickly”.  And lots of adverbs might indicate that the writer hasn’t done a lot of revising and tightening:

The Hemingway book with the highest usage rate for -ly adverbs, True at First Light, was released only after his death and is considered one of his worst works.  The same pattern is true for Faulkner and Steinbeck, namely that the most highly praised works have relatively low rates of -ly adverb usage.  Among other notable authors surveyed, D.H. Lawrence seems to be the most obvious exception to this regularity.

I often find myself editing out adverbs that I couldn’t seem to avoid in my first draft.

While I’m sort of on the subject, I enjoyed the rather strange novel Adverbs by Daniel Handler (who was much more successful with his Lemony Snicket novels).

“A Theory of Justice” and me

One of my post-election vows was to read A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.  I just wanted to commend myself on my good work in completing this task.  It only took me five months!  I have to say that it wasn’t easy.  The book is 514 pages worth of dense, arid political philosophy that I am ill-equipped to judge.  And yet…

I keep thinking about Rawls’s concept of the veil of ignorance:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today’s society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world”, however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

Isn’t that the way we should think about all social policy?  Imagine that you don’t know if you’re white or black, rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick, talented or mediocre, a Muslim or a Catholic or an atheist.  How would you think about immigration policy, about health care, about taxes? The veil of ignorance doesn’t give you answers, but it encourages you to ask the right questions.

Shakespeare Sunday

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, probably, and also his death-day.  Every day is a good day to quote Shakespeare, though.  Here is Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

A day late, but any day is a good day for a poem by John Donne.

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

Shaping a novel: How many points of view is too many?

I am about to start the final quarter or so of my novel, and I realize that this weekend I’ve already decided on three new point-of-view characters.  Two of them ought to be first-person narrators, in my humble opinion.  I’ve now lost track, but I’m pretty sure I’m approaching 20 different points of view, some of which only show up for a few pages.  This currently feels completely right to me, but what do I know?

To recap: Portal was entirely a first-person narrative.  Its sequel, Terra, continued the first-person narrative for about 90% of its length, and then unexpectedly (I imagine) switched to a couple of third-person points of view at the end.  Here we are in Barbarica, and the idea is to switch constantly among points of view, only to return to first person at the end.  (Hmm, maybe that’s a spoiler.  On the other hand, it’s not too late for me to change my mind!)

Is this a good idea?  The narrative strategy you choose for a novel is pretty much the most basic decision you have to make about it.  In this case, it’s turning out to be a cumulative set of decisions.  Let’s hear what this character has to say, then this one, then this one…  I like this approach a lot for this particular plot.  I just hope readers agree with me.

What I didn’t like about “Manchester by the Sea”

While I’m being a film critic I’d like to say something belatedly about Manchester by the Sea.  I can’t quarrel with the acting or the direction.  I have my usual nits to pick about Boston accents and local goofs–what’s a convenience store doing selling beer at two in the morning?  But I left the movie feeling annoyed and frustrated, and it took me a while to figure out why.

The point of the movie, it seems to me, is that the Casey Affleck character doesn’t change, because he cannot change; he’s too deeply damaged.  So he ends the movie back where he started, more or less–living by himself, working at a menial job.  He doesn’t get back together with his wife; he basically gives away his nephew.  Fair enough, I suppose.  But that means that nothing happens in the movie.  Well, stuff happens, but it’s like real life–one damn thing after another, without form or meaning.  No one really changes; we all just end up in a different spot because time has passed.

I have pondered this a bit, because I do appreciate that the movie didn’t go in for a soft-edged Hollywood ending.  In that sort of ending, the responsibility of parenting his nephew would change Affleck, help him come to terms with his grief.  Meh.  But there could be perhaps a glimmer of hope for redemption.  Or, if not, it could be a tragedy.  Just not utter stasis.

Also, that scene in the convenience store really annoyed me.