Posts Tagged ‘Oprah Winfrey’

Josh Landy’s lonely fight against “The Chicago Way”

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012
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"Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

“Who is this Mr. Chicago?” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Unemployment remains above 8 percent.  Foreclosures continue to devastate cities.  There’s persistent talk of a double dip recession.  And all President Obama and Mitt Romney do is whack at each other.

It’s time to get serious.

So what about the Oxford comma? I have had an ongoing argument with an editor of my acquaintance over this issue. Wars have been fought over less.

Josh Landy has some good and certainly witty points on these and other subjects in his Arcade essay entitled, “Who is this Mr. Chicago, and what does he have against the English language?

Chicago ManualHe is, of course, railing against the tyrannical Chicago Manual of Style.  I think of myself as somewhat of a style agnostic, having been brought up on the AP Stylebook since I was knee-high to a pica rule.  I’ve even adhered to the esoteric MLA Stylebook, on occasion.

But I applaud the Mr. Chicago on most of his choices,  with the most powerful exception being the prohibition against starting sentences with numerals. “Nine hundred and ninety-eight people responded to the survey” seems a bit cumbersome to me.  So does writing out numbers up to 100.  Like Mr. Chicago, I still prefer the old-fashioned abbreviations for states over the ugly postal codes that have become ubiquitous (I favor Mich. instead of MI, Wisc. instead of WI).

Josh takes exception to Mr. Chicago’s avoidance of hyphenated words, rolling them into one:  “I sometimes think he has a secret desire to turn English into German.  An Englishintogermanconvertingdesire.” I side with Mr. Chicago. I think the excessive use of hyphens is aesthetically squalid.

Josh deplores Mr. Chicago’s putative habit of wrenching hyphenated terms apart, but he blows his argument when he uses “finely tuned” as an example.  Surely he knows adverbs ending in “ly” are never hyphenated?  Wait a minute, that’s the AP Stylebook…

“You better watch where you put those commas, Mr. Landy. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

It is time for me to out Mr. Landy.  He is an Englishman.  And, as someone once wrote, an Englishman lecturing Americans on punctuation is akin to an American lecturing the French on sauces.  I am irritated by English texts that seem to be on a unending comma diet.  The elimination of commas after clauses like these: “In May Churchill gave his address to the…”  Who is May Churchill?

Josh continues:

No, Mr. Chicago won’t let us say “consider for example the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V,” or “thus for instance I may acknowledge,” or “fiction too is a requirement.”  Instead he insists on commas around “for example” and “for instance” and “too,” and also after “namely” and “now.”  In fact, Mr. Chicago would not have allowed my first sentence in this paragraph; he would have insisted on a comma after “say.”  But all these commas slow things down.

As they say in Chicago, “What’s the hurry, Bub?”

To show how desperate things can get, Helen DeWitt, who can only be described as a punctuation libertarian (she hyphenates copy editor, for example), rants in a 2007 post over at Paperpools about her trauma in publishing a book involving a number of texts with different kinds of punctuation.  She cites an Oprah Winfrey interview with  author Cormac McCarthy: “He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.”

Style libertarian (Photo: Aileen Son)

Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy’s punctuation in McCarthy’s texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer’s texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.

Hence she was at odds with her publisher when a manic copy editor decided to have a go at her text, making thousands and thousands of punctuation corrections.  DeWitt describes one of the opening rounds:

The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.

He hates semicolons.

In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.

It gets worse.  In America, land of the free, she argues, we should be free to punctuate as inventively, as creatively as we wish.  She dashes to a bookshop to buy The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and shows it to her publisher.  Her manuscript nevertheless slips through to the “advanced reading copy” stage with her persistent “stets” disregarded.  She mulls suicide: “If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed.”

Even Tatum O’Neal is involved. Read the rest here.

Postscript on 7/20:  The incomparable Dave Lull retrieved the following passages, from Jacques Barzun‘s  essay “Dialogue in C-Sharp,” in response to a younger editor who cited the Chicago Manual whenever he could:

“. . . run words together and make the reader puzzle out the result. See here: antiintellectual in one word. What is the point? What has been gained?”

“Never mind the Manual – it isn’t holy scripture; I haven’t joined a religious sect and taken an oath to be ruled by a book. My creed is that I put my name only to what I write; I write as I like; and I like hyphens – especially when they make reading easier.”

Postscript on 1/8/2013:  You see what it’s all come to?  “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence,” from The Onion, here.

“Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. ‘At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,’ said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word ‘anti-social’ had been corrected to read ‘antisocial.’”

Oprah Winfrey, cheese, Mother Teresa, and the homeless of Haight Street

Sunday, December 26th, 2010
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Too easy a target

I was shocked, shocked during the holiday season when a friend told me he had never read Charles Dickens.  So, motivated by, of all things, Oprah Winfrey, I made sure  A Tale of Two Cities was among his Christmas presents.  No, no, not Oprah’s cheesy edition, but the annotated Penguin one.

Cheesy edition… that’s just it, isn’t it?  Many of Oprah’s endeavors justly inspire ridicule.  She is too easy a target.  So The New Republic’s lambasting her for choosing Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities as her December Book Club selection was, well, a bit cheesy in itself.  Hillary Kelly explodes:

“On December 2, as Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of her TV show, tightly clutching her newest Book Club selection to her chest so that no one could see its title, she proclaimed in her singular, scale-climbing voice, ‘Dickeeeens for the hooolidaaaays!’ Oprah declared that she has ‘always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays,’ and ‘now [she] can.’ Never mind that she could have read Dickens whenever she wanted, seeing as his books have been popular for more than a century. Never mind that Oprah hadn’t chosen A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, or any of Dickens’s other Christmas tales. Never mind that neither Great Expectations nor A Tale of Two Cities, the books she did choose, have anything to do with the holidays. Our shepherd has spoken, and we must blindly follow.

Kelly is concerned that Oprah Winfrey’s “sentimentalized pitch” will result in “a frightening number of purchases.”  Winfrey, you see, admits she has never actually read Dickens.  Kelly continues:

“She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century—prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to ‘live your best life’ is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.”

She’s not done:

“Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. It stands to reason that her sentimentalized view of Dickens might stem from A Christmas Carol—probably his most family-friendly read and one of his most frequently recounted tales. But her quaint view of Victoriana, as she’s expressed it, belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions. Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy?”

I am glad I did not have Kelly around in my own adolescence.  As a girl of about 10 or 11, I picked up (you guessed it) Tale of Two Cities. Undaunted by its “complicated syntax,” I read it straight through to the scaffold. And I expect from the little I know of Winfrey’s background, she might have a better grasp of a work that is “dark and disturbing” than Kelly herself.

I was gratified to see the readership of the New Republic nailed the implicit elitism of Kelly’s remarks:

“Wow. ‘Cadres of women from around the globe’ will discover that Dickens can be tough sledding. I imagine that more than a few, however, will muddle through on their own and actually get something more out of it than a cup of hot cocoa. And it’s really this, I suspect, that you find so ‘appalling.'”

Dickens at the podium

Another writes:

“This article strikes me as deeply wrongheaded. So what if Oprah has a silly, narcissistic view of literature? If she gets her fans in their thousands and millions to go out and buy books, some of them authentically great literature, I say more power to her in this age of illiteracy! And by what right does Ms. Kelly sneeringly dismiss all those book-buying fans as dunderheads who could not possibly understand a “great book” unless it is spoon-fed to them by a Certified Literature Professor? Surely some of them are capable of reading and thinking for themselves, and possibly even having insights that have never occurred to Hillary Kelly! If the Western canon is to have any claim to universality, it must be that it is potentially accessible to everyone–that is the great lesson I took away from my immersion in the University of Chicago’s Robert Hutchins-inspired “core curriculum” in the humanities. Or are we to lock the gates of the Temple of Literature to all who do not have a Ph.D. in literary theory? That, surely, would be a far worse catastrophe for the human spirit than Oprah telling people to have a cup of hot chocolate while reading Charles Dickens!”

And I’m not sure today’s world is so very far from the one Dickens describes.  A couple years back, Rush Rehm and I were discussing people’s general reluctance to engage in volunteer work.  I had recently tried to help out at the Stanford Hospital, and been given forms to fill out and asked to sign on to a training schedule — impossible then, and even less possible now.  Rush extolled the organization of Mother Teresa and her nuns.  He told me that if you show up on the doorstep, her nuns will stick a broom or mop in your hands, no questions asked, no names taken.  It’s not grandiose stuff.  Washing a few dishes at the AIDS hospice in Pacifica may not be making the world safe for democracy, but I think Dickens would approve.  They use you while you are there, and welcome you back whenever you return.  That might be one of the most remarkable features of the whole outfit.

So, on a very rainy Christmas morning, I made my occasional trek to the Golden Gate Park, where they feed the homeless, with several bundles of new socks for the dispossessed.  They go through them so quickly living in the San Francisco chill.  I never found the nuns yesterday, but I did notice that the homeless seem to be everywhere this Christmas — not only in the park, but up and down Haight Street, and Oak Avenue, and everywhere hunkered under makeshift cardboard, broken umbrellas, and stolen shopping carts.

A quick stop in Pacifica delivered the socks, and the nuns greeted their wet and slightly manic visitor with their usual unruffled and unhurried calm and friendliness.

I also delivered my Christmas greetings to the gray and magnificent Pacific, my touchstone — and returned to my modest Palo Alto life that is, by any world standard, and particularly the by the standard on Haight Street, unquestionably luxurious.