Wednesday, February 20, 2013

If You Have Nothing to Say... Say It With Big Words!

I finished "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" last night. I'm afraid to say that I really didn't enjoy it too much - my big issue with it being that while I don't doubt it was an accurate depiction of society at that time, I didn't much like the depiction of society's reaction to Tess. Which I suppose is a good thing, as I rather suspect that was Hardy's point, exactly.


After having finished the novel, I then skimmed through the "bonus features" in the novel, which in this case included some deleted scenes, some discussion of the landscapes in the novel... and an introduction. And, as with "Jane Eyre", I found myself less than pleased with the introduction, although for rather different reasons.

For the most part, my issue with the introduction was that it didn't add anything to the text. The thing is, a good introduction really should be teasing out things that are probably not immediately obvious from a read-through, but which on being pointed out highlight deeper meanings to the text. And, actually, there is one good example of this in the introduction: it points out some elements that were analogous to the fairy tales of the time, which Hardy then subverted. And that's good.

But the introduction spent a very significant amount of text in a discussion of ambiguity in the text, when actually what it actually says about ambiguity could be covered in a single paragraph. Essentially, the introduction is stalling for word-count.

What I found particularly amusing (and also irritating) about the introduction, though, was the use of language. Because where the writer was on strong ground and making solid points, the introduction was quite clear, and written in nice easy language. It had a point, it made it, job done. But where the introduction was struggling for a point, the language used changed quite significantly - suddenly, it was peppered with "hundred-dollar words", words that most people don't know, and so would either look up or, more likely, would simply nod along with and accept the writer's erudition.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with the use of "hundred-dollar words". Sometimes, an obscure word is absolutely the right word for the job, and should be used. And anyway, one of the best features of the English language is precisely the range of words available, giving rise to all sorts of shades of meaning, and allowing great expressiveness to those who can use those words.

However, what we have here is the difference between "Star Trek: the Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Voyager" - in both cases, there are spells in which the characters (usually the chief engineer or resident Vulcan/Android) is busy explaining what he's doing, and resorts to technobabble. In TNG, though, the show made sure to employ science/technology advisors, and so the technobabble more or less makes sense, especially in relation to the science of the day. And so, when the transporters go wrong, it's an issue with the "pattern buffers" or the "Heisenberg Compensator". In Voyager, by contrast, they've decided they don't care any more, and so they just "reverse the polarity" of the "wibbly-doodad" to generate a "bibblytron" pulse. Or something. It's not real science in either case... but one shows an attention to detail that the other lacks.

The introduction to "Tess...", then, makes uses of literary-technobabble. When struggling for a point, it throws together a whole slew of fancy words which sound really good... but don't actually mean anything. (I don't have the novel to hand, but there's one particular sentence that was particularly egregious - it was assembled of nothing but those "hundred dollar words", but didn't actually say anything at all.)

Anyway, that was that. My next book is a Pathfinder Tale, which I suspect is unlikely to make use of many big words... and which almost certainly not bear anything like the same analysis as "Tess...". But that's good, too.

#6: "Strata", by Terry Pratchett
#7: "Tess of the d'Urbervilles", by Thomas Hardy (a book from The List)

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