An American Editor

October 8, 2012

On Language: Ultramontane

I am a subscriber to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), as I have mentioned a number of times in previous posts. Recently, I was reading in the NYRB, an article titled “Can Romney Get a Majority?” (September 27, 2012) in which the author threw me a curveball by using ultramontane to describe Paul Ryan’s social views.

This was the first instance when I wished I had been reading the NYRB on my Nook or Sony reader, which would have given me instant access to a dictionary. Alas, I didn’t have a print dictionary handy when reading the article and I didn’t recall ever having encountered the word previously.

Eventually, I did get to a dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed.) and discovered that ultramontane has two meanings: first, “of or relating to countries or people beyond the mountains,” and second, “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national or diocesan authority in the Roman Catholic Church,” which was the meaning in the article. Or was it?

Actually, the article intended a variation of the second meaning: “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national (state) authority” without the limitation of “in the Roman Catholic Church.” (It is worth noting that The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5th ed. includes this “sense” as a usage; it is questionable whether it is a definition. I have multiple dictionaries because of my work; how many readers have or use multiple current dictionaries?)

I understand that the demographics of NYRB subscribers and readers are a cut above the usual in terms of education and literacy (at least that is what their demographics information portrays), but not only did ultramontane cause me to pause, it made me wonder whether its use was good or bad. Unlike many unfamiliar words that I come across, I didn’t come close to deciphering this one via context. I didn’t miss the gist of the sentence, but I also didn’t get the true meaning.

When choosing words to be written in a communication there are at least two major considerations; first, that the word precisely communicate, and second, that it in fact communicate. In this instance, ultramontane was the wrong word choice on both counts: neither dictionary definition was appropriate as is and it is such a rarely used word that I suspect the vast majority of readers would stumble on it and not derive the correct meaning.

With modification of the meaning, ultramontane presents a compact way to get a message across within the context in which it was used in the NYRB. But that is one step too many to meet the singular, ultimate goal of the craft of writing: to communicate. In the absence of this step, the word is clearly the wrong word to use, because the author was not trying to communicate that Paul Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over the Catholic Church; rather, the author was trying to communicate that Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over American government authority and the authority of all religions and moral views, Catholic or other.

We have discussed the question of word choice before (see, e.g., Choosing Words — Carefully), but the context was different even though the result was the same. Here the question is more than choosing that which expresses precisely what you mean; it is choosing that which both expresses what you mean and also is likely to be understood by your readers. This latter means that words also need to be chosen for the broadness of their use among the reading public. Sometimes the precise word needed will require the reader to use a dictionary, but the goal of careful writing should be not to encourage dictionary use but to be understandable as read. It is to that end that correct word choice also means choosing a word whose definition fits the intended meaning as is, without further interpretation.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what should an editor do when faced with a word like ultramontane?

This is a difficult question. If you are of my view, then you would substitute for the word and include an explanation for the author as to why you substituted, giving the author the opportunity to undo the change. The alternative views are (a) to simply leave the word as is or (b) to leave it as is but query the author, explaining why it may be the wrong word choice.

I think a more active approach is best because the one thing that is true about all of us is that we are protective of our creations. In the case of our writing, we are protective because we know what we meant and expect others to know it as well. Who among us is ready to admit that perhaps our writing lacks the clarity it could have? Additionally, a word like ultramontane makes us feel linguistically accomplished and allows us to demonstrate to others our skills. But if we are faced with a change that makes it better and given the opportunity to revert to the original, we are more likely to think about what we have written and what the editor suggests. We are required to react, something that the other two approaches do not require. (As most, if not all, editors have experienced, simply querying doesn’t always get a response from an author. It is not unusual for a query to be ignored. I have yet to find, however, an author who will ignore my query when I have actively changed wording and then queried my change.)

Which approach would you take as an editor? Which approach would you want as an author? Why?

June 2, 2011

On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid?

Generally, novels seem to fall primarily within two types of characterizations: plot-driven and character-driven. A plot-driven novel has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot. There are defenders of both, but I find both lacking. I think the difference between literature fiction and nonliterature fiction is the hybrid novel that finds a careful balance between being character driven and plot driven.

I broached this topic in an earlier article, Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the topic.

I’ve said many times that I consider fiction read-once-then-throw-away books, which is my justification for buying nonfiction in pbook form, select fiction in pbook form, and the vast majority of fiction in ebook form. It is also my justification for not rereading a novel, again, with a few exceptions, such as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Yet there really is a more important difference and that is the difference between classifying something as simply fiction, or a novel, on the one hand, and on the other hand classifying it as literature, something to be read now and in years to come.

On one of the fora of which I am a member, the question arose about starting a literary book club as opposed to just a monthly book club. The idea being that the books chosen would be literary classics, not just today’s bestseller. But there was no agreement on what constitutes “literature” — How do you define it? How do you recognize it? How does a group recognize it? And so on.

I had no answer until it dawned on me that every book I would consider literature (as opposed to simply a good fiction read) is simultaneously character driven and plot driven, that is, it is a hybrid whose characters and plot are both memorable years after first reading.

A well-plotted novel keeps a reader’s attention while reading the book. But it is the rare plot that can be said to be so unique as to stand apart from all other plots. Generally, one plot is reminiscent of another plot, with the difference being in the details and how well the author crafts the storyline.

A well-characterized novel absorbs the reader in the characters. Perhaps little is remembered about the plot, but the character(s) is(are) memorable. Here there is greater uniqueness, but even so, one can recall other books with similar characters. Again, the author’s craft is in how well constructed (and deconstructed) the character(s) is(are).

Literary fiction (or literature), on the other hand, is a finely crafted balance — not necessarily an equal balance — between plot and character so that remembering one causes you to remember the other. We celebrate the authors who find that balance by buying and reading their books year after year. For these authors and books, publishing’s long tail has significance, especially as new generations of readers discover them.

I can hear folk saying but J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which is considered a literary classic, really is a terrible book. I admit, it is far from my favorite. Yet that notion of like and dislike is really not a criterion for classifying the book. Consider this: Many of us read Catcher in the Rye in the 1960s yet we still recall Holden Caulfield and his story. How many books, of all the many hundreds, if not thousands, of books you have read since, can you say that about? In my case, it is a handful, probably less than 1%, yet isn’t that “literary immortality” what many authors want?

Does this mean that the difference between a good author and a not-so-good author, between a good book and a not-so-good book is whether the author has achieved that fine balance? No, because there is nothing inherently wrong with a book that is either plot driven or character driven. Rather, what is at stake is whether a decade from now — perhaps even a year from now — the author and his or her writing are remembered by anyone, whether the books and the author are being discovered by new generations. For some authors literary immortality is not on their horizon; for others, they strive for it, sometimes making it, more often not making it.

But I think the key to that literary immortality is finding that balance for a particular book. The balance doesn’t have to be 50-50 or 60-40, but it clearly cannot be 90-10.

There is yet another reason why it is the hybrid model that leads to literary immortality but plot and character driven do not: human nature! By that I mean we humans seek to identify with others, seek to escape from daily life for a few minutes, seek something that we do not have through literary escapism. A well-written plot-driven novel about unlocking a secret has starred in hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of novels like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The books sell millions of copies on release, then are rarely heard from again. In a decade, the question will be Dan Brown who?

Similarly, if Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, written in 1927, had been solely character driven, it would have died on the literary vine, just as The Da Vinci Code has done. Ask yourself this: Do you know anyone who is discussing the characters or the plot of The Da Vinci Code today? Yet Elmer Gantry is still on reading lists and still banned by some evangelical churches — more than 8 decades after publication, Elmer Gantry is still causing a furor. Yet Elmer Gantry, although a hybrid, is heavier on the character-driven side of the balance.

Heavier on the plot-driven side are the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. People remember not only the plots but the characterizations. Watson draws sympathy from readers for his dealings with Holmes and movies are still being made based on the stories — because the characters give a sense of realism and the books are hybrids, just heavier on the plot than on the characterizations.

To my way of thinking, only a well-written hybrid can be a 5+-star book. Plot-driven and character-driven books can be 5-star books, but they cannot be that little bit more that is needed to put them in the literary immortality category. Something to think about, but not necessarily something that requires anything be done. Quality craftsmanship is still quality craftsmanship and is the first requirement; worrying about literary immortality is something that should occur after mastering the art of writing.

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