Monday, September 04, 2006

War of the Wordsmiths

The other day I wrote a piece deploring the tendency of authors to go to war with each other over their respective works. Barely had I finished this than, stap my staples and blow my bookends, there’s another couple at it!

A few years ago, Lynne Truss wrote a book on the thorny subject of punctuation. She called it “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” and it is, as they say, in my humble opinion, an excellent primer on the subject. As you know, anyone who says, “in my humble opinion,” means no such thing. It means I’m right and don’t you dare argue.

Ms. Truss had been advised not to bother with her book as nobody read stuff about punctuation. She ignored this sage advice, went ahead and found she had a best-seller on her hands, something of an object lesson to authors not to listen to other people.

Now two years later, one of her former colleagues, whose own works have not, it seems, hit the big time, has come out with a critique of her work. He’s a bit late, of course, since the happy readers of her book will have been industriously putting their commas, colons and apostrophes in the right places, unaware of his damning opinion. Which is what, you may ask? The nub of his argument is that it seems he objects to the sub-title of Ms. Lynn’s book, A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. This phrase, he opines, should be restricted to criminal activities – so for heaven’s sake, don’t read the book.

It appears that this choleric pedant is suffering from a surfeit of semi-colons or something, most probably jealousy. He’s a “language expert.”

Not all reviewers are so unperceptive or as un-entertaining (not too sure about that word!). D.H. Lawrence penned, for no good reason but probably for cash, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was banned in Britain for all the wrong reasons (it should have been for boredom, not obscenity).

When some misguided bureaucrat lifted the embargo, the magazine Field and Stream ran the following review written by Ed Zern:

“Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this pictorial account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour those sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, the book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”

I was tempted to say that reviewers and critics have become more ascorbic of late, but then I remembered the film “London Town.”

Just after World War II, the British movie industry decided to go head to head with Hollywood and produce a super spectacular, all-singing, all-dancing over-blown musical of that name. Since they figured that British writers of popular songs didn’t know their crotchets from their quavers, they imported two American tunesmiths to do the job plus some other transatlantic attractions.

The film was premiered with much hoop-la and ballyhoo and the critic of the London Observer, Miss C.A Lejeune went along.

Her review appeared in the next Sunday’s edition and took up one line.

London Town,” she wrote, “has all the sparkle of cold gravy.”

So perhaps Miss Truss’s book didn’t fare too badly. It’s still worth a read. In my humble opinion, of course.


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