May 14, 2004

Serious just for a verbless moment

If I may get serious for just a moment about this discussion concerning writing without certain specified categories or characters, Matt Weiner at Opiniatrety says we are "philistines" here at Language Log because we think it "a priori ridiculous" (so he says) to engage in experiments like those of the pseudonymous `Michel Thaler', who tried writing a novel, Le Train de Nulle Part, with no verbs. Says Weiner:

Writing under apparently silly constraints can lead to new unthought-of fascinating patterns, as in Perec and other Oulipo writers. People should ignore ridiculous anti-verb polemics, but keep open minds about books they haven't read.

Matt is quite right.

I actually think Italo Calvino's experiment with a novel that has each chapter written in a different style (If On A Winter's Night A Traveller) is fascinating.

It is true that in my 350-word post with no verbs in it, just to have something to say, I chose to lambast Thaler as a posturing fool ("nuts, bonkers, round the bend. Mad as a March hare..."). However, I was completely insincere. I have not even laid eyes on Le Train de Nulle Part. It might be fascinating. For I can tell you this: I myself found it extraordinarily challenging to write without verbs. I couldn't believe how hard it was. Moreover, as I tried it I kept finding myself driven into a much more florid, literary, poetic style than normally comes out of me (not all of what I wrote survived in the posted draft). I have no idea what might emerge if I tried a serious full-length literary work in that mode, but just trying to do 350 words was highly instructive.

So I agree with Matt: when Thaler says in interviews that verbs are "invaders, dictators, and usurpers of our literature ... like a weed in a field of flowers ... You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish", I suspect he is the one who is not being sincere: such remarks really are absurd. But his novel may not be. I have mocked it sight unseen, but that doesn't mean I have really made up my mind in advance about it. Sometimes I write over-the-top polemics or fantasies just for a giggle.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 14, 2004 01:55 PM