May 07, 2005

The people from the CCGW are here to see you

In response to my posting on Safire, Bellow, and which vs. that, Richard Hershberger has written with a little rant on the idea (espoused by Safire, among many others) that only good writers, with good reasons, have the freedom to violate the "rules" of grammar that bind all the rest of us.  How does someone like Bellow achieve this happy state, he asks.

Now the truth can be told.  Through moles I have planted at PEN (a "worldwide association of writers" pledged to "fight for freedom of expression" through its 141 centers around the world), I have discovered a dark side of the organization, the misleadlingly blandly named Committee for the Certification of Good Writing (CCGW), which enforces the separation of the few who are truly free from the many who are enslaved to the rules of grammar.

But first, Hershberger's heartfelt questions:

I am always amused by the admonishment that we should not model our writing off the best writers. Apparently the rest of us are only permitted to strive for mediocrity.  And how, I wonder, did someone like Bellow achieve this happy state of freedom from arbitrary rules?  Was he a great writer from the first time he put pen to paper, or did he become great at some point in his career?  If the latter, did he formerly carefully observe the arbitrary rules?  If not, the surely his writing was substandard, not even rising to the level of mediocrity the rest of us strive for.  How then did such a poor writer achieve greatness?  And does his earlier writing benefit retroactively from his greatness dispensation?  If he did formerly observe the rules, when did he start not observing them?  How did he know he was now great enough to do this?  What is the notification process in these matters?

All of this, it turns out, is managed by the CCGW, through operatives more shadowy even than those of the MacArthur Foundation.  (My moles suggest that once MacArthur figures out how to plug its security leaks, the two organizations will merge.  It's a natural pairing.)  These operatives scan through trillions of words of text, of all sorts, every month, to find those that score high on each of two measures: the Writing Excellence, or WE score, a measure of creative thought and rhetorical excellence; and the Grammatical Purity, or GP score, a measure of adherence to the rules put forward in in-house style manuals, lists of dos and don'ts in grammar, and secondary school textbooks.

The vastness of this enterprise is incredible.  The eyes of the CCGW see (and judge) all: elementary school essays and stories, Post-It notes, e-mail, zines, little poetry magazines, college writing samples, doctoral dissertations, porn stories, television and movie scripts, assembly instructions, technical manuals, pulp fiction, serious novels, political blogs, biographies, livejournals, letters to politicians, interoffice memos, tabloid newspapers, and of course The Guardian, The Economist, The New York Times, The New Yorker and their counterparts in other languages.  And much much more.  There is no hiding from the CCGW.  You can toe the line in your articles in Harper's, but if you split infinitives or use restrictive which in newsgroups, your GP score is going to take a nosedive.  Your submissions to Poetry magazine might be models of grace and clarity, but if your letters to your agent are muddy and have clunky transitions, it's bad news for your WE score.  This is a harsh world, folks, and only a very few float to the top.

Those who do are tapped for the Good Writer Certificate, which is not an actual piece of paper with things written on it (that could fall into the wrong hands, you know), but an oral oath, administered in a most solemn private ceremony by two members of the CCGW.  The lucky writer is granted lifetime freedom from the rules, but must not refer in any way to the certificate, on pain of having both hands amputated and the larynx ripped out.  (One of my moles had to write notes to me with a pencil held between her teeth, and the other communicated by blinking his eyes in Morse code.)

Saul Bellow apparently showed extraordinary promise early in life, and was tapped while still in high school.  As he tells it (without reference to the certificate, of course):

At school, we, the sons and daughters of European immigrants, were taught to write grammatically.  Knowing the rules filled you with pride.  I deeply felt the constraints of "correct" English.  It wasn't always easy, but we kept at it conscientiously, and in my twenties I published two decently written books.
   (" "I Got a Scheme!": The words of Saul Bellow", The New Yorker, 4/25/05, p. 76)

The man was Free at 17, and then blazed on, writing according to what sounded right to him.  Lucky bastard.  Well, he put in his time.

Now: the dark side of the dark side.  What happens to those who are high on WE but low on GP?  Those who risk writing well while breaking the rules without permission?

Again, you are visited by two CCGW operatives.  They are dressed all in black, including black ski masks that reveal only their dark, steely eyes.  (Note the genre-appropriate "steely".  I know how to sling this stuff.)  They explain, in expressionless voices, what awaits those who exhibit "prematurely free grammar": the retracted royalty checks, the canceled book tours, the devastating reviews by famous people writing in prominent places, the accusations that you have been molesting children of your own sex, and on and on.  Their weapons are many, all fearsome.

Reader, I know this.  They came to me.  I took their words to heart.

I vowed to cut my WE score in half, so as to stay clear of the CCGW's notice.  I stuck to awkwardly technical academic writing, hastily scribbled postings to newsgroups, mailing lists, and blogs, poetry only my friends would publish, and fiction that only my friends would even read.  This has served me well for a lifetime of writing.  I have managed to make a decent living while flouting the rules of grammar, without being ground to dust under the heel of the CCGW.

Learn from my story.  It's Bellow's way, or mine.

[Awkward academic that I am, I can't resist an actual observation about grammar and usage proscriptions.  Rodney Huddleston noted in e-mail to me yesterday that "as far as I'm aware, prescriptivists don't actually say which in restrictives is incorrect: it is, rather, a matter of that being (much) preferable."  This is in fact true of what I think of as the "high end" of the modern advice literature on grammar and usage, from H. W. Fowler through Bryan Garner; they warn you about possible problems (not always realistically, I must add), rather than issuing blanket prohibitions.  Meanwhile, the low end -- the in-house style manuals, lists of dos and don'ts for writers, and secondary school textbooks that I mentioned above -- tends strongly towards Just Saying No.  The idea seems to be that it's easier for people if they don't have to use their judgment, but can rely on simple, clear rules.  Oh, this is where we came in.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 7, 2005 07:54 PM