May 27, 2006

Behind the Da Vinci curve

Anthony Lane's movie review of The Da Vinci Code ("Heaven can wait", The New Yorker, May 29, 2006) is wonderful: screamingly funny (IMHO; not everyone agrees). I recommend it if you want further excuses to giggle at (and perhaps not go and see) the ponderously silly movie that has been made out of the much-loved blockbuster of blasphemy. But — if I may raise this sensitive topic — what is it with these print journalists who keep picking up months or years later on linguistic points already well known to the world through Language Log? Look at Lane's paragraph on "renowned" (right hand column below; quotes from TDVC are highlighted in red) and compare it with what you read here (and here) well over two years before, about the same quote (left column; paragraph breaks removed):

Language Log, May 1, 2004:

The New Yorker, May 29, 2006:

I am still trying to come up with a fully convincing account of just what it was about his very first sentence, indeed the very first word, that told me instantly that I was in for a very bad time stylistically. The Da Vinci Code may well be the only novel ever written that begins with the word renowned. [...] "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery" [...] I think what enabled the first word to tip me off that I was about to spend a number of hours in the company of one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature was this. Putting curriculum vitae details into complex modifiers on proper names or definite descriptions is what you do in journalistic stories about deaths; you just don't do it in describing an event in a narrative.

There has been much debate over Dan Brown's novel ever since it was published, in 2003, but no question has been more contentious than this: if a person begins reading the book at ten o'clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03, shortly after I read the opening sentence: "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery." With that one word, "renowned," Brown proves that he hails from the school of elbow-joggers — nervy, worrisome authors who can't stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don't yet require.

Notice, I'm definitely not alleging plagiarism here: despite the tongue-in-cheek remark about the question of how many words you have to read before you form your judgment having been much discussed, I'm quite sure Lane thinks he's bringing up a new point, and he certainly does it in an original way: his point about elbow-jogging, information-jabbing writers seems new and fresh. He's no thief. He copies no sentences (and this cannot be said of everyone, can it?). What's more, he actually does new research in Brownian literary stylistics: he looks through the rest of the book and finds another example of an exactly parallel sort: he says that you could perhaps "dismiss that first stumble as a blip", but later on in the book you will find this:

Prominent New York editor Jonas Faulkman tugged nervously at his goatee.

This is a wonderful new example of clunky use of an anarthrous occupational NP preposed to a proper name, one that somehow I had not spotted in 2004. So Lane doesn't just use other people's examples; he is an active data-gatherer.

And yet... One does get a vague sense that he doesn't know he's into a two-year-old project here. He sounds a tiny bit like an intelligent literary stylistician who has just been awakened from a two-year coma and thus attracts a certain amount of eye-rolling at conferences as he brings up points that he thinks are new but they're not.

Listen up, Anthony: it's 2006, and everyone reads Language Log now. The web programmers at your own magazine read it: when I commented on an utterly insane prescriptivism-induced message from the magazine's web site search engine in 2005, they reprogrammed to get rid of it within a week or so (we get "Sorry, there are no results matching that search" now, instead of the hilarious message that I had mocked, "I'm sorry I couldn't find that for which you were looking"). Your boss reads Language Log, your Aunt Meg reads Language Log. The other day I saw a dog reading Language Log (on the Internet nobody knows you're one; though come to think of it, he may have thought it said Language Dog — I don't know what his motive was in reading our stuff, I only know he was sitting up on a stool in an Internet café paging through something by Mark Liberman that had graphs in it).

Has word not yet reached the New Yorker office film desk, whose very métier crucially involves being fully and deeply in touch with current cultural trends? Are they really working without having Language Log bookmarked? Is that why Lane seems to imagine that he is raising a brand new linguistic theme here, rather than hauling out a well-roasted old chestnut from the cheery fire of Language Log?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 27, 2006 02:46 PM