February 14, 2007

A zero tolerance approach to parody

Jan Freeman takes note of a recent article in The Independent about the latest bee in Lynne Truss's bonnet: parodies of her best-selling book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

In an outspoken attack on the wave of imitators who have spoofed the book's quirky title and cover design, Ms Truss said she did not know how publishers of such imitations "live with themselves".

Freeman rightly wonders why the article fails to mention where or when this "outspoken attack" took place. Moreover, Truss's attack appears to be based solely on the fact that other authors have imitated her work's title and cover art, rather than anything about the books' contents. Later in the article, after asserting that one spoof "obviously has no merit whatsoever," she admits that she hasn't actually, you know, read any of the send-ups she's complaining about.

The titles that are irking Truss include Dr Whom: E.T. Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Parodication and Eats, Shites & Leaves: Crap English and How to Use It. (For more on both shite and adjectival crap, see this recent post on Lynne Murphy's "Separated by a Common Language" blog.) The only book mentioned by the Independent that I had already heard of is David Crystal's The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. That's no spoof (besides the subtitle), but rather a serious critique of the "linguistic fundamentalism" encapsulated in Truss's "zero-tolerance approach." Let's hope she finds time to read that one, at least.

[Update: Sounds like Eats, Shites & Leaves really is a piece of shite. From Paul Farrington:

For what little it's worth, I have read this volume — and it is, indeed, dreck. It basically comprises the kinds of jokes that get circulated in email lists, and I suspect that this is in fact the source: 'Colemanballs' (redubbed 'soccer balls' for reasons of copyright); lists of dire spoof sayings ('Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder'); lists of ill-written signs ('We provide the lowest prices and workmanship'); etc. etc. It rarely goes beyond mildly funny, is never original, and does not even have the benefit of witty or insightful commentary such as that which we are used to encountering at LanguageLog. I wouldn't even dignify it with the status of parody: it's pure spoiler, probably gleaned from a couple of hours trawling the Internets for material.
This doesn't make Truss seem any less whiny, but I at least will join her in moaning about this book. It could have been so much better, since the original was so ripe for a decent parody... Who knows, maybe the other title's better.

And from Lynne Murphy:

Just soze you know, Eats, Shites and Leaves is a pretty 'big' book here — the kind of thing 'gracing' the three-for-two table at Borders, etc. We get lots of secondhand copies in the charity shop/thrift store where I volunteer. ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 14, 2007 12:41 AM