Monday, November 4, 2013

A Word Too Far

This morning I was reading a book review of a new novel. The story parallels, but doesn’t follow completely, a prominently reported murder case from a few years ago. The reviewer talked with the author about writing from life; that is, using real people and events as the model for a story or character. I wasn’t surprised, and I doubt the interviewer was, and probably you aren’t either. First of all, real life offers so many models that just couldn’t be invented. I think almost every writer uses real people and real events at least as the skeleton for a story.

In stories I have written, most of my characters are taken from life. Some are composites, others are the real people with different names. It would be impossible, I think, to create a character or an event that isn’t at least influenced by people I know, or know about. Events often suggest a story to me, and at least some aspects of every story come from the real world.

I suppose it would be possible to write something that has no parallel, no mirror image of real life or real people, but it would require that the author create not just a story and characters, but landscapes, language, even images. Even then there would be some relationship to reality. There has to be, if the reader is going to understand and believe the story.

The same is true with words. Words can be simple or complex, common or unusual. If they are common, at least to most people, then the reader can focus on the story, not on the language. It is only after one has read a story, I believe, that the use of words should be apparent. A reader who must stop and think about or search out the meaning of a word or phrase is at the same disadvantage as one who has an elementary knowledge of Russian, for instance, trying to read War and Peace in the original. It can be done, but it detracts from the enjoyment of the story.

The same thing happens when a non-academic reads something by a specialist, or one educated beyond the basics who has absorbed the jargon of a specialty, using what is called a “term of art.” That in itself is a bit of jargon, but one that is almost self-explanatory.

The interview was interesting, the author articulate, the interviewer knowledgeable. The author, who has held fellowships and earned a graduate degree, had a successful first novel and now teaches creative writing. Most of what was said to the interviewer was easily understood, and even sensible. Near the end, however, the author lapsed into jargon. It was only a short paragraph in which it was stated that both of the author’s novels are similar because both “have intellectual and philosophical questions at their center.” Then the academic/author let this one get away: “I hope those questions are instantiated in characters that feel alive and real and the questions feel not just abstract or silly or cerebral but urgent.”

“Instantiated.” One supposes that is a “term of art” reserved for masters and doctoral programs that seem so popular these days.

“Instantiated.” Even my OED doesn’t contain it. Perhaps all of the author’s next novel will be completely in a language the reader doesn’t understand.

“Instantiated” is a good start.

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