Writer’s Desk: C.S. Lewis on the ‘Right’ Words

Writers of fantasy are not assumed to be sticklers for language. After all, they revel in the invented and magical. But when describing things that do not exist, choosing the right word is key.

When C.S. Lewis responded to a letter from a young American fan in 1956—not long before the publication of his final Narnia volume, The Last Battle—he first told her that there is no uniform “Good English.” Language is never a fixed thing. One has to tailor prose for time and place.

Lewis then gives her a few rules for the road:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Clarity is paramount, in writing as in life.

Reader’s Corner: Richard Adams’s Book Collection

The Guardian has some news for British bibliophiles: On December 14, the literary collection of the late and very great Richard Adams will be going on sale. For anybody who wants to see where the author of Watership Down and Plague Dogs got his inspiration, here’s your chance.

According to the auction house:

The library which Richard Adams built up at Benwells, his 18th century home in Hampshire, was housed in a vast cube-shaped room. Here several thousand books lined each wall from floor to high ceiling. Valuable first editions jostled with paperbacks, piles of books were stacked next to comfy armchairs, rabbit figurines took their place on shelves next to family photographs, and the author’s desk was at the hub of it all. The overwhelming impression was of a place where books were read and enjoyed, rather than treated as mere commodities.

That collection includes “Milton’s Lycidas, a complete set of Jane Austen first editions uniformly bound, and a Bible that once belonged to Charles II.” There’s also a copy of Lord of the Flies signed by William Golding for Adams. If you’ve got about £60,000 on hand, there’s also a Second Folio of Shakespeare.

Screening Room: ‘The Final Year’

The documentary The Final Year, which tracks Barack Obama’s foreign policy team in the pell-mell last year of his presidency, opens this week in limited release for Oscar consideration.

My review is at Film Journal International:

…[Director Greg Barker] highlights three key players: chief speechwriter Ben Rhodes, United Nations ambassador Samantha Powers and Secretary of State John Kerry. Although Obama offers a few to-the-camera remarks, for the most part he remains in the background as the leader whose policies these three power players need to mesh with their own beliefs and wrestle into some coherent and actionable policy. Powers and Kerry perform their jobs with such a sense of can-do urgency that even when the frequently hubristic Rhodes says that they “felt like a pickup team…to change the world,” one’s eyes don’t even necessarily roll…

Here’s the trailer:

 

Screening Room: ‘Darkest Hour’

In May 1940, as the German army tore through Belgium and France, instead of uniting against a mortal threat, England was having a leadership crisis. Darkest Hour tells how Winston Churchill—who, popular wisdom held, was not just a drunk and a blowhard but a terrible strategist—became Prime Minister almost by accident.

Darkest Hour opens Wednesday. My review is at PopMatters:

Most tellings of this moment would have Winston Churchill stride into the chaos like some goliath. But in Wright’s recounting, the hero of the moment galumphs on stage as an embarrassing has-been, half-anxious, half-arrogant, and filled with champagne and whiskey. With Gary Oldman well visible behind the heavy makeup and camouflage scrim of cigar smoke, it’s the kind of performance that gets called a tour de force, and for good reason…

Writer’s Desk: Write for the Future or Right Now?

This week, Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) won the David Cohen prize for a lifetime’s achievement in literature. The reaction of the 80-year-old playwright, per The Guardian:

 “Winning a lifetime achievement award, one’s first thought is: ‘Surely not yet.’ And one’s second is: ‘Just in time, mate’ …

Stoppard also had a few thoughts about his legacy:

History is full of the names of writers who at one time seemed to be permanently established and who slowly disappeared from view. I’ll absolutely own up to writing for the present and for posterity – but as Lytton Strachey said: ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’”

Quote of the Day: Meryl Streep Digs Journalists

Speaking at the the annual awards for the Committee to Protect Journalists last night, Meryl Streep—who plays Katharine Graham in Spielberg’s new Pentagon Papers movie—said this:

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. You are the Fourth Estate. You are our first line of defense against tyranny and state-sanctioned news … Thank you, you intrepid, underpaid, over-extended, trolled, and un-extolled, young and old, battered and bold, bought and sold, hyper-alert crack-caffeine fiends. You’re gorgeous, ambitious, contrarian, fiery, dogged and determined bullshit detectives.

What’s to say? It’s a good time to be a detective.

Screening Room: Outrages and Miracles at DOC NYC

The eighth DOC NYC film festival continues through this Thursday, with more movies than you would ever have time to see. My coverage of the festival continues over at Film Journal International‘s Screener blog:

Picking your way among the choices at DOC NYC 2017 is a rewarding but sometimes daunting task. There are documentaries about strife in the Middle East, the cats of Istanbul, a science-fiction utopia in Minnesota, a Golden Age of Hollywood hustler, and how an animated store clerk has driven a standup comedian insane for years. Opening the schedule to a random page works too…