1/3/13

Ah! Pronoun Trouble!

Paragraph from Hillary Mantel's Mann Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall:

"But for the while the cardinal is amused, and puts the kittens on a cushion in an open chest, and watches as they grow. One of them is black and hungry, with a coat like wool and yellow eyes. When it is weaned he brings it home. He takes it from under his coat, where it has been sleeping curled against his shoulder. "Gregory, look." He holds it out to his son. "I am a giant, my name is Marlinspike."

Question: Who brings the cat home?

You say, "Surely, it must be the cardinal. He is the only one mentioned in the entire paragraph."

But no! We are to understand, in the world of prestigious Mann Booker Prize winners, the word "he" always refers to  protagonist Thomas Cromwell, unless it refers to someone else, and there are a lot of someone else's.

I tell my college students that their job as writers is to make my job as a reader easy and pleasant. That is a bit of an overstatement. Not all ideas are simple. Not all ideas are pleasant. You want to challenge my world view? Go for it! But good writing is like good manners. You need to think about the needs of others. Unless your intent is to be obscure--a noble goal if you are writing a mystery, for example--I should not have to work hard to figure out the basic details. And who is bringing home the cat seems like a basic detail.

For the longest time, I thought: Surely, it must be me! Wolf Hall is praised and lauded! The refusal to say who you mean must be some sort of fancy narrative devise that I am just not smart enough to understand. Oh! The shame! But no!  NO! That kind of thinking is why dictators and "Dancing with the Stars" take rule. I am a competent reader, and books that are confusing for the wrong reasons should not win prestigious awards. Privileging such books alienates readers and sends the message that the problem with modern literature is that readers aren't smart when, in fact, the problem with modern literature is that writers have forgotten basic manners.

And don't get me started on how Mantel can't punctuate herself out of a paper bag.

(PS: I'm reusing this picture of my youngest daughter because she knows how to use a fricking pronoun.)




16 comments:

Olga said...

Good for you! Someone has to tell the emperor s/he is not wearing clothes.

Daisy said...

It's not just the pronouns! How long did he sit by the chest watching the kittens grow? Maybe it's lack of context, but the whole paragraph is a bit confusing!

Desiree said...

Oh my! I feel your pain.
:)

Ms M said...

Good points!
Sometimes modern literature gets a bit pretentious for my taste, especially when authors use "aesthetically obscure" writing and call it "art".

Petrea Burchard said...

Thank you, Ms. M. "Pretentious" is the word I was looking for.

Great literature is easy to read.

The publishing industry is panicking.

Petrea Burchard said...

The very next link I clicked on after commenting on your post:
http://bit.ly/S8edu7

Adele said...

This post makes me happy. Why must we have to read each paragraph a dozen times? Does this make the author smarter? And if so, am I then dumb if I don't get it the first time? Really. Don't get me started!!

Shell Sherree said...

She lost me when he started watching kittens grow. {Whichever he he might be...}

beckynot said...

Regardless, I was horribly embarrassed whenever my mother answered the phone with, "This is she."

Alison said...

I too hate having to read a sentence more than one , just to make sense of it!
Alison xx

Margaret said...

Beckynot. That's funny. But is there anything our parents do that isn't embarrassing.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Uh oh. I'm pretty sure the Hiker recommended this book to me.

altadenahiker said...

I love that photo. Mary Queen of South Pas.

Star said...

I'm sorry to say that I thought the quoted text rather boring. Flat. How about you and your readers? (prepositions aside)

Susan Campisi said...

That is confusing - and frustrating. Good for you for challenging the establishment.

Kim MacThomas said...

As an American Historian of Tudor times. Mantels WolfHall is part fantasy& reality. Cromwell was not a nice guy nor did he go to King Henry to keep Cardinals position. As soon as wolseys downfall Cromwell went to king and kissed butt for a job. Nor was wolsey a nice man. He had a mistress and had bastard children& paid her silence. No where does it say Cromwell was ashamed of Gregory nor was he slow in mind. He was granted titles& lands when Cromwell died& married Jane Seymours sister. Too bad he died in his thirties by sweating sickness like mother& Sisters. Mantel suggests wolsey may died of Cancer. Not a factual point. No historian can say thats factual We dont know? The Tudors showed Wolsey killing himself thats unfactual true. The best way to know more factual things is reading, but even though some books arent factual in themselves.