Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rail away, Twain

Today is the birthday of James Fenimore Cooper, the popular American frontier novelist of the early 19th century. His most famous book is The Last of the Mohicans.

About fifty years after Cooper wrote his tales, Mark Twain took them up -- and then put them down, with a vengeance. In his famous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Twain did the opposite of Tom Sawyer, who whitewashed that fence: he lay bare what he saw as the glaring sins of a literary fraud.

"Cooper’s art has some defects," Twain wrote. "In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

"There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction–some say twenty-two. In 'Deerslayer' Cooper violated eighteen of them."

Twain gave Cooper absolutely no "clemensy":

"Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment...Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly...

"Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on seventh...

"Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull."

The critic built up steam until he was a runaway Twain:

"I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that 'Deerslayer' is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that 'Deerslayer' is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

"A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language."

Today's coined word: atwaint, v.: to denounce the literary pretensions of someone or some thing.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Plausible lies

We played Fictionary as a class activity at the Room in the Inn yesterday. In Fictionary, one player finds an uncommon word in the dictionary, announces it to make sure that none of the players knows it, and then writes down the definition on his sheet of paper. The other players make up a definition intended to fool everyone else, and write their definitions on their sheets of paper. The “moderator” then collects all the sheets, shuffles them up along with his own sheet, and reads all the definitions. The players hear all the definitions, ponder them, and then the moderator reads each of them again and the players raise their hands if they think a definition is the correct one.

Anyone who guesses the correct definition gets a point, and a player gets one point for every vote for his or her phony definition. The dictionary is then passed on to the next player, who becomes the moderator for the next round.

I played moderator for all five rounds we played. One player said he couldn’t read or write, so he just guessed at definitions and did not invent any.

The first word I posed was “boho.” The definitions, including the real one (test yourself!) the players came up with were: “A type of hobo,” “a gardening tool,” “a stringed instrument,” “an unconventional person,” “a tool used for digging or scraping,” and “the ghetto in Soho in New York.” The tool used for digging or scraping got three votes, and the correct one, an unconventional person (short for bohemian), got none.

The next word was “gawsy.” The definitions: “A type of dress worn by flapper girls in the ‘twenties,” “trashy or sordid,” “somewhat crazy,” “an Australian word meaning sickly or puny,” “well-fed and healthy looking,” and “having a rough exterior.” I stumped them again (well-fed and healthy looking is the correct definition); the Australian word fake got four votes.

Next up was “nuncio.” The definitions: “a spice from Mexico,” “slang for a bothersome individual,” “an ambassador from the pope,” “a Spanish word meaning to enunciate,” “a type of religion,” and “a city in the Bahamas.” Again, no one voted for the right one (the papal  ambassador) while three voted for the Spanish word.

“Dalapon” was the next word. The definitions were: “An exotic plant,” “a small portion,” “an herbicide used on grass,” “a piece of scuba diving equipment,” “a form of transportation,” and “an African bonnet.” The small portion got the big portion of votes, four, and one person guessed the correct definition, the herbicide.

Last came “vindaloo.” Definitions: “A small canoe,” “a hat worn in church in Sweden,” “a stew made with meat and wine,” “an exotic flower,” “a dance common in the bayous of Louisiana,” and “a French bicycle.” The flower got three votes, and the stew (the correct one) only one.

Congratulations to Frankie and Joe, each with ten points. Bronson coulda been a contender but had to leave early.

Fictionary is a great game to play with five or six players, especially when all are drinking (which is frowned upon at Room in the Inn). You don’t have to be literary or a word whiz to play; in fact, as it often turns out, non-readers can prove to be the best players.   

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Quackle, snap, pop

Quackle is the name of a Scrabble software program that allows you to play against a computer. The other day is scored 320 points against Quackle with "FANZINES," an idiotic word recently added to the Scrabble dictionary. Today Quackle retaliated with "WHEEZING" against me for 356 points. Still, I won't duck Quackle, ever.