Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fait' and Begorrah, Finley Dunne Does Overdo t' Brogue

There seem to be two types of dialect writers out there.

The first is the kind that recognizes dialect as an intrinsic element of a character, one that may help set him or her apart from others, work as an effective “show, not tell” tool in offering information on a character’s background or otherwise offer up tantalizing bits of character rounding.

Then there are those who use a dialect character because, well, why not?

Those in the first category tend to use dialect sparingly, wanting the overall effect, but not so much as to overwhelm the reader.

Those in the second take a “dialect or nothing” attitude.

Finley Peter Dunne fits into the second category.

See if you can interpret any of this, or even tell me what kind of accent this is supposed to be:

What we want to do f’r our sojer boys in th’ Ph’lippeens besides killin’ thim, says th’ ar-rmy gurgeon, it make th’ place more homelike, he says. Manny iv our heroes hasn’t had th’ deleeryum thremens since we first planted th’ stars an’ sthripes, he says, an’ th’ bay’nits among th’ people, he says. I wud be in favor iv havin’ th’ rigimints get their feet round wanst a week, at laste, he says. Lave us, he says, ‘reform th’ reg’lations, he says, an’ insthruct our sojers to keep their powdher dhry an’ their whistles wet, he says.

Sounds like Sylvester the Cat on Novocain, doesn’t it?

The character who schpith out all that dialectial drivel is named Dooley, and he’s talking to a man named Hennessey, so one can assume they’re both supposed to be Irish. Untermeyer describes Dunne’s dialect as “tricky,” and he’s not just a-kidding. This is probably a case where the written word fails to capture the true essence of the situation. If this were being said rather than written – and read – it might be easier to understand. We’re used to hearing dialects, rather than reading them, as Richard Adams found out, painfully to my eyes at least, in his novel Traveler, featuring a horse with a British dance hall southern US accent.

The dialects used in this cartoon, for example, are easy to understand. Written down, however, they might prove difficult.

I have written a novel in which I have a character who uses a dialect. Now I’m going to have to go back over it to see if I’ve overdone it. Using a dialect is fine. Overdoing it kills your readers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Neurotic Hostess in E.M. Delafield

Neither my wife nor I enjoy hosting guests.

We’re hermits. We don’t mind cooking, say, for our own children, but when it comes to having family over for, say, Thanksgiving Dinner, which we have done in the past, we’re both bundles of nerves. We both prefer the overhand hosting delivery of Snoopy:

So E. M. Delafield’s “The Unselfish Hostess” really, really, really made me nervous. Here’s a sample:

“I said, ‘Never mind whether I’ve got time or not, I must make some of my peppermint creams for Elizabeth.’ I’m afraid I didn’t get to bed until long after twelve last night.”

“Oh dear – what a shame.”

“No, no. I was up at seven just the same – or a little bit earlier, really, because I was determined to have plenty of spare time while you were here. It just meant a little reorganizing, that was all.”

Yikes, yikes, and double yikes. She makes Kronk and Yzma appear to have a normal amount of neurosis as host and hostess:

(Start at about 0:28.)

Eek. I think I’ll put my feet on the table at dinner tonight . . .

Monday, September 27, 2010

Clarence Day, 19th Century Sitcom Writer

For any – as Ray Stevens would put it – “tone-deaf little yard ape” who ever had to learn a musical instrument due to the insistence of a stubborn parent, Clarence Day is a hero. But the man is even more heroic to those who are forced to listen to said yard ape when, stung with criticism from every tongue, he stubbornly insists on learning the instrument even when he knows deep down he is a rotten player.

Thus Day explains his ham-fisted sawing at the violin:

What would the musician who had tenderly composed this air, years before, have felt if he had foreseen what an end it would have, on Madison Avenue; and how, before death, it would be execrated by that once peaceful neighborhood. I engraved it on their hearts; not in its true form but in my own eerie versions. It was the only tune I knew. Consequently, I played and replayed it.

Even horrors when repeated grow old and lose part of their sting. But those I produced were, unluckily, never the same. To be sure, this tune kept its general structure the same, even in my sweating hands. There was always the place where I climbed unsteadily to its peak, and that difficult spot where it wavered, or staggered, and stuck; and then a sudden jerk of resumption – I came out strong on that. Every afternoon when I got to that difficult spot, the neighbors dropped whatever they were doing to wait for that jerk, shrinking from the moment, and yet feverishly impatient for it to come.

I’ve heard it said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but Day, in these passages, succinctly pens what it’s like to hear a young soul play on a tortured instrument to the detriment of society.

If that’s not clear enough for you, consider this:

These passages are, of course, from Day’s famous novel, “Life With Father” which spawned an Academy Award-nominated 1947 film and a smash hit television series, believe it or not. It’s kind of the “Sh*t My Dad Says” but with much better writing, acting and longetivity. I know said modern show is only in its maiden run, but given the one-joke premise in both the plot and in William Shatner, it’s only a matter of time before it’s forgotten.

Just like “Life With Father,” of course. Nobody, but nobody knows about it today.

The fun thing about “Life With Father,” however, is its universality. The plot is this: Father thinks he runs the show at home. He really doesn’t, as Mom and children have a thing or three to say about what’s going on. That’s basically the plotline of any situation comedy you’d care to mention, isn’t it?

The “child as a hack on musical instrument” meme certainly smacks of any sitcom I’ve ever seen.

That’s not to belittle Day’s writing, however. As I mentioned earlier, I find his descriptions hilarious. But this is where good writing for the page can’t translate into good writing for any size screen, as you’re not going to get that kind of angst in any way, shape, or form that doesn’t look like Ralph Wiggum with his flute up his nose.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cuppy, Wit in the Footnotes

Like footnotes, do you?

I do. Some fiction authors pull them off well. Think Terry Pratchett, whose footnotes are worth reading, no matter how they might interrupt the flow of the novel.

And I don't. I edit technical documents for a living. Some of them contain footnotes. It is my professional goal to integrate the phrase "hi poopsie" into a document before I die, and I think a footnote might be the place to do so. Although in technical documents, only auditors and the anal retentive look at footnotes. There are plenty of those in the Energy-Indusrial-Military complex in which I work. I'd be found out and ratted out and, well, something like this might well happen:

I'd be in the role of Newman, of course, whimpering like a puppy.

But footnotes bring us to the author William Jacob Cuppy who -- and here's another way he resembles me -- "knows more irrelevant facts than any mane alive," Untermeyer writes. It's these facts that fill the footnotes and otherwise nonsensical body of Cuppy's books and short articles. He's most noted for his book "How to Be A Hermit," of which I'd love a copy.

Untermeyer offers three of Cuppy's smaller works, "The Goldfish," "The Pterodactyl," and "The Pleiosaur." Here's "The Goldfish" (click on the image to embiggen; if I do it here, it makes my margins all off):

My favorite: Queen Victoria had a Goldfish. [Footnote: This statement is offered without documentation. It is based upon the self-evident truth that if Queen Victoria did not have a Goldfish, then history has no meaning and might as well stop.] Few authors use footnotes to the wiseassery extent as this. I applaud him.

Please, read more Cuppy, especially his "Hermit" book. A lot funnier than that stiff Thoreau fellow.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Frank Crowninshield, One-Liner Wit

Frank Crowninshield.

For those in the know, this name -- or the nickname "Crownie" brings up one thing and one thing only: Vanity Fair magazine. Crowninshield led the mag from its origins as a fashion magazine to one of razzle-dazzle literary stardom, bringing in authors such as Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, and others.

For Louis Untermeyer, Crowninshield means his short work "A Wit With a Whim of Iron."

He got out some pretty good zingers:

Two anecdotes concerned Edward Simmons, the painter, who had long fatigued his fellow members [of The Players Club] by prolix and, often, pointless monologues. Finally, Herford, believing that the time for action had arrived, hand-lettered a sign, which he fastened over the door of the sitting-room. The sign read, laconically: "EXIT, IN CASE OF SIMMONS."

On another occasion, the same unfortunate Simmons had been insulted by a tipsy fellow member who had offered him fifty dollars if he would resign from the Club. Simmons immmediately imparted his grievance to Herford and repeated the insult, con brio. "Don't take it," said Oliver, "you're bound to get better offers."

My goal, folks -- hear it here and now -- is one day to have a sign like that put up in my honor.

It's likely this Herford would have something similar to this to say about some of the shmaltzy art produced today:

Maxfield Parrish had created a poster for St. Nicholas, in which a plump boy was blowing soap-bubbled, in a magical garden -- against an azure sky. Oliver, as he was gazing and the slightly epicene figure, remarked, with feeling, "How beautiful! A youth blossoming into womanhood!"

Lest you think Herford denigrated the venerable St. Nicholas magazine, he, too, submitted a drawing. With this result:

As a young illustrator, he once sold a picture of a two-horned rhinoceros (with an appropriate verse) to Wiliam F. Clarke, the editor of St. Nicholas. Herford had asked $35 for his double feature. When a check arrived for only $25, he borrowed the drawing from a clerk at the magazine and removed one of the horns from the rhinoceros. "I could not," he said, "in justice to an animal doubly favored by God, permit him to be thus humiliated."

I'm curious, now to read more of Crowninshield's stuff. But as my policy is to read only the books I can find at thrift stores, library sales and on the side of the road, I don't know how successful I'll be. Time will tell.