The Role of the Novel in a World of Lies

reading, apple

photo: Greg Myers, creative commons license

Last week Sir Salman Rushdie gave a humor-laced talk to a packed house at Princeton University, on a topic of profound interest to every writer and reader. In the old days, say two hundred years ago, one purpose of the novel was to “bring people the news,” he said. People who read novels learned about issues they had no direct experience or knowledge of: Charles Dickens and the exploitation of children, the impact of indifferent schooling, and the depredations of the poor-house; Harriet Beecher Stowe and slavery. (Rushdie repeated the apocryphal comment of Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war!”)

Today, with so many media outlets providing so many opportunities for people to get news, that purpose for novels has been supplanted. At the same time, “we,” he said—possibly meaning Princetonians, Americans, or citizens of the world—are more suspicious of the news we get. The attack on truth has gained traction because people are disillusioned with the news media; accusations of “fake news” fall on receptive ears. This, he agrees, is a dangerous development for the republic.

So what can literature do? “Should we be writing fiction when the world is full of lies?” he asked. While you can anticipate his answer, he gets there in an interesting way. He points to the Pakistani genocide of the educated class in Bangladesh shortly before the latter country’s independence, a well documented episode routinely denied by Pakistan. You may be reminded of the Armenian genocide, and the persistent Holocaust deniers. In writing about events such as that which occurred in Bangladesh, which is in Rushdie’s living memory, even “the act of remembering is politicized.” The difference between this world of lies and the novel, is that “fiction tells you it’s a lie.”

I’m watching the superb televersion of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and I find it so disturbing, so seemingly possible. Even though its underlying truth resonates, I know it flows from a work of fiction—something made up—and that it is not a reflection of objective reality as the purveyors of alt.right dogma contend with their false fictions.

Over many generations, artists (and scientists) find themselves in frequent conflict with politicians because “politicians want to control the narrative.” The more authoritarian they are, the more control they want.

Here he did not explicitly describe Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for his death, issued after publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, but that dramatic episode was clearly on the minds of his audience. (In case you’ve forgotten, Rushdie went into hiding for a few years, and a further fatwa against anyone involved in the novel’s publication apparently resulted in the murder of his translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, and assassination attempts against the book’s Italian translator and its Norwegian publisher, while its Turkish translator was a likely target in an arson attack that resulted in 37 deaths.)

The current crisis in America, he said, arises out of the desire not just to control the narrative, but to totally rewrite it. The recent threats to defund the arts and public broadcasting were transparently not based on the politicians’ stated aim—cost-cutting, which was dubious on its face, since in the federal budget context, these programs are miniscule—but on a much more fundamental hostility to the arts and artistic expression.

In the end, Rushdie said, it is the arts that help us understand the culture of the past: how do we know what went on generations and millennia ago absent the writing, paintings, sculpture, architecture, and other artistic expressions of those former times? While the authorities may control the present, artists’ legacy controls what future generations will think of us.

WEDNESDAY: Rushdie and the Role of the Novelist

Cliff-Hangers: Learning from the Masters

Harold Lloyd, cliff-hangerLast Friday’s quick tips about writing cliff-hangers can help keep your reader immersed in your story. Today, here’s some of what we can learn from the masters. (Sources listed below). The Victorian novelists who published serials—like Charles Dickens—had to create chapter endings that would bring readers back the next week or month. The successful ones became experts at it.

  • Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar (her infant child) within her arms, the (dying) mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world. Not: “She was dead.” By referencing the common fate of mankind, Dickens allies readers with the dying mother. Even in death, there is action; she is clinging and drifting.
  • And there, with an aching void in his young heart, and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, and the upholsterer were never coming. Not: “What in the world was he going to do now?” Dickens gives Paul’s common dilemma an engaging and memorable treatment through a specific visual image, a metaphor for loneliness.
  • The Judge, whose eyes had gone in the general direction, recalled them, leaned back in his seat, and looked steadily at the man whose life was in his hand, as Mr. Attorney-General rose to spin the rope, grind the axe, and hammer the nails into the scaffold. Not: “Pronouncing a death sentence was never easy for him.” Dickens injects images of action, albeit fanciful—spinning, grinding, and hammering—into the reader’s mind. He doesn’t just describe the Judge’s passive mental activities: “pondering, contemplating, assessing.”
  • I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more. Not: “Pip tossed and turned all night.” Dickens lets you know something about Pip’s future here, but again, it is not all in his head, it’s tied to the physical reality of the light and the bed. It’s saying goodbye to childhood.

These are moments of high drama and great resonance with the reader. They are integral to the tale, not tacked-on contrivances. Note how specific they are. They contain physical actions, not just thoughts and feelings. And paradoxically, by being so specific, they achieve universality.

Modern writers don’t employ Dickens’s florid language, but they still can achieve an organic approach to cliff-hangers. By organic, I mean an ending that grows out of the story and gives it somewhere to go.

  • They respected him, stopped watching him all the time. But he never stopped watching them. (This plants a seed of menace and tells readers something important about the character.)
  • Ma snorted, her nose and chin almost meeting as she screwed up her face. “How can you sit there and look Ruth in the eye and say you searched the dale? You’ve not been near the old lead mine workings.” (Up next: lead mine workings.)
  • “You’re not a monster. Well, except when you wake up with a hangover. It’ll be fine, George,” Anne soothed him. “It’s not as if the past holds any surprises, is it?” (An almost painful foreshadowing.)

There’s a vast difference between this last example and the weak one cited previously (“she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered”). In the negative example, the author is simply reports a conclusion—head-work—of the protagonist. If readers have been paying attention to the story, they’ve already reached this same conclusion. And, if not, well, there are bigger problems . . .

By contrast, McDermid’s characters are engaged in conversation (action, not reflection). Their statements propel the story forward; readers know what the characters next will do (explore the lead mine workings) or be (surprised). They react with an Aha! Or even Uh-oh.

Don’t destroy your cliff-hanger’s value of by using it to tell readers what they already know. Let them run on out ahead of you. That’s what makes reading fun.

Sources:

The Dickens quotes, in order are from: Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 1, Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 11, A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, end Chapter 2, and Great Expectations, Chapter 18.

The modern quotes, are from: Bill Beverly, Dodgers, end Chapter 18; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, Part 1, end Chapter 13; Ibid., Book 2, Part 1, end Chapter 3.

Cliff-Hangers: Making Them Work

Harold Lloyd, clock, cliff-hanger

photo: Insomnia Cured Here, creative commons license

Mystery and thriller writers are often advised to end chapters with a cliff-hanger to propel the reader forward through the narrative, to create those page-turners, to make them read “just one more chapter.” Writing cliff-hangers sounds like one of the easier bits of lore to follow, but it can be deceptively difficult to write good ones.

Simple Guidelines

  • Don’t repeat the same formula too often, like asking a question—Would the police arrive in time?  (I’d advise almost never using a question, but that’s me.)
  • Remember that something that sounds compelling to you, embroiled as you are in the fates of your characters, can come across as ho-hum obvious to the reader. In a new thriller about the search for a serial killer, one chapter ends with the head police investigator saying, “We have to find him.” Well, duh.
  • Include a hint of what’s to come. This can be done well or, in this case, badly: “As she stood alone on the once tranquil country lane, she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered.” That’s the author strolling into the scene and explaining. Reader responds, “I hope so. This is a thriller!”
  • A good general rule to write on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen is this, then: never be cheesy. If you find you’ve written a cliffhanger that’s no more than a transparent attempt to ramp up the tension, better to delete it. I’ve jettisoned plenty of them.

Origins

Although the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have you think differently, Dickens did not invent the term cliff-hanger (though he certainly used the technique). That honor goes to Thomas Hardy, whose serialized novel A Pair of Blue Eyes left protagonist Henry Knight hanging off a cliff, from whence he reviewed the history of the world.

Because Charles Dickens also serialized his novels, with people in England mobbing the newsstands and Americans clamoring for arriving ships to unload the publications containing the next chapters, I figure he knew a thing or two about writing an effective cliff-hanger, one that would kindle enough interest in readers to last a week or even longer. If you have any Dickens lying around, check him out or wait until my next post (There, a cliff-hanger with a hint of what’s to come).

Monday: Examples of effective cliff-hangers, past and present.

Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Data journalist Ben Blatt has used his quantitative approach to analyzing classic novels and 20th century best-sellers to test whether some of the common advice writers receive is reflected in successful books. (Yesterday, I reported some of his findings about differences in writing by and about men and women.)

Numerous authorities—most notably, Stephen King—advise against using –ly adverbs. King goes so far as to say the road to hell is paved with them. Instead, these authorities say, find a more robust verb that can carry your meaning on its own, unaided. Blatt’s example is, instead of “He ran quickly,” say, “He sprinted.” Saves words too.

As it turns out, Blatt’s research reveals that more accomplished writers do tend to rely on good strong verbs instead of adverbial modifiers. In a chart, he shows that Hemingway used 80 –ly adverbs per 10,000 words, where as E.L James (author of the 50 Shades books) used almost twice as many, 155 per 10,000. Here’s one of hers: “Mentally girding my loins, I head into the hotel.” A bit hard to visualize there.

Another precept Blatt tested was Elmore Leonard’s avoid-the-banal advice: “Never open a book with weather.” Yet best-seller Danielle Steele starts her books with weather about half the time (46 percent), and even Leonard has done it, maybe twice in 45 novels. By contrast, many literary authors (Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and others) never do so, across dozens of books.

Parlor Game

Here’s a parlor game for you, based on Blatt’s findings (his book has many more). What are the three favorite words of these authors? Can any of your erudite friends come close?

  • Jane Austen
  • Truman Capote
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • K. Rowling
  • Mark Twain

And here are the answers: JA (civility, fancying, imprudence); TC (clutter, zoo, geranium—bet you didn’t get that one!); EH (concierge, astern, cognac); JKR (wand, wizard, potion); and MT (hearted, shucks, satan).

You can order the books below (affiliate link):

Further Delight

While researching this article, I ran across this fun list of 100 Exquisite Adjectives.

Women (and Men) Just Don’t Do That (in Books)

whispering

Muttering and Murmuring – photo: Lexe-l, creative commons license

Excerpts from an entertaining new book by Ben Blatt, self-styled “data journalist,” are appearing all over the place. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve summarizes much fascinating research he’s done with a pile of literary classics and 20th century best sellers on one hand and a computer on the other.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) tackles the question of whether men and women characters in books behave differently. The short answer is “yes.”

Authors are more likely to use words like “grin” when speaking about male characters and more likely to use the tamped-down “smile” when referring to females. Men shout, and chuckle; women scream, shriek, and shiver. Sometimes a male character may scream (under extreme torture, I suppose), but he would never shriek! As IRL, men are more likely to murder. Female characters murmur; male ones mutter.

Blatt uses his database of novels to expose authors’ general writing patterns and writing trends over time. Based strictly on the numbers, here are some of his results, which I’ve culled from stories on Smithsonian.com and NPR:

  • Men and women authors write differently, with men much more likely to use clichés (Compare best-seller James Patterson—160 clichés per 100,000 words—to Jane Austen—45)
  • Well worth further exploration and perhaps years of psychoanalysis is the finding that male authors are more likely than females to write that a woman character “interrupted”
  • Ditto to the finding that male authors describe their female characters as kissing more often than their male characters (“she kissed him”), and for female authors, it’s the male characters who do the kissing (“he kissed her”).

Tomorrow:  Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

Change and Emotion Spark Your Novel, and Voice Carries It

Greg Beaubien

Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author

Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.

To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.

What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.

The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.

Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”

Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.

A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.

Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.

More about target word length?

These helpful articles from Writer’s Digest and the Manuscript Appraisal Agency delve into great detail about length targets for different book genres.

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short: Part 2

red pencil, grammar, comma

photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license

Authors of crime/thriller/mystery novel have to keep track of a lot. They must develop those pesky clues, forge a logic chain with no missing links, and avoid too-convenient coincidences. They must convey everything readers need to know without actually giving the punch line away or making it irritatingly obvious information is being withheld. No wonder early drafts of a book can be full of problems!

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the common plot and character pitfalls (the “thinking” pitfalls) I find in the dozens of crime/thriller/mystery novels  I review each year. This post concentrates on typical problems found in the actual writing.

Writing Pitfalls (the Biggest Ones)

  • Clichés in language and gesture – at least five chapters in a recently-read thriller ended with a character setting his/her mouth/jaw in a firm line. Using a cliché to express a thought is a writer’s shortcut. While certain characters may speak in clichés, if that’s their thing, narratives should struggle for freshness. That helps characters and settings feel unique, not like cardboard cutouts.
  • Unartful explanations—Readers often need background information—about politics, finance, weapons, a character’s training, whatever—but indigestible chunks of it that read like a resume or briefing paper feel amateurish. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Smith,” is hardly better.
  • Over-explaining – Example: A Chinese scientist who’s volunteered to become a CIA source explains to an agent how his country’s government has hurt “many people who deserve better,” including his father. The agent immediately thinks, “His motivation appeared to be revenge for his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese government.” Duh. Then, in case the reader doesn’t get it yet, the author continues with what is actually a very good way of underscoring the point (good because it adds new information, the agent’s judgment): “He’d take revenge as a motivator any day” and explains why. This would have been just fine if that clunky over-explanation were edited out.
  • Mixed or inept metaphors – Example: “Trying to learn the ropes had XX feeling like a fish out of water.” I can’t picture that at all. Can you? Here’s a simple, effective one: “Out of [his police] uniform he just looked like an impatient kid waiting for his father.” I see this clearly.
  • Ending each chapter with a cheesy cliffhanger. Example: “My God! XX thought. The Americans will never know what hit them.” Actually, in this book, they will. Here’s a better one: “She closes her book and shuts her eyes to look up at the sun, unaware of her two observers.” Menacing, not manipulative.
  • General sloppiness – I’ve said enough about typos in my book reviews. They suggest a lack of care. Here is other evidence of it: homonym problems (hoard instead of horde, rein instead of reign, desert instead of dessert, and on and on); changing the name of a person or place, but not catching all the uses of the original name (“find and replace,” please); and of course, distracting factual errors.
  • Lack of support matter – OK, maybe I’m crazy, but I believe quite a few thrillers would be improved by the inclusion of tailored supporting material. For example, maps that show the principal places mentioned in the novel (I admit to a pro-map bias here), lists of acronyms and abbreviations, especially for novels involving multiple international agencies, lists of characters and how they fit into the story, and so on. The goal should be to bring readers in to the circle of cognoscenti, not shut them out.

Working out the plot of a story and developing the characters involved are completely different tasks than effectively writing the whole thing down, and rushing into print rarely serves the material—or the reader—well. I hate to see a good plot ruined by weak presentation!

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short

reading, book

photo: Kamil Porembiński, creative commons license

Over the past 21 months, I’ve read and reviewed 62 crime novels and thrillers for crimefictionlover.com. While a number of them rise to greatness and many effectively get the job done, a surprising number were not ready for prime time, and a tiny number should have gone straight to the landfill. Many works fall short because author s believe their book is “done,” and it isn’t. Too often, I find myself saying, “Damn!—With a little more effort, this could have been soooo good.”

As a writer myself, I take into consideration the author’s hopes and effort, knowing it’s hard to see the flaws in one’s own children. That’s what editors are for. Yet, the acknowledgements pages of poor books often heap extravagant praise on their editors, whom I envision curled up under their desks, weeping. Authorial intentions aside, my primary obligation is to potential readers. Will readers’ limited reading time be well invested if they pick up this particular book?

The common problems in crime/thriller books I’ve read recently fit into two overlapping categories: pitfalls in thinking (mostly related to plot and character), listed below, and pitfalls in writing. Thinking and writing problems are mutually reinforcing, since poor writing makes poor thinking more obvious. For those who respond to examples, I’ve included a few from “actual books.”

Thinking Pitfalls

  • Using increasingly gruesome torture and death methods (or a surfeit of comely young women/child victims) in the hope of sustaining reader interest. Bloodletting is easy; creating complex, unique, and engaging characters with grounded, understandable motivations is hard.
  • Mechanical problems—Where and when did stuff happen? Chris Roerden calls lack of clarity about the story timeline “crazy time,” and it drives readers crazy.
  • Galloping unreality—Example: after a big-city police chief spoke at a news conference, “several reporters broke into a round of applause.” Not any journalists I know. Another: two undercover CIA agents are scouting a computer research lab on a busy Chinese university campus. “‘That’s the building the lab’s in,’ XX said, pointing.” Pointing? And I don’t know how many times a bad guy has used a chloroform-soaked cloth to disable a victim, when a single moment of fact-checking would reveal this doesn’t work!
  • Technological non-fixes—Either using technology when it’s not needed just to sound cool, using it wrong (weapons, especially), or not using it at all–say, not picking up the phone to ask a simple question that would solve everything.
  • Lack of engagement—Some authors just want to sell books, often choosing the method describe in the first bullet, not provide the reader with a deeper, emotionally engaging experience. Crime/thrillers often appeal to the head, but the best ones capture the heart too. “When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it,” says Donald Maass.
  • Cheesy theorizing—When characters come up with premature but enthusiastically adopted explanations of what happened or whodunnit, readers know they are being misled.
  • Failure to answer all the plot questions—Did the author just forget a main character’s spouse mysteriously committed suicide? Did he forget the police psychologist dropped the case’s murder book on a city street? For that matter, why was he carrying it out of the office anyway? Big questions need answers.

Further Reading for Authors

Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

A Thin Gruel of Words

Do overused words run out of steam like a runner at the end of a marathon of meaning?  This Jonathon Sturgeon article from Flavorwire, lurking in my pile of “gems to re-read,” asks that question. It’s of renewed interest, in light of conflicting views on the robustness of the word “fact” and whether it means anything at all any more. A “fact” used to be something you could hang your hat on; now we’re all like Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

Humpty Dumpty

image: public domain

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master—that’s all.”

Sturgeon cites data on the use of four descriptive words with literary origins that have gone in and out of fashion over the decades: Quixotic and Byronic were used in the 1800s, with Quixotic peaking around the middle of that century and Byronic—a word I have never used—in the 1930s. In the 20th century, these two were joined by Orwellian—still the most popular—and Kafkaesque, both of which may be destined for increased use. (There’s no source cited for these data, so I can’t find out how they were compiled—probably by text analyzing software.)

Do words like these presuppose at least some passing knowledge of their origins? Presumably a person can understand that a quixotic effort is whimsical and doomed to failure or that an orwellian environment is “antiutopian” and “totalitarian,” as the dictionary would have it. Probably more people understand and use the word kafkaesque than have read—or want to read—The Trial. But do they lose their punch when applied too freely, as people believe the word “nazi” has, by being applied here, there, and everywhere?

Then Sturgeon asks a deeper question, one Humpty Dumpty would appreciate: “Do words mean what the dictionary says they mean, or do they gain meaning through the way we use them?” The answer, he says, is “both.” By using words where they only sort-of apply, their meaning expands, even to the point of meaninglessness.

“The idea that a word could lose its meaning because people use it is both funny and politically scary,” he says. “And so is the idea that a word could mean nothing at all.” I suppose the best way to guard against diluting the meaning of words must be our own vigilance in how we use them. Unless we want the word “fact” to mean just what the user chooses it to mean, we must guard it carefully.