Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pyramus and Thisby, or How We View Slang in Literature

You may recall the play-in-a-play, performed by the rude mechanics at the end of Midsummer Night's Dream, aptly described in their own words as 'The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.' These would-be actors, whose ability to express themselves is unabashedly mocked by their audience, are used by Shakespeare mainly for comic relief. The play they perform is merely a farce of the Romeo and Juliet love story. Why, you may ask? Because like most artists and playwrights of that era, the bard knew only too well that he ought to entertain and complement his patrons, the most important of which where members of the royal court. This is the reason that characters who speak in slang were nearly never placed center-stage, as the hero of the story. Such characters were portrayed as simpletons, and by no means were they given any depth of feeling. 

It was only later in the history of literature that characters of the lower class were taken seriously, and their point of view began to resonate, despite much controversy, with readers and theatre goers. For example, Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. And yet today, it is recognized as an American classic, giving voice to teenage confusion, angst, alienation and rebellion. I suggest to you that in even today, there are two clashing views about the use of slang-talking characters, one from those who see themselves as 'upscale, educated nobility'--and the other, the more 'democratic' one, from the rest of us.

Recently I was reminded of this clash, when I posted an excerpt from My Own Voice in Anita's voice. You would be hard-pressed to find a three-syllable word in anything she says. The lack of long words is compensated by descriptive sequence of short words (see the replacement for ‘magnifying glass’ below.) You can spot a liberal use of the dreaded double-negative, and of the word ‘like’. In the excerpt she describes the memory of her first kiss with Lenny. Some readers told me, tongue-in-cheek, that the would need a cold shower by the time she completes her story. But one reader found the style of the excerpt inconsistent. He complained that at times Anita is lyrical, and at other times her thoughts are expressed in slang.

As a side note, let me share a little secret with you: even though that reader rejected the excerpt on intellectual grounds (which he is entitled to do) he did get it on an intuitive level. How do I know this? Because the very same day I got a 'romantic' invitation from him to join a social network for setting up dates. So, Anita's hot description did its charm on him, and for some reason, he must have combined to two of us in his mind. I had a little chuckle about this, as did my loved one...

So I ask you: why can't a character combine both? Are we still bound to write for the Pyramus and Thisby audience? Even if your grammar is atrocious, even if your vocabulary is somewhat lacking, does that mean you can't feel the throes of pain, or the exhilaration of joy? Does it mean you can't paint what you see, feel and think? As you form your own answer, I invite you to sense the texture and the power of unrefined language, by listening to Anita's voice once more:

"What matters is only what’s here. I touch my skin right under my breasts, which is where the little one’s curled, and where he kicks, ‘cause he has to. Like, he don’t feel so cosy no more. Here, can you feel it? I reckon he wants me to talk to him. He can hear me inside, for sure. He can hear every note of this silvery music.
It ripples all around him, wave after wave. I can tell that it’s starting to sooth him. It’s so full of joy, of delight, even if to him, it’s coming across somewhat muffled. Like a dream in a dream, it’s floating inside, into his soft, tender ear.
I close my eyes and hold myself, wrapping my arms real soft—around me around him—and I rock ever so gently, back and forth, back and forth, with every note of this silvery marvel. You can barely hear me—but here I am, singing along. I’m whispering words into myself, into him."

“A very passionate book! Gripping, riveting, and fascinating!”


  1. Every time you include an excerpt from the book with your insightful posts, I want to re-read Apart From Love. That bears testimony to the authenticity of your characters.

    I grew up in a family of academicians who demanded grammatical perfection. I was also taught that only ignorant people use incorrect grammar, and that "those people" were not worthy of my attention. How wrong my parents were!

    Surrounded by people who consider themselves superior because their advanced college degrees (doctorates) serve as proof, or because their IQ scores are high, I discovered that everyone's intelligence is like Swiss cheese. We all have holes, vacancies, inconsistencies.

    Emotional intelligence cannot be taught. Anita was born with an uncanny ability to feel her way through complex situations. Her intuitive, instinctive abilities are extraordinary. She thinks with her heart, and her words reflect that as part of her nature.

    Some of the smartest people I've known in my life are uneducated, as defined by academics. I've also known some extremely ignorant highly educated people. Anita is compelling because she is complex and yes, inconsistent. Most people do their very best to hide their inconsistencies, even from themselves. Rigorous self-honesty is so rare, and Anita won my heart, because she's not afraid to say what is true (for her.) Her eloquence comes out of that purity.

    1. "We all have holes, vacancies, inconsistencies"--how beautifully and honestly said! Thank you, Marcia! I find it so interesting that both perspectives are often present in the same family. Yours, as you describe it, is the perfect example, and so is the family in Apart From Love. Lenny represents the 'patrician' perspective, Anita--the 'plebeian' one. That makes for an explosive contrast, which drives the story.

  2. It's usually a mistake to instantly equate intelligence, sensitivity, perception, or ability with a particluar type of educated expression. We can be so bigoted when we do, can't we? Yet someone like your Anita, or Toni Morrison's character Sethe, from Beloved, can speak more eloquently than the average American college graduate, giving us the touching and important details of their story in words that grip us forever.

    1. Well put, Heavy Hedonist! Indeed, why can't some people see that pain, longing, and love are a non-exclusive, shared human experience? We can find these emotions expressed in a wide spectrum of character types, as you have just mentioned. So if we listen for it, the simple act of listening truly opens the mind.

  3. What the reader found 'inconsistent' may have more to do with the way an excerpt casts a kind of magnifying glass on narrative that makes something seem glaring in a way it might not when the bigger picture of the novel is taken into account. To be human is to be complex. A good novel reflects that.

    1. Thank you Deborah! So glad you came by. You're right about the magnifying glass effect. Still, I've heard this point of view before--not only about my heroine Anita, but for other works of fiction; which is why I felt compelled to take a closer look at it.