Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 04, 2002
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Corrections, Snow Dogs, and Prepositions
Correcting "The Corrections"
Jonathan Franzen is the poster child for what's wrong with the English department of the
You remember Franzen. He's the fellow who, when Oprah loved his book "The
Corrections" and chose it for her book club, made disparaging comments that showed his disdain
for Oprah and the kind of people who read the books she promotes.
Oprah, being a person of considerable class, politely withdrew the invitation to appear on
her show, since it had been making him so "uncomfortable." Then how he backpedaled! No one
had told the poor fellow he couldn't have his Oprah and spit on her, too!
I can't give a full-fledged review of "The Corrections" because about a third of the way
through I realized life was too short, and the remaining space in my brain too limited, for me to
devote any more of my hours or my memory to this empty book.
Besides, hadn't I already read it many times? It was like so many other flamboyantly bad
stories written in graduate school by talented students who think that the first obligation of a
writer is to have a style and an attitude, while the actual events of the tale are merely a sop tossed
to the groundlings.
Franzen grossly misunderstands the tools of the trade. Having been taught that metaphors
are good, he forgets which metaphors are in a character voice and which are purely narrative.
While writing within the point of view of a character who could not possibly have thought of the
metaphor Franzen uses, Franzen then has the character elaborate endlessly on the metaphor, until
there are metaphors about metaphors about metaphors.
Thus the author loses his grip on just what it was he was trying to say before he got
caught up in the rapture of contemplating his own cleverness.
Bad writing is not a crime, however. What finally sickened me so much I had to stop
reading was Franzen's English-department sneer.
Every English department has professors with this attitude. They claim to be liberals who
love the common man -- but then they sneer at people who shop at Walmart or at malls, people
who like popcorn movies, people who read King or Clancy, Grisham or Krantz.
You know -- the common people, the ones they "care" about.
The best example of a movie with this attitude is the execrable "Home for the Holidays,"
a Holly Hunter/Robert Downey Jr. vehicle several years ago that actively hated every character in
it who was trying to lead a decent, considerate life. It was obvious the moviemakers thought the
two leading characters were somehow better than the others -- but never got around to showing
Just like that movie, Franzen's "Corrections" clearly despises all its characters. Every
character's foibles are treated like major crimes against nature; every decent action is shown to
have some vile or stupid ulterior motive. And apparently he thinks his writing about them is so
devilishly witty we really ought to laugh.
Until it becomes clear that this is yet another novel by one of those identically "unique"
souls who adopt their English professors' disdain for the very middle class from which they suck
their livelihood and to which they dare not admit they still belong.
I wouldn't mind meeting the characters from his novel. It's the author I wouldn't want to
have lunch with. Sneering elitists take away my appetite.
I saw the promos with the silly talking dogs and the madcap slapstick and decided I'd sit
through "Shallow Hal" before I saw this movie.
But I have a seven-year-old and so it was "Snow Dogs" for me. And guess what -- it's
fun and nowhere near as dumb as the trailer indicated. The writing even has a little bite to it.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is so charmingly real that it becomes rather a sweet movie, and it gave
me a lump in my throat to see James Coburn still able to dominate a screen despite his arthritis-crippled hands. Good for him, and good for us!
Orson Dangles Prepositions
Back in the days when a child's schooling was rooted in learning Latin grammar, there
grew an idea that Latin was a "pure" language and English a mere corrupt vernacular.
Therefore, the more closely English could be made to resemble Latin, the "better" it
would be as a language of philosophy and discourse.
We are still plagued with some of the rules that were misapplied to English in those days.
For instance, in Latin one simply cannot end a sentence with a preposition. That's why
they're called "pre-positions" -- they had to be placed before the noun they modified. Naturally,
we soon had a rule that "good" English must never end sentences with prepositions, either.
But English isn't Latin.
We form new words all the time by compounding them out of older words. And the
commonest way we form compound verbs is by adding prepositions to the ends of them.
The sentence, "He just doesn't fit in that group" used to be a regular usage of the verb
"fit" -- "in" was part of a prepositional phrase. But that usage grew so common that the
preposition "in" became tied to the end of the verb, forming a new compound verb: "fit in."
Now it became perfectly valid to say, "I don't want to go, I just don't fit in."
The maniacal latinate rulemongers would slap you silly for ending a sentence with "in."
Such cheek! As if the language were yours to use as you like!
Well, actually, while it may not be yours or mine, it certainly is ours, to change as we
change it and use as we use it.
"Sit" is not the same verb as "sit down" or "sit up" or "sit in," nor is "ask" the same thing
as "ask out," "ask over," or "ask in." "Beg" is not "beg off"; "shine" is not "shine on."
"Get along." "Get along with." "Get in with." "Get out." "Get out of." And the
extravagant "Get out from under." (As in, "I have debts I'll never get out from under.")
"Put up," "put up with," "put out," "put over," and "put under."
"Set up," "set up with," "set out," "set in," and "set on."
Work out: "Our relationship just isn't going to work out." "I'm going to the gym to
Work over: "From his bruises I'd say he got a real working over."
"That's a date you need to get out of" is perfectly good English, as are "We came in and
sat down" and "He's not the kind of man you can easily get along with."
"That's an annoyance you shouldn't have to put up with" is not improved by changing it
to "That's an annoyance up with which you shouldn't have to put" solely to obey some silly
How would you change "How are you getting along?" to keep from ending the sentence
with "along"? "Along how are you getting?" "As to along, how are you getting it?" "If you are
getting along, how?" All ranging from awkward to execrably bad English.
We so love our compound verbs that "hiccough" (pronounced and sometimes spelled
"hiccup"), which was never a compound, is often treated like one. "Of course when she tried to
kiss me I was hiccing up."
Latin can't do any of this. I think that makes English more flexible and expressive, more
powerful and, yes, sophisticated.
It also makes English far more adaptable. We make new words all the time without even
Good English makes bad Latin. So what? Latin is dead.