Mark Twain’s 19 Rules Governing Literary Art

From Twain’s brutally funny essay on Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses in the Deerslayer series. I thought of this essay on Saturday at the Brandywine River Museum, standing in front of one of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Deerslayer. Here’s the beginning of the essay; I’ll put the link to the whole piece at the bottom. It was written in 1895, so please put his cultural references in that historical context.

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There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

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You can read the entire essay online here

Grammar in the real world

So, I got an email this week that was just incredibly hostile, a pointed personal attack written in a strange and strained, passive voice, 3rd person construction. In describing it to someone else, I jokingly referred to its construction as the “3rd person insultive” case.

And I liked that—both because the humor relieved some of the awful sick feeling of it, and because it seemed true. So now I’m wondering what other constructions of grammar we’ve experienced. I’ll start making a list of mine, with suggested definitions. Please add to it as you discover your own!

-3rd person insultive—a personal attack written in the passive, third person “some people have been”

-1st person past invective interrogatory—a verb form of regret and/or anger, used when reviewing something that happened which, in light of what has happened since, has become enraging, hurtful, or distasteful, as in “damn it, why didn’t see that coming?” or “fuck, I should have known when she….” or the infamous “Jesus H. Christ, I can’t believe I let myself do that for her.”

-1st person aggressive—denotes the out of control use of “I feel” statements, or when these statements are used to dominate a person or group or control the outcome of a decision

-future empirical—used most often by remote, “scientific” voices calmly explaining that Y must and will happen because of X and because That Is The Way Of The World

-2nd person past imperative— the verb form embodied by “You should have!”


-1st person past regretative
—as in “I should have!”

2nd person passive-aggressive infinitive—as in “If you are going to disagree with me then there is nothing to be done/said.”

from Karen Escovitz:

-2nd person hostile projective—in which the person slings insults or accusations which are more true of themselves than the identified target

-passive accusatory—used most often by batterers, bad parents, and State Departments, as in “why do you go on making me hurt you?

-past perfect mind fuckative—where the person distorts things in such a persuasive way that it leaves you disoriented and questioning your understanding of reality (usually 1st or 2nd person?)

-2nd person victim blamative accusatory—as in “you let people take advantage of you” or “if you hadn’t been there in the first place, maybe that wouldn’t have happened”

from Sheila Allen Avelin:

-2nd-person accusatory interrogative— “How could you?”

from Adina Abramowitz:

-2nd person I know you better than you do—As in “You always . . .” used to escalate arguments, as in “you always make a mess” or “You always leave the toothpaste cap off.

from Alicia Ostriker:

-2nd person aggressive interrogative—as in “Why are you frowning?”, “Did you finish the cleanup?”, “Are you sorry?”, “Where were you?”

from Jenn Sheffield:

3rd person exculpatory—a point argued using someone else’s purported opinion to protect oneself, as in “Well, some people would say that being gay is a cop-out.” (Yes, a former teacher said this to me when I first came out to her. And I wasn’t quite with-it enough to rejoin, “But do YOU think so?” So it was a completely hypothetical argument.)

from Naomi Klayman

First Person Whinative—as in “How come I never get to … ?”(often used by small children and adults acting like small children)

Pluperfect Shithead—as in someone who accuses: “if you had only taken a minute to think about it you would have (done it my way)!” Purpose is to humiliate instead of empower.

3rd person future reclaimative—when someone says something intended to hurt you but ends up giving you the opportunity to be creative – much to their dismay.

2nd person silent pejorative eyeroll—as in, well, you know exactly what this means

from Layney Wells

1st person dismissive—as in “I’m sorry you feel that way…..But” Also known as 1st person false sympathy underminitive

and, growing from this, Elliott adds:

1st person self-justifying conjuctive— the use of the word “but” to reveal the hidden agenda, which is always to offer a clause of false sympathy or agreement and then to reveal the true intention of the speech, to say why you are wrong and the speaker is correct, such as “I’m sorry you were hurt BUT I told you so” or “Wow, that sucks BUT I think you kind of deserved it because…..” (note-while violence is never a justifiable solution, this use of the word “but” does make me want to do anything to the speaker that will make them stop talking)

from Jennie Ruby

passive sarcastic imperative—as in, “Yeah, that’ll get done.”

snortative absolute— as in, “Harumph.”

New work workshop — in progress, slow slow progress

Hey all—this morning was my first new work workshop. We wrote to prompts, twenty minutes per topic, then hauled everything to our rooms. Tomorrow we are to appear with a somewhat finished project. I’m working on the first prompt, a 12 line poem, with four lines in meter of some kind, that combines a dream image we discussed (for me, flying) with one real but dream-like experience (for me, snorkeling along when a bull sea lion came swimming up along me). I’ll be rewriting this thing all night. If you want to see how this does or doesn’t happen, tune in. And chime in, as I’d love your thoughts.

The Sea Lion Bull draft 2

Flying is only a matter of matter
released from gravity’s predisposition.
Who was that creature, single common ancestor
of condor and whale? How did its astounding bulk
float? Was gravity less in Earth’s youth, all levity
and play before the weight of battleships
and bombers conquered conviction?

At 44, a balanced age, a huge pale sausage
in neoprene casing, flying through warm wet teal
when all lithe ton of him shadowed me, neither
food nor threat. Peering, appeasing curiosity
then diving to where I could not follow.

______________________________________________

The Sea Lion Bull
draft 3

Flying is only a matter of matter
released from gravity’s predisposition.
I dream a common ancestor of condor
and whale, its astounding bulk floating
grace. Gravity was less in Earth’s
youth, all levity before the weight
of battleships and bombers conquered conviction.

At 44, a balanced age, a huge pale sausage
in neoprene casing, flying through warm wet teal
when all lithe ton of him shadowed me, neither
food nor threat. Peering, appeasing curiosity
then diving to where I could not follow.

_____________________________________

The Sea Lion Bull
draft 4

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
Dreaming a common ancestor of condor
human, and whale, astounding bulk, floating grace
Gravity in Earth’s youth was less
all levity and play before the weight
of battleships and bombers civilized conviction

No longer young, a huge pale sausage in neoprene casing,
soaring via warm wet aqua, his lithe ton shadows me, muscles
frozen rubber—how prey feels—yet I want him to embrace me, dare
the bulk of that body against mine I roll an awkward turn to him
He dives to where I cannot follow

________________________________________

The Sea Lion Bull
draft 5

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
dreaming a common ancestor of condor
human, and whale, such astounding bulk, floating
grace in gravity was less in Earth’s youth
levity the law before the weight of
battleships and bombers civilized conviction.

Not close to young, an immense pale sausage in neoprene casing,
soaring in warm aqua, his lithe ton shadows me, muscles frozen
rubber—how prey feels—still I want him to embrace me, feel the mass
of that body against this mammal flesh. I reach my unwebbed fingers to him.
He dives to where I cannot follow.

___________________________________

damn, here it is, 12:50 a.m., me desperate for sleep, when another rewrite forced me back to the page and keyboard.

The Sea Lion Bull
draft 6

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
a dream of a common ancestor of condor
human, and whale, astounding bulk, floating
grace—gravity was less in Earth’s youth
levity the law before the weight of
battleships and bombers slaughtered supposition.

Not close to young, an immense pale sausage in neoprene casing,
soaring in warm aqua, shadowed by a black, lithe ton, muscles frozen
rubber—how prey feels—yet this mammal flesh considers the mass of his body,
yearns for some ancestral embrace. I reach my unwebbed fingers to him.
He dives to where I cannot follow.

______________________________

The Bull Sea Lion
draft 8

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
a dream of a common ancestor of condor,
human, and whale, astounding bulk, floating
grace—gravity was less in Earth’s youth
levity the law before the weight of
battleships and bombers slaughtered presumption

Not close to young, a selchie in her neoprene skin, soaring
in warm aqua, shadowed by a black, lithe ton,
muscles frozen rubber—how prey feels—
yet this mammal flesh considers the mass of his body,
yearns for some ancestral embrace

I reach my unwebbed fingers to him

He dives to where I cannot follow

The Pale Sausage in Neoprene Casing

The Pale Sausage in Neoprene Casing

how poems come

how poems come
Elliott batTzedek

For myself, a poem emerges by itself, like something developing in a dark place.
Fanny Howe, “Bewilderment”

someone has taken a photo, photos, has not wound the film forward all the way, or too far, imprinting overlapping, underlapping, multiple exposures, images piling up, separated, blank space blank space blank space normal human turned devil-eyed by the flash

someone has taken photos and handed me the camera

i studied photography for two months in high school, which was a long time ago or maybe never but i take the camera and go into the dark room

dark has a smell and it is chemical and acrid and wet and anticipation and frustration and elation and oh the sorrow of the lost century that digital has no dark and no dark smell

that i go into because someone has handed me the camera. i have some experience and some control and some likelihood and no patience none at all so maybe they took a great photo, maybe it was the best photo ever taken and if so, why the fuck did they trust the film to me? i’m just a poet and seeing my life so far i wouldn’t trust me with a great truth because the image is only as good as the filter and, honestly, i suck as a screen, i like to live with all the doors and windows open and dirty laundry hanging everywhere

because washing clothes is not a priority, i’d rather be in the dark

where much to my surprise, and with my gratitude or my unwarranted and unlicensed and gossamer cock-sure arrogance, a real stunner comes out of that liquid bath from time to time. Shadow and light, time and eternity, detail and universe, I and thou, word and sound, so balanced that just for a flash unbalanced ceases to be possible.

“You must have shadow and light source both, listen, listen.” Damn mystics, damn poets, damn darkness that i want more than i want anything because hunkering down and bending over and peering through the wet veil while praying one sharp image will develop is the most devotion-like motion in my muscles’ memory.

Give me the camera, give me the damn camera already, i can promise you nothing but oh

oh how i will serve you if you just keep the cameras coming

a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in the schools?

Annie Get Your Gun
Fifth in a series of eight manifestos.

by D.A. Powell

The thing about sardines when you buy them in a can: they are fairly uniform in size and in flavor; their individual identities have disappeared into the general fishiness of the soybean oil; their little bones have melted; their flesh has become a mass grave; they are fairly cheap and fairly consumable; and one forgets a sardine quickly after one has partaken of it.

But damn: don’t some people just love sardines? They’re convenient; they take no preparation time whatsoever; and, though a steady diet of them would probably be unhealthy in the long run, they are—in the short term—a pretty safe snack. They’re snacky. They aren’t lox, but they aren’t cat food. They are the middle of an ocean swimming with possibilities.

Sardines school. Yet, despite their defensive strategy of hiding behind one another, millions of them get eaten. All that schooling does them nary a whit of good. And yet, they still join, instinctually, each one believing that it’s some other poor pilchard who’ll be devoured.

I don’t know that artists and poets join schools for quite the same reason that sardines do. Sometimes there’s a true innovator in the bunch, sometimes they really do share some common misunderstandings about aesthetics, sometimes it just so happens that a bunch of really interesting people all shop at the same hat shop and they start to hang out and resemble one another and make little sandwiches. It can seem quite seductive to be associated with a school. Or to have a school from which one insistently distances oneself. Or even to found a school. But most of what makes a school truly interesting is what others say about it; not what it says about itself.

Is it the nature of beings to coalesce? I think sometimes that artists, like other lower forms of intelligence, want to “belong.” Or rather, that they want to not belong in some similar ways. They want to belong to the outside, and yet to be recognized by the inside. It’s a conundrum. Because, really, in order to belong to a school or a movement or a gang or a pod, you have to—whether you’re willing to think about it this way or not—move towards a “center.”

Maybe it’s peculiar to our time, in which actual schools (academies) proliferate and spawn, that we’re seeing so much centrism. What we need is more eccentrism. Who isn’t tired of the contemporary qua contemporary? Who isn’t bored by innovation for innovation’s sake? It has, sadly, become the mode du jour. Not even a school. A monocultural fish farm. An orchestra in which everyone is trying to solo at the same time. A tin of silvery bodies falling into place. I imagine that each of those fish must have thought it was going in a new direction. But all the other fishes got there at exactly the same time, and thus the great net encompassed them all.

Look, I like sardines. I probably like them better than most. But the time will come when all we have of the mighty oceans is canned fish. That’s the doomsayer in me. Shouldn’t there at least be a chance that I am wrong? Shouldn’t there be a greater variety of life, a greater variety of art, a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in the schools trying oh so hard to appear larger and more menacing than it is? Write a manifesto. Don’t you see that it’s too small to keep? Throw it back.

Lynda Barry on Why Writing and Typing are Different Things

from Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Go buy this book.

from pages 107-109. Her book is a graphic collage, so the sentences on the page are scattered, not in direct narrative prose. Translating it into only the words typed out loses a lot, but will give you a feel of the power she’s describing and transmitting.

Why write by hand? What is a hand? What is it connected to? What moves it?

A body in motion is moved by……

There is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something. Something physical we move like a pen, like a pencil. Something which is in motion ordinary motion like writing the alphabet. (Or you can tap your fingers 26 times on plastic buttons. This is motion but in the motion there are no variables).

The slowest way is the fastest way.

Being in motion for writing

I have found that writing by hand slowly is faster than a computer-way of doing it, though I know it’s not easy the way a computer is easy. Tapping a finger is not as complicated as making the original line the shape of a S.

Hand writing is an image left by a living being in motion. It cannot be duplicated in time or space. Only by being a being in motion can you know about it.

It’s so hard to do at first. It can make you feel crazy.

Different parts of the brain are used when we make an S by hand and more of the body than a finger tap and images seem to come from this kind of being in motion.

Wow. And yes – handwriting is actually drawing, making shape to represent a thought or image, translated first through spoken language, and through the filter of learned phonemic awareness. Typing is that at yet another distance, another translation, no more forming shapes but only directly recording.

I think that when more of us actually wrote, and we were stuck, we doodled—made shapes that we weren’t investing with recorded language, let our minds wander along the line—and that this served a really important purpose about opening up the mind. How do we do that, if at all, when typing? I know I sometimes start typing “blayh blah blaha blahah b” until more words come. If I stop typing all together, I go check email or facebook then the whole moment is lost.

I do know that are some poems that demand to be written by hand, even though the slow rate of making changes that way is very frustrating to me. I write fewer words by hand, everything is more sparse. Very little of my poetry could be described as “lyric,” but the pieces that are mainly started by hand.

Actually forming letters has a solidity to it, a weight, a process that physically moves through time, that takes time. And energy. And muscles and nerves and ligaments working in unbelievably complex ways.

Which, of course, I am typing to you about.

Lynda Barry on Images and Thoughts

from What It Is, her graphic/illustrated guide to writing. And living. And memoir. And art theory. This is an amazing book. Go buy it.

An image feels different than a thought. It feels somehow alive. If you say your first phone number out loud, you can feel something that is different than saying your phone number now. Thinking your first phone number and writing your first phone number and speaking it out loud are different experiences, but the image is the same. Can you picture where your first telephone was? (p. 34)

What do drawing, singing, dancing, music making, handwriting, playing, story writing, acting, remembering and even dreaming all have in common? They come about when a certain person in a certain place in a certain time arranges certain uncertainties into certain form. (p. 81)

Time + Place are always together. Why? Is imagination a time and a place? Where is your body, where is your mind, when you think? Does it go places? What is movement? Do thoughts move? When people are trying to remember something they often tap their fingers or touch their foreheads. Why does this kind of motion help us remember? Do images have motion? (pp 82-83)

An image is a place. Not a picture of a place, but a place in and of itself. You can move it it. It seems not invented but there for you to find. (p. 88)

What is a story before it becomes words? (p.44)

new work – On finding a kindred spirit in Sappho, then

On finding a kindred spirit in Sappho, then knowing too much anthropology to trust my own instincts Elliott batTzedek I have had not one word from her Frankly I wish I was dead Sappho (Barnard translation) Times change cultures change languages change but the human heart remains the same. As if! As if we don’t foolishly scrawl our ignorance across everything we encounter: Kilroy was here to claim that he knows that you are just like him. As if the world weren’t bigger than big "Shakespeare in the bush" and all that etc etc etc Maybe it is only this foolishness that stays the same: a need for analogy soldered to an evolutionary tangle reading into what we can’t remotely understand a meaning to feed our own need— the need of our time our culture our language, our heart.

New work up – Psalms and Piyyutim

I’m starting to upload a new section of work – more psalms about assorted subjects from my daily life, and piyyutim, or prayer poems. The latter are, so far, a genre I’m calling “collages,” poems created by weaving together words from many different poets to create one piece that is a kind of dialogue about a topic between writers of very different eras and languages. I have two of these so far, one with ocean images, and one with river images (I’m a Pisces, whaddya want from me??). I plan to have more over the next few months.

For reasons unknown, I can’t get wordpress to make a new tab for this section at the top of my home page, so you can find it here:Psalms and Piyyutim