Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Jonathan Franzen and his zombie figures of speech

Like people, figures of speech age, get tired, and eventually die. Just as zombies continue to mimic life without actually being alive, dead figures of speech are no longer part of the living language, but they often continue to shamble along, what vitality they may still have leaking away with each repeated usage. The more we hear them, the less they mean. Call them zombie figures of speech.

"To "have skin in the game" is a perfect example. This usage proliferated in the last decade, especially in the business press; it peaked well before the financial crash, and has trailed off ever since to its status as overused business-speak. Originally it referred to the principal in a business or enterprise having a stake in its success because they made a financial investment in it. This was taken to be a good thing, though the crash showed that this wasn't always necessarily true. The expression has been widely attributed to Warren Buffet, but William Safire debunked this in 2006.

Like zombies expanding their domain, the meaning of to "have skin in the game" has gradually expanded beyond the merely financial. It's now often used to indicate a real commitment to anything one is doing. But it's a tired, clich├ęd way of putting it. George Orwell talked aout this in "Politics and the English Language."
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. 
Orwell summarizes this in a short rule: "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." It's one of those rules that's honored more often in the breach than in the observance, since most of us talk on autopilot most of the time and "prefabricated phrases" so readily come tripping off the tongue.

Still, it's something conscientious writers and copy editors try to weed out. That's why it was so surprising to see a meticulous prose stylist like Jonathan Franzen using the same zombie figure of speech twice in the same interview in the last Sunday Times Book Review.
I like fiction by writers engaged in trying to make sense of their lives and of the world in which they find themselves, writers who palpably have skin in the game . . . 
Most books I pick up I put down without finishing, either because the writing is weak or feels false, or because I sense an absence of skin in the game.
Perhaps Franzen has been reading too much business writing to prepare for his next work. Most likely it just goes to show how easy it is for zombie phrases to ensnare the best of us. They're all around us.

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