August 19, 2006

Concreteness blindness.

There's a writing defect that I'm going to call "concreteness blindness" because I don't know if there is an established term for it. I got to thinking about it when I read this sentence in a somewhat interesting article about the pre-fame life of the loser/monster who has confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey. And I apologize in advance for the bad taste of using material from this disturbing story to talk about language usage.

Here's the sentence:
From his tiny, rusted balcony, Karr could crane his neck to the right and watch Bangkok's choked traffic snake along a highway.
"Crane" and "snake" are perfectly ordinary verbs as used to express what the neck and the traffic did. In fact, necks crane and traffic snakes so often in writing that you could complain they're too trite to use. So this is certainly not abnormal word choice. It's solidly idiomatic. The problem is that you've got two animals in one sentence, and a reader who is in touch with the concrete image behind these very ordinary verbs might -- like me -- become distracted by amusement. The writer is trying to portray the bleak life Karr lived in Bangkok, so you certainly don't want anything silly in the sentence. Frankly, I'd avoid using the word "snake" as a metaphor at all for another week or so, unless you're describing the line around the block for the new Samuel L. Jackson movie.

And whenever you're writing about Bangkok, you need to be especially careful. "Bangkok's choked"?! No, no, no, no, no. You never want that juxtaposition, especially not in an article about a sexually molested murdered child. In fact, the figurative use of "choked" should be eliminated from any story that has anything to do with a person who was literally choked.

"Karr" itself is a concrete image. Don't make up an insignificant scenario that shows a guy named Karr going out of his way to look at cars! And don't draw attention to the neck of a man that you're writing about because he's suspected of an act of violence aimed a girl's neck.

I don't think if I tried all day I could concoct an more impressive example of concreteness blindness.

19 comments:

David said...

This presentation is insensitivity masquerading as creativity. It fails miserably because, as you pointed out, it portrays the monster as the victim. The inference to be drawn from this sick allusion is that unrequited love made him kill the child.

The terminally sick Karr has a history of stealing the innocence of children for his own evil selfishness. Whether he uses the twinky defense, not breast-fed as a child, or whatever else he comes up with to justify his sexual proclivities, he is not fit to walk among the rest of us.

Is he insane? Yes. I hope fervently that he is charged with premeditated murder so that his trail of abuse will be brought to light.

If we called him a snake we would be doing an injustice to snakes!

He is dead already...

Bissage said...

I can only guess at this particular writer's intent. Maybe this "concrete blindness" was completely unintentional.

But often I surmise that this sort of thing (when I notice it) is a mischievious inside joke like playing "asshole bingo" or one of its many variations. Other examples are drawing genitals into Disney cartoons or making up silly headlines hoping that James Taranto puts them in his Best of the Web.

Not everyone takes his or her job seriously.

Ann Althouse said...

bissage: You mean intentional, I assume.

Bissage said...

Ann: Thanks for the face-saving out, but I really did mean to type "unintentional."

I screwed up by redefining the term "concrete blindness" to refer to the allusions in Mr. Rosen's article when you had already defined the term to refer to Mr. Rosen's perceptiveness.

I wish I had typed: I can only guess at this particular writer's intent. Maybe his disturbing allusions were unintentional.

nina said...

Writing is much like cooking: you cannot really tell if the consumer of your words (your recipes) will read them (taste them) in the way that you the author (cook) are savoring them. And, from our side, we cannot tell (as your commenter here said) what prompted the word choice. I think I'll stay with the idea that it was deliberate. The images are meant to repulse and condemn without actually openly doing so.

GPE said...

I think the technical term for this type of word crafting is "bad writing."

Dave said...

On Politics and the English Language.

'Nuff said.

Ann Althouse said...

Bissage: I certainly assumed it was unintentional, which is why I used the word "blindness." I thought you were saying maybe he meant to do it.

If he did it on purpose, he should be fired. If he did it by accident, he needs to learn to reread from a distanced perspective. And the LA Times needs better editing.

knoxgirl said...

the apparently lonely, anonymous life he had cobbled together in this frenetic city.

"cobbled together" is pretty stupid-sounding, too. And inaccurate since it doesn't sound like he really making any effort to get a life. (As if he could)

GPE said...

Many, many, many apologies. I was in error. According to the Beatrix Potter Style Guide, Mr. Rubin is in accord with appropriate and meaningful sentence structure.

For example, if the speaker is a Sandhill Crane wearing a top hat and spats, it is proper to phrase as "Mr. Sandhill craned his neck looking for Mr. Slither to snake his way to their lunch appointment." If Mr. Sandhill is also wearing a monocle, than the correct phrasing would be "Mr. Sandhill craned his neck looking for Mr. Slither to snake his way for their lunch appointment."

My bad. But perhaps Mr. Rubin should put the novel he's working on back in the desk drawer while he is writing news articles.

Bissage said...

Ann said: "I thought you were saying maybe he meant to do it.

I was, but not until the second paragraph.

GPE: Now that's funny! (I always laugh at animals-wearing-a-monocle jokes. Who doesn't?)

And speaking of novels, and maybe appropriate to Ann's point about the distastefulness of allusions to necks and choking, isn't it from Don Quixote we get the advice: "One ought not speak of halters in a hanged man's house"?

P. Froward said...

The traffic isn't choked. The road is choked with traffic, or Bankok is choked with traffic, but the traffic itself is not choked.

He'll be jabbering about something being "in [sic] a shambles" next.

In Texas, there used to be a law that said it was okay to shoot somebody if he "needed killin'"[1]. Coincidentally, this article was not written in Texas. You may draw your own conclusions.


[1] This may be complete hogwash.

P. Froward said...

"In a shambles", eh? Is that a fact? Who put it there? And why? And what were you doing there when you found it? Looking for a steak?

Someday, a real rain will come and wash all the bad writers off the streets.

P. Froward said...

Looks a bit like David Byrne, doesn't he? That jawline over that neck. I make no inference, folks. I am a neutral observer.

Okay, I'll shut up now.

knoxgirl said...

Looks a bit like David Byrne, doesn't he?

thanks, now all I'm going to think of when I see this freakshow is poor old David Byrne.

Bissage said...

We report.

You decide.

P. Froward said...

I had in mind pictures like this one or this one.

In a way, you almost have to feel sorry for the poor bastard. He deserves everything he gets, but still... Imagine living in that hell for all these years, day in and day out, waking up every morning trapped with yourself, never being able to escape the damning, unbearable fact that you haven't made a listenable record in sixteen years.

David said...

"Concreteness blindness" is related to what Orwell call "the dead metaphor"...ie, a metaphor which is used without calling up any relevant mental image.

Theo Boehm said...
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