Wednesday, July 02, 2008

On Literary Tone

Years ago I remember falling about laughing with Peter Ackroyd on reading a bad review of one of his books in the TLS. (Falling about was what we mostly used to do, but I haven't seen him for ages; we seemed to run out of things to fall about about.) What was funny was not the awfulness of the review - Peter's bracing response to such things was 'Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.' - but the fact that it had been sent to him by a friend who thought it was a good review. The review was replete with the most withering sarcasm. 'He has,' said Peter of his friend, 'absolutely no sense of tone.' Most people have no sense of tone. Many, if not most, of the readers' letters inspired by my articles involve a failure to grasp my tone. This is a problem because tone is a very large part of verbal expression and those who can sense literary tone take it for granted while those who can't simply flail about in a sea of misunderstanding. I could have posted this at any time about any number of things, but what inspired me on this occasion were the comments on Tim Worstall's post on my post about peaches. The tone of my post was affectedly dandyish and designed to imply a high degree of self-deprecation. My pay-off line about les peches d'Isfahan was deliberately absurd. Most of my very literate regulars saw this at once - this was a light post on a light matter. The serious point -  that my attitude to the peaches was changed by their availability in M & S - was anthropological; I was, dandyishly, observing my reactions rather than celebrating them. I have other tones for other occasions. Worstall's tone-deaf commenters see none of this and call me a 'foodponce', a 'snob', 'a desperate snob' and so on. As I say, this is just one example among many. There is nothing one can do about it as literary tone deafness is incurable, not least because sufferers are quite unaware of their affliction.

22 comments:

  1. Know exactly what you mean, chuck. Take me, for instance: spent a good 10 minutes in a Faculty meeting once banging on about how much I love a good chip butty. Did they get my tone? Did they fuck as like! I was just getting to the point about how it's best to wedge chip bits in the caves created by the careful layering of the bigger chips before applying the s and v when all they wanted to crap on about was how best to promote equality and diversity in a Sixteenth Century history module. Tone - you either get it or you don't.

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  2. I'm not sure it's a case of either being able to pick up on tone, or being tone deaf.

    Bryan, I assume you're pretty hot at picking up on tone, but don't you get it wrong from time to time?

    I think it's especially easy to miss tone when the wrong-tone interpretation chimes with some of your prejudices or shoulder chips.

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  3. i remember one of my readers asking why i hate children after i wrote a 'humourous' post of advice to parents, most of which consisted of strongarm tactics, e.g. using chloroform to quell tantrums, that kind of thing. He really thought i was serious.

    Of course, i was serious. But no one except me was supposed to know.

    People like this are usually paranoid schizophrenics or manic depressives, it's best to tell them so in no uncertain terms, tone be damned.

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  4. Ah well. Quite likely a "desperate snob" would have written les pĂȘches d'Isfahan. But you didn't and you aren't.

    It struck me as a pleasant post about pleasure, and real pleasure is tinged with sadness. You were Adam, a comely Iranian fruit-seller was Eve (er, possibly allowing for some dramatic leeway), and then Sir Stuart Rose slithered into the picture. Yes the tone was playful but perhaps you were feeling playful when you wrote it? The folks on that other blog don't sound a very playful bunch.

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  5. Certainly better to fall about than to flail about. How is old Peter Ackroyd? He was quite the thing when I was in grad school (that funky "biography" -- ironic "" again -- of Dickens was the shizz).

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  6. I don't know how he is, Susan. I haven't seen him in some years, which is a pity.

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  7. Glad it was the comments, not the post, that went haywire.

    :-)

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  8. So, what's our fave Ackers novel then? I'll go for Hawksmoor

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  9. Yeah, I liked "Hawksmoor" too. Half the old buildings in Jolly Olde have that haunted feeling. And Susannah Clarke no doubt was influenced by the Ackroyd novel when she wrote about York Cathedral in "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell."

    Earnestness is what kills humor. I met far too many earnest folks in academe back in the day, which is probably why I now spend my working time in a newsroom. Better senses of humor all around and a love of physical as well as intellectual pleasures. They dare to eat peaches.

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  10. philip wallingJuly 02, 2008 4:47 pm

    In my experience it's not that such people can't hear the tone, but that they deliberately ignore the subtlety and affect to mishear because they are waiting for an excuse to go for you.

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  11. It was the Ken High cinema bit wot did it, gov. Had you said a quarter of a mile east of Hammersmith tube nothing like the bile would have erupted. And you would still have the geog' of the shop sorted. On the tone thing, sometimes, only sometimes. Your grasp of the celtic bells is a bit flawed.

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  12. Clearly emoticons solve the tone problem for us men of letters ;-)

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  13. Even if you were to point out that it was irony to these ranting uber sincere types, it would only increase their ire. Nothing worse than a mincing ironist, putting on airs and graces, thinks he's better than us, eh? Don't you know that life is serious? Also, and crucially: they enjoy the spite.

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  14. Well, when I had been blogging for about a day, I encountered Tim W's blog (probably because I had read a book of 2005 blog posts edited by him, and was curious about the medium). He had a (to my mind) asinine and illogical post about maternity leave from work. I wrote a (to my mind, again) reasonable comment. Well, forget it. It is a bit of a "peaching (ha ha) to the converted" situation.
    Irony, irony, sadly a fading pleasure appreciated by the select few.

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  15. It is just the kind of playfulness in the peaches post is what I like about this blog. luis enrique made an excellent point about emotional reactions blinding us to tone. And some people just don't get it I suppose.

    Perhaps the conversational dimension of blogging makes it easier to push the envelope a bit.

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  16. I just noticed Worstall's title and the content of the threads and Mr Bennet's "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" came to mind.

    (I thought I would raise the tone with some literature.)

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  17. Of course it's tone. That's all you do is tone. You're the toniest writer I know. You are the master of tone. I usually haven't the foggiest notion about what you're saying, but there is no mistaking the tone. The tone always comes through, and it is a wonder to behold.

    Keep up the good work.

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  18. Tone did tone very well, Gordon's lousy at it. I hate subtlety, bunch of poncing nancys

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  19. Reflecting on this post, and your unpacking of the peaches article and the ensuing discussion, i realised that I read a pretty high volume of blog material and there is very little of it that is written so well.

    A suggestion: don't unpack it. Tone is a beautiful and fragile thing.

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  20. Of course mistaking your subtle use of literary tone for snobbish self regard is a sign of boorish philistinism, but I'm worried that some may read into your self regard with respect to said tonal sophistication as itself some kind of snobbery. Not that I would, of course. There is an even more subtle sub-tone to your piece, very easy to miss, but I can say with much gratification that after thirty or so additional readings of your post, I was able to detect how masterfully you were able to express irony and tone about your mastery of irony and tone, which took any trace of snobbery over your lack of snobbery away. The post is a masterpiece of tone and meta-tone. Very layered.

    How wonderful to have such a rare gift! You must be very humble.

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  21. You're just very literal, Duck. Irony is the not the same as clunking sarcasm.

    When dealing with limeys, assume it's ironic (but don't assume that just because the tone is ironic then we don't really mean it).

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