**Originally posted in my previous blog, “Cooley Says.”
A lot has happened since my last post. I became an aunt, an unimaginable oil spill began threatening the Gulf coast, the Celtics lost their NBA Championship, and international authorities finally found a way to put Joran van der Sloot in a prison cell.
It’s been a busy few weeks for everyone, but yesterday I was reading the news and became very upset. People were talking about Obama’s address about the Gulf Coast crisis, and CNN reported on a “study” that found Obama’s speech was “too complicated” for most Americans because of its 9.8 grade level and pesky 20+ word sentences.
This bothered me.
I’m tired of the words “intelligent” and “eloquent” being partnered with the words “misdirected” and “poor choice.” I’m not speaking only of this speech; the oil spill speech was far from Obama’s best, but this kind of rhetoric has followed him since he first tossed his hat into the ring. It’s also followed other politicians, experts, and speakers who have the audacity to use words with more than six letters. Commentators and audiences sigh over these speeches like tenth graders who don’t want to crack open their copies of The Canterbury Tales. “It’s too hard,” they seem to whine. “Just sum it up so I can go play X-Box, dammit.”
This all got me wondering. What would our modern audiences, pundits, and commentators have said about “The Gettysburg Address”? Perhaps “It’s okay, but four-score and seven years ago? Call it 87, teach.” What about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech? “Ugh,” you can imagine our modern commentators saying. “Come on, Martin. Just say what you mean. Who knows where Stone Mountain is, anyways? I don’t have time to Google that mess.”
Are we losing our ability to appreciate good language and smart ideas? Do we need everything boiled down to 140 characters or bust? Again, I know the Gulf Coast speech wasn’t Obama’s finest (even I’ll admit that there were missteps there), but why do we keep clawing into the guy and other speakers for the sin of eloquence? Why do we let people criticize them for sounding “too smart” or “too educated”? When did having a college degree become a handicap? When I think about this, I can’t help but wonder what on earth we are telling a generation of American students who are falling behind in math and science while their class sizes expand exponentially with each local budget cut.
I was stopped at a red light last night and got to thinking about what would happen if William Shakespeare suddenly found himself in 2010. I wrote a little short story, as I like short fiction when I’m bored (or licking my wounds from a blistering Celtics loss), so enjoy.
One sunny day, Will Shakespeare strolled into his new publisher’s office. Writing in 2010 had taken some getting used to compared to playwriting in the 1500s, but after acclimating himself to a typewriter (computers were much too complex for the bard) and learning how to order takeout pizza on the nights when he wrote into morning, he found it was a pleasant era for working. Indeed, his neighborhood pizza shop was called “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” so he wondered how he could complain.
His publisher was a bull of a man tamed Glenn Fox. He had meaty arms and thinning hair, and from across the room it often seemed that he was the only one in it. Will was surprised to see that his latest manuscript was riddled with red marks and editor’s notes.
“What the hell is this, Shakespeare?”
“It’s a tragedy, sir. Hamlet, a story of the young prince of Denmark.”
“It’s got incest in it, Will. We can’t publish this garbage.”
Shakespeare blanched at the publisher’s words. “It’s not actual incestuous behavior, sir, but rather the suggestion. The implication is-”
“Stop right there, English Cowboy. That’s part of the problem. American audiences don’t like implications.”
“But the symbolism is-”
“Symbolism’s out, too. I was reading over what you’ve got here, and some of it works. The action’s cool—I like how that one guy stabs all the other guys at the end. There’s no sex, but you could pencil that in later. But ‘to be or not to be?’ Which one is it? You can’t just go back and forth like that! America is about action and decision. Pick one and stick with it.” Glenn snapped his fingers as another idea took hold of him. “I tell ya, you know what’s hot now? In the book scene, I mean? Vampires.”
Shakespeare stiffened. “Vampires?”
“Yep. That’s what folks are looking for. Vampires. Hey, maybe Ophelia could be a vampire? In love with a human, torn between two worlds? Maybe that why she kills herself.”
“And another thing. The words are just too hard to get through. It sounds like you’re teaching an English class!”
“It’s the art of language, Mr. Fox. I simply take the words and use them to my best ability.”
“Well rein it in. People don’t like it when you use big words. It makes you look cocky. Use English.”
“That is English, sir!”
“Well then use American English, Will. Something people can connect to.”
“But I saw a group of protesters lining the sidewalk on the television. They were all shouting that they LOVE English. They want people to speak nothing but that. My text contains only the English language at its finest. How on earth can they detest the mother tongue?”
“There you go with that mother stuff again, Will. Now stop it,” Glenn said sharply. He opened the manuscript and pointed to the page. “Take this one. What’s a ‘promontory’?”
“It’s a cliff, often perched above water.”
“Then say that! We don’t need fancy words for basic stuff. You’ve got Hamlet saying ‘the earth seems to me a sterile promontory.’ Just say ‘the earth sucks and I can’t take it anymore.’” Glenn seemed pleased with his suggestions. “People will like it, and they’ll get it.”
Will was already tired of this meeting. “Anything more?”
“Yeah. These sentences, it was like the maze on the back of a cereal box. I kept gettin’ lost in what the characters were saying. Pare it down. Anything more than nine words a sentence and you’re in way over your head.”
“Nine. I mean, that promontory sentence? It just goes on and on like a sermon on Sunday! Colons, semi-colons, dashes-”
“Dashes,” Glenn repeated, carrying on with his original thought. “Folks won’t read all that. Make it basic. You’re writing on at least a ninth grade level here, and that’s really gonna cut into your market. Take it down to the third or fourth. Nine word sentences, maybe five-letter words max.”
“But I read the news the other day. Something in the order of seventy percent of your students graduate from high school. Surely they can manage-”
But Glenn was laughing, pinching the bridge of his nose and holding onto his belly. “It’s so funny to talk to you foreigners. Folks go to high school, but lemme tell you, Will, you’ll have better luck nailing a wave to the sand than getting people to remember all the stuff they were told in school.”
“But they’re taught the classics. Homer, Chaucer-”
“Textbook versions, Will. Usually a chapter or two, and then the teachers just pop in the movie version. It’s easier to follow.”
“The movie version…” Will was confused and heartbroken at the implication. “I suppose I’m missing the point. To me, literature, oratory, drama, rhetoric, all of those endeavors, they were meant to be an adventure for the mind. The chance to think and experience language on a higher level, to communicate the thoughts and ideas that are ours by divine gift. No other being has the power to speak and share with the eloquence of the human form. To devalue that, or even to dilute it to pithy puns and basic vocabulary? It seems to me a sin against God.”
Glenn stared back at Will blankly and sighed. “I’m just saying you don’t want to write a book and sound like some professor.”
“But shouldn’t any writer or communicator seek to become a professor? To teach and convey the message he most fervently believes in hope of bettering his peers? Isn’t that the essence of what we’re doing with this art, with anything to do with the written and spoken word? We take our thoughts and channel them in new ways, and it’s the gift of knowledge that we pass on for the ages.”
“I just mean that people would rather read books by people who get what it’s like. They don’t trust people who are too smart. They want someone they can have a beer with.”
“I don’t drink beer.”
Glenn was no longer listening, and Will looked on helplessly as his publisher’s finger glided across a shiny screen.
“Sorry, friend. Got distracted. My wife just got me one of these. It’s an iPad. Have you seen it? Craziest thing ever. You can play Tetris with two hands!”
“No, I’ve not seen it,” Will said, turning to away. He looked down at his manuscript on Glenn’s desk. Hamlet’s name was cancelled out with a scarlet line, and suggestions like Chad, Dylan, and Hugh were sketched into the margins.
Glenn smiled patronizingly. “I know you’re in a tough spot, but you’re just confusing people with this stuff. It’s too long and too flowery. Read it to an eight year old. If they don’t get it, cut it. Then we’ll be on our way to a sellable book.”
Will cradled the manuscript in his arms and started for the door, but Fox called his name and pulled a box out from beneath his desk.
“You’re new here, buddy, so I’ll help you out. Take this. It’s movies, books, magazines, all the stuff people are into. It’ll help you get inside your audience’s head and know what they’re looking for.”
Will opened the box. He found the titles of the Twilight series and a DVD box set of “Two and a Half Men.” “Transformers 3” sat on top in a shiny case. There were People magazines and copies of US Weekly, along with a paperback novel featuring a half-naked woman on its cover. There were pictures of the Kardashians and copies of SparkNotes. Labeled tapes of something called “The Bachelor” were stacked in the side of the box.
“Bring me a second draft. Change the characters’ names around, and don’t be afraid to break away from that poetry style. It’s a play; people are gonna read it out loud anyways, so you don’t need every other line to rhyme like there’s a metronome playing in the background. Oh, and like I said, get rid of the incest. That won’t fly in middle America.”
“But what of the language? The art and style of all that I’ve written? The ideas and the story.”
“What about it?” Glenn chuckled. “No one gives a crap about that stuff anyways. Just figure out a way for it to make sense if Megan Fox plays the mom. People eat that shit up.”
—Originally posted on my previous blog, “Cooley Says.”