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21 November 2005 @ 15:57
But who will review the reviewers? I will!  

And now, A Roguish Chrestomathy brings you a new feature: book review reviews. My hope is that these reviews will help you decide whether to take the time to read the reviews they review, or at least that they will give me an opportunity to make snarky remarks. In today's edition, we look at two reviews that appeared in the Books section of Saturday's Grope & Flail:

1. "What's your effin' point, eh?" by Gale Zoë Garnett
(review of Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door, by Lynne Truss)

Lynne Truss is, of course, famous for writing about punctuation in her previous bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. In Talk to the Hand she has purportedly turned her attention to manners, but the reader of Garnett's review may be forgiven for thinking that Truss is still talking primarily about language:

G.Z. Garnett

Truss and I share a loathing of the ubiquitous "No problem." (Did I ask if there was a problem? Was a problem ever mentioned?) Another shared aarrggh is given those who bring you a plate of requested food and say "there you go." (Where do I go? Just tell me, where do I go?)

Mercifully (for her), Truss seems to have been spared the person at the till who asks "Is that it?" — to which I always reply, "God. I hope not. Life is so rich with possibilities. I was hoping for more" — and the pet linguistic hate of Pierre Trudeau: "Enjoy!" "Why," he indignated, "are these people commanding me to 'enjoy'? Surely enjoyment is a personal choice, made voluntarily."

Garnett deserves full marks for her own linguistic liveliness: I heartily endorse her back-formation of a verb indignate from the adjective indignant, especially considering that the original verb indign doesn't quite work in this context. But I submit that Garnett's and Truss's and Trudeau's gripes really have nothing at all to do with rudeness; rather, these worthies are objecting to some of the relatively recent idioms that have entered the vocabulary of our politeness. They are complaining, and not always reasonably, about the forms of some of the linguistic expressions that have come to be used in polite contemporary colloquial English.

Pierre Trudeau

Let's start with PET's pet peeve. Trudeau, who certainly knew a thing or two about rudeness, seems to have mistaken a benediction for a command simply because it was expressed in the imperative mood. But "Enjoy!" cannot reasonably be interpreted as a command, because enjoyment is not something one can decide to do, but rather an involuntary mental state. The imperative is not generally compatible with such states, as illustrated in (1) and (2):

  1. *Suffer from clinical depression!
  2. *Desire a glass of beer!

The only rational interpretation of "Enjoy!" is something like "I hope that you will enjoy [the good or service I have just provided you with]." Surely the expression of such a wish cannot be rude, even if it is not welcome.

"Is that it?" and "There you go" do not mean very much in and of themselves; each of these expressions is composed of three highly polysemous and context-dependent words. The listener is therefore required to do a bit of work in figuring out what is meant by them (as distinct from what they mean). Fortunately, the work is not hard. "(T)here you go," which in this context could be replaced with the equivalent "(T)here you are," is an idiomatic phrase that is conventionally—and politely—used to proclaim the arrival of the anticipated food. Its meaning is non-compositional, and it is a statement of the obvious, but it is not rude. It is said because (in a not markedly formal situation) it would be rude to serve the food in silence. Saying something, even the obvious, helps to highlight the fact that there is a good reason for the server to commit what would otherwise be an intrusion into the diner's personal space.

Similarly, "Is that it?" is polite because it offers the customer an opportunity to make a request of the cashier without having to initiate the necessary line of conversation. The context in which the question is uttered should suffice to establish its scope; Garnett's metaphysical interpretation is wilfully absurd. (I'm not sure what Garnett would want the cashier to say instead; I might try "Would you like anything else?" but then she could come back with "Oh, I certainly hope so! I would hate to think that this lone purchase is the only thing in the world that could ever appeal to me!")

Finally, "No problem" is simply a casual way of saying "You're welcome." It is one of several polite formulas for responding to thanks by denying the value of the thing for which the thanks are given: "Oh, it was nothing. It was the least I could do." No, you did not ask whether there was a problem; I'm telling you there wasn't one to assure you that I performed this service for you willingly rather than grudgingly. But if you're going to be like that, perhaps I'll feel differently next time.

Etiquette is a tricky thing, and so is language. I think Truss and Garnett are confounding two dimensions of social language: the polite/rude dimension and the formal/casual one. Each of the expressions they object to as "rude" is in fact merely an informal way of being polite. If they want to object to what they feel is excessive informality, that is their prerogative, and the two dimensions are not wholly independent. (In formal situations, it is discourteous to express oneself too casually.) But I think their spleen would be more productively vented on examples of genuine rudeness, such as the loud public mobile phone conversations Garnett alludes to briefly in her review.

2. "Blow it up real good," by Mark Proudman
(review of A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World, by Stephen R. Brown)

Proudman is not especially interested in reviewing Brown's book. Proudman would rather tell you what he thinks of Harold Pinter and Kofi Annan. So he does:

Whether the bile of Harold Pinter displays any "idealistic tendency" is perhaps a matter of opinion. Many current critics seem to imagine that pessimism, at least about the West, is a prerequisite to artistic seriousness.


The name of Kofi Annan is a byword for unctuous incompetence [...].

How, you might ask, do Pinter and Annan (not to mention Rigoberta Menchu and Lester B. Pearson) enter into a discussion of the history of explosives? Simple: they're all recipients of prizes endowed by Alfred Nobel, who, of course, invented dynamite. But who wants to talk about boring old dynamite when we could be grousing about the supposed anti-occidental prejudices evident in modern drama? And what is the world coming to when "Austria, once more famous for its emperors — if not its corporals — now puts the likeness of [the pacifist Bertha] von Suttner on its two-Euro coins"?


In short, Proudman treats the review as a flimsy pretext for issuing right-wing mini-jeremiads on unrelated topics. I do not recommend this review to any reader who suffers from high blood pressure.

Proudman also earns himself an honorary membership in G.R.O.S.S. with one of the few sentences he devotes to the book itself:

Anyone who can remember being a boy figuring out the ratio of sulphur, saltpeter and charcoal needed to make a nice bang in the back alley will enjoy the book.

If, on the other hand, you made your own gunpowder as a girl, you're apparently not in the club. The members of Proudman's Junior Pyromaniacs' Society may be missing a few fingers, but by gum, they'd better all have penises.

Merlemerle_ on 24. November, 2005 16:20 (UTC)
Sorry, I misspoke: I should have said "I have only read one". 'Tis true that he mentioned those, and I had forgotten that.

But book review reviewers are still quite rare. Even if there were fifty, it would not be all that difficult to scan an entry from each and determine which ones you like and do not like.

Not to belittle his effort, of course. If there is ever another book review review reviewer to come into the light, we'll all be in a race to become the first book review review review reviewer...