The Strange and Telling Case of the Illiterate Novelist

True, it was a lousy book, but at least the sentences were grammatical.

I have noticed of late a disturbing trend, the literary equivalent of those who play their car radios and sound systems at ear-splitting volume with the windows down, or youths who converse in shouts in public places. The trend is proliferation of the proud and unapologetic illiterates,  authors of e-mails, blog posts or even published material who regard the basics of punctuation, grammar, spelling and rhetoric as an annoying inconvenience, and who not only pay little heed to these archaic matters, but also display no regret about the barely readable products that result.

At this point, I am less concerned with why so many of those who communicate in writing are so shamelessly sloppy, and more interested in what the trend signifies for our society. Perhaps some insight can be gained by examining a recent exchange between a grammar and spelling-challenged novelist and a reviewer of her work on a book review blog called “Books and Pals.”

The blog posted a review of an ebook called “The Greek Seaman” by British author Jacqueline Howett. The reviewer generally liked the book, but ended his review with a critique of the author’s carelessness and the lack of editing:

“…Whether Katy and Don will survive the criminal conspiracies the ship owner and captain have planned is yet another conflict that should keep a reader in suspense to the end. However, odds of making that final click are slim. One reason is the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it’s difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant…Reading shouldn’t be that hard.”

The reviewer’s final verdict: “Numerous proofing, typo, and grammar issues. Rating: Two stars.

Rather than accepting the criticism, the author was indignant. Jacqueline Howett replied to the review defensively, writing…

“You obviously didn’t read the second clean copy I requested you download that was also reformatted, so this is a very unfair review. My Amazon readers/reviewers give it 5 stars and 4 stars and they say they really enjoyed The Greek Seaman and thought it was well written. Maybe its just my style and being English is what you don’t get. Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea, but I think I will stick to my five star and four star reviews thanks.”

The reviewer replied:

“I received the email on 2/7 asking that I download the a new copy of the book, which I did…I have doubts that Ms. Howett being English is the reason for my reaction to her writing although I can’t discount it entirely…I’ll also point out that in the first two chapters alone I found in excess of twenty errors that ideally would have been caught in editing and proofing. Some were minor, but all have the potential of disrupting an enjoyable reading experience, depending on the specific reader and their sensitivity to such things.Here are a couple sample sentences from the first two chapters that gave me pause and are representative of what I found difficult while reading:

“She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs.”

“Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.”

“I understand what both are probably saying. I do question the sentence construction. However, I should point out that the review does say the story, which is the most important part of a book, is good. The effort of extracting the story through the errors and, at least to me, sometimes convoluted sounding language, made doing so much too difficult…”

The reviewer again stated that he liked the book’s plot, and that some readers might “The Greek Seaman”  despite its literary flaws.

This wasn’t enough for Howett, who responded defiantly, her syntax, grammar and spelling progressively deteriorating as she wrote:…

“My writing is just fine!… what I read above has no flaws. My writing is fine. … if their were any spelling mistakes they were corrected. Simply remove this review as it is in error with you not downloading the fresh copy i insisted. Why review my book after being told to do this, and more annoying why have you never ever responded to any of my e-mails? And please follow up now from e-mail.This is not only discusting and unprofessional on your part, but you really don’t fool me …Who are you any way? Really who are you? What do we know about you? You never downloaded another copy you liar! You never ever returned to me an e-mail Besides if you want to throw crap at authors you should first ask their permission if they want it stuck up on the internet via e-mail. That debate is high among authors. Your the target not me! Now get this review off here!”

Thereby settling any questions  about her ability to spell, punctuate and speak standard English. Handy hint: when you are arguing against the proposition that you are a careless writer, it is neither wise nor helpful to your case to include sentences like “Simply remove this review as it is in error with you not downloading the fresh copy i insisted.”

More importantly, however, her astounding responses to the review demonstrate the results of a toxic combination of ego, arrogance, incompetence, and disrespect for others. Writing for the pleasure of readers demands that an author both respect and care about their readers’ comfort and convenience. The writers, professional and casual, whose attitude is that their thoughts and artistic creations have intrinsic value however badly they are communicated, and that it is a reader’s responsibility to slog through and decipher whatever mutation of English they choose to use to express them, are announcing their disrespect for the language, their readers, and quite probably everyone else they encounter.

Everyone in a society has an obligation to try to speak and write as clearly as possible; the responsibility belongs to the speaker or writer, not the listener or reader. While we should all be tolerant and supportive of individuals who are trying to master the English language but have not yet succeeded, we should also interpret a disregard for the basic elements of clear communication for what it is: disrespect, laziness, and arrogance.

“Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.”???


[Special thanks to Jeff Hibbert for the tip!]

27 thoughts on “The Strange and Telling Case of the Illiterate Novelist

  1. I came upon this article separately and thought about sending it along to you, but not for what you wrote about.

    I think the ethics of the reviewer are to be commended. She kept her cool and defended her points firmly and respectfully while the insanity rained down upon her.

  2. Send this woman a copy of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”!

    Nice “Shining” reference, btw… Jack also didn’t take too kindly to criticism.

  3. This is a minefield. The author should be blacklisted by publishers for this outburst.

    There are far too many books that should never be published but are anyways. First one to come to mind is Stephanie Meyer’s books. Then come to mind are the multitudes of children’s books I read in elementary school with my a teacher from a previous year. We would discuss the problems the books had from misspellings to grammatical errors. You would be surprised if you payed attention.

    I would also like to point out that authors do have to push the limits of language. Shakespeare created over a thousand new words when writing the masterpieces he/she/it created(last I heard, no one knew who Shakespeare really was.) Many authors push that level in intelligent matters: Mark Twain, Robert Jordan, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, etc.

    I can understand why the author would be defensive, but she had no right to be. It is a shame she would fly off the handle like she did.

    Also, shameless plug for people who love reading. Check out Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. Two extremely amazing authors.

    • Psh. Stephanie Meyer is an important part of English literature. In five years you’ll find her as part of college level English classes. She’ll be listed in the sylabi under, “20 Common Mistakes to Avoid when Writing your First Novel.”

    • I had an eighth-grade Grammar Nazi teacher who told us, “A preposition is the wrong thing to end a sentence with.”

      When the class burst out laughing, Sister told us she was just trying to provide a “horrible example”.

        • JM, my Internet search indicates that there is no authoritative source for Churchill’s famous quote. It is variously reported as scribbled in the margin of a speech draft “corrected” by an aide; spoken in a speech to university students, etc. We’ll probably never know. The first version I ever saw was the “margin story”, where he was reported to have written, “This is the kind of arrrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

          There are scores of wonderful Churchill stories, few of which can be verified. This is my favorite:

          He was well-known as a serious and devoted tippler. Once at a state dinner, he was seated next to a woman who was offended by his obvious intoxication.

          She angrily said, “Sir Winston, you are drunk!”

          And he replied, “And you, madam, are ugly…but tomorrow I’ll be sober.”

  4. My personal opinion is that the prevalence of communication mediums that require us to be short and to the point. Between text messaging, im-ing and Twitter, an entirely new version of the English language has emerged where grammar and spelling are secondary to the intent of the message. That’s cool if you are texting, im-ing, or tweeting.

    It’s unfortunately carried over into every setting. I’ve been appalled to see people use common abbreviations like “btw” and “ymmv” and word substitutes like “u” in more than casual correspondence and other more formal settings. The internet and texting culture in particular have so become the norm now that anyone who dares question the lack of English skills is horrible awful judgmental doodoo head. It makes me yearn for my childhood when my father read us Tolkien as bedtime stories and my mother taught us all about the joy of puns.

    In some ways, I wish English speaking countries would be as protective of the language as say, Germany or Iceland. That type of culture might instill the type of respect language needs in order to avoid further degradation.

    • And I’ve gone and demonstrated how even the best of us need to remember to proof before hitting “post!”

      That first sentence ought to read, “My personal opinion is that the prevalence of communication mediums that require us to be short and to the point are widely to blame for this mess.”

    • Well, actually, there are still plenty of Americans making incredibly puntastic commentary (then again, my circle of associates and references tend to be fairly geeky).

      • And while it’s true shorthand has probably degraded linguistic standards (though English, like most languages, is about as pure as the heart of Eliot Spitzer), it does retain some genuine effect if used sparingly or ironically.

        Also, I believe the proper term for ‘horrible awful judgmental doodoo head’ is “Grammar Nazi”, though I find more appeal in talking about the Literary Commissar who sends the ‘u’s and ‘btw’s to the Grammar Gulag to be undergo systematic retyping.

        • Grammar Nazi’s complain about splitting infinitives and ending sentences in prepositions. Complaining about…
          “Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance” balance, however, is a rescue mission.

          It reads like the subtitles I read under American movies in Mongolia, which were translated into Chinese, and then back into English by Mongolians with translation books.

  5. Not to be a spoilsport and actually comment on the Ethics Alarms content again, but: after having not being able to STAND it anymore, I have edited books while reading them, marking spelling & grammar & typo changes in red ink. So I much appreciate the reviewer’s notice of this, because I do find it jarring.

    And to all the commenters here: thank you, I have very much enjoyed your notes and quotes! 🙂

  6. Until I got my Nook, I always read books with a pen… marking typos and grammatical errors I just couldn’t stand.

    English is a language that can SING. My favorite books (classics and otherwise) are those that both tell good stories and allow you to enjoy the use of our fabulous language. Pretty soon everything will read like Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness style… you’ll just have to figure out for yourself what’s really going on. And that will be a tragedy. (Not that Faulkner doesn’t have his place, but it’s HIS place…)

    Suddenly I recall my Shakespeare professor who started our first class with a short lecture on how scholars focus on the history, plot, characterizations, etc., of Shakespeare, but he also told us that one other, just as important thing he was going to teach us was the absolute beauty of the English language. And in every class he read passages aloud for about five minutes to make his point. He showed me that English can in fact sing; it is an abomination that texting, e-mails, ineffective editors, bureaucrats, and poor writers in general are taking that away from us.

    • Elizabeth, when I was in high school, Brother Bernardine (school was run by the Christian Brothers; yes, same order of guys who make the famous brandy) — anyway, Brother B. was teaching Shakespeare in sophomore English class.

      One of the boys, unfortunately, passed gas loudly. Not a mere pants ruffler or window rattler, but a genuine wall shaker. Without batting an eye Brother B. quoted King Lear:

      “Blow, ye winds, and crack your cheeks…rage, blow, ye cataracts and hurricanoes…”

      I leave the boys’ response to your imagination. You are right, Elizabeth, the English language can SING.

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