Thursday, April 27, 2017

Words in Themselves: A Letter to the New York Times Book Review

April 19th, 2017

To the New York Times Book Review,

In her review of Brian Doyle’s novel about Robert Louis Stevenson, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World (April 14th), Jenny Davidson uses the phrase “abuse of the dictionary” to deride Doyle’s stylistic choices. It’s funny that Davidson’s jab should involve reference to a bound volume of meanings, for “abuse of the dictionary” has hardly any meaning at all. I don’t think she’s saying that Doyle burned his dictionary, or tore it up, or stabbed holes in it with a sword, or threw it at someone, or used it in some other perverse physical way. If Davidson’s phrase is meant as a quip, it’s an oddly joyless one — especially when aimed at a fellow writer whose medium is, well, words. She swipes at Doyle for daring to perpetuate Stevenson’s dictional excess (i.e., permitting “perspicacity,” “assiduously,” and “parsimonious” to occupy a single sentence). She seems to be alleging that Doyle has shamelessly, joyfully deployed vocabulary. Maybe Doyle did look to a dictionary, or maybe he just relied on the lexical databank in his own head, but why should a writer be held under suspicion of using a reference book that is a tool and inspiration for those who live and work in words?

Davidson’s professed annoyance raises questions about dogmatic attitudes and perceived mandates in book reviewing. For example: where’s the statute, in New York or anywhere, against a writer’s exuberant love of language? And why do we insist, every season or so, on forgetting that the finest writers have always been, as Cynthia Ozick noted, besotted with words, words in themselves? Stevenson was among these, and if Doyle is besotted too, may the great ghosts of literature bless him.

—M. Allen Cunningham
Portland, Oregon