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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

LOGS OF LANGUAGE

Mark Steyn reviews The Da Vinci Code:

In the beginning was the word, and Mr. Brown’s very first one seems to have gone missing:

“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.”

And after that I found it hard to stagger on myself. Shouldn’t it be “The renowned curator”? What happened to the definite article? Did Mr. Brown choose to leave it off in order to affect an urgent investigative journalistic style? No, it’s just the way he writes. Here’s the first sentence of Angels &Demons:

“Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.”

The linguist Geoffrey Pullum—or linguist Geoffrey Pullum, as novelist Dan Brown would say—identifies this as the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier, to which renowned novelist Dan Brown is unusually partial. In Deception Point, in what must count as a wild experiment in form for him, he holds off on the AONP until the second sentence:

“Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years ...”

You’ll notice the credit to Geoffrey Pullum, a contributor to the blog Language Log. That acknowledgement wasn’t good enough for Pullum, however, who—as Language Log leader Mark Liberman writes—contacted Steyn requesting additional credit for his early awareness of Brown’s AONP issues (the Telegraph’s Sam Leith noticed Brown’s curious style as well: “Seldom do books manage to grate from before the first word of the opening sentence ... The first word - ‘the’ - isn’t there.” Obviously another Language Log reader). Liberman and Pullum are also worked up over this in-passing joke:

Novelist Dan Brown staggered through the formulaic splendour of his opening sentence.

Which, it’s true, is very similar to the title of a Pullum post:

Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence

Liberman, rather overdoing things, devotes 248 words and a four-column, multi-coloured table to analysis of this alleged joke theft. Or, more accurately, alleged parody theft; we’re at least a few steps down from, say, Molly Ivins’ lifting of a wholly original Clive James line. Truth be told, Pullum’s gag isn’t so brilliant that it’s unlikely another writer might independently compose something resembling it ... such as in this unbylined piece from The Scotsman:

Given that he’s the most formulaic novelist since Enid Blyton, you really don’t have to be Dan Brown to write your very own Dan Brown novel ... It’s also vital that the character’s name be preceded by his profession, much in the manner of a clunkily written obituary. For example: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery”; or “Novelist Dan Brown stumbled through his clumsy prose, the walls of St Peter’s Basilica echoing his screams”.

Yet another Language Log reader! Popular site. Either that, or people (commenter Nabakov, for example: “I picked up TdVC at a friend’s holiday house and read the first sentence ... I immediately put it right down again”) are capable of noticing weak blockbuster openings without Language Log’s prompting.

Anyway. Here’s Steyn’s piece, and here are Pullum’s two posts. Read them all, then Stand In Judgment. Steynophobic local academics John Quiggin and Tim Lambert have already rushed to condemnation, as is their style (Quiggin previously accused Steyn of plagiarising Oscar Wilde; he now admits the plagiarism call was incorrect). The pair of them teamed up last year to play Columnist Cops in an investigation of Miranda Devine, rapidly convicting the Fairfax writer of quote fabrication:

Lambert: “It looks like Devine is the one that fabricated the quote.”

Quiggin: “Devine has actually taken the critical step in the fabrication herself. ... This obviously bogus quote is worse than anything I can recall seeing.

Emphasis mine. But Devine didn’t fabricate anything; the disputed quote had emerged from Devine’s search of the internal, online Fairfax library. Cue another backdown from Quiggin: “It was a mistake on my part to draw the conclusion that Miranda Devine was responsible for adding the quote marks ... I apologise for this.” You’d think Quiggin might have learned to consider possibilities for a beat or two before reaching a conclusion. Not so. He’s still issuing tabloid-like smears, and still getting things wrong:

The point is that Steyn is someone who has a reputation as a witty writer that is built, to a significant extent on lifting other people’s lines, while giving little or no attribution.

This is simply untrue, as every blogger ever cited by Steyn (me among them) would be aware. Cranky old Quiggy again takes one step too far (at least), and again sets himself up for a humiliating retraction. At the same link, Quiggin notes that, in regard to the Great Pullum Burglary:

Plagiarism is not really the right category here ...

Hmm. Lambert—an unlikely arbiter, considering he’s a thief and all—disagrees with Quiggles, bluntly headlining his post:

Mark Steyn, plagiarist

The Quiggin/Lambert schism may even widen once the Lambot notices striking yet uncredited similarities between Quiggin’s Steyn post and a Patterico headline written only a couple of months previously. Quiggin:

Mark Steyn has a way with words. Particularly other people’s.

Patterico:

Domenech Has a Way with Other People’s Words

Man. Language Log will go nuts.

UPDATE. Scandal! Lambert (“Gore Derangement Sydrome”) plagiarises Krauthammer (“Bush Derangement Syndrome”)!

Posted by Tim B. on 05/24/2006 at 11:54 AM
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