9.15.2005

Headline Writer Gives Miss Snark An Attack of the Vapors

However, she recovered nicely when she read the actual article. Those scamps in the headline department just love to tweak Miss Snark's moral outrage before breakfast.

From ArtsJournal.com a wonderful place to find mainstream news and some interesting blogs comes the headline: Dumbing Down The Classics?

Needless to say, Miss Snark clutched her six volumes of Proust close to her heart and read on:


Publishers realize there are plenty of books out there that everyone knows but few have read. Is it because they're too hard? So publishers are putting out "new editions of some of the great, often unread, works with a fresh emphasis on 'accessibility'. Some may call it dumbing down. The books will be, well, simpler. One of the first to receive the treatment is Tolstoy's War and Peace, republished this month by Penguin in a new, reader-friendly translation."



Then there is a link to the actual article in the UK paper The Guardian.here


Turns out they are bringing out the first new translation of War and Peace in fifty years.
Not quite what "dumbing down" means in common usage, and thank god for that.
A new translation of W&P is cause for celebration. Taking out the difficult-to-follow parts, or cleaning up the names ...that would be dumbing down. As you can see from the article that's not what the translator is doing. He's using less formal grammar perhaps, but I don't think it sounds like W&P is going to be significantly shorter or much altered.

Dumbing down is significantly altering a work to make it "easier" or more politically correct. There was a great hullabaloo here in NYC about the Regents' exam using such dumbed down, sanitized or Bowdlerized versions of great works that the selections missed the whole point of the novel and were sometimes unrecognizable. It's hard to read James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison if you take out all mentions of the "n-word", and violence. There were some egregious examples in the New York Times but Miss Snark was too shocked to remember them.

Think of it as though a Bible had been rewritten leaving out all the "begats". It's a boring section right? I mean, you don't really need it, right? (If you are reading this and do not understand why taking out the begats is a problem, feel free to ask...I have a rant ready).


A new translation does not translate to dumbing down. Writing headlines that miss the point of the article...that's dumb.

15 comments:

Ric said...

Caffiened to a fine dark roast.

Dumbing down. How does Miss Snark handle clients who write beautiful but inaccessible prose?
Is it easier to sell novels written at an eighth grade reading level or does she just love it when the Merriam-WEbster must be kept close at hand?

Perhaps this only matters depending on the genre?

Finding just the right word sometimes involves digging deep into Roget's, I would be curious to know if a beginning Snarking might be shooting themselves in the foot by causing Miss Snark to drop big dictionary on hers?

Miss Snark said...

When I read Alexander Hemon's novel Nowhere Man, I ended up with a list of about 35 words I looked up. That was a lot. It was interesting to me because Aleander Hemon's first language is not English, so it seemed he used words without a sense of whether they were common. It was a wonderful experience. The critical ingrediant however is that Alexander Hemon writes really really well. Thus he wrote beautiful prose. And it wasn't inaccessible. Any more than Faulkner is; or Pynchon; or Proust.

You have to work at it. It's not something you read on the subway or for five minutes before you turn off the light.

Frankly I find James Patterson inaccessible. I'm so busy thinking "oh please" and "yea right" and "you must be freaking kidding me bucko" that I'm lifted right out of the narrative. Same for Carol Higgins Clark....and I know ALL the words they use.

Kristin said...

I'm reading Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg, and she uses many "big" or uncommon words, BUT she uses them so precisely that you know she didn't just look them up in the thesaurus. She knows what they mean, so their meaning is perfectly clear in the context of the sentence. It's actually fun to hear these words sprinkled about ... the books feels fresher for them rather than antiquated.

jan said...

I read a Clive Cussler book once and spent so much time saying, "Oh, Please," and "You're so full of sh--" that my husband reminded me that reading is supposed to be a "quiet" pasttime.

I write for children and so come into contact with a lot of new writers and it amazes me how many writers complain that editors wanted them to "dumb down" their writing when the revisions suggested really asked for more consistent voice, or a more realistic voice for the age and location of the main character. If your character isn't a pontificating professor, why make him sound like one?

And what is the new love for calling everything "dumbing down?" I hate trendy complaints and this is not the first time I've seen it used for something that had nothing to do with assuming the reader is an idiot.

kaolin fire said...

One of my favorite reads was Steven Brust/Emma Bull's _Freedom and Necessity_. I read it with a dictionary at hand for my own edification, but in agreement with Kristin's comment--the precision of the words is such that it really shows that they knew what they were doing.

Brady Westwater said...

I agree with Kaolin and Kristin. I like words that have precise meanings, but I always place them within a context that allows their intent to be understood even if the reader does not know that exact word.

My personal 'horror story' on dumbing down came when I bought some Hardy Boys books for a nephew - and I was amazed at how there was none of the magic I had remembered.

Years later, I read a bio of the author of the series. In the 1930's he had lived in a remote Canadian mining town and obtained the job writing the books by answering an ad in a magazine. He wrote them for about $100 apiece until he asked for a $50 raise (or something like that) - and was promptly fired.

Decades later when his kids saw he had all the books - they were amazed that he had written them. He hadn't told anyone since he never realized their impact on the outside world. But, then, when he later picked up one of the new editions of his books, he discovered that they had all been completely bowdlerized - and worse. They were now stripped of all characterization, description - and even... adverbs.

Somehow, somebody... in New York City... felt the Hardy Boys needed to be dumbed down.

Existential Man said...

well, don't get me started, but their is is rhyme and reason for invoking the phrase "dumbing down." It is not just a "trendy complaint."

Dumbing down has changed the literal face of the world's greatest newspapers, the national news as presented by the main stream media, non-fiction books of all kinds--not to mention the current domination of "reality" tv shows... "Dumbing down" is partially why an agent tells me to come up with a chic-lit title for a non-fiction book proposal to a Y-generation editor.

And "dumbing down" is why literally billions of $$$ are being wasted on producing Hollywood trash--movies that don't exceed a 10th grade mentality. If that ain't dumbing down to the lowest common denominator, I don't what is!

E. Dashwood said...

I just reread WandP after many years. Part of Tolstoy's genius is the simplicity of his language. No words to look up.

Incidentally, Miss Snark, if you don't like backstory, don't read WandP. Hundreds of pages about his philosophy of history, the progress of the War of 1812, military disquitation, etc. Every word a drop of gold.

I'll admit that I had a crisis of conscience when I read Moby Dick, the long encyclopedic chapter on whales. I got stuck there, feeling I had to read that but I didn't want to. Finally, I forced myself to skip it and then browsed it when I finished the rest.

Catja (green_knight) said...

My guess for War and Peace would be a translation that's entirely in English.

Hang on- the same goes for the last one I read. The German one I've, errm, begun, translated only the Russian parts and left the French bits alone.

Dumbing down? Certainly. More accessible? Quite likely.

E. Dashwood said...

The WandP translation I read, the Maud translation, had the French but always put in the English of that in following brackets. Quite a good solution.

occasional_anonymous said...

Chic-lit? Is that fashionable right now?

jan said...

Well, I grant you the creators of movies seem to be getting dumber but the box office receipts suggest that isn't doing what they must hope for their bottom line so I guess dialling 1-800-stupid to create movies either doesn't work or those stupid masses everyone evokes with their dumbing down whine just won't ante up like they should.

And reality tv...well...that's scary. But honestly, I saw some pretty stupid TV in all the eras. It's always been a mix of the incredibly stupid and the enduring.

But, hey, let's use dumbing down for everything because they we have one complaint and we don't actually have to think or explain anything!! Good idea and not at all...um...dumb.

I'm sorry, I simply don't buy accessible as synonymous with stupid. Nor does cramming every instance of bad taste, bad programming, or bad editing into one label make the folks using it look all that much smarter than the average joe at whom they are sneering. A lot of average joes are pretty remarkable people even if they don't have the vocabulary of you or I.

jan said...

Well, dang...I'll grant you my typing is dumbing down. *grumble grumble* Multiple typos right in front of the queen snark...good thing I wasn't planning to send in one of those queries to anonymous agents.

Shalanna Collins said...

I can't stomach most of the best-selling thrillers/pulp fiction/penny dreadfuls out there. I don't like the works of James Patterson, Sandra Brown, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, or Carol Higgins Clark. This makes me "weird" among my neighbors and means I won't have those readers in my audience, most likely. But that's all right. I think that throughout the ages, the bread-and-circuses crowd has enjoyed stuff that some of us think is stupid. There's always going to be that kind of "Lifetime Movie Network" pap. But then something comes along to feed the souls of those of us who love the higher art. So there's room. I still believe that. (Also expecting the Great Pumpkin next month.)

I do think we have lost our middlebrow culture. School has been dumbed down. Reality shows are cheaper for producers than invented stuff, yet are so silly (does anyone not realize that they're not LOST or ABANDONED, but have a camera crew and a bunch of support staff, and a caterer, and cell phones, and so forth, right there with them? It's all scripted, I suspect!) And readers do NOT seem to know how to get meanings of words from context now. I am a literacy volunteer, and some of the teens I help (who CAN read, but don't read well) just have NO idea that you can figure out the general drift of a sentence and the meaning of the word and then go on. A number of my beta readers are also like this. One circles the words she doesn't know in red ink. As if I am going to change them. Ha! *evil grin* Also, people don't usually get literary allusions. That's kinda depressing. But I suppose we can live with that.

I like books that are tougher. Books that make you think. Books in which meanings are ambiguous and not everything is tied up neatly in the ending. There's still room for a "book" book under the pillow. (Yep, sleeping with books again!)

Even if most people don't improve their reading comprehension, they're still enjoying what they DO read, I hope. Remember that the people who read the National Enquirer are among the elite who read at all!

Travis said...

Existential Man said...
well, don't get me started, but their is is rhyme and reason for invoking the phrase "dumbing down."