Monday 10 February 2014

The Customer Is Always Right

A reader's complaint about the use of the word "crepuscular" in a Paris Review essay—calling it an example of elitist writing—causes Eleanor Catton to ponder on the consumerist nature of literary taste:
The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word—characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer—is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right.
Laura Miller agrees, but thinks Catton misses an important point:
The reader who found a writer’s use of “crepuscular” to be elitist wasn’t just annoyed at stumbling across a word he didn’t recognize and being made to take the trouble of looking it up. As Catton herself points out, when you’re reading online, the definitions of words are extremely easy to get. It seems doubtful the reader was, as Catton seems to think, put off by the “inconvenience” of this. Rather, I surmise, he was angry because the Paris Review piece made him feel ignorant. Another reader, also unfamiliar with “crepuscular,” might have reached the same point, invoked the digital dictionary and thought, “Cool. New word!” Learning something—including new and potentially useful words—is one of the reasons people read, after all. To decide instead that the appearance of the word “crepuscular” is the writer’s way of signaling that only people already fully conversant with all the synonyms for “shadowy” need apply to the select society of his blog post (and the rest go hang themselves!) is quite a leap. In truth, the only way an encounter with a strange word can make you feel ignorant is if you already fear and suspect that you really are ignorant.


Philip Moscovitch said...

Crepuscular is one of my favourite words.

Kathleen Wall said...

Virginia Woolf liked "crepuscular." It was the first thing she knew about the form of "Jacob's Room."

Anonymous said...

A word. A word! I found a word.
It makes a sound, it makes a ring.
It makes me laugh, it makes me sing.
I found a word, it makes no sense.
Which is why I don’t use it,
In the perfect tense.