Book review: Fireside Chat with a Grammar Nazi Serial Killer, by Ryan Suvaal

I accepted this novella for review because the title draws the eye like a glint on the beach but there’s also a mild flaw in that headline because it outlines the story before you read it.

I wondered if this had been written by someone obsessed by grammar who has been annoyed to find incorrect usage in other people’s books, so I checked the writer’s Goodreads reading list for 2018, which was uninformative because they hadn’t entered anything. Then I wondered whether the angst might have come from being an author who receives reviews in which the main criticism is the grammar, completely side-lining their carefully imagined story. I can picture the author grumbling over that, rightly so. Not everyone can afford a proof reader or editor. Speculating again, it could be a work of observation, living alongside someone who moans about these points as if there is no more pressing problem facing the planet. In the final analysis, I think it may be a combination of all three but I did note that the protagonist mentions critical response. Therefore, I wonder if this could be a subtle piece of bait to draw out ‘grammar Nazi’ critics and show them for what they are. It would then, of course, provoke a grammar-domination arms race as it’s an open invitation to critics to pick up and list every instance of poor form in the book (And there is a sentence that starts with a conjunction), which can then be countered by the author pointing out every piddling error in the piece the critic has written. Cool, if you like a roasting, as Latimer said to Ridley.

The protagonist then goes on to differentiate between her right to make mistakes versus the author’s responsibility to uphold the conventions, i.e. they have accepted this profound duty by taking the step of publishing their words. Are authors and critics self-appointed custodians of the language, not readers? In which case, why is a reader enforcing it? That’s a debate in itself.

The first error is not grammar at all; it’s punctuation. That’s alright though because the alternative might be to extend the title to cover everything when it is pretty good already. A problem arises if you want to euthanize writers who haven’t got a clue how to place a comma because you would have to kill William Shakespeare too (a bastard on non-restrictive relative clauses). The logical extension is that you’d also need to expunge his inspiration, Ovid, although he wrote in poetical form and felt a pause needed to come at the end of lines, to take a breath even where the mark fell in the middle of sentences. If you were brought up to recite two thousand lines of Homer, you would appreciate pauses. Therefore, do we eliminate the poets? Rap artists are poets and some of those have developed a pattern of eliminating themselves, doing the job for us.

Split infinitives annoy me, they really do. Introspective examination is useful here as this convention did not exist before a certain point of time and even then only came to be because a vicar wrote a letter in which he contemplated whether there was any reason to do it. If the interlocutor had replied “stop being pedantic, you old fool”, we might all have gone on with our lives quite sustainably without worrying about this or remembering damning red ink at school. Ask yourself whether you could have suffered a fireside chat with that churchman for an entire evening without wrinkling up your face, leaning forward, tilting your head and staring through him to the back of his pointless skull. I obey the convention but, as someone who plays with language, I nod to other authors who understand the rules but also know when to break them (usually for emphasis).

The grammar Nazi finds long sentences a problem, then mentions clunky sentence structure. I think the former should be encouraged but the latter is ugly and un-lyrical. We disagree, which is interesting. There’s an analytics tool on Word which allows anyone to see the mean word-count in a sentence. I’ve tested this on books which I didn’t get on with (average count: 8 words) and ones I raved about (11 or higher), so do suspect there may be a direct correlation between literary quality and the number of words used in a sentence. The Little Prince may be an exception to the rule. If the writer is clunky, I concede, the number of words is a factor that won’t save it.

Returning to the story, I have intellectual sympathy with the idea that a reader who has been annoyed by poor writing might hold the author personally responsible for contaminating the idealised concept of the beauty of books with their illiterate toxin. I don’t think people who can’t do it should be prevented from writing and publishing because sometimes they improve greatly as they progress through their lives and occasionally they produce original ideas, together with the personal benefit to the author that putting thoughts on paper is good therapy. No one has to read it.

I think there is a touch of sadistic elegance in the idea that authors should be punished according to the form of their gaffe. I remember the story of an ancient Egyptian overseer who embezzled gold from a pharaoh, whose punishment was to be given gold. Specifically, they put him in a room and filled it with gold until he was crushed and suffocated under it. Fair enough, you might say.

Correct punctuation is, of course, geographical. In the US, for example, people use commas before ‘and’ when the sentence isn’t nested and it is not a list that concludes with the use of an Oxford comma. The CNN website uses sentences such as ‘The business leader went to Washington Friday’, which to the rest of the world suggests that a city exists with the name Washington Friday and perhaps there are other places named Washington Monday etc. Should you say ‘Red, White and Blue’ or ‘Red White and Blue’? In the UK, we think we are correct because the English language originated here (from Latin) but there are more speakers of the English language in the US than in Great Britain, so you could equally argue that in contemporary times we are out-voted. Right and wrong is therefore a matter of criteria and geography. I think we should accept our differences and try not to have this battle because no one will win and it’s just an exercise in spreading sulphur.

The key question for me is whether someone who corrects other people’s grammar is trying to help them and protect the treasure of language or whether they are simply doing it to make the point that they had a superior education to the writer, i.e. arrogant self-inflation.

I think I’ll add one observation, that English people take grammar as an indication of whether to trust strangers or not. The reasoning is that if someone doesn’t know the rules, they must have had an incomplete education, thus it may also follow that they do not know the difference between right and wrong, so might feel no remorse at cheating you. To counter this argument, I have noticed that simple people are generally the most honest, saying what they think and paying their taxes, so maybe this supposed clue about honesty is a complete fallacy.

Clearly, this had to be a short work because the idea can be explored fully in a few chapters. It has some originality in that it reflects a modern tension or point of angst, where we have irrational and disproportionate hatred for minor annoyances which may be misplaced apostrophes but could be mini pots of milk, how to squeeze toothpaste, erratic slabs of lemon floating in tea and little Wild Western saloon doors in trendy clothes shops. I mean, who hasn’t at least once in their life read the sign “Gifts and refreshments for visitor’s” and then gone on to burn down a major public building? I know I have. Another use of stage-craft in which the story has been brought up to date is by incorporating anonymous discussion space and dark web podcasts. I didn’t know the dark web had documentaries but that seems a reasonable extension of free speech in anonymity. If there’s a niche, life will eventually fill it, so explore.

Most people will read this book to find out if they themselves might be a grammar Nazi, measurable on the scale of whether they have sympathy for the killer’s reasoning. Most of us have a little policeman in our heads that suppresses acting on these thoughts when they pop up but it remains the fact that most people have had dark thoughts about the elegant flow of a story being ruined by shit writing. The reader breaks concentration and pops out of the daydream. If someone hasn’t got safeguards in their head and really does fight back, they could become an anti-hero icon.

Some readers will also see this as an opportunity to step into a grammar scrap with the author but that would tell us more about them than we would ever learn about the book. This is a work that forces us to examine ourselves, referring to writers and reviewers, taking our feelings to an extreme to show us how absurd we might become. Will I fall into the trap? Probably not. The idea is worth consideration because it touches a nerve and I can’t say it wasn’t entertaining.

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