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Non-linguist commentators on language heap scorn on “passive writing,” but are curiously poor at identifying passive constructions. The passive is not, as sometimes understood, any sentence that omits the instigator of the action, or a sentence that “just doesn’t sound very active”; rather, it is a specific grammatical construction. This is a passive sentence:

The dog was kicked by Mary.

And so is this:

The dog was kicked.

But this is not:

Someone kicked the dog.

I agree that in, for example, journalism, actors should not get a pass for their behavior; the writer should not conceal Mary’s active participation in this craven act. However, simply eliminating passive sentences won’t accomplish that goal. The identification of actors doesn’t actually covary very reliably with use of the passive. By Mary in the passive sentence above clearly identifies the culprit, while someone in the active sentence does not.

In fact, some of the most common and egregious examples of obscuring responsibility via linguistic choices are accomplished with active constructions. Compare these examples:

The suspect was shot.

The suspect suffered a gunshot wound.

Although the sentence with was shot is a passive, and omits the shooter, it retains the implication of a shooter. The sentence with suffered leaves the idea of a finger on the trigger out of the story entirely. Look what happens when we introduce the idea of intentionality into the two sentences:

The suspect was intentionally shot.

The suspect intentionally suffered a gunshot wound.

In the passive sentence with was shot, blame is placed on an implied shooter; in the active sentence with suffered, we find that, grammatically, we are blaming the victim.

Now, I’m not defending frequent use of passives. I agree that passives have earned their place in the rogue’s gallery of language used to obfuscate, exonerate, or conceal, or to provide a veneer of intimidating prestige. But let’s place the blame where it belongs: on the writer, not the words.


I’ve got a flash fiction piece up at Five:2:One today. Take a look if you’re so inclined.

This is not an accident, or a misunderstanding, or an ironic coincidence, and it’s not about literary quality; it’s about gatekeeping. It’s about identifying those who don’t already have access to the establishment and systematically denying their requests for access.

The big project I’m working on lately has me thinking about the particular alloys of experience and invention that fiction writers use in their work. Like, I think, a lot of readers, I enjoy spotting the things in a work of fiction that seem like they must have been drawn from life–the things that come through with the clarity of memory. But the experiences that truly, personally resonate for us can translate to the page very poorly. Think of authors who set a scene by citing the pop song that’s playing: ten years goes by, and your youth anthem is my oldie. Or The Goldfinch: I get it! You gotta see this painting in person to grasp how awesome it is! But all I have is a book in my hands, and I’m afraid you’ve lost me. And I sometimes wonder if those things that spring off the page as “true” aren’t exactly the ones that are invented out of whole cloth.

Out at one end of the continuum, I’ve always been vaguely skeptical of thinly-veiled autobiography; it seems like cheating. I very much enjoy reading Kenzaburo Oe, for example, but I end up uncomfortable with the unknown amount of himself that he’s put into something like The Changeling. I’ve mentioned before that I tend to dislike memoir, so I suppose I’m consistent, at least.  Never mind that all creative expression, and indeed our very sense of “reality,” are necessarily mediated by individual perception and experience, so the idea of “pure fiction” (or its opposite) is, at its core, a fiction.

So there’s that. Meanwhile, I have a couple of pounds of Knausgaard staring me in the face. Not sure if that’ll help.

I’m having a great time in the University of Iowa’s How Writers Write Fiction MOOC. I’m quite impressed with how much the course staff have put into it–good, in-depth craft advice, well-chosen readings, etc. There are a lot of complaints about the NovoEd platform; it seems like maybe that’s not as mature as it needs to be. The course content is great, though, and there’s a lot of sincere participation from the students.

Which brings me to my problem. I’ve submitted two pieces that involve conflict between women, and the peer feedback for both has included something along the lines of “make sure it’s more than just a catfight!”

Ugh. MOOC aside, is it even possible to write a conflict between two women that doesn’t get read as a catfight? Nobody’s scratching anybody with fingernails in the scenes I write, I promise, and they’re not always talking about boys. One of the pieces described the clothing of one of the characters–it was relevant, I swear! What the hell are we supposed to do? Should I even waste my energy worrying about this when I write? (Too late!)

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