However, in the 15 years that have passed since I completed my linguistics degree, I’ve realized that descriptivism can quickly succumb to its own kind of smugness; it forms its own set of shibboleths and rules. There’s often an insider-y smirk lurking behind the declaration that “language changes.” Yes, language changes — everything changes, Q.E.D. But there’s room in the middle for language moderates who can tell the difference between, on the one hand, arbitrary, baseless, unenforceable rules and, on the other, a refusal to correct even obfuscating or harmful errors.
Novels, of course, communicate a lot more in carrying out their design, but what seems to me beyond dispute is that literature, when undertaken seriously, is a celebration not of life but of awareness, an awareness of the human condition, which is both communal and individual and inevitably strikes a balance, palpable or barely perceptible, between the two. Each of us, then, is a fulcrum where the private and the public meet, where inner and other-directed yearnings sometimes clash. Literature gets written because of this, and what we understand and love in it, as Erich Auerbach wrote, "is a human existence, a possibility of ‘modification’ within ourselves."
Still, it was hard to imagine how Jack Viertel would be able to fill a 300-page book about how Broadway hits get made. Doesn’t every musical have its own particular alchemy? Is there really a recipe for success?
As Viertel lays out in “The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built,” both are clearly true; there is a certain amount of magic that transforms a show into a classic. But there is also time-tested architecture that makes some musicals more effective than others.
At the ninety-nine-cent store, I looked in vain for a bathtub stopper. “Can I help you?” asked a woman, presumably the owner. When I told her what I was looking for, she flew to a seemingly random shelf and began to scan it with a gimlet eye. She tried to give me a drain catch and then one of those flat rubber pads that covers everything, but I really wanted the sort with a chain. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I can just go to the hardware store … ”