Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying The Economist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.
This shelf houses a smallish selection of maybe 40 to 60 books — about the number you might see on a table in the front of a bookstore, where the titles have earned a position of prominence by way of being new or important or best sellers or staff favorites. The books on the recently returned shelf, though, haven’t been recommended by anyone at all. They simply limit my choices by presenting a near-random cross section of all circulating parts of the library: art books and manga and knitting manuals next to self-help and philosophy and thrillers, the very popular mixed up with the very obscure. Looking at them is the readerly equivalent of gazing into the fridge, hungry but not sure what you’re hungry for.
There’s a bad double bind in being a writer: If you don’t write about things people are interested in, nobody is going to read you. But if you write about things people are interested in, other people are writing about them, too. I have felt jealousy as a writer many times: while reading Rachel Aviv writing about fugue states and psychosomatic unconsciousness; Lauren Oyler writing about the un-give-up-ability of social media; and, even though she’s dead, Susan Sontag writing about the way apocalypse looms but never occurs—the last section of AIDS and Its Metaphors is basically my whole work in progress, condensed. Sontag seems to have already had all my worthwhile thoughts. Reading writers I admire writing about things I want to write about, obsessions I’m protective of, makes me feel unspecial: a bratty thing to feel, or at least to admit.
If the idea of the pre-internet diaries was to transmit a snapshot of a famous person’s actions, the internet diaries offer an outline of a famous person’s neuroses; readers witness them fret over everything from the quality of their writing to the quantity of food they consume. Alan Yang, co-creator of Master of None, prefaces his Grub Street Diet with this disclaimer: “What you’re about to read is a description of one of the craziest series of meals I’ve ever had…I love to eat good food, but this is not normal.” For his first feast, Yang orders: “three cheeses and blood-orange marmalade; salumi misti; a green salad with anchovies; roasted beets with whipped ricotta; burrata; white-bean soup; seared octopus with ramps; tonnarelli cacio e pepe; bucatini all’amatriciana; fettuccine alla carbonara; pappardelle alla Bolognese; malfatti with braised suckling pig; cavatelli with pork sausage; chitarra with charred ramps; chicken cutlet; poached trout; roasted carrots; and charred asparagus.” As can be seen by both Early and Yang’s anxious preambles, there is something incredibly meta about the whole ordeal: a week lived a certain way because the author is using it to market himself, curating a facade that he knows will leave an impact on his reputation and career as soon as the following day.
The five decades that Keith Carter has spent documenting small-town Texas more than make up for the fact that he was born in Wisconsin. His family moved to the town of Beaumont when he was just a few years old, in the early nineteen-fifties, and his single mother took up commercial portrait photography to support them. Mesmerized by the red-tinted darkroom printing he witnessed in their kitchens growing up, he turned to photography after graduating from Lamar University with a business degree. He has since built a prolific career making art of and for the place he’s from. “My home town,” Carter has said, “is the backdrop for a rich East Texas storytelling culture, an occasional mystifying spirituality, and abundant folklore,” qualities that manifest themselves in the rich, allegorical images he produces.