Sunday, 5 August 2012


Today I read an interesting article on Hemingway, interesting eventually, that is, once it got past its opening obsession with examples.  Hemingway liked to use specific nouns, the writer of the article said, for example when talking about drink: for instance, he would never just say someone had a drink, it had to be a grappa or a cognac, a Cinzano or a chianti, a brandy, some vermouth, a … well, you get the idea.

On and on the article went, listing examples of the specific types of drinks Hemingway might refer to, and providing excerpts from his novels to show the examples.  Enough already, I thought; I get the point.

When I was teaching English, back in another century, the textbooks told me to tell the students to use examples.  And examples of course can be a fine thing.  I take part in an Aristotle seminar these days – fine man, Aristotle, even when I disagree with him, maybe especially when I disagree with him, but he can be cryptic at times.  What does he mean, I sometimes say?  If only he would give an example.

That’s when an example would be useful.  Or even two.  To elucidate, explain, make clear.  Not to hammer home the point that’s already crystal clear.  Not to prove something.

How deadly it is to try and prove something you already know.  I had to give up a master’s thesis once, because all it was going to be was a collection of evidence to prove what I already knew about Cromwell and the English Civil War.  How boring.  (Also disconcerting when it turned out I couldn’t find the evidence, and in fact found evidence disproving my theory; but my point is that even if all the evidence had been there, what a waste of time to just pile it up in support of something, letting it sit lifeless in a pile, not stimulating you to find new theories, just very carefully proving the simple point you began with.)

This is why I couldn’t stand the five-paragraph essay formula I was also supposed to teach.  I did draw the line there; one has to have some standards.  The five-paragraph formula is actually egregious for all sorts of reasons, but the one relevant here is that it asks the budding writer to frontload his thesis and then spend the rest of his essay proving it.  This formula unfortunately has infected a good deal of academic writing; every learned article these days begins by saying, “In this article I will demonstrate that blue cheese is blue,” or something like that, and I think, Well, if that’s all you’re going to do, why do I need to read past your thesis sentence?

I like to write essays and articles that don’t necessarily know where they’re going, like this one, for which I don’t seem to have an ending.  I could refer to Aristotle again, though, who in the section of his Rhetoric on using examples while making a speech actually provides examples.  Fitting, I suppose, but totally out of character.  So much so that the leader of our seminar said, This doesn’t sound like Aristotle at all.  It was certainly much clearer, and as I said, an example can be great to make things clear.  But please don’t burden us with long lists of them after you’ve made your point; go on to other things.

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