Home > Uncategorized > Words Make the Man

Words Make the Man

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately, what with the events in Arizona and the ensuing Palin brouhaha. Words are my livelihood. I live them and I live by them. You know the old adage: You are what you eat. I’ve been wondering lately, are we also what we say?

This is a good question for a fiction writer to ask herself. People always assume that novelists take directly from life and put it on the page, but in reality (for me, at least) it’s often the other way around. I invent and then I watch it become real. I think every novelist has had the spooky experience of the physical world somehow echoing something he or she wrote. It’s always kind of chilling when that happens.

I wonder how much language shapes our emotions, our very ability to conceptualize things like love and fear. Take the Chinese language, for example, which is tonal. The same sound said different ways can mean different things. This obviously leads to different associations than Westerners might have with those same words or concepts. And the English language, where one word is simply one word no matter which tone we use, how does that effect us? Does it make us less fluent, more steadfast?

I think violent imagery and language should not be used in public discourse. It’s not the correct arena. I think people should use some damn manners when dealing with public issues and behave like proper, civilized adults. But I’m not in favor of censorship, either.  I think fiction is the perfect place for violent images and  rhetoric, for when a novelist writes a character who is violent, we automatically have to ask: Why? What is the author trying to say about violence and do I agree?

I worry that our society is losing the capacity for critical analysis. I worry that people are becoming more and more literal even while they become less and less literate, unable to separate the message from its form. And this, more than anything, I think, is the whole point of fiction–to challenge a reader to ask why he or she believes a book, or doesn’t believe it. 

Who knows? Maybe novels will save our country! Start now! Go out, load up on a few, get together with friends,  and see what the words do to you. Just, please, use some damn  manners.

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