Thanks for the Vocabulary Lesson, Mr. Miéville.

Right now I am about 20% through with Perdido Street Station by China Miéville.  I’m not done with the book, so this isn’t going to be a review, exactly.  I’m definitely not going to alert you to any spoilers, so please feel free to read on without fear.

I was looking for something to read after finishing the worst Steinbeck novel of all time, and had a hankering for some Sci-Fi.  Other than Robert Heinlein, I don’t really have any favorite Sci-Fi authors, so I did what I always do when I don’t know what to read next; I Googled “best <insert genre here> novels” and then browsed what I found.

Perdido Street Station was on one of the lists I came across.  It has won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, The British Fantasy Society’s award, The Arthur C. Clarke Award and about 15 others, so I thought I’d give it a try.

It’s not the first time I came across China Miéville.  Ordered The Scar from Amazon about two years ago.  If I’m being honest, it was probably because I liked his name.  It conjured images of an exotic half-Asian, half-French female, both brilliant and beautiful.  The perfect candidate for a literary crush.

No, I didn’t bother to look-up a readily available image on the web.  Yes, I was secretly a bit put-off when the book arrived and the picture on the back was of a muscular, bald, gruff-looking man with a row of earrings in his left-ear and a scowl that I wouldn’t want to bump into in a dark alley.  No, I’m not going to admit that this triviality is why I didn’t read The Scar.  Let’s just say I never got around to it.

So, back to the point of this entry:  Vocabulary.

I have a pretty solid vocabulary.  My spelling is bad and my punctuation is embarrassing, but when I see a word (in English), 9.99 times out of 10 I know what it means.  But before I got to the 2% mark in Perdido Street Station I’d had to look up 15 words.  Here they are, below:

desultory, morbific, chitinous, cacophony (though, I thought I know this one and was right upon looking it up), salubrious, detumescing, outre, epigone, thaumaturge, nascent, carapace, susurrus, transmorgify, expostulate, dusultory.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible that I’m just an idiot and that everyone reading this post knows these words off the top of their heads.  But I’m going to assume I’m not alone here and move forward.

And to continue being fair, a few of these words are scientific in nature, and although I might have learned “chitinous” and “carapace” in high school biology, when we were going over arthropods, I’ve long forgotten them.

However, most of these words could be substituted for more commonly used vocabulary.  For example, “susurrus” means “whispering, murmuring or rustling”.  So, why not just use whispering, murmuring or rustling?  If I want to describe how two characters disagree about something, why not just show the disagreement without adding that they are “expostulating”?  Why say “desultory” when you can just say “erratic”?

Sure, if I want a succinct way to describe a man losing his erection, then “detumescing” is definitely the word for me, but is it really that succinct if the reader has to pause reading, get pulled from the world of the story, so they can look the word up?

So, basically, either Mr. Miéville just happens to have an outstanding vocabulary or his thesaurus is ever by his side and he wants you to think  he’s got an outstanding vocabulary .  Let’s assume the former, because the latter makes him kind of a douche.  Although it doesn’t sound it, I am enjoying the book and thus want to think well of the writer.

For the sake of argument, we’re going to assume that China Miéville won his 5th grade spelling bee and all of those definitions his overbearing dad made him memorize have stayed with him.  Should he, and writers like him, dumb down the vocabulary of a work so it is more accessible to a wider-variety of people? Surely, the folks down in the Marketing dept. would say yes.  But from an artistic viewpoint….

I’m split on the issue.  Part of me thinks that if he wants to throw out “salubrious” when he could use “healthy”, then he should do it.  It’s his book, after all.

And that same part of me is appreciative of of the lesson.  After all, I can now casually use “salubrious” in a sentence and impress my friends.  But should I use it in my writing?

The larger part of me thinks not.  For me, the point of my writing – my ultimate goal – is to draw the reader into the story so they become lost in it.  This is hard to do if the reader has to think “Wait…what does that mean?  I think I know, but I’d better look it up to make sure.”

Surely, there are always going to be obscure words you can use to make your descriptions more specific and clear and it is easy to assume that this would help crystalize the world you are trying to create…but a lot of that clarity is lost if your target audience doesn’t know what your talking about.

Recently, I was reading an old interview that Playboy did with Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut.  Playboy was asking them why they never really described the act of sex in their writing and Joseph Heller said, “…It’s like trying to describe the noise of a subway train. There are people who can do it. Young writers go in for that type of description. But when they’re finished, all they’ve done is described the noise of a subway train coming into a station or pulling out of a station. Is that the noblest objective of a work of fiction? To convince the reader that what you’re writing about is really happening? I don’t think so.”

I’m not saying that he’s right – and in fact I don’t think there is a right or wrong here – but I tend to agree.

I don’t want to take away from Mr. Miéville’s writing or make anyone think he’s a pompous ass.  Really, after I hit the 3% mark in the book, the instances where I had to look up a word subsided to almost nothing.  The guy is a talented writer and I’m quickly becoming a fan.  But, as much as I’m enjoying the book (and I really am enjoying it), for me the first bit of Perdido Street Station was a lesson in what not to do in my own writing.

On the other hand, this guy has published nine books, and that’s nine more than me, so what the hell do I know?

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Published in: on August 26, 2011 at 5:27 am  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. frustrated at Mieville’s choice of words? I think you just got yourself initiated into Mieville fandom! Using ridiculous vocabulary words is just his thing. It frustrates the crap out me, and at first I thought he was doing it to prove how smart he is and how dumb I am, but these days I’m not as bothered by it. i just make sure I know where the dictionary is when i grab a Mieville.

    I’ve read most of his books (The Scar is one of my favorites), and someone should have warned you that Perdido is not the best place to start with him. the story is interesting and all, but the style of the book is too dreamy. If you decide to put Perdido down and try something else, I highly suggest Meiville’s The City and The City, or The Scar (which takes place in the same world as Perdido, just different characters). they are both much, much, much easier to follow.

    when I read his newest Embassytown, I was looking up words every other page. I’m not super educated, but I ain’t stupid either.

    • Ha! It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

      It’s also nice to come across your blog. I’ve been enjoying it this morning.

  2. I’m reading The Kraken. Just started it last night and I like it so far. I’ve heard that The City and The City is particularly good and it’s on my list.

    I, like you, am of two minds on this. First, if it’s the way he writes, then so be it. Besides, apart from academic tomes, when else do we come across a text that expands our knowledge of our own language? But second, if you goal is to tell a story and those who are reading it cannot understand the story because of your language usage, then you have not been successful at accomplishing your goal.

    As for the author’s photograph, I had a childhood flashback. One Christmas I had begged for a copy of Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. When I unwrapped the book, it was back side facing up and I was immediately horrified by the face I saw! At least Silverstein was smiling; Mieville looks like he would beat the crap out of you if you crossed him.

  3. Good post.

    With his descriptions of the flying, insect-like alien things plaguing the city, I felt like his use of ‘carapace’ and ‘chitinous’ were intended to amp up the feeling of alienness the reader would feel when imagining these monsters. Not so much because he was being a ‘look how smart I am” sort of word-snob. (That’s more a Chabon, Franzen kind of thing, though more Chabon than Franzen.) I actually doubt China knew what ‘chitinous’ meant when he started writing the book, and decided to include it because, when used in conjunction with the other odd, biological, entomological terms, it has a visceral impact on the reader he might not have been able to evoke with more ordinary words.

  4. Yeah, with all biological, anatomical terms, I’m more forgiving. It’s terms like “dusultory banyans” in there to describe the erratic placement of trees. “dusultory” is so obscure a word that the spell-check that is built into WordPress (or perhaps it’s build into Chrome) is putting a big red line under it.

    When spell-check doesn’t know a word, you can bet it’s either naughty (and one of my favorites) or it’s pretty obscure.

    Although, the I have to admit I’ve been trying to work the words I’m learning from this book into every day conversation, and that’s been fun.

    Yesterday I told my wife I couldn’t wash the dishes right then because I was extremely busy ‘detumescing’. It worked until she got to a dictionary.


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