Twelve Fiction Pet Peeves


Dear readers: You will LOVE this, by a friend and former colleague. Sort of “You Knew What I Meant” macro….

Originally posted on Sonya Huber:

Me in sophomore year of high school, I think. All those things we shouldn't have done.  That hair.... another pet peeve.

Me in sophomore year of high school, I think. All those things we shouldn’t have done. That hair…. another pet peeve.

I’m reading fiction for Dogwood today, and here’s what I’m noticing in stories that strike me the wrong way. Some of these, of course, irritate me because I have done these exact things when I used to write fiction.
1. When a main character’s first problem is that he or she is bored.
2. Puns in the title. I love puns. But not in the title.
3. A flurry of people introduced in the first paragraph.
4. A flurry of people with trendy androgynous names in the first paragraph. Karp, Jae, Ren, Jasp, whatever. People often have dorky and awkward names in real life, not these little moments of sculpture. Don’t give them the names you wish you had.
5. A kid setting a fire for no reason.

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“Horses were not always house pets.”

This sits alone in a margin of an old gradebook. I have no context for it, although another Horror a few pages later does mention a character in Equus, so maybe this student was also writing about that play, although I have never taught it in a course.

I once had a student who built her assigned literature anthology on the subject of horses. This gradebook is from the University where I used that assignment. Perhaps, then, it is a statement from her anthology’s Introduction. In that case, it might have been one of those opening statements that offer the reader a quick and breathtakingly generalized vision of history.

Did she then mean to observe that horses were not always domesticated but used to live free and wild? But many domesticated animals live in designated areas other than their human family’s own dwelling. Even back in the days when domestic animals lived under the same roof as their human family, they were segregated from the rest of the living quarters and were definitely not thought of as “pets” or invited to climb up on laps or sofas.

I had to share this, if only for the bizarre image…although the thought did cross my mind that I might find a nice picture of a wild horse to drive home the point, as it were. My consequent trip through Creative Commons yielded a photo so bizarre that I hesitate to put it here although Creative Commons would let me. It is evidently “from Francesca Romana” and may have something to do with the closing of a horse track in Milan. It is so appropriate to this post that it might almost be a photo taken or inspired by my student. Anyway, I invite you to follow this link and judge for yourself whether horses have, in fact, become house pets unbeknownst to you or me:

Beyond this, I believe my student’s sentence needs no further comment. Let it stand as unembellished and unexplained. Enjoy imagining contexts for it, or picturing the many dimensions of strangeness that lurk beneath her serene observation.

“Civility is something that isn’t something with a concrete definition.”

My students were meant to be writing about Hank Reichmann’s essay “Is ‘Incivility’ the New Communism?” on Academe Magazine’s blog, his idea that calls for “civility” on college campuses are intended to stifle unpopular opinions just as accusations of communist affiliations did in the 1950s—they were to agree or disagree, considering his example of a student’s use of the “ice bucket challenge” to protest the violence in Gaza and any other examples they could find or had experienced. Although I knew the essay would be a bit much to ask a first-year writer to manage fully, I wanted to start the semester off with something thought-provoking and difficult. For the most part, they did their best to rise to the occasion.

But the high school lesson to “define your terms” took its toll, particularly with the student quoted here. Oh, dear. She knew she should; but Reichmann doesn’t provide a “concrete definition,” and I try to be clear that “defining one’s terms” doesn’t mean “copy the meaning from the dictionary.” To add to the problem here, it’s possible that she wasn’t familiar enough with the word to be confident with it on her own. Whatever adjurations and counter-adjurations were roiling around in her mind, when she put finger to keyboard she meant to do things right. Hence “Civility is something….”

But how to go on from there? She didn’t know what to say.

I believe I know what she meant, and I also believe that if she had just stopped to think, she could have done better. We had been reading S. I. Hayakawa’s classic Language In Thought and Action, still a wonderful and useful exploration of living semantics and the role of language in thought, and she could have pulled the word “abstraction” from its pages and wielded it here. “Like most abstractions, the word ‘civility’ has no single, clear meaning.” But she didn’t connect the reading assignment with the writing assignment. (Why, I wonder, is this so often the case? Do we really have to direct our students’ thoughts that preemptively, telling them “remember that you can relate your reading assignment to your writing assignment”?)

She also didn’t follow my urgent suggestion, given to every writing class with almost pathological frequency, that she read her draft aloud as part of proofreading and revision. Surely “Civility is something that isn’t something” would have given her pause? No. She wrote “Civility is something that…” and couldn’t go on with a “concrete definition,” so she pushed along and re-opened the sentence without closing it: “isn’t something with a clear definition.” Oh, my dear, go BACK! go BACK! Get rid of the “is something” and you’ll have “Civility isn’t something with a concrete definition.” Shorten it: “Civility has no concrete definition.” Add quotation marks so we know you mean the word, not the thing: “‘Civility’ has no concrete definition.” That isn’t elegant, but it’s a start that might get you there eventually. At least you and your reader will both know what you’re saying to begin with.

Well, she did get somewhere eventually, but that staggering first sentence was followed by a lot more staggering before she found her verbal and conceptual feet. So much work…so much effort that might have been saved, or made more efficient, with a little thought. And I mean thought ahead of time, before beginning to write. I tell my students, sympathetically, that I can always tell where in their papers they’re unsure of their facts, or their idea, or their reasoning: the sentences always go crazy, the grammar breaks down, the words go in circles. As here.

Because as it is, her first sentence is something that isn’t something that inspires confidence.

Civility reigns in Edward Hicks' painting of The Peaceable Kingdom. See it at the Brooklyn Museum. Source:

Civility reigns in Edward Hicks’ painting of The Peaceable Kingdom. See it at the Brooklyn Museum. Source:

“You see this fear in the past, present, and future around the world.”

My student was attributing the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 to a fear of the unknown, and certainly that’s a reasonable hypothesis. Then he goes on to remark that this fear was not limited to the people of Salem, or to the seventeenth century: “you see this fear in the past, present….” Again, he’s right about that: indeed, one might even speculate that many of those folks who made such bizarre choices at the ballot boxes last Tuesday were gripped by a fear of the unknown, the different, the alien. And social issues and politics are probably thus all around the world.

I have no quarrel with my student’s thinking so far.

But don’t you know it, he HAS to go on: there’s something irresistible about a sentence with a series of three items, isn’t there? And so he adds “and future.” Now, we may very well be safe in saying we WILL see this same fear, this horror of the strange or sudden, in the future, human nature being what it is, education having as little effect as it seems to have had and all. Using the present tense to describe the future is the confusing part. We DON’T “see” this fear in the future; we’re not there yet. We don’t see anything in the future. Everything we actually see we see in the present, and in the present we can read about the past and see something there too.

I am discounting the possibility that my student is clairvoyant, or that I am (he is, after all, addressing me when he writes “You,” no?). That would be one way to see something in the future, now. “I see a tall, dark stranger.” “I see a ship sailing.” “I see money.” “I see hard days ahead…” says the exotically-gowned-and-bangled dark woman in the shadowy tent, and we believe her (or not, depending on how much we like what she “sees”). Whether such a woman is likely to say “I see fear of the unknown in the future” I don’t know; certainly no such vision has been described by clairvoyants and fortune-tellers in the novels I’ve read and television shows I’ve seen.

I honestly don’t think my student had clairvoyance in mind. I doubt that he even meant the “future” part. I think, as I said at the outset, that he simply felt the sentence wasn’t finished with only two items in a series, and the future just plopped itself down there before he could think. And he didn’t think afterwards, either. So there I am, reading about witches and suddenly giving them visiting aliens (the space kind) and carnival “gypsies” for company. That’s the kind of strange world reading will take you to.

But you can only get to it if YOU don’t have that fear of the unknown.…

“Detroit does see a lot of repeat visitations from tourists.”

My student was following the money woes of Detroit as his Journal project (“follow an issue in the news for seven weeks, selecting and summarizing articles on multiple sides of the issue, and then write an argument essay that takes a position on the issue and supports it with evidence and reasoning” is more or less the assignment).

This sentence is from his summary of an article talking about the viability of Detroit as a “destination.”

Of course I noted “wrong word!” in the margin. And then I took another look at the article—and found that the reporter had also referred to tourist “visitations.” How, then, can I blame my student?

I can lament his not knowing that “visit” and “visitation” do not (yet) have the same meaning, but I also have to acknowledge that people who don’t read a lot—and especially people who don’t read certain kinds of things a lot (legal papers, ghost stories, confessional tales)—haven’t had a lot of opportunities to learn this.

For those of us who do read those certain kinds of things, and/or the dictionary, the words are distinct.

A “visit” is a “short stay,” or a journey combined with a short stay. It might also be a search by a naval officer on the high seas, but we’ll leave that alone.

The fun comes with the verb “to visit.” It can mean “to pay a call on”; it can also mean “to comfort, as by God,” “to reside with temporarily as a guest,” “to go to see with a particular purpose,” “to go officially to inspect or oversee”—AND “to inflict a scourge upon, as by God,” “to avenge, as in visit one’s wrath upon,” or “to present momentarily or be overcome by,” as to be visited by a strange notion.

These latter verb senses seem to inhabit the noun “visitation”: “an official visit as for inspection,” “a special dispensation of divine favor or wrath,” “a severe trial or affliction,” “a right granted to the non-custodial parent in a divorce.”

Another meaning adheres by way of the noun “visitant”: a visitor, especially one thought to come from the spirit world. Or a migrant bird that regularly visits a particular site.

These definitions all come from my handy Webster’s, but a quick tour around online dictionaries pretty much bears out these demarcations.

So when I read about tourist visitations to Detroit, I imagine ectoplasmic sojourners wafting in on the easterly breezes, possibly at the summons of some benevolent (or malevolent) psychic in the public-relations office. And then of course I imagine Detroit besieged by them, the air thickened and the atmosphere begloomed by them, a plague of touring ghosts. Have they come on an official inspection tour, or to reward or punish, or simply to haunt? That we are not told; we know only that they come more than once. As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems.

A visitation by only one ghost, preferably one who still believed in democracy and public property and was willing to punish incompetent or irresponsible management, would perhaps be a blessing. If the ghost were especially whimsical or frolicsome he or she might even contribute to the economy by becoming an attraction for visits by ordinary tourists!


“When one eats fast food…”

I’m going to consider this Horror the third in the Unnecessary Sentences sequence, although it could arguably stand alone.

Here it is in all its glory:

“When one eats fast food, the oil, fat, sugar, salt, and other contents of the food go directly into the body.”

Where else it might go first I cannot imagine, unless “eating” can include “spilling on tie,” “playing with on dish,” and “putting in the refrigerator for later,” all of which activities do involve a detour between bag and mouth. But once it’s in the mouth, food can pretty much be said to have gone directly into the body (assuming no physical abnormality of the mouth).

I THINK my student meant that all those “contents” are broken down into substances that will enter and affect the various systems and components of the body—structurally kind of like the lament sometimes heard at birthday parties, “That cupcake will go directly to my hips,” an hyperbolic utterance bemoaning the speaker’s propensity for putting on fat. As in that example, so for my student: it’s enough to say the “contents” of food go directly into the body; the intermediate steps can be assumed. But if that’s what she means, how is fast food different from other foods?

She might mean that we should worry because fast food contains excessive amounts of things that are bad in excess—oil, fat, sugar, salt—and we are putting those things into our bodies. That would be a likely idea in an essay about the unhealthy effects of a McDonald’s diet, and that’s what this essay was. But that isn’t what she has offered the reader. Maybe she thought the worry part was obvious.

And of course it is. Of course I knew what she meant. How to prevent invasion by these substances? When you eat fast food, this happens—so don’t eat fast food. And that was her essay’s message, so maybe the sentence is doing its job, sort of, after all.

But I’m still sitting here thinking about ways in which food might go into the mouth and then take some side excursion before entering the body. And I don’t really want to think about it!

Well, I wish I hadn't decided to put a picture in here. Now I'm hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from

Well, I wish I hadn’t decided to put a picture in here. Now I’m hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from

“The health issues that come with eating fast food…”

Part two in the “sentences that need not have been written” series.

“The health issues that come with eating fast food can cause one to become obese and have health issues.”

Now, maybe this sentence isn’t circular at all. Perhaps the first “health issues” are, what, stimulated appetite? Addiction to sugar or fat? Cavities? We know obesity isn’t one of the  health issues mentioned here, because obesity can be caused by these health issues. What else can be caused by them? Ah. Health issues. These must be other health issues: diabetes, perhaps; high blood pressure; heart attacks? Or maybe just addiction to sugar or fat, because really, if the first one isn’t defined then we can’t rule out any possible definitions for the second.

I can’t overthink this. It may just be one of those sentence-interruptus products: halfway through the sentence, his roommate says “Hey, let’s go over and get some lunch” or the hot girlfriend texts “PARTY TIME!” and the writer stops, mid-sentence, to do this other, more attractive, thing. Upon returning to task, he doesn’t waste time reading what he’s already written, but just plows ahead. That might explain it.

Or he knows what he means by “health issues” but doesn’t want to share. He might feel “health issue” is a more grown-up term than “diabetes.”

There is always the possibility, of course, that he doesn’t know what he means by “health issues” but is sure someone must. Either he has no imagination or he’s reluctant to pin himself down.

Maybe he’s afraid if he mentions one he’ll forget a more obvious one and the reader will laugh at him….

Use your words, dear. And I don’t mean “issues,” which you’ve heard a lot lately and feel safe with; I mean the ones in the OED, or at least in Webster’s—the clear, concrete terms people used before the mass media, fear of commitment, and lazy thinking replaced them all with “issues.”

“Mental illness affects the mind.”

I will embark for the next few posts on the sentences that never had to be written.

There is something to be said for establishing common ground in an argument: beginning the process of presenting evidence and interpreting it as supportive of an opinion by first making a statement the reader can readily agree with. But this student’s statement takes that idea down to ground zero.

Mental illness affects the mind.

The funny thing about sentences like that is that they somehow feel important, resonant. But then the reader pauses, sensing something disconcerting. Did the writer mean to be that simplistic, or am I missing something?

Has the teacher unwittingly set a false example? Certainly many of us try to open discussions by asking questions with fairly obvious answers, planning to go from those easy responses to more sophisticated points. For example: What did Melville call his great whaling novel (that you, dear students, have been assigned to begin reading for today)? [How long will I have to wait for the answer? How many students will think to themselves, “Well, I know it’s Moby-Dick, but the answer can’t be that simple…”? Will I have to smile benevolently and encourage them: “Not a trick question, class”?] But of course this answer isn’t the point: the next question, assuming the first eventually gets answered, will lead off from it: for example, “How much of the book do we have to read before we find out who or what Moby-Dick is?” And then, “Why might Melville have wanted to keep the reader guessing?” Or “Did you have any ideas about who Moby-Dick might be?” Or “Did your prior knowledge about the book make this a non-question for you?” Or “If you had been living when Melville’s novel came out, you would already have heard of the real albino whale Mocha Dick, who had sunk a number of ships, most recently the Essex out of Nantucket; would you have associated that whale with this book because of its title, and would that have made you want to read this book perhaps?” If the class had gotten farther into the novel, the second question might instead have been “Could you suggest another title?” or  “Why not title the book ‘Ahab,’ since the reader’s (and narrator’s) attention is on the obsession, the psychology, of the captain?” Or “Do you think the white whale is the most interesting aspect of the book?” Etc. We all do this: lead the student from the obvious, to the intriguing, to the interesting hypothetical, to perhaps an insight or two or a productive association of multiple pieces of information. But the seemingly obvious and certainly basic first question in a class discussion is not meant to encourage students to commit obvious statements to paper in a written analysis.

Still, students do imitate and emulate; that’s one way of learning. Alas for us, we never know WHAT the students will choose to imitate, and whether they’ll understand what they’re doing.

Now, if the student had begun with “Although the manifestations of mental illness may be physical, behavioral, or verbal, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is an illness of the mind,” I would have happily expected an essay that prioritized types of studies of mental illness, or made recommendations concerning services for the mentally ill, or looked at various treatments of mental illnesses that targeted either symptoms or sources. Or “mental illness affects the mind, but earlier cultures assumed it was a matter of demons, not disease.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, but usually it affects many more aspects of the individual as well.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why we fear it so deeply.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, the very seat of identity.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why the madman in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ thinks he is not mad.”

My student did none of the above, although he was writing about Poe’s story. After the bald beginning, he continued to enlighten along the lines of that’s-why-the-madman’s-thinking-is-so-twisted and we-can-see-from-what-he-says-that-his-mind-is-affected. In other words, yes, the simple statement could have been a door into an interesting and perhaps complex line of discussion.

Or not.

Be that as it may, he has given us a fact. Shouldn’t that be enough?

“These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!

This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.

Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.

So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.

I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.

For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)

And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.

Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.

When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?

So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.

Could happen, right?

“The Babylonians and Greeks prayed and gave sacrifices…”

I’m not sure that once I’ve finished this choice quotation there will be much I need to say:

“The Babylonians and Greeks prayed and gave sacrifices to numerous gods, while the Hebrews only had to keep track of worshiping one.”

This totally explains the ascendance of monotheism. Only one god to keep track of.

Certainly when it comes to following the action in literary hero tales, the student must be grateful for monotheism. All those gods, with all their nicknames, affairs, relatives, and feuds, every human action calling for bribing a different god to get through it, all those temples and shrines…and then on top of it, most of the gods could change their shapes, take on human form and identity, show up unexpectedly, mess around with people—good grief! What a nightmare!

And then look at those lucky Hebrews—only one god to keep track of. Whew. Even if Jahweh has his whims and expectations, even if he chooses to be inscrutable at times, even if he occasionally decides to knock down a tower, or wipe out humanity, having only him to try to keep happy sure simplifies your day.



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