"Gender Studies"
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Originally published in the August 29, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

August 29, 2016So: a one-night stand with a stranger after ending a relationship. As familiar as this is in New Yorker fiction — I referred to this in a quip just at the end of last week — I hope that Sittenfeld does it better than most. I’ve never read any of Sittenfeld’s five novels, but I know readers I appreciate hold her in some esteem, so I’m looking forward to getting to know her a bit with this story . . . I hope she does the trope better.

Looking forward to the discussion below. I’ll post my own thoughts when I’m done with the story, but feel free to post yours in the meantime.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2016-08-22T12:23:36-04:00August 22nd, 2016|Categories: Curtis Sittenfeld, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |37 Comments


  1. Avataram August 23, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    A dark allegory on how Trump and his supporters have made America lose her identity and have screwed her.

  2. Roger August 24, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    Wait, Avataram … in the story, the main character only thinks she loses her identity (driver’s license) – it turns out she had simply misplaced it! And she enjoys her time with the Trump supporter (“you had fun,” he says, sullenly). And she leaves him frustrated and disappointed. So maybe it is a bright allegory about America thwarting Trump’s supporters, after toying with them a little?

  3. avataram August 25, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Roger – I do hope it is a bright allegory as you say. Or at least some kind of allegory.

    If not, the story feels like a rejected 1990s Sex and the City plot outline set in Kansas City instead of New York City.

    New occupation: Livery Cab Driver: Check
    Some kind of disappointment at the end: Check
    Learning from episode: Brazilian wax: Check

    Through the story Nell is thinking of texting her friend about what is happening and decides not to. Rather than Carrie texting Samantha, I read it as Hillary composing increasingly inappropriate mails to Huma, and deciding not to send them over an insecure channel.

    Each time Deborah Treisman goes on leave, Willing Davidson picks up some story from the bottom of the pile and publishes it.

  4. Roger August 25, 2016 at 9:12 am

    I wasn’t terribly impressed either, Avataram. Your Sex and the City comparison is apt. But in terms of the Hillary part, it seems likelier to me that the shuttle driver is the stand-in for Huma, and that the two will soon reunite, long-term. New title would be something like “How I Met My Deputy Chief of Staff.”

  5. David August 25, 2016 at 11:50 am

    I was not sure if I wanted to comment at all on this story. I found it quite poor quality from start to finish and I don’t feel like just venting at it or thinking much more about the story to articulate the problems I had with it in detail. So I’ll just briefly note that while I was unimpressed from the first paragraph (and distracted by the weirdness of using the present tense, but pointing out that the story takes place in 2015 so we know it is not set today, a detail that only matters when she later says, “There’s no way Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President.”), I knew there was no hope of the story winning me over in the end when I got to this line:

    “But the unsettling part is that, with him kneeling, it happens that his face is weirdly close to the zipper of her pants—he didn’t do this on purpose, she doesn’t think, but his face is maybe three inches away—so how could the idea of him performing oral sex on her not flit across her mind?”

    With a book I am reading and enjoying maybe three inches away from my hand, how could the idea of stopping reading this story right there and going back to the book not flit across my mind?

  6. Eric August 26, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    What can I say? I can’t defend the fact that I enjoyed this cutesy lightweight pile of steaming dramedy, but I did. I don’t disagree with any of the previous criticisms, and I would also add that some of the shifts in tone were more jarring than they needed to be, and that some of the funny stuff was probably meant to be poignant, while some of the poignant stuff was probably meant to be funny. But I still read it through to end, even with the awkward middle. Yeah, the plot probably does resemble a Sex in the City episode (I wouldn’t know), but it is improved considerably by the author’s helpful inclusion of the things that shuttle driver kid could have done to win the protagonist’s heart for the evening–suitable for highlighting for later reference, if you have the dead-tree version. I also really liked how our heroine’s pretensions were deflated by the first few paragraphs being written in the exact same style that TNY uses for their Talk of the Town minibios, even if that wasn’t exactly the author’s intention.

    Overall, a pleasant enough guilty pleasure, though I think after this I’m ready for something more substantial next week.

  7. Madwomanintheattic August 27, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Guys, guys, hold up! Sex and the City? Guilty pleasure? You’re talking about my life. If we have to resort to sitcom analogies, I’m going to go with “Girls,” which, like this story, showcases absolutely authentic emotions that perhaps you have never felt, and that are rarely so successfully and explicitly rendered in New Yorker fiction (Miranda July’s “Roy Spivey” from 2007 its closest if closeted cousin). Kudos to Ms. Sittenfeld for getting it down on paper with the lights on. That Nell kept her academic affiliation a secret while allowing full frontal coverage of her bush made me laugh in a way you’ll never hear ’til your reading ears open a little bit more. The story is fun, yes, rueful fun; that’s a serious gift.

  8. David August 27, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Madwoman, just because something is authentic does not make it interesting. I could tell you loads of authentic stories of my life that even *I* would be bored by. I also have met lots of authentic people I would not want to spend 5 minutes with. Nell is one of those people. Give me interesting over authentic any day. As I read, my ears were wide open. It’s just had to hear much when they are bleeding so badly. The writing was quite second-rate, regardless of the subject matter. Fun? No. I would have had more fun sitting at the bar with Luke telling me how great he thinks Trump is.

  9. Eric August 27, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    “[T]his story, showcases absolutely authentic emotions that perhaps you have never felt”

    Maddy, you are correct, there are certainly emotions in this story for which those of us on Mars lack firsthand experience. Many thanks for the anthropological report from Venus, though I must say that without external confirmation it’s just another unproven theory, like evolution or climate change.

    Btw, as I’m sure you know, one of the defects associated with the Y chromosome is deafness to cerain frequencies, so opening one’s ears is only helpful up to a point.

  10. Fay August 28, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Oh, but the hypocrisy is so juicy and refreshing. Change the genders, the political affiliations and … weep.

  11. Ken August 30, 2016 at 4:29 am

    Fay—Could you expand on that? I am a male reader, but I liked this. I don’t think it’s first-rate or amazing, but I thought it did a nice job of explaining ambivalence. I could understand Nell’s conflicted feelings straight down the line and feel ambivalent towards her as well. Perhaps it’s not a pleasant thing to admit, but when I encounter people who are on a lower class and (presumably) intellectual status than I am, there have been times when (without hopefully ever revealing it) I have become interested in them as case studies in a sort of detached anthropological way. That’s how academics are trained. As long as you don’t do it with condescension or let someone know you’re doing it or hurt their feelings, I’m not so sure it’s such a crime.

  12. Eric August 30, 2016 at 9:55 pm

    “Change the genders, the political affiliations and … ”

    Actually, that sounds kind of interesting. Don’t think it will happen, but it would be fun if, in the next two months, The New Yorker runs some fiction that attempts to parse the mind of a female Trump supporter. My main problem here was that much of the material was overly familiar, and this would certainly address that problem.

  13. Greg September 4, 2016 at 8:04 am

    Thanks everyone for the great thread above!

    Avataram – Loved the SATC comparison!

    Roger – Very clever by bringing in Huma.

    Eric – Thanks for emphasizing how the author did a good job of helping men see what they could do to regain a woman’s favour when things make a downturn.

    David – Come on, you’d really rather listen to how great Trump is than read about a desperate drunk snob going slumming?

    Fay – “Juicy” and “Refreshing” are the perfect descriptors!

  14. William September 5, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    I enjoyed this story a lot. On second reading, I appreciated it even more.

    To me, what’s most appealing about the story is its sense of intellectual irony. By that I mean that Sittenfeld creates and sustains a wonderfully amusing depiction of the tension between the main character’s theoretical mental erudition and her clumsiness while functioning in the immediate sensory world. She’s capable of discussing gender in the classroom but not so smooth about transacting gender in the bedroom.

    When I read the title, I was hoping for a knowing contrast between the academic sense of gender studies and the real-world acting-out of activity between the genders. And that is what we get. The story delivers fully what the slyly ironic title promises.

    There was mention in one comment about this being a cliché setup. Probably you have all read more than I have (I”ve never seen an episode of “Sex and the City”). I don’t remember any story that delivers this kind of portrait of a woman who can talk and think and write about concepts but be so inept when it comes to touch. Nell has published on booty call and psychosexuality and hook-up culture, but that doesn’t make her an expert on casual sex, or even comfortable with it. Maybe treating it as a topic for a scholarly article reduces her skill with the actual practice.

    Perhaps that’s what Sittenfeld is showing us. Because Nell lives in her head, she’s able to be a scholar, an outstanding one, since she has been the president of her academic organization and is on an important committee. But the price of that mental manipulation of sexuality, of gaining the ability to reduce “gender contact” to “gender studies”, is the loss of the ability to function in her physically gender role.

    Basically, Nell has lost touch with her feelings. Everything she does, all her actions, are refracted through a prism of theory after being reduced to abstractions.

    “Having a drink in the hotel bar with Luke the Shuttle Driver is almost enjoyable, because it’s like an anthropological experience.”

    Nell’s thoughts double and re-double on themselves:

    “(It’s not that she’s unaware that she’s an elitist asshole. She’s aware! She’s just powerless not to be one.)”

    Spontaneity, anyone?

    Everything is an intellectual game, until Nell becomes emotionally involved and it isn’t fun anymore:

    “She no longer thinks that she’ll tell Lisa anything.”

    Nell is constantly distracted from her interactions with Luke by her previous relationship with Henry, she’s constantly comparing Luke to Henry:

    “Luke uses his hands in a less habitually proficient but perhaps more natively adept way.”

    It’s all so scholarly, so analytical. Nothing that Nell does is from her core, nothing is unmediated by the precepts of her discipline: “[C]ertainly she is not oblivious of the non-equitability of their encounter ending at this moment” — what does that even mean? Everyone in her milieu is like this. When she meets an architect, and he finds that she has shaved her pubic region, he is “appalled by how readily a gender-studies professor will capitulate to arbitrary standards of female beauty.” Nell is personally relieved by his view, but finds it “intellectually a facile and unendearing failure of imagination.” Huh?

    In the end, she distances herself from the true emotional content of the encounter:

    “Sometimes, when she’s half asleep, she remembers Luke saying, “You’re so pretty,” how serious and sincere his voice was. She remembers when his face was between her legs, and she feels shame and desire. But by daylight it’s hard not to mock her own overblown emotions. . . . Besides, he was a Trump supporter.”

  15. Greg September 6, 2016 at 5:34 am

    Thank you William for sharing the author’s objectives with this story. This part of your analysis is my favourite part:

    “Basically, Nell has lost touch with her feelings. Everything she does, all her actions, are refracted through a prism of theory after being reduced to abstractions.”

    Lastly, I believe the show “Cheers” did a good job with this theme of an academic struggling with emotional and sexual feelings through the character of Lilith. Would you agree?

  16. Sean H September 8, 2016 at 2:01 am

    Bad to the point that it makes you wonder who in the literary establishment Sittenfeld has compromising pictures of. She’s never struck me as a literary writer at all but even Dan Brown can do better than this shitpile. Sittenfeld went to Iowa and I can’t believe someone there didn’t teach her not to overuse pointless adverbs. It’s a staple of fiction workshops, yet this piece is rife with “immediately,” “particularly,” “impulsively”, “simultaneously,” “definitely,” “eventually,” “assiduously,” “apparently,” “painfully,” and even a “wall shiftingly”!!! Few things reek of hackery and sloppy writing more than unnecessary adverbs. Not to mention the material already covered in the comments above, the 90s-level sub-Sex in the City, Bridget Jones level inanity — and for the record vaginal upkeep and oral sex weren’t even controversial back then twenty years ago. This story features an unironic use of the line “Their eyes met.” This is just ludicrous. It’s like someone won a bet to see just how bad a story they could publish in a high-line periodical. Both topicality and execution are downright putrid. Absolute dreck from start to finish. Worthless.
    There is still good writing in The New Yorker, including in this issue as Gopnik’s piece on Attica and Goodyear’s exploration of the artist Michael Herzer are both exemplary. Read those instead.

  17. David September 8, 2016 at 8:58 am

    Sean, I have never taken a writing course or read about “how to be a good writer”, but since this is your second recent comment railing against adverbs I decided to look it up. It strikes me that the rule about adverbs is one of those silly ideas that somehow become important because it identifies who is “in the club” from who is not more than because it has any practical point. “What? You don’t know the adverb rule? You must be a mere literary plebian.” As with the last time you noted the “problem” with adverbs I again here think that the only people who will mind her use of them are people who either teach or take writing classes and have been told that this is a rule. Let me pick one example from your list to explain.
    You include the word “painfully” on your list, which is used one in the story in the clause, “…the meetings are a blur and the time with Luke is painfully vivid.” Now if she had written instead, “… and the time with Luke is vivid and painful” then PRESTO! no more adverb. Except that now there also is no link between the vividness and the pain. As she wrote it, the pain is a result of it being vivid. So she could have written “and the time with Luke was painful because of how vivid it was”. Sure, that works, but it seems rather clunky and unnecessarily wordy. So I can’t for the life of me see a reason to object to using the adverb “painfully” here except that it breaks some rule that “the club” decided mattered. I checked a few of the other adverbs you didn’t like and each time I didn’t see the problem. I wonder if fifty years from now writers and writing teachers will all have a good laugh about that time in the past when people were so foolishly, slavishly, puzzlingly, and unreasonably worried about the use of adverbs.
    I didn’t like this story and I also thought the writing was quite poor. “Their eyes meet” is a good example of that and I mentioned a couple of others before, but the adverbs are fine. Maybe someone who knows the “rule” and is on the lookout for adverbs might not be able to stomach them, but as a reader who didn’t know there was a rule they didn’t even register. A good measure of whether a rule about what counts as bad writing is a good rule is whether people who don’t know it is a rule find the writing bad regardless.
    I am tempted to pick up a copy of a Dickens or Twain novel to go look for offending adverbs. I bet they are everywhere. Every high school student who was sure those guys are hacks will be delighted to find out they were right. I look forward to the next decade when the people who teach writing decide that adjectives have to go, too. If verbs and nouns are not enough for you, get out!

  18. Madwomanintheattic September 8, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Anybody want to take on Sean’s demand that we obey usage “rules” by examining his first sentence containing the exemplary words “…who in the literary establishment Sittenfeld has compromising pictures of”? I can’t imagine why this story, intended as a rueful examination of a class encounter of the first kind, has engendered such vitriol. Can you?

  19. David September 8, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Madwoman, I understand the vitriol because it is part of a long-standing tradition in literary criticism. The scathing, hostile review has become regarded as an artform in its own right that lots of people enjoy reading the same way some people used to watch The Jerry Springer Show for the fistfights. In keeping with the class issues of this story, literary criticism is sometimes just the highbrow version of the Springer fistfight. Lots of people who follow author’s like TMZ follows celebrities enjoy hearing about animosity between authors, especially if it results in acerbic (acidic, maybe?) commentaries on each other’s work.
    Your question seems to imply that the content of the story – being “a rueful examination of a class encounter” – might explain his reaction but I don’t buy that. I disliked the story almost as much as Sean did, in part because the writing independent of its subject is pretty awful, but also because her idea of characters representing the different classes are very weak stereotypes. The driver’s class is established solely based on what his job is and that he supports Trump. That’s a very weak understanding of class if you want to make class central to your story. But I digress….
    While I don’t share an interest in literary WWE matches, I do understand the harsh review as something that happens a lot, and it rarely has to do with particular biases of the reviewer. That’s what I think we got from Sean here.

  20. Trevor Berrett September 8, 2016 at 11:54 am

    I skipped this story and now I’m sorry (kind of). This exchange has been interesting for sure!

  21. Greg September 10, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    To be fair, Sean is not a troll. When he enjoys a New Yorker story, he is very generous with praise.

    I have learned so much from Sean and the other regulars in this space of this terrific website!

  22. William September 10, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    I was really disappointed in Sean’s crude criticism of this story. (Whoops — I used an adverb.) Calling it a “shitpile” or “dreck” hardly qualifies as literary criticism. Sean’s complaint of excessive use of adverbs was effectively rebutted by David. For my own purposes I picked up a copy of the Oxford anthology of Irish short stories, which I have been reading, and looked at an Edna O’Brien story, “Irish Revel;”. I identified 6 adverbs in 4 pages (about equivalent to one-half of a NYer page, I reckon) — closely, anxiously, enjoyably, quickly, clumsily, and properly.

    Madwoman, I agree with your question — why has this story in particular engendered such vitriol? We’ve had many stories that people didn’t like, but none has provoked this level of trash talking. David, there is a tradition of trenchant literary commentary, though it is usually practiced by minor critics like Gore Vidal, Even then it is usually redeemed by wit. Sean’s comments are neither witty nor even intelligent.

    In my initial commentary I explicated in detail and at length what I liked about this story. So far I haven’t seen any equivalent response by those who dislike it. Citing the sentence “Their eyes meet” as bad writing only shows that you don’t know how to read a sly writer.

  23. Sean H September 13, 2016 at 1:17 am

    I did explicate in detail what is wrong with the story. It’s refuse, basura, offensive to good taste.
    I didn’t say adverbs were always bad, I said not to overuse them in a pointless way.
    The story evokes vitriol because the New Yorker shouldn’t be publishing hackery and because the praise and success this particular author has received are completely incommensurate with her lack of talent. She can’t write literary fiction. She’s literally incompetent at it.
    It is the job of the critic to call out garbage as garbage. Consult a critical gallery as diverse as Fran Lebowitz, Vladimir Nabokov, and Stephen King who effectively explains just why adverbs are usually the enemy here:
    Lastly, speaking of the function of a variety of critics; in what universe is Gore Vidal a “minor critic?” The guy is a literary titan and a first-rate critic (even though I often find myself in opposition to him and in agreement with his own critics, most notably Mailer and Hitchens).

  24. David September 13, 2016 at 8:17 am

    Sean, I love the Stephen King passage you linked to because it is so wonderfully (adverb) self-refuting. King writes:
    “With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.”
    That sentence is very bad writing by my accounting because of the four-time gender waffling. The or/slash pronouns are bad enough when used once in a sentence, but four times? A simple switch to the plural helps the writer who is afraid of the gender singular and you get:
    “With adverbs, writers usually tell us they are afraid they aren’t expressing themselves clearly, that they are not getting the point or the picture across.”
    Now without the clutter, we can see that, oh dear, King has actually (adverb) used TWO adverbs in the very sentence where he criticizes them! Let’s try the sentence without them and see what happens:
    “With adverbs, writers tell us they are afraid they aren’t expressing themselves, that they are not getting the point or the picture across.”
    Well, it’s still a sentence, but now it says something different. The “usually” is important to make it clear that he does not think ALL adverbs offend, just most of them. The “clearly” is important because unclear self-expression surely still counts as expressing yourself, and writers are not so silly as to think adverbs make the difference between complete failure to express and clear expression. So King’s own sentence tells us that adverbs are terrible, terrible things that we might actually need to use twice in a sentence telling us how terrible they are. Got it?
    But there is more! King’s first example of an obviously (adverb) unnecessary adverb is shown in this sentence pair:
    ” ‘Put it down!’ she shouted.”
    ” ‘Put it down!’ she shouted menacingly.”
    Where King sees an extraneous word, I see nuance. Consider these sentences:

    ‘Put it down!’ she shouted desperately.
    ‘Put it down!’ she shouted firmly.
    ‘Put it down!’ she shouted angrily.

    You can shout for someone to put something down in very different ways for very different reasons. Sure, you could write an entire sentence before or after the “Put it down!” to explain that, but why is doing it with a single word so terrible? It seems to be quite an economical use of words. But King not only thinks this is obviously (adverb) bad writing, but that “most readers will see why immediately”, which raises the question why he needed that pesky adverb at the end of that sentence. Was he too afraid to just say “most readers will see why” or is there an extra significance to claiming our seeing is also something that will be immediate rather than eventual?
    Can adverbs be used badly (adverb)? Can sentences sometimes be greatly (adverb) improved by removing an adverb? Of course they can. But the same is true of adjectives and no one is declaring a jihad on them. The fact that King chooses to use so many adverbs in his screed against adverbs tells you all you need to know. Only the most careless writer in the world would not be aware of how many times he used an adverb in a piece criticizing adverbs, so either he is a careless writer and we shouldn’t take his advice for that reason or he does not really believe his own claims and we shouldn’t take his advice for that reason. I am partial to the latter assessment, but either one works.

  25. Roger September 13, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    “Put it down!” suffices. The exclamation point is enough. We don’t need the dialog tag (“she shouted”) if we’re in the midst of a back-and-forth (as the “di” in “dialog” suggests).

    If we must have the dialog tag, we surely don’t need the ensuing adverbs. I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between shouting “angrily” and shouting “firmly.” By the way, is there a non-firm way to shout? Can someone shout softly?

  26. David September 13, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    Roger, you can shout in a way that conveys a threat (menacingly). “Put that down or else I’ll shoot you”. You can shout in a way that expresses a panicked concern (desperately). “Put down that valuable object before you break it.” You can shout in a way that makes it clear that what you are saying is serious and important (firmly, or maybe emphatically?). “Put that down because holding it is dangerous.” You can shout in a way that is angry. “Put that down because it’s mine.” If you care which of those is being expressed, then the adverb is a simple one-word way of conveying that. Simply writing “Put it down!” does not tell the difference. Context might not tell you either. When you pick up my valuable vase, am I angry you are touching something that is mine, concerned you will break it, worried you will intentionally break it so wanting to threaten you as a warning, or just wanting in a clear and controlled way to make sure you put it down? One simple adverb will tell you which it is.
    I am reminded of the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver. As scripted, he only says the line once to the mirror, but the film was rolling as De Niro tried saying the line a number of different ways to see what worked and to give Scorsese some choices. But Scorsese decided he liked the idea of the character rehearsing and trying different ways of saying the line so the whole thing was left in. So he says the exact same words many times, but each time with a slightly different feeling. In text adverbs can do the job of filling in the intonation that a reader cannot hear. With a line like “Put it down!” we might not know the feeling the speaker has unless we are told. Any rule that outlaws clear and economical communication is a bad rule, and as I pointed out even King can’t help but break the rule in just about every other sentence while trying to promote it.
    By the way, your question about shouting softly plays on an ambiguity. “Soft” can be the opposite of “firm” but it also is the opposite of “loud” so it seems like a contradiction. The idea I was getting at was the difference between, say, a military leader shouting orders in a way that shows command and control or how someone might shout orders in a crisis to do the same. Shouting for emphasis is a way of showing firm resolve too. I would say the opposite of a firm shout is a wild one, but if you don’t like that it’s no matter. It’s not central to the point.

  27. Roger September 13, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks, David. It is better, I think, if context does the job. E.g., someone might say “Put that down!” and her interlocutor might respond “Take it easy. They can hear you in the next room.” With this exchange, I can infer that the first person was shouting, and the shouting feels alive on the page much more so than it would with a dialog tag. A tag like “she shouted” implicates the venerable but valuable point that showing is usually better than telling. Dialog tags often display a lack of skill by the writer and/or a lack of respect for the reader (“I better say ‘she shouted’ or the reader won’t realize it,” the writer thought nervously.).

    An adverb following a dialog tag is likely to be a double bogey. Once again, in the hands of a good writer, context can usually do the job. The circumstances surrounding the shouting should allow the reader to infer if the vase was valuable, or if the shouter is afraid that the vase-grabber is going to hurl the vase at her, or if something else is going on. It’s hard to imagine a good writer writing: “‘Put it down,’ she shouted angrily.”

    I realize I’ve used adverbs in this post and don’t propose banning them.

    But if I ever read “she shouted firmly,” I will think of you and of this discussion.

  28. David September 13, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    “With this exchange, I can infer that the first person was shouting, and the shouting feels alive on the page much more so than it would with a dialog tag.”
    Yes, but you still don’t know if the shouting was a threat, a firm order, anger, or worry about damage. The question wasn’t whether the person was shouting but the tone and reason for the shouting. The adverb tells you that. Speaking of telling…
    “…showing is usually better than telling. ”
    Sure, but what if you came across this is a novel:
    “John was very angry that Sue picked up his valuable vase. ‘Put it down!’ he shouted.”
    We know from this that the tone of the yelling is anger, but the sentence preceding the dialogue is just as much telling as any adverb would be. Compare this to the following:
    “Sue picked up John’s valuable vase. ‘Put it down!’ he shouted angrily.”
    Neither is brilliant writing, but if I had to choose I’d say the second is better. They both tell rather than show just as much, but the version with the adverb is both more economical with words and a more natural division. First the action, then the reaction. In the space of the gap between the two sentences we might wonder how will John react. So in this case the use of the adverb feels both more natural and alive.

  29. Roger September 13, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    Well, there are many ways to write pedestrian sentences, such as the two you provide, with or without dialog tags or unnecessary adverbs. The goal, however, is to write the best sentences one can. We can easily improve on your second example, where you do the dreaded double bogey of dialog tag plus adverb: “he shouted angrily.” Even if you must have the dialog tag, you should lose that adverb. “‘Put it down!’ he shouted” is much better than “‘Put it down!’ he shouted angrily.”

    Readers are smart and can infer the anger. It’s bad to patronize them with explanatory adverbs. Who needs “angrily” when we’ve already been treated to an exclamation point and “shouted”?

    But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Strunk and White have to say (or said back in their third edition at p. 75):

    “It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after ‘he said,’ ‘she replied,’ and the like: ‘he said consolingly’; ‘she replied grumblingly.’ Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only over-work their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: ‘he consoled,’ ‘she congratulated.’ They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word ‘said’ is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.”

  30. avataram September 13, 2016 at 11:15 pm

    Borges: “God must not engage in theology. The writer must not destroy by human reasonings the faith that art requires of us.”

  31. David September 14, 2016 at 8:35 am

    “Readers are smart and can infer the anger. It’s bad to patronize them with explanatory adverbs. Who needs “angrily” when we’ve already been treated to an exclamation point and “shouted”?”
    As I have pointed out several times, there are many different ways and reasons a person can shout. You might assume all shouts are angry, but they are not. Context might sometimes tell you which type of shout it is, but not always. Even your own example where there is someone else speaking to confirm that there is shouting did not settle the type and purpose. It is not patronizing to disambiguate from what could be one of many different emotions and thoughts in the mind of the character speaking. Inferring anger where there is none, as there is none in most of the cases I offered of the shouting, is not being a smart reader.
    The passage you quote from Strunk and White says “Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.” Which is good advice, but what if there is no conversation? What if the only thing said is the one character who exclaims “Put it down!”? Do Strunk and White think you are obliged to add extra dialogue to any scene in order to indicate that the shout was not anger at all but something else? At that point is just seems like a commitment to a rule for the sake of a rule rather than because it is a good rule.
    One example that King discusses is “He closed the door firmly”. King thinks “He closed the door” is fine and “He slammed the door” is fine but “He closed the door firmly” is not. But here he is making a meal of the fact that sometimes verbs can make finer distinctions (like the difference between closing and slamming) and sometimes they cannot (the difference between closing, slamming, and closing firmly). Suppose there were a word, let’s call it “closefirmed” the definition of which should be obvious. In that case King would seem to be ok with someone writing “He closefirmed the door” because there is no adverb there. But the meaning is identical so the objection is just perverse. After all, “slammed” just means “closed very forcefully” and so if the word “slammed” happened to not exist then the double-adverb phrase would be needed to do the same job. Whether a distinction can be commonly made by which verb you choose (close vs slam) or whether choosing verbs won’t do it so an adverb is needed (close vs slam vs close firmly) is just a quirk of language. That’s just silly.
    Of course writers should be on the lookout for unnecessary words or badly chosen words and of course sometimes those unnecessary or badly chosen words will be adverbs, but the idea that adverbs are especially pernicious is ridiculous. It leads to people objecting to perfectly good uses of adverbs. To bring this full circle, I began by pointing out that Sean’s objection to “painfully” in the phrase “the meetings are a blur and the time with Luke is painfully vivid” was a bad objection. The adverb there is fine. But when people teach you a rule that adverbs are the devil (King says the road to hell is paved with them, so close enough) all of a sudden even the perfectly good use of them looks wrong.

  32. Roger September 14, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Sure, there are occasions when an adverb is appropriate. I’m with you on “painfully vivid.” Neither I nor Strunk and White seek a ban. But over time, careful readers and writers with expertise, like Strunk and White, have observed that adverbs are often used promiscuously. You are entitled to dissent, but recognize that is what you are doing. I continue to find it obvious that “Put it down!” with reasonable context conveys anger. No adverb or dialog tag is needed, and the use of either, let alone both, harms the writing.

    “Cluttery and annoying,” he chuckled gleefully.

  33. David September 14, 2016 at 10:45 am

    “You are entitled to dissent, but recognize that is what you are doing.”
    If you look at how I started this discussion, that’s explicitly what I was doing. I also agree that you can always write a context that indicates whether or not “Put it down!” is said angrily (it seems to me now you think it always is said in anger, which is odd), but an adverb can do it in a single word, so it can sometimes be the best option. Imagine this story: A narrator describes a visit to a museum where he is inexplicably overcome with the desire to pick up a valuable vase. A museum employee sees him and shouts, “Put it down!”, but not in anger. The employee is expressing panic at the possibility the vase will be damaged. The shout startles the narrator who drops the vase and then runs out of the museum. He gets away. We never see the employee who shouted before this moment or again after it. In this story I would contend that not including an adverb could lead you as a reader to falsely assume that the employee was expressing anger, but that this assumption would be forestalled with the addition of a single adverb.
    The question “do you really need this word/phrase/sentence?” is one a good writer will ask about any word, phrase, or sentence, so the idea of singling out adverbs for special examination is at best redundant and at worst leads to the adverb police deciding that things like “painfully vivid” is a problem. A good writer will give as much attention to the question “do I need the word ‘painfully’?” as she will to the question “do I need the word ‘vivid’?” Or will ask is ‘painfully vivid’ better than ‘vividly painful’?” There is no need to make special rules for adverbs. While King worries that using adverbs can become a bad habit, where once you use one soon you have five then fifty, I see the witch hunt to root out adverbs is doing the same thing. First you get rid of one bad one, but soon you have eliminated five then fifty and then suddenly you are no longer able to distinguish a good use of an adverb from a bad one – they all start to look evil. Giving adverbs the same thorough scrutiny any other words should get will be enough.

  34. Roger September 14, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    Your museum scene is a perfect example of where an adverb isn’t necessary, and I commend you for not using one. Someone picks up a vase and the guard says “Put it down!” No adverb needed, see? The vase-grabber is breaking a serious rule the guard is charged with enforcing. I would expect the guard to be angry. (I wouldn’t expect him to be panicking, but if the story concerns a panicky, cowardly guard, then an adverb might be appropriate to let us know we’re encountering a quirky guard. Better, though, if his quirkiness were established before the vase-grabber arrives.)

    It is odd that you think I believe “Put it down!” is always stated in anger when I said that it connotes anger when the reader is provided “reasonable context.” Carefully choosing which words to read is as important as choosing which ones to write!

    But I appreciate your dedication to protecting adverbs as if they were an endangered species. Maybe the idea is: “First they came for the adverbs, and I didn’t speak out because I don’t use adverbs. Then they came for the adjectives.” Etc., until they come for the nouns. “Then I didn’t speak — because I had no words left to use!”

  35. David September 14, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    “…but if the story concerns a panicky, cowardly guard, then an adverb might be appropriate to let us know we’re encountering a quirky guard.”
    Again, while finding it odd you assume that anger is more likely, this is exactly the scenario I was describing and one that King was not allowing for in his context-less dismissal of using an adverb with this shout.
    “First they came for the adverbs…”
    I had not thought of it that way, but I was tempted to make a joke about “parts of speech profiling” and ending a comment with “#AdverbLivesMatter”, but I managed to resist that … until now … I guess.

  36. bcw56 October 3, 2016 at 5:40 am

    I like adverbs, fwiw. Meanwhile, this story bothered me a lot: https://shortstorymagictricks.com/2016/09/29/gender-studies-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

  37. […] The Mookse and the Gripes to see what Trevor and his gang had to say, and found a very interesting exchange between Avataram (who happens to be a long-time Twitter follower of mine, though I didn’t make […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.