Do you ever feel like a literary moron?

First, I again apologize for the sparse blogging. I have a lot of pregnancy drama going on, and it’s making it nearly impossible to sleep, function, and type.

My sad little wedding band set. *sniff*

Side note: making friends with the local fire chief totally paid off when I needed my wedding rings cut off at 9pm last night. Want to get some attention? Walk up to a firehouse in the dark, at 36 weeks pregnant.

But that’s not what I was going to talk about.

I’m not a hugely educated author. Pretty much everything I’ve ever learned about writing has been on my own. I read a ton of blogs, I constantly self-edit, I do a metric ton of beta-reading so I’ve developed an eye for what works — and what doesn’t.

I have never taken a creative writing class in my life. The closest I’ve ever come was that unit of Language Arts when I was in eighth grade.

Even still, I’m not sure any classes would have prepared me for the literary terms that float around out there. Sure, I would have learned the mechanics of theme and dialogue and all the things I had to figure out on my own. But some of them are still a mystery to me. When I hear them, I smile and nod and pretend I have any idea what someone is talking about, but in the back of my head I’m doing the panicked student dance of, “OMG! WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT? DON’T CALL ON ME.”

Mary Sue characters. I hear this all the time, especially in regards to romance novels. People have explained a Mary Sue character to me numerous times, and I still don’t get it. Is it just a bland character? Someone who just exists to propel the story forward? Someone for whom the author created an image of herself? (I’ve heard all explanations. I still don’t get it. Why Mary Sue?)

Purple Prose. I think I finally have a handle on this one (overwriting? too many descriptors?), but it’s still something that makes me pause and think when I hear it. Why purple?

Deus ex Machina endings. This one took me forever. I finally get it: a resolution that comes out of nowhere. But why say “God out of the machine”? I took Latin in high school. Four years of it. And still. That doesn’t even make sense.

I know I’m not alone here. What are some of the terms you hear floating around out there that make you squirm and avert your eyes? What are your secret mysteries?

7 thoughts on “Do you ever feel like a literary moron?

  1. Our local bookstore is called “Malaprops,” and for the life of me, I can never remember what “malapropism” means. And I have an English degree. *hides face*

    Poor little wedding band. Can it be fixed?

  2. Ladies, ladies, this is where wikipedia comes in handy!

    However, I can explain a few things — if you don’t mind my being preachy/a teacher.

    A Mary Sue is a too-perfect character with no personality flaws to make her/him seem real. Such a character never thinks of cheating on a diet or sympathizing with a rebel or snapping back at her/his mother or whatever. A Mary Sue is annoying and boring.

    Deus ex machina refers to when Greek gods or other supernatural beings were lowered (okay, the ACTORS playing them were lowered) by winches and pulleys onto the stage, “out of the sky,” to change/fix the ending. (Shakespeare makes fun of this in As You Like It with Hymen showing up at the end.) Thus, any character “dropped” in at the end dramatically to change the outcome of the plot is called deus ex machina.

    Malapropisms were named after Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s play, The Rivals. She constantly used the wrong words, thinking she sounded smart, but actually producing a comic effect. Shakespeare used this repeatedly, most notably with the characters of Dogberry in Much Ado and the Nurse in R&J.

    Purple prose is to writing what Roccocco is to art — extravagant, overly flowery, fluffy stuff.

    Those I knew.
    So, here’s my confession of literary inadequacy. When I began my MSc program in literature — with my BA in English long in the past by then — I found that I was dreadfully out of it in literary theory. I had never, ever had a class in literary theory, and all these much younger classmates of mine had!! Everyone seemed to know about Derrida — and I’d freakin’ never heard of him!
    I was SO, SO lost! I had to buy an undergrad book and do extra reading just to follow what was going on in my literary theory class. I was competing with people who’d had several classes in the subject, and I knew NOTHING. Plus, it had a ton of philosophy in it, and I hadn’t had a philosophy class in over 15 years. I spent an entire term feeling stupid and so lost! (However, the professor was so pleased with my application of Hegelian dialectics to Judith Butler’s kinship theories in Antigone’s Claim as compared to fundamentalist Mormon polygamous relations that I got a great grade in the class. I just looked over that essay so I could type this, and I can barely understand what I was talking about now.)
    So, yeah, even though I am a very well educated writer, I’ve had plenty of moments of feeling really stupid too.

  3. I need that tatooed to my forehead. I AM A LITERARY MORON.

    And my baby is three months old and I’m still not wearing my wedding rings…they fit, but I just got out of the habit. Glad they took them off and not your finger!

  4. I like the Wikipedia entry for “Mary Sue”

    I really like the point that some people think it’s a feminist issue. I agree with them.

    I do think there are problems with “too perfect” characters, but female characters are much more likely to get bashed as Mary Sue vs male characters as Gary Stu.

    One trend I’ve noticed in YA is to have the main character have a sister / best friend as the more perfect character (the obvious Mary Sue) so the main character looks more flawed in comparison, and gets the benefit of being shown as a caring sister / friend. Examples – Katniss and Prim, Hunger Games; Rose and Lissa, Vampire Academy, Harry Potter and Hermione (though I haven’t heard many people call Harry a Mary Sue, I think if you switched his gender he’d be jumped on in a second.)

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