Monday, 8 February 2010

When Convoluted Writing is Educational

For those of you who wish to at this moment or in the future learn how to write aesthetically pleasing prose, I encourage you to read the articles of one Tycho Brahe. That's not Tycho Brahe the long-dead astronomer, but rather the pseudonym for a guy who makes nerdiness its own sort of aesthetic lifestyle. (As he puts it, "nerd" is no longer perjorative, but a statement of fact.) His real name is Jerry Holkins, and he does the words for the Penny Arcade webcomic. (I have mentioned him before.)

Every so often, as I read his articles, I find particular phrases that strike me as unique to Tycho's writing. The most recent offering is "quasi-useful technofetishist totems," his definition for the word "gadgets." (I say "most recent offering" because that is something Tycho would say.) I like reading his articles because there's something he does with words that is hard to pin-point but not hard to admire. It's not as though his writing is beautiful or elegant in any way. He instead pushes the limits of just how elaborate, technical, sesquipedalian, and outright cacophonic he can be without becoming unreadable. This is a boundary he explores without quite going over.

I don't advocate that we write like Tycho does, unless this is an effect you want to go for. I would suggest, rather, that we study his writing and see what things he uncovers for us. What is it that attracts, and what is it that repels? His language is a brand; what can this help us understand? What brands a style of language, and what reprecussions does this have?

Specifically, I think it's worth looking at his vocabulary--much of it constructed on the spot--and his syntax. How and where does he use the "big" words? And in what places does his langauge seem unique? Above I mention that "offering" seems Tychonean. How can such a word be unique to a single author? When it's used by that author repeatedly in an unusual way, readers will begin to associate that way of using the word with the author. If the reader then sees it used this way elsewhere, they will recall the author who has 'branded' it. This is also true of syntax or thought-structure. Tycho's paragraphs work in a peculiar way that I'm still attempting to unravel, and I think his sentences work this way, too. If I make any head-way, I'll perhaps let you know.

So what are the effects of branding? In Tycho's case, I think it makes the writing less immediate, and brings the speaker to the fore. In this case, the speaker may be a constructed persona, of course, which meshes nicely with Tycho being a pseudonym. (Perhaps we can suggest that Jerry is really using the 'avatar' concept to its fullest extent.) Also in Tycho's case, it gives the reader a sense of belonging: when you become familiar with his writing, when you can recognize it, when you can say that you predicted what he was going to say on a less-than-conscious level, you feel like you're part of an in-group that knows the contructed persona of Tycho. This means that the constructed "Tycho" character is pushed outward while the reader is brought inward, creating a sort of intimacy. Since Tycho gives reviews and offers advice to a niche community used to on-line interactions (ie. gamer nerds), this likely serves his audience well. If he was writing a narrative, it wouldn't; narratives work best when they draw you in. When you notice the prose, you are popped back out into the space of reading a book. (This may not always be true; noticeable prose may sometimes draw you into itself. But when the prose is noticeable because it is somehow jarring or difficult, you are almost always reminded that you are reading text.)

Things to think about.

For the article where I found the quoted phrase, go here.
For information on the charity work Gabe and Tycho have done, go here.

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