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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Political Correctness in Novels

I was reading Chad Harbach's novel The Art of Fielding and cruising along and then I just stopped. I had tripped over a word and at first I thought it was a typo, something that slipped through the proof reader if there is such a person anymore. But then I realized the word was intentional and that the novel had fallen victim to the dictates of political correctness. The word I had known for many years and seen millions of times in other novels and is still used in current vernacular. So why then had the editors of Harbach's novel deferred to some silly twenty first century that someone was being offended?

Now this word does not easily slip off the tongue. The novelist must always write by ear and that means if it sounds right then it is right. African American is clunky in prose. It just stops the flow because of it's amped up meaning. This is not the word Harbach bowed to by the way. But this is the first of the clunky words that  novelists have to deal with. I have written several novels about the South where I used black or blacks to describe some of the characters. And of course in speaking I had to use the famed Nword as well. But to have put African American in the prose would have violated the connotation of the word I chose.

Now Harbachs word wasn't even that loaded. If you had to rate it for political correctness it was down on the scale at about a five out of ten. So what was this word. Are you ready? Freshpersons. Right. Freshpersons for freshmen. So obviously the group that would be offended by freshmen is women. But the word freshpersons was so jarring it stopped the fictional dream cold. We all know freshmen describes men and women, but the long reach of political correctness demanded this silly exercise in semantics.

So I started thinking about the pressure of political correctness in novels. We all heard about the washing out of Huckleberry Finn with the removal of the Nword. This kind of tinkering or mindfulness of present day sensibilities is not the purview of the novelist. He or she is not writing for the current day but for all time and to have the hand of political correctness intrude on the pallate of the artist violates the vision for the work. It is a bit like opening a door to bright sunlight while watching a movie. You really don't want that reality in your story.

But everyone has to deal with the times they live in and Chad might have written this way anyway. So maybe it is just me. Maybe freshmen is anachronistic and not really the wore anymore to describe the first year of college. Maybe freshpersons is the twenty first century word now. Freshpersons. Sounds like something you could eat. Or throw away.

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Rocket Man
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Books by William Hazelgrove