Writing like a fag

… or, more genteelly, using a distinctly gay male writing style. Or more allusively, writing with a lavender quill.

This has come up in passing in my mention of “embeddedness”, in a thicket of parentheses here, and I’m going to return to the topic soon in a piece on Jeremy Denk’s blogging style, so here’s some background: a section from my 1997 article “Two lavender issues for linguists”, in Kira Hall & Anna Livia (eds.), Queerly Phrased (Oxford Univ. Press), 21-34.

From p. 28:

Discourse and pragmatics.

Let me briefly traverse the middle ground between grammar and rhetoric.  Staying close to home, I inventory some of the discourse-organizing and pragmatic strategies that have been suggested (in one place or another in the literature or by colleagues) as characteristic of gay male talk and writing:

  • subjective stance;
  • irony, sarcasm (distancing, saying and not saying, “not taking seriously”);
  • resistance, subversiveness;
  • double/triple/etc. vision, metacommentary;
  • embeddedness, discursiveness;
  • open aggression;
  • seductiveness;
  • reversal, inversion.

Some of these are stereotypically “feminine” (subjective stance, resistance and subversiveness, seductiveness), some stereotypically “masculine” (distancing, open aggression).  Some–resistance and subversiveness, multiple vision, reversal–are associated with powerlessness and marginality.  Some–resistance and subversiveness–hint at hidden or stigmatized identities.5 Many are simply the common coin of postmodern discourse–most of the characteristics in the list above are to be found in the writing of Donald Barthelme, for instance, as well as in the writing of Robert Glück–and are scarcely to be directly connected to gender, sexuality, marginality, or stigma. [for those of you who don’t keep track of these things: Barthelme straight, Glück gay gay gay]

Again, there is much of interest here, and linguistics can certainly provide indispensable conceptual tools for analysis, but as in poetics (Zwicky 1986) the methods that linguists use in their ordinary practice will not provide an analysis of the phenomena.  Subjectivity, reversal, multiple vision, etc. are realized (in part) in speech and writing, but they are not themselves properties of speech or writing, in the way that having only front vowels and being an instance of the agentless passive construction and containing a cataphoric pronoun and presupposing the truth of some proposition are.

Footnote 5 is on p. 32:

Here is a typical observation, by Morris Dickstein, writing in a New York Times Book Review (23 July 1995, p. 6) review of Edmund White’s Skinned Alive:  “Before the 1970’s , when direct professions of homosexuality were taboo, writers from Oscar Wilde to Cocteau to Genet made their mark with works that were often theatrical, oblique, florid and artificial.  The strategies of concealment many gay people used in their lives were turned into richly layered artistic strategies by gifted writers, choreographers, directors and set designers.  For the writers, wit and paradox became more important than sincerity, since sincerity meant self-acceptance (which could be difficult) and self-exposure (which could be dangerous); style, baroque fantasy and sensuous detail were disguises that suited them far better than verisimilitude or realism.”

Zwicky (1986) is my 1986 article “Linguistics and the study of folk poetry”, in Peter Bjarkman & Victor Raskin (eds.),  The Real-World Linguist: Linguistic Applications in the 1980s, Ablex, 57-73. Not yet available on-line, alas.

[But that was last week, and now (9/2) it’s on my Stanford website, here.]

2 Responses to “Writing like a fag”

  1. Music and words | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Gay Man — but there’s also the writing style, of the sort I wrote about on this blog in a posting of 8/24/10, “Writing like a fag”, where I noted some characteristics that have been seen […]

  2. Music and words | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Man — but there’s also the writing style, of the sort I wrote about on this blog in a posting of 8/24/10, “Writing like a fag”, where I noted some characteristics that have been seen […]

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