How’s that coming?

A P.C. Vey cartoon in the latest (Sept. 5th) New Yorker:

Three things: the parallel between a steak on the grill and a book in progress; authorial anxiety over writing on something and completing it; and the pragmatics of the idioms in how’s it going? and how’s it coming?

Background. The artist has appeared only once on ths blog before, in a 1/29/16 posting entitled simply “P.C. Vey”.

Steaks and books. The main conceit of the cartoon is the parallel between cooking a steak on the grill and writing a book: just as people ask about the progress of the steak (in a politer versions of “Is it ready yet?”), so people ask about the progress of the book — or, indeed, any writing project you might have going, but especially books, because they’re very substantial projects.

The humor comes in turning the analogical relationship between steak and book into an identity: the author is cooking the book on the grill.

Authorial anxiety. If you’re like most writers, you really dread even well-intentioned queries about how your current project is going. If it’s a book, a short story, or an essay or scholarly article of any length, you’ll have had some clear idea of where you want it to go, but you’ll probably have found that the work seems to have a mind of its own and is taking you places you never thought you’d be going; this is enormously disconcerting, and it makes it hard to cope with people who ask how it’s going. (There are writers who maintain that this experience happens only to weak-minded pussies and that Real Writers map things out ahead of time and resolutely stick to the itinerary. Sigh.)

(If you’re a poet, either hide that fact or go into seclusion, if possible in an artists’ colony, where other poets will appreciate your plight. Otherwise, everyone thinks that your task is trivial, because, like, poems are so short, how much work could it take to turn them out? You could ask these people how long and how much work it takes to produce a finger of really good single malt whiskey, but in my experience that approach never really works; after all, these people say, poems are just words.)

Idiom time. The motion verbs go and come both figure in a family of idioms involving manner adverbials — as in Things are going well and Things are coming along nicely, but especially in idioms with the interrogative adverbial how, in How’s it going? or How goes it? ‘How are you doing? How are you?’ (as conventional polite queries).

Which brings us to (a) How’s your book going? and (b) How’s your book coming? Both are possible as queries to an author, but they differ subtly in ways that follow from facts about the semantics and pragmatics of the motion verbs go and come.

The verb go simply merely motion, progression, in space, or metaphorically in some other domain. The verb come, however, also evokes the end-point, the goal, of this progression, which makes (b) a much more pointed question than (a). If you’re an author, (a) will produce authorial anxiety, but (b) will give it to you in spades, because it asks, omigod, how close you are to finishing.

(Go and come are also famously different in what they convey about the location of the speaker with respect to the motion, but that difference doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant for (a) vs. (b).)


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