Simon Agonistes

Randolph Quirk

  • Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and its Decline by John Simon
    Chatto, 222 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7011 2601 9

How do you measure literacy? Hardly – without distorting language in a way that could itself be called illiterate – by quoting the fustian prose or mixed metaphors of a writer you dislike. How do you measure decline in literacy? Despite his subtitle, John Simon seems to sidestep this one completely. As well he might. Bombastic English has been vigorously deplored since the time of Sir Thomas More, and it would be difficult to demonstrate that there was relatively more (or less) of it around today. Bad spelling is certainly no measure. As a popular touchstone of literacy standards, it has a scarcely longer history than compulsory education.

But no matter. If you can’t sleep for the fear that the End of Literacy is at Hand, John Simon is your man. If you are convinced that the blacks, the intellectuals, the trade unions, the homosexuals, the liberals, the advertisers, the politicians and the teaching profession have ganged up to destroy Culture-and-Civilisation As We Know It, John Simon is still your man.

In his recent Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino has a character (a fashionable English novelist, no less – the real McCoy) who is so obsessed with spelling that he grades hotels on this basis. Never mind how comfy the beds are, never mind the quality of the food, never mind what accommodation you’re offered: does the receptionist know how to spell it? Mr Simon would not perhaps see this as funny. While he must be aware that people can use language both to honour and to cheat, both to comfort and to oppress, both to project humility and to parade pomposity, he seems to be totally hooked on the most trivial aspects of language use. As a ‘chilling example’ of ‘illiteracy’ he invites us to ‘observe that differentiation between its and it’s is fast becoming a lost art.’ And as though to endorse the ‘lost art’ bit, he has arranged for this shattering illiteracy to be illustrated by a particularly art-lost cartoon occupying a third of a page.

Now, someone who can get all that worked up over its and it’s (in a chapter laboriously entitled ‘A Pointed Discussion of Punctuation’) does not inspire confidence universally. The issue has about as much to do with the art of writing as recognising a Guards tie has with the art of military strategy. It is an isolated historical accident, obviously harmless as we see from the absence of the distinction in ordinary noun phrases:

A dog’s barking somewhere (It’s barking)
A dog’s barking woke me (Its barking)

Certainly, it is not an issue that springs to mind in the context of Simon’s lofty sentiment, ‘Language is a sacred trust,’ nor is it one that convincingly illustrates the way we damage our language, ‘kick it around, blunt it, and smash it at the peril of our very souls’. Literally, as we might expect some illiterate to add.

Not all his examples are so yawn-inspiring. He is good on the beguiling tautologies of the politician, and on the pompous pretentiousness of the ‘expert’. If he confined his excoriations to these in the manner of his compatriot Dwight Bolinger or even of our own now unfashionable Fowler, Simon might be the force for good that he obviously wishes to be. But even in such welcome therapy, he pricks us raw with the chips he carries on his shoulder. We get snidely covert attacks on those who show interest in the language of the socially deprived, and the attacks become overt where the (American) National Council of Teachers of English is concerned. In its flabby liberalism, the NCTE is actively encouraging the decline in literacy standards – and worse: for Simon happily extrapolates from linguistic usage to Weltpolitik, assailing ‘professors who – because they are structural linguists [sic] – believe in the sacrosanct privilege of any culturally underprivileged minority or majority to dictate its ignorance to the rest of the world’.

If he is hard on teachers of English, it cannot be said that he is markedly more generous to other people – unless they are good and dead. Shakespeare, for example, he seems to approve of, though privately of course he must have a low opinion of the Bard’s spelling and even of his grammar: after all, ‘between you and I’ is one of Simon’s pet aversions when he finds it in the ‘declined literacy’ of today. And unfortunately this is the level of linguistic impropriety which most excites his wrath (as it has that of his shaman predecessors for the past 250 years), and which for him is adequate evidence of ‘illiteracy’ (as it manifestly is not unless we tar Shakespeare with the same brush), and which is typical of the equally unwarranted evidence he adduces for a decline in literacy at the present time.

But Paradigms Lost is not all ‘Pedantry Renamed’ in this boring old prescriptive vein. There are some thoughtful essays and some entertaining ones. Perhaps the problem is Simon at book length. His rather conventional brand of mordant wit is all right in small doses – in the Esquire-sized spoonfuls his readers are used to. And I mustn’t be unkind to him. Mr Simon is a highly articulate, keenly intelligent man who is able at his best to write with charming urbanity and who certainly has a shrewd finger on the pulse of the great big bourgeoisie. Besides, he is sensitive to personal injury, with a long and capacious memory for such things. In the present book, he recalls a time when, in a San Francisco debate, ‘Randolph Quirk ... accused me of letting my needle get stuck’ – mild, in all conscience, by comparison with Patrick Owens, who is remembered for calling him, a couple of years earlier, ‘a remorseless and fatuous nitpicker’. This is surely unfair: what evidence could there be to justify ‘remorseless’?