05 November 2010

The fons et origo

It all started when I read a short on-line story. The setting was a silversmith’s in London some years ago. Introducing the heroine as a university drop-out, the author used the word ‘semester’ which I didn’t think was quite right — ‘term’ seemed more appropriate, as ‘semesters’ had not then appeared in university calendars in the UK. Further on in the story,  I came across the hero saying ‘flatware’ when referring to silver knives, forks and spoons. I just could not imagine this bluff northerner using this word, even if it might be technically correct. Now, I did know what flatware meant, for I’d come across the word a year or two before — an on-line candid photograph of a couple of girls balancing ‘flatware’ on their noses; one of those things that teenagers do, and proud fathers snap and post. The meaning was fairly obvious from the context, though I did have to check. Of course, I did have to check.
Well, I thought that ‘flatware’ was a north americanism, and that an english hero — hero in the sense of a protagonist — would have said ‘cutlery’, and suggested this to the author via the social network site Twitter. I was only trying to be helpful, well, that’s what I thought. So I got a reply about the origin of ‘cutlery’, referencing ‘cutlass’. I should have remembered that cutlers made knives, so that ‘cutlery’ in a pure sense might only refer to them. And of course, while knives have been used for eating for ever so long, forks are a much more modern invention. 
Soon afterwards, the author sent me a link to a paper by Umberto Eco, which she had recently read. Eco described ‘Model’ and ‘Empirical’ readers, and she had recognised my type. I had been ‘outed’ as an ‘Empirical’ Reader.
Eco’s paper was pretty hard going for me, and I wobbled at the bit about ‘Piercean semiosis’, though I later remembered that I had actually heard of this. Eco described a scene in one of his novels, and how he had marked out his hero’s steps street by street. A reader seemed to have researched this, in Eco’s supposition, by checking all the local papers of the time (though, in reality, they might have been at the scene) and pointed out a discrepancy. Eco’s book was a novel, an illusion, yet the reader found their perception disturbed by the inaccuracy. A failure of verisimilitude for that reader.
To go off at a tangent for a moment — there will be quite a few tangential moments — I also find this forgetting of things, of information that I should have known quite fascinating. And not just my memory lapses, for I think there is also a collective loss of knowledge about a lot of quite commonplace things. And yet, most of us do actually know most of the answers to the questions that we should ask, though often we don’t ask, we just pass by. Finding the connections that lead to the answers can be challenging. I will explore some of these themes in another blog.
To return to being an Empirical Reader. I have acted as a Critical Reader in the past, though it’s far better to offer a critique than be merely critical. The more I thought about being an Empirical Reader, the more the idea appealed. I wrote up a draft of this blog as an introduction, and asked my correspondent for her view, as it did relate back to her. She replied:
Hi Korhomme,

Couple of things - acting as the empirical reader here :p

I read Eco's "The Author and his Interpreters" a while ago, and the whole passage about the reader who was very disappointed that Eco left out the bit about the fire on the corner struck me as interesting. In all fairness, you are certainly not THAT kind of an empirical reader, but there are people who have a problem accepting 'storyspace and storytime'. Most readers seem to be able to accept that 'Foucault's Pendulum' is set in a fictional Paris, on a fictional 23rd of June, 1984, in the same way that Orwell's 1984 is set in a fictional year. Few people would consider 1984 not worth reading because Orwell 'got it so wrong' but some might. Are there only dystopian futures, but no dystopian pasts or presents in fiction?

If you remember, you critiqued another story of mine some time ago, and in that case you found things that also spoiled the story for you. Some I agreed with and some I did not. As in this case, I think your semester/term point is absolutely spot on and I disagree with your flatware/cutlery point because, as someone who actually worked in a silversmith, I know that forks and spoons are cleaned in a completely different way from knives, which are more delicate, can be blunted and, having lead-filled handles, can be easily split and damaged. Flatware IS the proper term. Had I used the term 'cutlery' to refer to spoons and forks, I'm quite sure someone just like you would have critiqued me on it. (http://www.silver-collector.com/topic127.html) […]

Congratulations on your new blog.

She commented further on a part of the draft which I have excised, but will present in an expanded form later. 
And I’ll be more circumspect in future when it comes to offering comments to authors, particularly mega-intelligent female ones. Perhaps.

The story that started this off, Pleasure’s Apprentice is here. Caution is advised, as it’s NSFW. You can find more of the author’s thoughts on Eco on her site.
Eco’s paper, The Author and his Interpreters, is here.


  1. I'd agree, she is mega-intelligent, isn't she? I remain in awe of her.

    Like you, I too was struck by the term semester when "term" would have been more appropriate. But I decided to give it a miss. The last time I corrected her was on a photo which she said was of a Victorian house, but I maintained was Edwardian in style. She said she knew the property in question and its history, and I believe her, because in my experience, she wouldn't claim something like that if it weren't true.

    What I like is the way she engaged with you very seriously about your points, and was able to draw on proper critical backup for her thoughts.

    Obviously, I know the story you're commenting on, and so I can draw inferences about what NSFW means, but could you enlighten me on the acronym please?

  2. NSFW is netspeak for not safe for work. Implies that things aren't what you want to be caught looking at.