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Quilled or typed, it’s writ

 

 

THE FIFTH COLUMN

I wonder occasionally why that particularly loathsome locution, to say someone has “penned” a book (only slightly more loathsome than to say someone has “authored” a book), seems most often used when someone has “penned” a memoir.

You wouldn’t say, in ordinary speech, “Oh, did you hear? So-and-so has penned a book.” So why say it when writing the sentence? Is it just the desperation of the synonym-seeker?

Is there some image being invoked of Shakespeare or the like sitting there, before a piece of parchment, with a drippy quill in hand? Perhaps, in that case, they’d say “quilled”.

Shakespeare quilled a sonnet.

Actually, that’s rather good. Anthony Burgess might’ve used that in his Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun. (Purely parenthetically, my faithful spellcheck wants to say “Shakespeare quilted a sonnet” — which is worthy of James Joyce.)

If we are not thinking of a quill, when we say someone has “penned” a book, are we thinking of a standard ballpoint pen? And a legal pad, perhaps? Some writers are known to use the yellow pages of the American legal pad — or were known to use them in the past. They may since have been overtaken by technology.

But which pen would have been used in the days of legal pads? We don’t say “So-and-so has ballpointed a book.”

We certainly don’t use brand names, even in a world in which brands have become verbs and we say “I hoovered the lounge carpet”; we don’t say “So-and-so has Bic’d a book.” No, we don’t confuse the activity with the implement.

But, of course, though we do say “So-and-so has written a book”, we don’t mean that person has actually got out their Bic and written it by hand. Very little, one imagines, gets written by hand nowadays — or very little for publication. Maybe a thank-you note, a personal message in a get-well or farewell card, a diary, perhaps even a small poem. These may be written by hand. But one doesn’t imagine a serious writer who’s working on a book sitting with a ballpoint and several hundred pages filled with handwriting — though we still refer to the first version of such a book, the one that exists before publication, as a manuscript, despite the fact that it’s unlikely to have been scripted by manus.

Well, I suppose, it could’ve been written (in the general sense) by hand, but not with the implement of the pen. One could have used a typewriter or a computer, and used one’s hands upon that machine — the use of the hand, it seems, is inescapable. Unless you’re Christy Brown and you’re writing My Left Foot, in which case one might say he “footed” his memoir.

We certainly don’t say “So-and-so has typewritered a book” or “has computered a book”, though perhaps one day we’ll say “So-and-so has Apple Mac’d a book.” If we say “So-and-so has typed a book”, even if most books are in fact typed, we are unlikely to mean So-and-so was the primary author but rather that they were in a sort of secretarial position.

So there it is. I’ve quilted a column.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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