Novelist James Fenimore Cooper is out of fashion now (unless he’s sprung back into fashion without my noticing, entirely possible), but his novels, like the The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, were highly praised in their time. Mark Twain disagreed with that praise.
You can’t get the full hilarious effect of Twain’s essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences unless you read the whole thing, but we can all learn from his rules for writing. Here are some of my favorites from his list.
Mark Twain divides his rules into large rules and little rules—all violated by James Fenimore Cooper:
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
7. An author should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
8. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
9. Eschew surplusage.
10. Not omit necessary details.
I’ve never read anything by James Fenimore Cooper, and having read this essay, I certainly never will, but I’ve read Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences countless times, and it makes me laugh out loud each time.
I just discovered the aptly named blog, The Juggle, a Wall Street Journal blog about juggling work and family life. Sometimes it makes me feel more stressed to read about “the juggle,” but sometimes I find it soothing to be reminded that everyone is struggling with the same issues — and to get some tips about how to handle the juggle better.