Between the devil and the deep blue sea
by Jon Adams
Rated "G" by the Author.
edited: Saturday, February 23, 2008
Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2008
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The dilemma of technical terms in general fiction.
Writing about sailing poses a minor dilemma: how to write about something many of your readers know little about.
The writer can ignore the problem and write as if he is speaking to another experienced sailor, as Joseph Conrad does in The Nigger of the Narcissus, when at the climax of the story the captain cries "wear ship." Now if the contemporary reader has sailed on a square-rigger recently or read most of Patrick O'Brian's novels, he may have some chance of knowing what Conrad is talking about.
Or the writer can face the problem and write as if he is speaking to an inexperienced lubber, as Herman Melville does in Moby-Dick, when he describes the mast-head watch: "Now, as the business of standing the mast-heads, ashore or afloat, is a very ancient and interesting one, let us in some measure expatiate here. I take it, that the earliest standers of mast-heads were the old Egyptians...." (This expatiation continues for five pages.)
In The Cruise of the Jest I wanted to use just enough sailing terminology to tell the story adequately, but at the same time I was aware that I needed to establish a sense of authenticity, a sense of what it was like to sail around the world. I found it difficult to maintain a middle course between the Conradian and Melvillean extremes, and it's possible that I left a few readers at sea.
So after a few hints, suggestions, and outright complaints, I decided to put together a simple glossary of sailing terms for the readers of The Cruise of the Jest. Although the glossary turned out to be longer than I expected, I've kept it simple and non-technical.
But I think that when if comes to technical terms, any writer who draws on his own experience will at some point find himself in a tight place between the devil and the deep blue sea .