Tuesday, 25 January 2011

No Buts

Have a look at this paragraph from the opening chapter of the 1939 novel Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright, and see if you can tell what's odd about it.

Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary “fill-ins” as “romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.” Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any “warm glow of lamplight” from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that “a child don’t know anything.”

Any guesses? I'll give you a clue. It's not about what's there, but what isn't. Still no idea? Another clue: the idea was repeated thirty years later by Georges Perec. Yes? No? All right, I'll tell you.

There are no Es. Not one. Gadsby is 50,000 words long and the fifth letter of the alphabet makes not a single, solitary appearance. He even went so far as to not allow himself Mr because it is a shortening of mistEr. You can read the introduction, and indeed the whole of Gadsby here. Its skill of composition is matched only by its insanity of purpose.

The word for such a work is, incidentally, a lipogram.

I was having a drink the other night with a girl who used to work for Bloomberg, the famous mayor manufacturer. Apparently, Bloomberg's style guide absolutely forbids the use of the word but. Nor can you replace it with however, yet, nonetheless or albeit. Each fact is an island, and they must remain in Gradgrindian lines and not use connectors to cancel each other out.

Moreover, at Bloomberg you can't use adjectives of value. Profits can be neither good nor bad, large nor minor. They certainly can't be unexpected.

It's good to know that the torch that Mr Wright lit has not gone out.

N.B. The reason the for the picture. This post is about things that aren't there, which makes illustration tricky. This picture is of Dickens' study and was painted just after his death. It is called The Empty Chair because the chair implies the man who is not sitting in it. The picture was wildly popular and thousands of copies were made. My tutor at Oxford had a copy in his study. Van Gogh, who was a big Dickens fan and moved to London a few years after the novelist's death, loved the picture. That's why Van Gogh did all those paintings of empty chairs and empty beds, because the furniture implies the absent person.


  1. Gives a whole new meaning to "Not all there"...

  2. What a great post! Thank you.

  3. Most illuminating - an intriguing trick, but I must allow that if it's this difficult just add to a word or two... a full book without it's most common cog would try any author!

  4. Does one produce a lipogram by sort of sucking out the E's -- that is, liposuction?