Important editorial advice

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The most recent xkcd offers some sound editorial guidance:

The validity of the strip's title string ("The best thing about Strunk/White fanfiction is that it's virtually guaranteed to be well written") is less clear, for reasons that Geoff Pullum has explained at length in various places, for example here.

[For those of you who are reading this via time machine from the 1950s, I should explain that "fan fiction" refers to stories about characters in popular books, movies, or TV series, written and distributed by fans rather than by the original authors or others authorized by the owners of the original material. "Slash fiction" refers to "a genre of fan fiction that focuses on the depiction of romantic or sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex".

Anne Kustritz ("Slashing the Romance Narrative", Journal of American Culture 26(3) 2003) observes that the authors of slash fiction "are almost solely heterosexual women", although the characters in the "noncanonical romantic relationships" are "usually male".

I have not been able to find any non-fictional instances of Strunk/White fan fiction, but we can hope that in the future, references to these names will more often be separated by a slash than by an ampersand. ]

Update — KJ in the comments points us to Lev Grossman, "The Boy Who Lived Forever", Time 7/7/2011. And other commenters contributed several fragments that illustrate the potential for slashing Strunk/White, starting with Dan H:

Strunk fell back, exhausted onto the great number of dead leaves that were lying on the ground.

"That was incredible," he sighed – his voice passive. "I – I can't describe…"

White smiled, and kissed him again. "It's alright, my darling," he said. "After all – you always said we should omit needless words."

Pflaumbaum continued:

"But darling," cried Strunk, "I don't want no-one else!"
"Control yourself, William", said White sternly. "Your negatives are all over the place."
"No, Elwin," he replied, "they're not." And he opened the bathroom door to reveal Fowler, resplendent in White's velvet dressing-gown.

And again:

They lay back and gazed at the stars, in their unfathomable, unsplit infinity.
"Do you ever feel," asked White, "that there's only us two, in the whole of Creation?"
"No," replied Strunk, "Though I do often feel that there are only we two."
"Forget it," said White, getting up and stalking back to the house.
"Uh-oh," said Strunk, "My big mouth and I."

I should point out that there are some potential points of inspiration in the canon, as in White's description of Strunk ("Letter from the East", New Yorker 7/27/1957):

From every line there peers out at me the puckish face of my professor, his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache.

And again:

I treasure "The Elements of Style" for its sharp advice, but I treasure it even more for the audacity and self-confidence of its author. Will knew where he stood. He was so sure of where he stood, and made his position so clear and so plausible, that his peculiar stance has continued to invigorate me — and, I am sure, thousands of other ex-students — during the years that have intervened since our first encounter. He had a number of likes and dislikes that were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet he made them seem utterly convincing. He disliked the word "forceful" and advised us to use "forcible" instead. He felt that the word "clever" was greatly overused; "it is best restricted to ingenuity displayed in small matters." He despised the expression "student body," which he termed gruesome, and made a special trip downtown to the Alumni News office one day to protest the expression and suggest that "studentry" be substituted, a coinage of his own which he felt was similar to "citizenry." […]

He scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. He felt that it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong. I remember a day in class when he leaned far forward in his characteristic pose — the pose of a man about to impart a secret — and croaked, "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!" This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it.



41 Comments

  1. Yerushalmi said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 6:28 am

    It's the other way around; separating with a slash is the standard way of describing a slash fiction pairing, and nobody ever uses an ampersand for that. The strip is addressing not slash fiction authors but rather the people who are referring to the manual, telling them to stick to the ampersand to avoid confusion.

    Ah, the things you learn when your ex loves (and writes) slash fiction.

    [(myl) As it turns out, you've misunderstood. I expressed the ironic hope that future references to Strunk & White's "toxic little compendium" will be outnumbered by references to Strunk/White pairings in fan fiction. This is not because I hope to read any of this material, but because … oh, never mind.]

  2. .mau. said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    I knew about fanfic, but I never heard of slash fiction… thanks for the explanation :-)

  3. Vance Maverick said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 7:31 am

    Rule 34! And for what it's worth, I assumed Munroe was directly trolling this blog by praising their writing.

  4. Dan H said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    Strunk fell back, exhausted onto the great number of dead leaves that were lying on the ground.

    "That was incredible," he sighed – his voice passive. "I – I can't describe…"

    White smiled, and kissed him again. "It's alright, my darling," he said. "After all – you always said we should omit needless words."

  5. Acilius said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 7:45 am

    Dan H ftw!

  6. SmR said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    Ha! Before reading Mark's response to the first comment, I found myself thinking, "Wait- so- he *wants* to read Strunk/White slash?"
    I never knew that the White of Strunk & White was E.B. White. He was a childhood favorite of mine, and I've always loved his writing style.

  7. Andrew said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 7:51 am

    non-fictional instances of Strunk/White fan fiction
    This usage of non-fictional may itself be deserving of a post, given the distinction between fictional fiction and non-fictional fiction it creates.

  8. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    As I tweeted upon seeing the comic, wouldn't that be a problem of punctuation, not spelling (whether that is a subtle jab to the brand of prescriptivism involved or not I'll leave to the literature analysis graduates).

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    Great stuff from Dan H. Someone with some time on their hands needs to do this.

    "But darling," cried Strunk, "I don't want no-one else!"
    "Control yourself, William", said White sternly. "Your negatives are all over the place."
    "No, Elwin," he replied, "they're not." And he opened the bathroom door to reveal Fowler, resplendent in White's velvet dressing-gown.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    Actually, it should probably be S/W, in parallel with the classic K/S.

  11. Ken Brown said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    @SmR, yes, its that White. "Charlotte's Web" and all. And he broke all his own rules of writing of course. So much so that I wonder if he was taking the piss when he edited Strunk. I can imagine him thinking something like: "So they want to be told how to write do they? They prefer a dead authority figure to their own inner voice? Well, I'll show them!"

    Look at this bit of White's "Here is New York" for a lovely passive:
    "There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter – the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something."

    (If I can believe Language Log there are schoolteachers in America who would correct that)

  12. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    @Ray Girvan
    I always thought that Sapir/Whorf ought to be the classic Star Trek example.

  13. Kate said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    Actually, I've read that the "correct" (ie. original) definition of slash fanfiction is any non-canonical relationship, not just those between members of the same sex. The term later evolved to become almost exclusively identified with the latter. Just an interesting note.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    They lay back and gazed at the stars, in their unfathomable, unsplit infinity.
    "Do you ever feel," asked White, "that there's only us two, in the whole of Creation?"
    "No," replied Strunk, "Though I do often feel that there are only we two."
    "Forget it," said White, getting up and stalking back to the house.
    "Uh-oh," said Strunk, "My big mouth and I."

  15. Sam said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    An aside, perhaps, but I would question Ms. Kustritz's methods, as there is quite a large contingent of lesbian and bisexual women writing slash.

    [(myl) And some men as well, I gather.]

  16. howtoquityou said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    …oh my god, STRUNK/WHITE FANFIC. WITH GRAMMAR FOREPLAY. HOW IS THE INTERNET NOT BROKEN YET.

  17. Emily said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    @Yerushalmi: It's the other way around; separating with a slash is the standard way of describing a slash fiction pairing, and nobody ever uses an ampersand for that.

    Isn't the ampersand sometimes used for a fic about friendship between the two characters? (I was sort-of involved in fandom once.)

  18. BeSlayed said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    Re: White's writing style – there are good writers who, when asked for advice, recommend Strunk & White. This is perplexing, but reminds me of an old anecdote about a Gurkha soldier in Burma during WWII:

    There was a platoon of Gurkhas fighting in in the depths of the Burmese jungle who were captured by the Japanese and put into a POW camp. One of them managed not only to escape, but also to break into the office of the Japanese commanding officer and steal a map. He made his way back to Rangoon over the next several days, and reported into HQ. The officer there asked him how he managed to find his way back. The soldier showed him the map that he had stolen and said he had used it to find his way to Rangoon. The map was a ca. 1930 map of London.

  19. KJ said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    Now you've done it. Strunk/White fic will be all over the place, and it'll be your fault. Well, you and XKCD. Rule 34 indeed.

    Time did a wonderful long article on fan fiction writers of all kinds just last week, if you want something a little more current than your 2003 cite above.

  20. Emma V said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    As said above slash is usually male homosexual relationships, when referring to non-canonical lesbian relationships the word femslash is often used instead.

    With the common ties that slash has with yaoi (Japanese comics about male homosexual relationship) the order of the two names can occasionally show who is the dominant partner (seme/uke) with the dominant coming first. Although I don't believe this convention is all that common, and when it's used it's mainly in anime and manga forums.

    @Ray Girvan in fanfiction groups where particular relationships are well known and fanon, you could probably get away with shortening the pairing to initials, but with a rare pairing like Strunk/White it would be written out in full.

  21. tdy said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    Strunk opened the door to the back seat of the taxi for White and made an exaggerated gesture, prompting him to enter. Once they had both taken a seat, White bellowed, “Just drive, cabbie! Me and my friend needed some privacy.” With that, a tiny bead of sweat formed at the top of Strunk’s brow, his pulse quickening.
    Strunk leaned a bit towards his companion and blurted out, slightly giddy, “Hopefully, there won’t be much traffic out tonight.” White’s nostrils flared in response and his pupils dilated like those of a cat stalking a mouse.
    “What an excellent evening,” mused White. “There was magic in the air,” he added, trying his hardest to compose a passive construction. They were both driven to the peak of excitement by this utterance.
    The cabbie, having grown positively uncomfortable, looked into the rear view mirror and muttered, “What have I gotten myself in to?”
    Suddenly, two moans of ecstasy emerged in unison from the backseat.

  22. Maria said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    Actually the / nowadays quite often simply signifies an erotic relationship between the given characters, no matter their sex or anything else.

    AO3 differentiates between / and &, former is for erotic relationships (m/f, m/m, f/f, etc), later is for other relationships (friendship, etc9.

  23. Emily said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    @Emma V: in fanfiction groups where particular relationships are well known and fanon, you could probably get away with shortening the pairing to initials,

    (Warning, TV Tropes links. Do not click unless you have a couple spare hours.)

    And come to think of it, a lot of fan groups forgo the name/name construction portmanteau couple names (Whunk? Strite?), or names of the form "Xshipping", where X is something relevant to the couple (Styleshipping? Prescriptivistshipping?), or just the relevant X. Here's a big long list showing lots of variations on the theme.

  24. Emma said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    Slash originally only referred to the romantic relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock from Star Trek the original series. It was the only homosexual pairing common in fandoms at the time (usually in the form of stories written in fan-made magazines), and was distinguished from platonic stories about two males because those stories would use the ampersand (&). At that point, saying slash meant that you were talking about those two. It was later that it became a term for any homosexual male relationship (with femslash being used for females as noted above).

  25. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    If I had read this via time machine in the early 1950s, I would have known exactly what "fan fiction" meant: stories written by science fiction fans and published in cheap little "fanzines," usually mimeographed and occasionally hectographed. I subscribed to several fanzines and edited one in my early teens.

  26. Jake said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    Cut and paste, mistype, or intended? –

    "…during the years that have intervene since our fist encounter"

  27. Emily said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    Darn, my earlier comment should have gone "…a lot of fan groups forgo the name/name construction IN FAVOR OF portmanteau couple names…" I omitted non-needless words!

  28. Bradley M said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    Quoth Emily:

    …names of the form "Xshipping", where X is something relevant to the couple (Styleshipping? Prescriptivistshipping?)

    "Preshiptivism" works for me here.

  29. John said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    "He felt that it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong."

    This… explains so much…

  30. Dominik Lukes said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Just a small point of fanfiction (my favorite genre) pedantry. Although, the statement about the predominance of straight women as authors of male slash fiction is probably true. In my experience, female slash fanfiction is written predominantly by gay women.

  31. executrix said,

    July 11, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

    I am entirely unable to believe that White would EVER say "It's alright, my darling," Whatever happened to "all right"?

    [(myl) The thing is, you couldn't ever tell whether Mr. White said "all right" or "alright", since these are two different orthographic representations for exactly the same class of utterances. He probably wouldn't ever have written "alright", but that's a different matter.]

  32. AlexB said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 2:15 am

    There are T-shirts:

    http://www.redbubble.com/people/jant/t-shirts/5561296-ive-slept-with-strunk-and-white

  33. Dan H said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 3:03 am

    If I can believe Language Log there are schoolteachers in America who would correct that

    If we can believe even half the horror stories on Language Log, there are schoolteachers in America who would not onlyl correct "which was devoured by locusts" to "which locusts devoured" but would also correct "there are roughly three New Yorks".

    I believe such people also think that 1984 should have opened with the line "The morning in April brighted and colded, the clocks struck thirteen."

  34. Matthew said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 4:11 am

    @Emily: Definitely Strite, if only because it rhymes with the advice.

  35. Julie said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 8:05 am

    In some fandoms, the slash is abandoned in favor of blends. I'm most familiar with the Buffy fandom. Some examples from that:

    Spuffy (Spike/Buffy)
    Bangel (Buffy/Angel)
    Spangel (Spike/Angel)
    Spillow (Spike/Willow)
    Spander (Spike/Xander)

    The order seems to be be driven less by dominance than by phonotactics. It will be interesting to see if it's Strite or Wrunk if this pairing catches on.

  36. Aaron Davies said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    in star trek fandom, at least, the order of the names in pairing codes is quite formalized, at least for the "standard" pairings, and goes primarily by starfleet rank. (how ties are broken, i don't know, but i'm sure there's a rule.) in many cases this makes a two-letter code alone sufficient to fully identify a pair–"P/C" is always Jean-Luc Picard and Beverly Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation, "C/P" is always Chakotay and Tom Paris from Star Trek: Voyager.

  37. Emily said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    Another pairing name might be Strunkenwhite. That's how I parsed the string "Strunk and White" upon first hearing it (from a high school teacher who took Elements as holy writ, I'm sorry to say).

  38. David Fried said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum:

    For all those inspired to add to the Strunk/White canon, be advised that E.B.White was known to his friends as "Andy," not "Elwin." And his stepson, Roger Angell, the great New Yorker baseball writer, is still with us at 90. Will Strunk was not his father, by the way.

  39. » Strunk / White The Blue Candle Society said,

    July 12, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    […] I'm not a huge Strunk and White fan, I'm linking to the Language Log, I'm linking their post about this thing about Strunk and White, because they have an appropriately jaundiced view.  […]

  40. Mark Mandel said,

    July 19, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    @David Fried: Much as C.S.Lewis was known to his friends as "Jack", not "Clive" or "Staples".

  41. ASG said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    So help me, An Archive Of Our Own (a major fanfic archive) has delivered, giving Rule 34 another victory:

    http://archiveofourown.org/works/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&querytext=strunk

    Both stories are dated July 11, and both authors say in their authors' notes that xkcd inspired them. Neither of them, to my knowledge, mention LL, but I haven't read the full text because I am afraid.

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