Literary Birthday - 24 August - Alexander McCall Smith

Happy Birthday, Alexander McCall Smith, born 24 August 1948

The Top 10 Alexander McCall Smith Quotes

  1. He had been thinking of how landscape moulds a language. It was impossible to imagine these hills giving forth anything but the soft syllables of Irish, just as only certain forms of German could be spoken on the high crags of Europe; or Dutch in the muddy, guttural, phlegmish lowlands.
  2. We should be careful of the insults we fling at others, lest they return and land at our feet, newly minted to apply to those who had first coined them.
  3. We all know that it is women who make the decisions, but we have to let men think that the decisions are theirs. It is an act of kindness on the part of women.
  4. The telling of a story, like virtually everything in this life, was always made all the easier by a cup of tea.
  5. A life without stories would be no life at all. And stories bound us, did they not, one to another, the living to the dead, people to animals, people to the land?
  6. You have to leave your heart to get on with it. It’s rather like breathing. We don’t have to remind ourselves to breathe.
  7. There is room in history for all of us.
  8. The point about love, the essential point, was that we loved what we loved. We did not choose. We just loved.
  9. Sometimes she thought that the people overseas had no room in their heart for Africa, because nobody had ever told them that African people were just the same as they were.
  10. Tea, for me, is one of the great subjects. It is a romantic trade, it does not pollute excessively, it has all sorts of health benefits, it calms and wakes you up at the same time. 

Alexander McCall Smith is a Rhodesia-born Scottish writer. He is most widely known as the creator of the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. He is an Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh.

Read our 2006 interview with Alexander McCall Smith.

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Alexander McCall Smith: On Writing

Block That Adjective by Alexander McCall Smith My becircte noiremdashand there is nothing wrong with using the occasional French expression although one does not want to sound too much like a menumdashis overwriting Something is overwritten when there is just too much of it This may be because the writer has laboured the point and made a mountain out of a molehill or because too many words are used As a result descriptions are cluttered and the prose quickly becomes unreadable There is a lot of it about The problem is that we speak English Some languages such as English or Spanish have immensely rich vocabularies If we want to describe something in English we have a wide choice of words at our disposal and can say what we want to say in many different ways The problem does not occur if one is writing in say Melanesian Pidgin where rather few words are at your disposal and most of them are pithy in the extreme For some people being able to use all these words is rather like being faced with a chocolate box with multiple layers the temptation to overindulge is just too great The result is the use of too many adjectives adverbs and subsidiary clauses Such writing then begins to sound contrived Nobody uses large numbers of adjectives when they think and I believe that writing which one cannot actually think can very easily look wrong on the page The real aim of course is conciseness Concise prose knows what it wants to say and says it It does not embellish except occasionally and then for dramatic effect It is sparing in its use of metaphor And it is certainly careful in its use of adjectives Look at the King James Bible that magnificent repository of English at the height of its beauty The language used to describe the creation of the world is so simple so direct 8220Let there be light and there was light8221 That sentence has immense power precisely because there are no adjectives If we fiddle about with it we lose that 8220Let there be light and there was a sort of matutinal glowing phenomenon that slowly transfused etc8221 No that doesn8217t work There is a place for the adjective and for the descriptive passage but these must be carefully handled A piece of prose that had no adjectives would very quickly become sterile so it really is a question of restraint There is a psychological reason for this If somebody sets out in great detail what is before us we very quickly become bored That is not the way we see the world we look for salience we look for the feature that will engage our interest Think about how we describe a cityscape We do not list and describe every building we refer to one or two Manhattan for instance can be conjured up with a description of the spire of the Chrysler building the reader8217s imagination can do the rest And therein lies the problem The trouble with overwritten prose is that it takes away from the reader the opportunity to imagine a scene We do not want to be told everything we want a few brushstrokes a few carefully chosen adjectives and then we can do the rest ourselves It8217s Roget8217s fault of course I blame him and his wretched thesaurus Put it away  of or pertaining to morning don8217t use this word mdashAlexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 60 books including the 8220No 1 Ladies8217 Detective Agency8221 seriesnbsp Source wsjonline Image guardianuk

Block That Adjective!

by Alexander McCall Smith

My bête noire—and there is nothing wrong with using the occasional French expression, although one does not want to sound too much like a menu—is overwriting. Something is overwritten when there is just too much of it. This may be because the writer has laboured the point and made a mountain out of a molehill, or because too many words are used. As a result, descriptions are cluttered and the prose quickly becomes unreadable. There is a lot of it about.

The problem is that we speak English. Some languages, such as English or Spanish, have immensely rich vocabularies: If we want to describe something in English, we have a wide choice of words at our disposal and can say what we want to say in many different ways. The problem does not occur if one is writing in, say, Melanesian Pidgin, where rather few words are at your disposal and most of them are pithy in the extreme.

For some people, being able to use all these words is rather like being faced with a chocolate box with multiple layers; the temptation to overindulge is just too great. The result is the use of too many adjectives, adverbs and subsidiary clauses. Such writing then begins to sound contrived. Nobody uses large numbers of adjectives when they think, and I believe that writing which one cannot actually think can very easily look wrong on the page.

The real aim, of course, is conciseness. Concise prose knows what it wants to say, and says it. It does not embellish, except occasionally, and then for dramatic effect. It is sparing in its use of metaphor. And it is certainly careful in its use of adjectives. Look at the King James Bible, that magnificent repository of English at the height of its beauty. The language used to describe the creation of the world is so simple, so direct. “Let there be light, and there was light.” That sentence has immense power precisely because there are no adjectives. If we fiddle about with it, we lose that. “Let there be light, and there was a sort of matutinal,* glowing phenomenon that slowly transfused, etc.” No, that doesn’t work.

There is a place for the adjective and for the descriptive passage, but these must be carefully handled. A piece of prose that had no adjectives would very quickly become sterile; so it really is a question of restraint. There is a psychological reason for this: If somebody sets out in great detail what is before us, we very quickly become bored. That is not the way we see the world; we look for salience, we look for the feature that will engage our interest. Think about how we describe a cityscape. We do not list and describe every building, we refer to one or two. Manhattan, for instance, can be conjured up with a description of the spire of the Chrysler building; the reader’s imagination can do the rest.

And therein lies the problem. The trouble with overwritten prose is that it takes away from the reader the opportunity to imagine a scene. We do not want to be told everything; we want a few brushstrokes, a few carefully chosen adjectives, and then we can do the rest ourselves. It’s Roget’s fault, of course. I blame him and his wretched thesaurus. Put it away.

* of or pertaining to morning; don’t use this word.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 60 books, including the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series. 

Source wsjonline Image guardianuk

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