I reviewed a book a while back that has stayed with me for many months and has affected the way I write and read, and it’s opened my eyes to a weakness in much creative writing, even in published books. Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012) criticizes many aspects of fiction, but saves its most withering scorn for the rampant and indiscriminate use of copulas.
I hear you asking, “What’s a copula? I admit I had to look it up. Webster’s definition says: “the connecting link between subject and predicate of a proposition.” In most cases, this refers to a form of the word “be.” But what does that mean to us everyday writers? It means banal, didactic, often passive sentences, almost completely lacking in action or depth.
As Glover says: “A copula spider occurs when a student uses the verb ‘to be’ so many times on a page that I can circle all the instances, connect them with lines, and draw a spider diagram. Now there is nothing grammatically wrong with the verb ‘to be,’ but if you use it over and over again your prose is likely to be flaccid and uninteresting.”
He speaks of his students here, but I also see the effects of copula overdosing in many published works. Consider this excerpt from a book I intend to review:
The watchman was striking the midnight blow on his clappers as I opened the door, Fortunately, Y… was still out. My body was still trembling, but I was able to clean the vomit off the walls and floor before crawling into bed.
I see little effort or creativity in this supposedly “creative” writing. Not that the book fails completely because of it, but I’ve noticed more than a few such passages in the narrative, from an author with many publications and years of experience. But how much more work would it have taken to punch up that paragraph with better action and description? We call ourselves creative writers, after all.
You may not think this amounts to more than a nit-pick. But to me this kind of writing lacks the challenge and the engagement I’d hoped to find when I began reading the book—I find myself paying more attention to the quality of the writing than the story.
I believe focusing on details like this separates the average writer from the excellent writer. So when I made the final (I hope) edits on my historical fiction, I looked extra hard for copulas, changing them to active constructions whenever possible. Perhaps it will make a difference. Does anyone besides me care these days?
By the way, in case you didn’t notice, I made it a point not to employ any copulas in writing this blog. It took some effort to avoid falling into that web.
Addendum: One never knows what readers will find interesting. Web stats for this blog are double my usual average today. And I’m proud to say that one of my Twitter friends, Sophfronia Scott, studied under Douglas Glover at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and passed the link on to him. He responded with a very nice note. Small world.
My friend Dora Badger has begun what should be an excellent series of posts about independent publishers on her blog. Take a look:
And next week I’ll report from Boston, at the annual AWP writers conference, with my annual look at some of the more unusual 11,000 writers in attendance. If you plan on attending, and would like to say hello, you can find me at the LA Review table.