or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Guessing Game

Well, I just don't know what to make of this usage in a Slate.com piece about a famous lesbian pulp-fiction novel:

In those days, when one was not busy excoriating the patriarchy, pining after straight women, or cultivating one's body odor, it was permissible—even among the hard core—to indulge in light reading of a politically acceptable sort. Recommended works of the era included Patience and Sarah, an uplifting Sapphic romance about two 19th-century pioneer ladies who lived in a log cabin, raised livestock, and snuggled up at night together in their own little quilt-covered bed (sigh); Adrienne Rich's recently published Diving Into the Wreck (poetical gleanings from the Great Lesbian Sibyl); and the various maunderings of the terminally otiose May Sarton. Along with Off Our Backs, the SCUM Manifesto, and other incendiary fare, all were to be found at Amazon Books, our local women's bookstore. (In the postfeminist 1990s, the few remaining members of the Amazon collective—obese, purple-clad, and now as demented as the survivors of the Donner Party—would get embroiled in a domain-name dispute with Jeff Bezos. Guess who won.)

I quoted the whole paragraph, even though I didn't need to, because it's pretty funny and mostly true. But what is up with "otiose"?

The trouble with using a word that has more than one meaning--especially a relatively obscure word that has more than one meaning--is that readers might not know which meaning you intend. I sure don't. According to Answers.com, "otiose" has three meanings:

1) Lazy,
2) Useless,
3) Ineffective.

They overlap, but they're not synonyms. So which meaning does Terry Castle intend? I have no idea. Despite having taken a couple of women's-literature courses in university, having read quite a lot of feminist writing, fiction and otherwise, and in fact having managed a lefty sort of bookstore not unlike the one described in the above paragraph, I've never read May Sarton, so I don't know what aspect of her authorial personality is being described. Is she lazy? I'm not sure how that would apply to a writer, unless it's someone who hires a ghost-writer or copies paragraphs from foreign websites and lets Google Translate do all their work for them (and even that, frankly, take some effort). Is she useless? Again, I'm not sure how this might apply to May Sarton, though I can think of a few useless authors without even trying. Ineffective? Perhaps this is as close as we're going to come: perhaps Castle thinks Sarton doesn't do her job as a writer, doesn't make her think and feel what she expects to. There is, later on on the Answers.com page, another set of definitions that includes "sterile", and perhaps this is what Castle means: a dry, barren landscape of words.

But again, I have no idea. You know what would have helped? A little context. That would have been nice.


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