How to Exclaim!

From The Millions:

Noisy. Hysterical. Brash. The textual version of junk food. The selfie of grammar. The exclamation point attracts enormous (and undue) amounts of flak for its unabashed claim to presence in the name of emotion which some unkind souls interpret as egotistical attention-seeking. We’ve grown suspicious of feelings, particularly the big ones needing the eruption of a ! to relieve ourselves. This trend started sometime around 1900 when modernity began to mean functionality and clean straight lines (witness the sensible boxes of a Bauhaus building), rather than the “extra” mood of Victorian sensitivity or frilly playful Renaissance decorations.

Things need to make sense, and the ! just doesn’t, subjective and subversive as it is, popping out from the uniform flow of words on the line. Since the triumphal conquering of smartphone technology and social media, the exclamation point finds fewer and fewer friends: We live in a digital village, chatting to one another from across the globe, and will use emotive social cues such as the exclamation point, and plenty of them. And because we just need to press down a thumbbbbbb to reproduce any character at nearly no cost, we’re more likely to flood the digital world with !!!!!!. No wonder we’re a little allergic to the poor !, stigmatizing its ubiquity as annoying and unnecessary. Along came Donald Trump and gave ! the coup de grâce by larding his tweets with exclamation points during his electoral campaign and presidency. Through Trump’s posturing and the mark’s erect body and one-balled bottom, ! has become “aggressively phallic,” and is in bad need of saving.

Thankfully, neither attitudes towards the exclamation point, nor its functions, have always been as negative and harmful. For hundreds of years, writers enjoyed the punchy power of a well-placed !, wielding its mighty sword of “here be feelings!” with aplomb and persuasiveness. Here are five ways that literature can recuperate the abused exclamation point.

1. Conspicuously absent.

Ernest Hemingway is the king of understatement. Gruesome battles, gory wounds, death stealing a baby out of a mother’s arms—none of those deserve a relieving exclamation point, or narrative comment guiding our feelings. We have to do all the emotional labour ourselves, as the author serves us the bare bones of action only in his fusion of fiction with a journalistic style of observation. In his Nobel Prize-winning 1954 novel The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway holds the emotional tone as flat as an unruffled water surface, until the old man believes a giant marling has swallowed his bait, and he’s waiting for just the perfect moment to pull the pole:

Come up easy and let me put the harpoon into you. All right. Are you ready? Have you been long enough at table? “Now!” he said aloud and struck hard with both hands, gained a yard of line and then struck again and again, swinging with each arm alternately on the cord with all the strength of his arms and the pivoted weight of his body.

The exclamation point falls flat. All the expectation and excitement rushing into the uplifting mark, and then—nothing. The marling keeps on swimming for another 100 pages. This punctuation tsunami lifts itself out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Hemingway plays tricks on our feelings with this exclamation anti-climax, standing starkly out as the only ! in the novel, just as the rest of the lonely 59 exclamation points dotting Hemingway’s entire works. !‘s presence can produce big emotions. And so can its absence.

2. The more the better.

If Hemingway is the master of one, Salman Rushdie juggles with infinity. In his acclaimed 1981 novel Midnight’s Children, Rushdie uses the staggering number of 2.131 !s—and average of six exclamation points per page! That’s a lot of shouting. Rushdie’s novel traces the life of children born at the stroke of midnight on the day of Indian liberation from the British empire on August 15, 1947. All of them possess magical abilities, and the book portrays a world flush with supernatural energies, different languages turning into one another, thoughts, feelings, places, and motivations, all jostling for prominence. So much life, jumping from the page needs a punctuation springboard, and the exclamation point is happy to provide. Rushdie received the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children, as well as the Booker of Bookers among all winners—twice! There must be something about those !s that caught the judges’ eyes.

3. To hell with propriety!

Lovers of eighteenth-century literature like to tout Jane Austen as the prim pristine lady novelist representative of the tender emotions and unspoken rules of Georgian society. Her books, however, are watered-down versions of her unadulterated manuscripts, filtered through several rounds of editing that have erased the real Austen, passionate, spontaneous, and alive to the rhythms of conversation. Oxford Professor Kathryn Sutherland has published the surviving Austen autographs, witnessing a writer that’s much sloppier and real than we’re used to, and maybe comfortable with.

In Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, the heroine Anne finally has a clarifying conversation with her romantic interest Captain Wentworth after nearly a decade of will-they-won’t-they. In the posthumously printed text, Anne weakly berates Wentworth for thinking she is still the same young person: “‘You should have distinguished,’ replied Anne. ‘You should not have suspected me now; the case so different, and my age so different.’” The manuscript, on the other hand, shows a woman fervent and warm in her finally honest heart-to-heart with the man of her life: “You should have distinguished—replied Anne—You should not have suspected me now;—The case so different, & my age so different!—” Dashes, underlinings, scratchings-out, and the tell-tale exclamation point paint a much-needed new picture of an established author who doesn’t shy away from letting her “elegant females” exclaim in the name of love. Only that this was too much eagerness for her male editors who muted her voice through flattening out her varied punctuation. If in doubt, be Jane, and exclaim!

Link to the rest at The Millions