Today I would like to address the issue of the “non-sequitur.” The non-sequitur is a rhetorical device by which a conclusion is made that does not follow from its premise. In fact, the term, which is Latin, literally means “does not follow.” And by “literally” I mean “actually.”
Colloquially, it may also refer to a statement or a phenomenon which is un-prompted by logic and makes no sense within its given context.
An example: I will not give you an example. Enough will follow shortly.
The non sequitur is seductive. Between premise and unrelated conclusion, there is a wide, vertiginous gap that some people like very much, like delicious candy. Using a non-sequitur gives writing a “wacky” quality, and it is very popular among some who would ask me questions.
Randy X asks: Hello. Two weeks ago, my good friend Kevin submitted a tee-shirt design for our high school’s Annual Homecoming Tee-Shirt Design Contest. The suggested theme was “Eagles: It’s What’s for Dinner.” His design featured a person, who happened to have the head of a large grinning cat, sitting down at a table cutting into an eagle with a knife. The winning entry was decided through an informal and corrupt election run by my school’s Student Government Association. Despite our “grass roots” campaign, our design didn’t win. The details concerning the winner are disheartening. For example, all of the people featured in the winning design looked much more like Pokemon characters than cats. And so, Former Professional Literary Agent, my question is: is it right to put two spaces between each sentence in a formal document?
John Kellogg Hodgman, Former Professional Literary Agent: This happens to be a perfect example of what I was just talking about. Imagine that.
When I was a professional literary agent, I would caution writers against excessive “wackiness”: characters with funny, hyper-literate names (“Mr. Thaddeus Ancillary walked into the bar…”), sudden deus ex machina kidnappings by UFO, or people who happen to have the heads of grinning cats. It is tempting to write this way, as it is clever-seeming and would invite comparison to established “wacky” writers like Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But I never liked it. Maybe this is because a non sequitur is selfish, attention-grabbing, and needy, hijacking the surrounding text and undermining its more generous or honest purpose, which may be to tell a story or request information. Or maybe it’s because I am a crank who only likes jokes when I make them.
Anyway, here is a premise which has no bearing on the question it purports to illustrate. It wants nothing to do with the question, even though the question is its reason for being, and because of this, the premise seems to hate the question all the more. It is a very complex relationship. But it is a good question, and the answer is yes, if you’re using a typewriter. Two spaces were long required to achieve readability on a fixed-width type mechanism like a typewriter (or in a font like Courier). But most fonts today are proportional, with each character taking up a different and appropriate amount of space, including the period. This makes the second space unnecessary as a visual cue and to some eyes undesirable. But I still put it in anyway, because I am a crank.
Zachary R asks: I have this idea for a book. The year is 2096. A new technology has been developed which in principle works as a teleportation device. When a world leader or assassin needs to travel great distances across space for reasons of diplomacy or assassination, he or she is replicated genetically and psychologically (complete with memories) at their destination point while the original him or her is painlessly euthanized and then incinerated. The world leader or assassin wakes up millions of miles away with the sensation that he or she has just gone to sleep for a few hours, when in fact he or she has died and been rebuilt. But he or she has to wonder, is this the real me? Am I somehow… damaged goods? My question for you is, how much reference to 20th century pop culture is appropriate for a book like this?
JKH, FPLA: This is a somewhat more stealthy beast, in that the question does have some arguable if tenuous relationship to the premise. But the premise is faulty. That is not teleportation but cloning, and my aversion to cloning as a plot device is a matter of public record (see AAFPLA IV). Cloning is a chump’s game: a way to build in cheap evil-twin plot twists; to allow characters to cheat mortality and thus, believability; and in your case, to sidestep the problematics of near-light-speed travel. Also, it’s gross (in a way that robots and spaceships are not). What’s more, even with the same memories, that replicated person would be a unique individual—not the same person. I’m not sure about world leaders, but none of the assassins I know would stand for such a procedure, and neither would I. As for your question, I would limit myself to two references to Blade Runner, and then call it a day.
Shari B asks: I once got on a bus in San Juan Capistrano, went to sleep, and woke up just as we pulled into San Juan, Puerto Rico. I don’t know how we got there, but my boots were sure soaked. Should I allow the doctors to do a transorbital lobotomy, or would a canoe trip across the isthmus of Panama do just as well?
JKH, FPLA: Would you like a fried egg for breakfast? Two can play at this game. A horse!
Bryson N asks: I walk much faster than anyone I know and sometimes break into a spastic dodgy run because I fear that people are snickering. In storefront windows my jerky reflection scares me, the awkward head part craning forward as the legs pump wildly. If everyone walked this fast, the streets would look a whole lot different. Should I worry about carpal tunnel syndrome of the ankles?
JKH, FPLA: That is impossible, as your foot does not have a carpal tunnel, which is the opening through which the flexor tendons and median nerve run to the hand. You may be thinking of tarsal tunnel syndrome, in which the posterior tibial nerve is pressed up against a band of fibrous tissue known as the flexor retinaculum, resulting in numbness and pain along the sole of the foot. But I don’t think you should worry this problem, because I don’t believe you actually run as spastically or as frequently as you say you do, or that you are afraid of your own reflection.
Rick C asks: I have been struggling for nearly 15 minutes to think of a question, but I’m coming up blank. I don’t want to resort to some silly non sequitur, but haven’t gotten much farther than that. I don’t want to waste my one question on something stupid, so I ask: What should I ask?
JKH, FPLA: You should not be so hard on yourself. There are no wrong questions, just wrong answers, and these are not a concern here. But, since you ask, I recommend something along these lines…
Sean R asks: There is much speculation about how much horsepower the Subaru Impreza WRX will have when it is released in the United States for the first time in March of 2001. How much will it have? Will it be 247, or 218, or somewhere in between?!? What about the headlights?
JKH, FPLA: Somewhere in between. The 2002 Impreza WRX is rated by Subaru at 227 hp @ 6,000 rpm, which is very powerful, but not as powerful as the Japanese version of same, which hits 280 hp, or the Japan-only 22B, which is estimated at 325 hp. As you know, the WRX has extra-large halogen headlights doubled by oversize fog lights for extra-blinding action. My feeling: these should be illegal, unless I am driving one, in which case they are great.
Of course, in answering this question, I have two advantages. First, I am something of a Subaru expert, given that I own a 1990 Subaru Loyale. Second, because I am so slow and lazy, it is well past March, so this information is easily available. But though I am flawed, perhaps irretrievably, an honest question deserves an honest answer.
And you, dear reader, shall also have one, if you write here.
Until then, a horse!
That is all.
Former Professional Literary Agent