[S]ome say you should write in nouns …
~ Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar”
Writing for the WWW involves two things and two things only:
- avoiding pronouns
All other advice and “insight” are pure bombast, and if one were to print the following on t-shirts, and circulate them like a fraternity brother, s/he could save the world millions of dollars in annual consulting fees: *
I’ve long known the former, as does anyone who’s ever needed to make a living working with SEO and/or composing copy for the Web. But the latter hit me rather suddenly, rather recently, and I found myself thinking — as a result, almost as suddenly — about Gertrude Stein.
Art collector, matron of Modernism, and proto-SEO expert — like any modern Web writer worth his/her salt, Stein avoids using pronouns, somewhat notoriously.
I suspect the connection between SEO copy and Stein’s work lay latent in my mind for some time. Back in 2008 and 2009, when I wrote for Purecontent, at their abysmal rate of $0.012/word, the editors returned many of my articles for revisions because they didn’t “read naturally,” that is, the articles were too obviously geared toward search engines; that is, my copy did what was asked of it far too well; that is, I avoided using pronouns and, as a result, submitted copy that read, vaguely, like something Stein would have written for Madison Avenue.
The Purecontent workflow proceeded as follows:
They would send me a list of SEO words and phrases that a client wanted integrated into its site. My job involved writing 2-3,000 word copy decks that used as many of these words and phrases as possible. The trick, of course, was making the final copy read “transparently,” i.e., in such a way that a visitor wouldn’t know the text was, in fact, aimed at Googlebot.
As an example, here’s a short paragraph from a larger article I wrote for Purecontent about the ceramics company Villeroy & Boch:
Villeroy & Boch makes a number of different luxury bathroom accessories and fixtures unrivaled for quality, beauty, and durability. True to Villeroy & Boch’s tradition of manufacturing fine porcelain and luxury bathroom accessories, Villeroy & Boch makes such luxury bathroom accessories and luxury bathroom fixtures as basins, bidets, bathtubs, toilets, and urinals. Stylish and functional, Villeroy & Boch luxury bathroom accessories and fixtures add an elegant accent to any modern European home.
The piece was returned, of course, and I sterilized it with pronouns so I could collect my measly handful of $1 bills.
Admittedly, I’d probably never write this way in a novel, story, script, essay, or hyper/boʊl/e post, but, I’ve always felt this sort of keyword-heavy, pronoun-less prose has a certain charm when deployed on the WWW. Perhaps because it’s so shamelessly deferential to the whims of Googlebot. Perhaps because it has a unique sense of self and scans as innocently as a neutered kitten. Perhaps because it’s so transparently and pragmatically functional.
Whatever the reason, echoing Frost’s “Birches,” the Web’s clearly the right place for this sort of writing: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better, except in the pages of Gertrude Stein. One could do worse than be an avoider of pronouns, and Ms. Stein certainly legitimized the technique.
In her 1935 lecture “Poetry and Grammar,” which I’ve sampled from the Library of America edition of her work — and, in a few cases, silently emended, to avoid using a string of [sic]‘s — Stein argues that pronouns:
… are not really the name of anything. They represent someone but they are not its or his name. (316)
Stein does quarrel with the noun itself:
A noun is a name of anything, why after a thing is named write about it. A name is adequate or it is not. If it is adequate then why go on calling it, if it is not then calling it by its name does no good. … Nouns are the name of anything and just naming names is alright when you want to call a roll but is it any good for anything else? … [A] noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. … [A] writer should always have that intensity of emotion about whatever is the object about which he writes. And therefore and I say it again more and more one does not use nouns. (313-14)
But I’m inclined to read these opinions as statements on language’s (in)ability to represent objects and not as a commentary on style. The absence of “should” at the end of the last sentence is instructive, I think: instead of prescribing against the use of nouns, Stein seems to be questioning their ability to capture the essence of objects they signify. Moreover, eventually, in the same lecture, Stein outlines a certain nounal détente: announcing her eventual decision “not to get around them but to meet them, to handle in short to refuse them by using them” and allowing that nouns “are the names of anything and as the names of anything of course one has had to use them” (325).
Even more importantly, one can read Stein’s larger body of work as a love affair with the noun and a spurning of the pronoun. In almost everything she writes, Stein employs a steady succession of common and proper nouns, and her fundamental theory of poetics even uses the noun as a sort of crown jewel:
[P]oetry … is a vocabulary entirely based on the noun … Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun. Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns. … [A] noun is a name of anything … [Y]ou can love a name and if you love a name then saying that name any number of times only makes you love it more, more violently more persistently more tormentedly. (“Poetry and Grammar,” 327).
I’d argue that using nouns in this way — both common and uncommon, where one might ordinarily use pronouns, playing with their (in)abilities and foibles, abstracting their representational qualities as Cézanne might a piece of fruit — stands as a fundamental hallmark of Stein’s style. For example, compare the Villeroy & Boch paragraph, inartful and banal as it is, to a few passages from Stein’s playful, impressionistic “portrait” of Henry James, which I’ve quoted from the same LOA edition referenced above:
What is the difference between Shakespeare’s plays and Shakespeare’s sonnets? I have found the difference between Shakespeare’s plays and Shakespeare’s sonnets. (149)
There are so many ways of writing and yet after all there are perhaps only two ways of writing. Perhaps so. Perhaps no. Perhaps so. There is one way the common way of writing that is writing what you are writing. That is the one way of writing, yes that is one way of writing. The other way is an equally common way. It is writing, that is writing what you are going to be writing. Of course this is a common way a common way of writing. (152)
Henry James was an American, but not as a general as a general he was a European as a general, which he was as he was a European general. (169)
Villeroy & Boch, Wedgwood, and companies like them would do well to incorporate this “keyword-heavy” passage — from Stein’s Geographical History of America, as published in the LOA edition — into their respective sites:
In china china is not china it is an earthen ware. In China there is no need of China because in China china is china. All who liked china like China and have china. China in America is not an earthen ware. All who like China in America like china in America and all who like china in America do not like to have china in china to be an earthen ware. (379)
It isn’t as if pronouns are wholly absent from Stein’s work, in these passages or in other texts such as Tender Buttons and Yet Dish. Instead, they’re just de-privileged, their presence minimized and anything but assured.
In addition to the point she makes in “Poetry and Grammar” — which, in context, reads like asteism — I think Stein’s greatest argument against the pronoun comes indirectly, in her famous Oxbridge lecture “Composition as Explanation.” In this speech, which I’ve quoted from the second LOA volume of her work, Stein makes the following point:
Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series. … It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition. Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time in the composition is different. (522-23)
Here, and elsewhere in “Composition as Explanation,” Stein argues “compositions,” which I interpret to mean “literary and expository matter,” are dynamic entities that change across time. Certainly, they change in a “diachronic” sense, that is, from generation to generation, across historical time. But texts also change on a more intimate scale, namely, as individual readers make their way through them, either linearly or hypertextually, from page to page, from sentence to sentence, from word to word. “Not really the name of anything,” representations of “someone but … not its or his name” — pronouns risk sterilizing language and homogenizing compositions. And since the tone and, sometimes meaning, of nouns change based on context and chronological position, pronouns can compromise literary aesthetics by undermining the experience of reading compositions as they unfold across time.
Additionally, pronouns have a certain transparency in prose, and even when used properly — that is, when a writer unambiguously links proper noun to coincident pronoun — they tend to neutralize powerful proper nouns, exchanging “The Franco-Prussian War” for “it,” “Isabel Archer” for “her,” “Dante’s Virgil” for “him,” and “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” for “they.” “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” — the proper and, then, common nouns change across time. But bland and indistinguishable as pasteurized cheese, “it” is always an “it” is always an “it” is always an “it.” Pronouns create eddies within the “time in the composition,” interrupt a text’s ability to develop across time, and interfere with the ability of nouns — textual representations of concepts and objects — to differentiate themselves from one another.
The difficulty pronouns have in distinguishing themselves from one another in a given composition translates nicely into a discussion of SEO copy. On the Web, pronouns not only create eddies within compositions. They prevent compositions from being found in the first place.
Stein’s work — a sort of proto-SEO literature — would fare quite well in the context of the WWW. In this textual environment, algorithms find content, based on keywords, and serve it to human readers for consumption. Googlebot, humanity’s greatest and most voracious reader, cannot, in its own way, designate among pronouns. It prefers, as a rule, specific proper and common nouns and rewards writers who, like Stein, avoid pronouns in favor of their more specific cousins.
For example, trying to improve a page’s search return ranking based on the pronoun “it” would be virtually impossible. But pursuing the same goals using neat, specific, proper nouns like “The Franco-Prussian War,” “Isabel Archer,” “Dante’s Virgil,” and “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” is routine. Maximizing a page’s SEO profile using common nouns, such as “rose,” is slightly more difficult, but, in these cases, contextual cues help Googlebot differentiate between pages interested in flowers, colors, and wines. It’s true that these same contextual cues would help Googlebot organize and serve pages dominated by pronouns, but the overall SEO effect won’t ever be as spectacular for these pages as it will be for those stuffed with nouns.
Stein’s passages are much more elegant, interesting, and playful than my Villeroy & Boch paragraph (or, for that matter, most anything else one writes to sell consumer bric-à-brac on the Web), and her goals are much more highly conceptualized. These include abstraction through repetition, achieving subjective equality via universal alienation, and exploiting multiple word meanings to achieve maximum verbal bang for minimal vocabulary buck. Like a child’s scream, most SEO copy attempts little more than making itself as visible as possible. And while I think my particular brand of SEO copy did attempt to intone Stein, more or less consciously, it did so as a form of scrivener’s protest. As a result, it has all the elegance one would expect from that sort of proletarian temper tantrum and lacks Stein’s trademark verbal sublimity.
With these important distinctions made between the two, the passages from Stein’s “Henry James” and Geographical History of America would, nevertheless, work wonders for sites about Shakespeare, writing, European generals, and earthenware china, especially if this proto-SEO copy were combined with a robust number of nonreciprocal backlinks, healthy incoming traffic numbers, and a properly managed AdWords campaign. (Ironically enough, the “Henry James” portrait wouldn’t do all that much to improve the SEO profile of a site concerned with the Master himself.)
Admittedly, as a “degreed” enthusiast, I have a greater-than-average obsession with Stein’s literary moment. The culture and mythologies of “Modernism” aren’t ever far from my mind, and I compulsively investigate ways to merge the Belle Époque, fin de siècle, and post-WWI 20th century with our contemporary moment. Even according to these operating standards, though, I’ll admit to being especially obsessed of late:
… exploring The Flâneur‘s voice;
… (once again) obsessing over Hemingway’s “Banal Story“;
… investigating the Stein-SEO connection and considering engineering a Google bomb to “prove” this post’s thesis;
Nevertheless, my fetish notwithstanding, I think literary Modernism is, once again, proving itself to be the ultimate avant-garde of the past 120 years. (In terms of style, even if not theme, it likely even eclipses Romanticism — its epistemic grandfather — which would allow us to push this number back another century.)
The literature and wider culture of the 1890s-1930s was so ahead-of-its-time, and so profoundly “new,” that we’re only now unlocking it and leveraging its full potential, thanks to advanced machines, information networks, and algorithms. Without these tools, we find ourselves lost in Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and I often think — with a smile, as I consume the efficient Wiki-knowledge that allows me to decipher these texts — of the precocious, inescapably jejune generations of (would-be) scholars who stomped into the Bodleian or the New York Public Library or, as I once did, the Flint River Regional Library with an eye to breaking these texts wide open.
On a long enough timeline, I’ve found peace with my personal limitations and research opportunities, with the fact that, unless one’s Hugh Kenner, s/he needs an apparatus like the internet, and a sprawling, multi-contributor Wikipedia page, to establish a beachhead within these texts. (As a student of Marshall McLuhan, I suspect even the late Dr. Kenner, my old UGA professor, would have appreciated these tools in his own way.)
Of course, even with such apparatuses in place, many of these texts still mock us acolytes, us adoring ever-novices who return again and again, with and because of our benign ignorance, to find new discoveries and new inspirations. And while I’d never limit the value of any of these wonderful things to WWW functions or 21st century proving grounds, Stein’s work, as an example of the literature of her age, integrates quite presciently into the contemporary, all-encompassing HTMLCSSPHPSQL matrix.
This is all I wanted to explain, and I’ve just finished explaining all I wanted to explain, and what I wanted to explain appears above for anyone interested in the explaining I’ve done.