For centuries—or, some long time, anyway—students of English literature have had but four established so-called fallacies in their critical arsenal: the pathetic (“the rainbow’s crazed, murderous stare”); the intentional; the affective; and the fallacy of imitative form (“Billy was lazy, or whatever”). Earlier this month, the American Literary Critical University (ALCU) announced the official recognition of four new fallacies for the new millennium. An ALCU spokesperson noted that the Fallacy Recognition Executive Delegation (FRED) took longer than expected to reach its final decisions because of “political machinations, committee infighting, and various holdups, both procedural and armed.” The New Fallacies for the Modern Critic are as follows:
Old does not necessarily mean good. That, in a nutshell, is the antithesis of the reverential fallacy, which suggests that anything written down before, say, 1900—by nature of having survived into the Twenty-First Century—automatically deserves our admiration. The reverential fallacy likely was inspired by the adage “Respect your elders,” but that maxim just does not withstand scrutiny. Old people can be horrible just as young people can. In fact, old people are more likely to be awful, since they know that young people are being taught to respect them without question. It’s no different with written matter. Consider the philosopher-poet Argon Cranes’s On an “-ism” (1837)—a masturbatory 700-line sonnet sequence with no discernable literary merit. It has survived to modern day only because no one had the good sense and forethought to burn every copy that Cranes had printed at his own cost and distributed in the public schools, houses of worship, and penal facilities of Western Massachusetts. Likewise Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), a just plain lousy book.
Fallacy of Phalluses
Contrary to popular belief/desire, not everything is about sex. The Turn of the Screw? Not about sex. A New Way to Pay Old Debts? Not about sex. Hop on Pop? Not about sex. Beowulf is about sex. The Rider on the White Horse? Not about sex. Sorry.
MYTH: Any novel written by someone with an MFA in creative writing is a work of quality, deserving of at least one major award. FACT: Jane Austen did not have an MFA in creative writing. In fact, there was no such thing as an MFA in creative writing when Jane Austen was alive. Probably. And those who do hold MFAs in creative writing tend to write fiction in which no dinosaurs are brought back to life. Michael Crichton also did not have an MFA in creative writing. To the contrary, he held an M.D. Q.E.D.
“No true Scotsman”
The “no true Scotsman” fallacy has existed for a while, of course, but now it can be applied specifically to literature. The classic formulation of the fallacy can be seen in the following simple exchange:
Hamish: “No Scotsman puts marshmallow fluff in a haggis.”
Conrad: “I’m Scottish, and I put marshmallow fluff in my haggis.”
Hamish: “Well, no true Scotsman does.”
Before very recently, it was believed that no true Scotsman would ever write poetry, and certainly not poems about such things as flowers, lice, mice, hats, kisses, and the like. But research has revealed that in fact there was such a Scotsman—and a true Scotsman, no less, born three kilometers south of Ayr, in Alloway, South Ayrshire—who wrote, in the Scots language, certain (obscure, impenetrable) works like “A Red, Red Rose,” “To a Louse,” “To a Mouse,” “Tam o’ Shanter,” and “Ae Fond Kiss,” among two or three others. Accordingly, the longstanding “No true Scotsman” claim now enters the ranks of fallacies. The claim that “no true Scotsman reads poetry,” however, will remain in the realm of the undebunked.
Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.