One of the silver linings of lockdown has been the way that the literary world has shifted online, allowing readers to enjoy festivals and book events they might not otherwise have been able to attend.
One such example are the monthly book events at Winchester’s Cabinet Rooms, started by author Claire Fuller back in 2017, and which are currently being held via Zoom.
Next Tuesday, the group’s guest author is rising literary star Eley Williams. Back in 2018, Eley won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction with her short story collection Attrib.
This month, she publishes her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, and like Attrib, it is a funny, inventive, playful read, packed with an underlying emotional punch.
The central theme, as the title suggests, is language. The book follows Mallory, who works for dictionary publisher Swansby’s, and is tasked with finding and rooting out ‘mountweazels’ from previous editions.
A mountweazel is a made-up word hidden in a dictionary as a copyright trap: the term comes from Lilian Virginia Mountweazel, a fictitious entry in the New Columbia Encyclopedia. As Mallory uncovers these clandestine words, she realises they reveal a series of clues as to the person who put them there in the first place.
As Eley explained, when I caught up with her earlier this week, the idea of such secret words is, ‘a gift for a creative writer. For the novel I wanted to imagine what it would be like to create new words and explore the motivations and inventiveness that might be brought to bear in committing the creative act of wordsmithery.’
Coming up with such words of her own led her into fascinating research into etymology and the history of dictionary making: ‘it felt like a combination of pursuit, investigation, nerding-out and invention, with the thrill of a prankster’.
One of the plots in the book concerns an argument over the meaning of the word marriage. Dictionary definitions are far from dusty history. Earlier this year, the leaders of Women’s Aid and the Women’s Equality party asked Oxford University Press to revisit its definition for ‘woman’: that included sexist synonyms like ‘bitch’ and ‘maid’, while the term ‘man’ talked of ‘bravery, spirit or toughness’.
For lexicographers, there is an ongoing discussion over a dictionary’s role. As Eley put it, ‘should a dictionary ‘fix’ or aim to ‘correct’ language, or ‘register’ language and its mutable, multiform variations?’ For her, ‘language is a supple and yielding material’, and while a dictionary can be ‘faulty’ and used for malicious purposes, they also ‘have the capacity to be generative and generous and humane.’
Eley Williams is at The Cabinet Rooms online on Tuesday 7 July, 7.30pm. For tickets visit cabinetrooms.com/events