The writer Tayari Jones recently posted a question on Facebook about a phrase she’s planning to use in her forthcoming novel: “Won’t He do it!” I immediately felt the interest of, say, a cat in catnip, and followed along. Here’s what I learned, and what it made me think about.
First, “Won’t He do it!” is a statement, not a question. It’s a statement of faith in God, and it’s been popular, apparently, for several decades as a call and response in black churches. Jones’s initial concern arose when three editors flagged the phrase as one they (like me, a white Northeasterner) were unfamiliar with. The outpouring of response to her query demonstrated that “Won’t He do it!” is popular among African-Americans not only from the South but also from parts of the Midwest and Northeast, especially those with parents or grandparents from the South and especially those whose upbringing has been, as one person put it, “churchy.” There was some debate as to whether to include also the response phrase, “Won’t He will!” — which of course, syntactically speaking, doesn’t add up, but since when have popular slogans hewed to prescriptive rules?
Jones’s concern, once editors brought the phrase to her attention, was that people (like me) might read it and think, “Won’t who do what?” and that question would set them off on a tangent leading away from the story. True, some might argue, as one respondent did, that the phrase isn’t “interesting or colorful enough to risk waking a reader from a fictive dream.” But there is that capital H in “He,” which believers and nonbelievers alike seem to recognize as Christians’ preferred style for the pronoun referring to the Christian deity. And most who got involved in the question felt that terms of art are used everywhere. As one person pointed out, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is full of tennis references that the uninitiated surely don’t get. We read at least in part to expand our world, and if we can’t capture the meaning via context, there’s always the chance to look it up. The cost of removing the phrase is that a particular character’s idiom or world view may fail to come across with the clarity and verve the author wants.
At the same time, it’s good to cross-check phrases that are familiar to us in a particular context, not so much to determine if they’ll be understood at all, but to be aware of how understandings may vary. In Tayari Jones’s case, one in-the-know writer’s view that the phrase connoted characters who were “religious, first generation college-graduate-at-most, black, not very affluent, low on analytical reasoning skills” drew plenty of controversy, suggesting that an expression used by poorly educated people in one district may be popular with well-educated people in another. The reverse side of that problem is the way phrases that may have been in the culture a long while can go viral when one movie moment or one pop star makes a signature of them. This happened with “Make my day,” after Clint Eastwood snarled it in Sudden Impact. And it’s apparently happened with “Won’t He do it!” because of the African-American pop star Tamar Braxton’s frequent use of the phrase. If the expression acquires enough fame or infamy, it can be a long time before a fictional character can use it in innocence again.
Writers weigh these questions whenever they create characters living in the contemporary world, with its cultures and subcultures. We are forever trying to distinguish between the culturally specific and the obscure, looking to create verisimilitude, possibly to assert an idiom as one worth knowing, but not to thumb our noses at our readers’ ignorance.
Meanwhile, “Won’t He do it!” should stay in Tayari Jones’s story, if you ask me, and I’ll be listening up for it from now on.
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