Category Archives: good vs. bad writing; also, bad writing per se (examined for heuristic purposes)

specifics versus generalities; Orwell vis-à-vis Dreiser (a salutary principle for all writers)

 

 

 

I have been reading — with pleasure — George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Orwell eschews generalities. Compare to him a writer such as Theodore Dreiser:

And to it, at times, some troubled vessel feeling its way along the wide waters of the Sound, replied, its somber call adding to the sense of uncertainty and fatality which seemed to pervade the night. Because of this, and my own uniformly brooding state at the time, I was at once restless and sad, stirred by and hurt emotionally by the uncertainty and treachery that works forever under the walls of life. Why are we here? Where are we going? How beautiful and elusive this mystery of living–the appetites and hungers of men, their loves and hates.

— Theodore Dreiser, “This Madness [Aglaia],” Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan, February 1929, pg. 198 [“This Madness” was a novel by Dreiser published in installments in the magazine.]

 

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! {Note the verbosity and a sort of “randomness” in the prose, perhaps inducing something like vertigo in the reader. Very un-Orwellian.]

— Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, Chapter I

 

You will never find such passages in Orwell.

Orwell’s sentences, his prose, are built out of (as if one were building a hut) the “sticks and stones” of SPECIFICS, specific DETAILS. For example:

 

War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops.

— George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 2

 

 

As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.

The alarm clock continued its nagging, feminine clamour, which would go on for five minutes or-thereabouts if you did not stop it. Dorothy was aching from head to foot, and an insidious and contemptible selfpity, which usually seized upon her when it was time to get up in the morning, caused her to bury her head under the bedclothes and try to shut the hateful noise out of her ears. …

It was just half past five, and coldish for an August morning. Dorothy (her name was Dorothy Hare, and she was the only child of the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St. Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk) put on her aged flannelette dressing-gown and felt her way downstairs. There was a chill morning smell of dust, damp plaster and the fried dabs from yesterday’s supper, and from either side of the passage on the second floor she could hear the antiphonal snoring of her father and of Ellen, the maid of all work. …

— George Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Chapter 1

 

This is not monotonous or boring writing. It’s the opposite. It engages the reader and fixes the attention completely.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    October 2019

some thoughts about writing as it relates to IQ

 

 

I was a freelance writer and editor for a few years, interrupted my career to pursue a graduate degree, but spent most of my work life working in offices. My last office job, which lasted over twelve years, was as a business writer with a consulting firm in Manhattan.

Only a few days after I had joined the firm, I attended a company conference on the West Coast which was devoted to mainly to sharing of best practices with colleagues from various offices. That was the first time I became aware of a high-ranking employee, Mr. ________. We were employed in the same office.

The first time I saw him, he was in a corridor of our hotel prior to the beginning of the day’s proceedings. He looked like he had just woken up, and he was carrying a copy of The New York Times which he had purchased at the hotel magazine shop. He appeared lost in thought and somewhat disheveled and looked like a prototypical New York intellectual.

That’s _______ _______,” someone said. “He’s brilliant!”

It turned out that almost everyone in our office held Mr. _______ in awe. Mostly because of his reputedly large stable of devoted clients and his mesmerizing hold on everyone as an absolute authority on employee benefits.

But — I found out over time — he was no Einstein. Not a genius. His reputation for intellectual prowess, such as it was, was not deserved. (Which is not to say that he wasn’t intelligent.)

Mr. _______’s secretary showed up at my desk one day and dropped a seven page long, double spaced, typed draft on my desktop. “_______ wants you to edit it,” she said. I did not work for Mr. _______’s department, but it was assumed that I would do it immediately with no further discussion. It turned out that what he wanted me to do was edit the draft of remarks, or a speech, he was planning to give to some office, company division, or professional association.

It is actually the kind of work I like to do. I dove right in. Soon I was scratching my hair. The content of the speech may have been okay, but his thoughts were expressed horribly.

However, I have always fancied that I can wordsmith and make read decently just about any piece of English prose — on any subject, technical or nontechnical — written by an adult with a modicum of education and a knowledge of English as a first or second language.

Among the awkward phrases  of Mr.  _______ that I recall — he kept failing miserably at getting his thoughts across, at crafting phrases and sentences — was “Russian red tape expert,” used in the following sentence about employee benefit laws: “A Russian red tape expert would be proud to issue 49 pages of closely printed regulations. ….” I changed “Russian red tape expert” to “Communist apparatchik.” (Upon reflection, I think that “Soviet apparatchik” might have been better.)

I labored over the speech for about two hours and returned it to  Mr. _______’s secretary. It was received without a word. I never heard anything from him by way of follow up or got any thanks. I was proud of my work. I still have a copy of his draft with my edits.

It is true that a lot of so-called geniuses — this includes true geniuses — cannot write well. Many academics who became world renowned (the Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse comes to mind) were horrible writers, and many professors — including many (it seems a preponderance of them) in the humanities — write poorly and pay little heed to style and the craft of writing. It also seems that many of the greatest writers of all time, while showing obvious intelligence, let alone brilliance, in certain respects — did not possess IQ’s that would make them eligible for Mensa.

Just what the relationship between a genius for writing and being in the “gifted” class (as early childhood educators would term it) with respect to intelligence is, is not obvious and raises potentially interesting lines of inquiry.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2019

purple prose?

 

 

 

8 - The Crisis of Our Age.jpg

 

 

9 - The Crisis of Our Age

 

 

The following is from my post

 

“Sorokin” («Сорокин»)

 

“Sorokin” («Сорокин»)

 

 

 

In my freshman year at Brandeis University, I took English Composition. For our first assignment, we were told to write a paper in which we were instructed to “define style,” which I tried mightily to do. (I didn’t quite understand what underlay the assignment.) In the next class, the instructor singled out my paper for criticism. I thought it was pretty good, and one or two other students in the class (notably Ricardo Millett, an exchange student from Panama who went on to have a distinguished academic career) felt so too.

In the paper, I quoted a passage from The Crisis of Our Age by the Russian-American sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin as an example of what I considered an excellent, distinctive style:

The crisis is here in all its stark and unquestionable reality. We are in the midst of an enormous conflagration burning everything into ashes. In a few weeks millions of human lives are uprooted; in a few hours century-old cities are demolished; in a few days kingdoms are erased. Red human blood flows in broad streams from one end of the earth to the other. Ever expanding misery spreads its gloomy shadow over larger eras. The fortunes, happiness and comfort of untold millions have disappeared. Peace, security and safety have vanished. Prosperity and well-being have become in many countries but a memory; freedom a mere myth. Western culture is covered by a blackout. A great tornado sweeps over the whole of mankind. (“The Crisis of Our Age,” pp. 14-15; note: the book was published at the beginning of World War II)

The instructor, Robert Stein (a chain smoker known to students as “C plus Stein”), read the passage out loud in class and pounced on me for making such a claim. He drew a red line through my paper and wrote something like “No!” in the margin. Purple prose, he said. Exactly the OPPOSITE of excellence of style. (The freshman comp Bible in those days was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Sorokin would probably have had difficulty passing a course of theirs.) I was taken aback by Stein’s criticisms and his take on Sorokin the writer.

Sorokin does have a characteristic style which could easily be parodied, should one care to. He uses jargon and his own private verbiage, “Sorokinisms” (“intellectual chewing gum” for example), when he feels it will serve his purposes. He will use big words (which is not necessarily a “sin”), actual or near neologisms, and words and phrases drawn from various languages, especially (and notably) Latin — he was addicted to Latin mottoes. He can be guilty of “overwriting.” Yet, his style is basically clear, punchy, and arresting. He wants, above all, to communicate.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    July 2019

descriptive details

 

 

Broyles

 

 

“It’s been 50 years, which means Vietnam is as far from me today as World War I, another war of dubious purpose, was from me then. I remember so much. The lush shades of green. The smells of mud and water buffalo and human excrement and burned flesh. The blood and the leeches and the music playing from eight-tracks before the sun set and we all wondered if we would see it rise. The laughter, too. The smell of cordite and the sound of an enemy mortar being launched at us and the shells from the big 16-inch guns roaring over us like subway trains. I remember the helicopters and the green AK-47 tracer bullets coming at us, and the body bags and the orphanage children burned alive by the Vietcong for having helped us. I remember the faces and the nicknames and the Freedom Bird calendars that marked the day we would fly out of this place, if it was the last thing we ever did. And for too many it was.”
— “The Vietnam War Was Already Lost, but I Had to Go Anyway: Fifty years ago, American troops began withdrawing, but tens of thousands were yet to die.” By William Broyles Jr., The New York Times, July 10, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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This is a good example of how to go beyond generalities and platitudes and make a piece of writing tell with details. It’s a novelistic skill.

I was never in the military and did not serve in Vietnam. But, thanks to this writer, I can feel what it was like.

While I can’t write fiction -– could not if I tried -– I do, in my own writing, try to always illustrate with examples and details, often drawn from my own experience and specific things I recall, to pin down the meaning of my piece. And, I use my own experience as the basis for doing so. As William Broyles did in compelling piece. He made a statement about war and one war in particular by refracting it through the prism of his own lived experience.

 

 

See also a similar passage in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (Chapter 2):

“War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops.”

 

 
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Compare some sentences from recent New York Times op-eds that I have commented upon:

 

“Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.”

 

“In a clickbait attention economy where more than half of visual arts critics make on average less than $20,000 per year from arts writing, the voices that are most needed are the least likely to emerge.”

 

“In 2017, we began an initiative called Critical Minded to help amplify the work of critics of color and knock down the barriers they face. (The project is focused on racial justice in criticism, but we’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.)”

 

“Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.”

 

“But there’s a problem with this binary formulation, which opposes the sacrosanct art object to the interests and demands of the public. Curators need to think about more creative ways to withdraw art from public display. Rather than thinking of calls to remove art as either right or wrong, institutions should think of them as creative opportunities to reimagine who their public is.”

 

“Contemporary art theory has long held that the artwork takes place not in the moment of creation or exhibition, but rather in the ways that it circulates in the world. That’s why withdrawal isn’t just a negative act. The museum is actively putting the withdrawal into the world, which will then circulate beside and on top of the artwork, as a rumor, a footnote, a filter. I am arguing for a creative acceptance of the pressure to withdraw an artwork, rather than either outright rejection or reluctant acquiescence.”

 

“Social media has changed how we communicate, and social inequity continues to differentiate how we feel. These dynamics are changing the way we curate. For one /thing, the work of exhibition-making no longer ends when the show opens. Instead, it continues as a process of listening, a public performance that goes on for months.

 

 

This is coma-inducing, soporific writing. Broyles’s op-ed about Vietnam makes the reader feel alive. Such writing is pleasurable, even if the details are harrowing, because the reader is having an experience, instead of listening to a boring lecture/position paper aiming at profundity but saying nothing. Intended to persuade but leaving one unmoved if not downright annoyed.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 2019; updated October 2019

 

 

 

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William Broyles Jr. is an American screenwriter, journalist, and former editor. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1969 to 1971.

pompous pontificating, clumsy locutions, a tissue of generalities; doublespeak … how NOT to write

 

 

 

‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic

 

 

This post focuses on an opinion piece in Friday’s New York Times:

 

 

The Dominance of the White Male Critic

Conversations about our monuments, museums, screens and stages have the same blind spots as our political discourse.

By Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang

The New York Times

July 5, 2019

 

 

An opinion piece written to challenge conventional ideas and positions. To stimulate readers to rethink issues. To challenge unenlightened Establishment views.

It will get attention, but as a piece of writing it is a soporific.

It is built on a very insubstantial tissue of generalities and awkward locutions often intended to serve as code words. And which shows that the authors are preaching to the choir. They don’t feel compelled to explain and elucidate things for the general reader or for skeptical readers. They are confident that those who agree will get it (the points they are making) without them having to take pains to be clear. In fact, a certain arch obscurity, a predilection for almost unintelligible generalizations couched in faux-high-flown language, which,  in their view — from their perspective as writers — fits the piece well. While it challenges conventional thinking, the op-ed is itself an example of weak, unoriginal thinking and a specimen of very poor, insipid writing.

 

 

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A header states: Ms. Méndez Berry and Mr. Yang started a program to amplify the work of critics of color.”

Quoting from the piece, below, I have provided my own annotations and comments in boldface. Excerpts from the op-ed are in italics.

I am not going to try and respond to the op-ed’s major premises. But here are some examples of what I feel is shoddy writing. Writing that obscures rather than clarifies issues and shows a tendency towards tendentiousness.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.

Typical wording for this piece. This is generic-speak. It is very portentous and actually says very little.

“those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture”

Awkward and wordy.

“the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated”

Poor, imprecise, fuzzy wording. Also, pretentious.

 

Yet the most dynamic art in America today is being made by artists of color and indigenous artists.

There is nothing wrong with this sentence syntactically, but such a broad claim is not sustainable.

 


The example of “Green Book” [an Oscar-winning film, the critical reception of which the authors discuss] shows how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on. We need culture writers who see and think from places of difference and who are willing to take unpopular positions so that ideas can evolve or die.

Very pretentious.

“how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on”

More boiler plate generic-speak, a kind of language which says nothing and clarifies nothing.

“culture writers who see and think from places of difference”

This is horribly vague (and affected) wording. So much so that it says nothing. Critics write, they don’t “see and think.” They write at their desks. “[P]laces of difference”? This is doublespeak.

 

 

In a clickbait attention economy where more than half of visual arts critics make on average less than $20,000 per year from arts writing, the voices that are most needed are the least likely to emerge.

Something is said supposedly cleverly where the words are actually muddying the waters. “[C]lickbait attention economy” is a maladroit coinage which adds nothing informational- or content-wise.

 

 

In 2017, we began an initiative called Critical Minded to help amplify the work of critics of color and knock down the barriers they face. (The project is focused on racial justice in criticism, but we’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.)

This is an example of opinions supposedly being stated forcefully, weakened by careless phrasing: “knock down the barriers” they face,” for example.

“[W]e’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.”

In other words, the authors are concerned about everything. Way too broad and general.

 

 

Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.

This is too general. The point is not sharply made or clearly elucidated. And, it is an example of how generic writing can obfuscate rather than clarify things. In my mind, criticism is just that. I know what the word criticism means: a book or film review; a review of a concert or museum exhibit. Criticism as a “public utility, civic infrastructure”? By trying to be profound and all wise, the authors stray beyond the parameters of common sense and lose the reader.

 

 

Culture writers are often unpopular, and critics of color doubly so: Marginalized by mainstream outlets, they’re sometimes viewed with suspicion within their own communities when they challenge a beloved artist. At their best they are unbought and unbossed, which makes them difficult to employ, and doubly necessary.

The authors of the op-ed may think this. But the point is so broad, and is communicated in such a fuzzy and heavy-handed manner, that most readers won’t be convinced. “[T]hey are unbought and unbossed” is atrocious wording.

 

 

We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials.

Same thing here. Supposedly en pointe, clever wording which actually says very little and shows writers trying to convince and impress who fall flat. ‘[R]igorous, rollicking” is an oxymoron.

 

We should move away from anointing a talented two or three critics of color and toward kaleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste.

“[K]aleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste” Another pretentious, fuzzy, and awful coinage. An example of writers violating the principle of simplicity and clarity.

 

Coverage shifts when people mobilize for change. It’s time for culture writing to follow culture to where it flows and to value the people it engages.

This is overly generic. Such overly generic writing is flabby and invariably unconvincing.
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Some of my own thoughts about the term “people of color” and associated or implied ideas. The authors assume that we all know and agree as to what the term means (and, implicitly, approve of its usage).

What is a person of color? It is supposed to mean, in contemporary parlance, a person other than a white person or a person (presumably white) of European parentage.

What is a white person? A person who is not a person of color.

Is a Spanish (i.e., a person born or residing in Spain) person white? Yes, according to the above definition.

Is a Hispanic person (who is presumably or with a fair degree of probability, descended from Spaniards, although perhaps — it often seems to be the case — of mixed ethnicity comprised of descent from Spanish settlers in the American continent and other perhaps indigenous races) a person of color? Yes, as “people of color” is meant to be understood. In other words, perhaps of European ancestry (wholly or partially), going back a way, but not now one of that group.

This divides humanity into wide swaths, with well over a half in the category of persons of color.

These “definitions” seem to be an example of what might be called reductio ad absurdum — in that, by the time we have made the distinctions between categories of persons based upon a nonsensical formulation or formula, we have elucidated nothing and created considerable confusion; and left one wondering why, for example, people of descent from this or that ethnic group end up being in distinct categories. Separated, arbitrarily, into two groups, which obliterates any and all other distinctions.

Does the term “people of color” have meaning and is it based upon skin color, as the words seem to say unmistakably? It must be based upon skin color, since whites are in a separate category from non-whites. But how does one distinguish between the races this way, and make sense of it? When I was growing up, we were told that there were four races: white, black or brown, yellow, and red. Do Asians have yellow skin? I have met hardly any American Indians, but they don’t, in photographs I have seen, look that different to me from white people. Perhaps their skin is slightly more ruddy, and they do seem to have distinctive features that I would not be able to categorize. I don’t know and I don’t care.

I think this whole thing about “people of color” and the rest of humanity (us whites and Europeans) is nonsense. It is a very crude “measuring device,” rule of thumb, guidepost, or whatever one wants to call it. It divides people arbitrarily with no rationale and negates our common humanity.

I will probably be accused of having reactionary, benighted opinions for saying the following. I believe that race and ethnicity do matter. A lot. What was my ancestry? My ethnicity? My nationality or my parents’, grandparents’, or ancestors’ nationality, which is to say cultural heritage?

Is it surprising that often athletes seem to have children who are also good at sports? Often the great athletes were sons of athletes of more than average ability. That great scholars and intellectuals often were raised in an intellectual milieu by parents who themselves were intellectuals? That prodigies in the arts often had parents who were similarly gifted or inclined? Offspring of singers and actors? Siblings who excel in the same area such as scholarship, sports, or the arts. And so forth. (A critic will say, the only reason the children of composers or musicians, say, are often musically gifted themselves is because their successful parents gave them lessons, or could afford to pay instructors, or had a prior interest or expertise that they passed on to their children. Perhaps so — undoubtedly environmental factors or what is called nurture were important — but I don’t think the fact can be ignored that there might be genetic factors in play by which traits get passed on to offspring: a “musical gene,” say, a baseball, basketball, or track and field “gene.”)

What does this show us? That ethnicity and heritage can mean a lot. In individual cases. Which will not lead one to jump to the conclusion, I hope, that I am a racist. I am not trying to say that belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group makes some people “better” than others in any conceivable way. But the group I was born into, which I am descended from — my genealogy — made and makes a difference to me. Meaning that, when I consider my strengths and weaknesses, my talents and proclivities, and so on, I can see that circumstances of birth and upbringing (the latter of which was influenced by cultural factors) had a lot to with the kind of person I turned out to be. Was I good at sports? music? book learning? learning languages? mathematics? dexterity? mechanical things and “practical wisdom”? Et cetera.

I have always felt that we should not leap from this — from analyzing and trying to understand how heredity and environment may have shaped and molded an individual, and may well influence his or her current outlook — to making generalizations or unfair comparisons, or setting up yardsticks. To favoring one group over another, barring anyone from competing in “the game” of life or getting an education or training in this or that field. It is my firm conviction that there should be a level playing field for all; and that race, ethnicity, color, or what have you — choose your own criterion — should not be a factor in making decisions about who is admitted, hired, gets a scholarship, and so forth. But that goes for EVERYONE, as I see it, all races and ethnicities, all nationalities: for “people of color” and the rest of humanity — there shouldn’t be any distinctions made in this regard between groups. And, generalities and commonly held beliefs are just that: generalities. For every example of behavior or achievement befitting a common assumption about differences among races — a presupposition someone has or that was once held (I see no point in enumerating stereotypes) — there are a zillion exceptions.

So (the authors note), the six most influential art critics in the country, “as selected by their peers” (this is important) are all white and almost all male. To me, this is not a problem. There would be a problem if women or minorities were excluded by policy as cultural critics and newspapers or magazines would not hire them. And, the fact of a critic being a woman or from a minority group might enable them to see things from a different perspective. But, basically, when I read criticism, I want it to be well written and worth reading, and to “educate” me in a way that is possible when the writer has a deep knowledge of the discipline. That’s all I care about. If a critic is good, he or she is good; and vice versa. I’m color blind and sex indifferent when I read criticism or anything else. Except that, I might realize that the critic is bringing to bear some of his or her own experience or background. One doesn’t have to ignore ethnic or cultural background, if it seems relevant or pertinent to what the critic is saying, somehow. That may add to our understanding, but if the critic is not, as is most often the case, a “person of color,” I feel that it is wrong of persons such as the authors of this op-ed to find that to be problematic, and to object.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 7, 2019

writing with the head and the heart

 

 

 

Kristof, ‘Stop the Knee-Jerk Libralism That Hurts Its Own Cause’

 

 

 

The following is an email of mine to my wife today. The email was occasioned by my reading the following opinion piece:

 

Stop the Knee-Jerk Liberalism That Hurts Its Own Cause

We liberals need to watch our blind spots.

By Nicholas Kristof

op-ed

The New York Times

June 29, 2019

 

 

This column is mostly okay, but it’s wishy-washy and wimpy.

Nicholas Kristof writes with his heart first and head second.

Sydney Schanberg did the same thing.

With a writer. It should always be the other way around.

I didn’t like it when Nicholas Kristof said Kamala Harris “shone” in the second debate. She stood out for sure — grandstanding with a cheap hit on Biden; not justified and made solely to get attention and make her look good.

 

 

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Kristof/Schanberg:

Primum: decide what I feel. Secundum: think of examples and reasons to support it.

 

An essayist such as myself:

Primum: think through the issues, exhaustively; decide what is your opinion. Secundum: lay the opinions out clearly, so that the reader can follow your reasoning. Use examples and anecdotes, as well your own impressions and feelings to support these opinions.

 

A good example is Samuel Johnson, who was famous for his Rambler and Idler essays and other polemical writings. He would always argue strongly for a point of view. Using his (formidable) intellect. But he wasn’t a cold blooded drafter of what today would be called talking points or position papers.

 

 

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Sydney Schanberg (1934-2016) was a Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent, editor, and later columnist for The New York Times. He was subsequently a columnist for New York Newsday during the period when I was working there as an intern and, later, freelance reporter.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 29, 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

 

The following is an exchange on Facebook between me and Jan Brady on June 29-30. Her comment and my response follow.

 

Jan Brady:

I liked the article, what led you to believe he hadn’t thought through the argument first? But thank you for leading me to the article.

Is this not the debate we have had since John Adams defended the Red Coats?

 

Roger Smith:

Jan — I wrote the post more hastily than usual. I felt that something was wrong with this op-ed and went with my intuition. What I feel is wrong is that the starting points for the op-ed are Kristof’s relationship with his daughter, how HE feels about some issues, and his uneasiness about holding forth on them as a “straight white man.” I want clarification of the issues, not soul searching by Kristof. I feel the “demotion” of Harvard Professor Ronald Sullivan was plain wrong. I don’t care about Kristof’s daughter’s opinion, unless from her he got new insight on the issues that has changed his mind and that is worth sharing with us because it might change our minds. So, with this issue, and the Oberlin controversy and court case, enlighten me on what you — Kristof the op-ed writer — think I should think. But he got lost in a tangle of his parental feelings, his guilty feelings as a straight white male.

I basically agree with his point of view. But it is muddled and could have been more strongly made if the piece were more analytical and less touchy feely. I don’t feel that Kristof’s daughter “has a point” on the Sullivan firing. Which is to say, I don’t feel it’s valid. But, as a parent, Kristof feels he should listen to her. Which is commendable. But this doesn’t enlighten me on the issue. I want to know what was right or wrong about firing him. In other words, write first from the head, which doesn’t mean that we can’t feel strongly about something and express opinions forcefully.

how to write a book review… how NOT to

 

 

“A writer should be a writer first. An authority second.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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I recently read two reviews of Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik, a recently published biography of Robert Schumann.

 

 

‘Schumann: The Faces and the Masks’ Review: A Dreamer at the Piano

by Michael O’Donnell

The Wall Street Journal

September 14, 2018

https://www.wsj.com/articles/schumann-the-faces-and-the-masks-review-a-dreamer-at-the-piano-1536957468?mod=mhp

 

 

Robert Schumann: A Hopeless, Brilliant Romantic

by Jeremy Denk

The New York Times

November 19, 2018

 

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The Wall Street Journal review by Michael O’Donnell is excellent. Mr. O’Donnell is not a music critic. He is a lawyer whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Atlantic and the Nation.

Jeremy Denk’s review in The New York Times is not well done. Mr. Denk is a concert pianist. In a Wikipedia entry, he is categorized as “one of America’s foremost pianists.”
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What went wrong with the Times review by Mr. Denk?

Well, consider how it opens:

It won’t cure your problems, or the world’s, but it can’t hurt to immerse yourself in the music of Robert Schumann, a man who knew how to love. No less an authority than Sting agrees. I know this because Sting once put his hand supportively on my back while I practiced the postlude of Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe,” and I haven’t washed that shirt since.

Robert’s life story comes to a harrowing end — I won’t spoil all the grim details, even more tragic than the median Romantic artist’s. Nonetheless, if you take the time to read Judith Chernaik’s new biography, “Schumann: The Faces and the Masks,” your life outlook may improve. Without hitting you over the head, Chernaik allows you to feel the core of Schumann’s story: his love for his wife, Clara, a great concert pianist and formidable muse. Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.

This takes the reader too far astray. A good lead can be clever, and even get into the topic sideways, so to speak. See for example, my post

“J-school students, give heed!”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/13/j-school-students-give-heed/

Sting is a musician who performed with the rock band The Police. In case you don’t know it, Robert Schumann was a composer, of classical music. I shouldn’t need to explain, but this review, the lead paragraph of same, makes one wonder, just what is it about? As I just said, a lead can be clever, and kind of “sneak up” to the main topic, but a writer should never lose sight, or let his readers get confused, even momentarily, of what the piece is about. I learned this from my high school English teacher. Don’t violate the principle of unity. What’s going on here is that Mr. Denk wants to impress us with how cool he is. Readers of a book about Schumann are not likely to care about Sting, or perhaps to know who he is, and he has nothing to do with Schumann. It’s a bad brew of anecdotal material, or details that don’t cohere. If I am writing a piece about my struggles to overcome a drinking problem, I probably don’t want to talk about what my favorite books are. And, it’s fine to make clever parallels or connections between two seemingly, ordinarily disparate facts, occurrences, events, time periods, etc., but this is too much of a stretch. Schumann’s music as an antidote to hate? Music to settle our nerves in today’s vitriolic political climate.

“Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.” This is an ill-advised sentence. It’s totally off topic. It’s a gratuitous interpolation presumably intended to make Mr. Denk look like he’s in the forefront of enlightened current opinion. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Schumann, with music, or with the review. So, we are to presume that one listens to Schumann to help oneself cope with feelings of angst arising from Trump? That seems to be what Mr. Denk is alluding to. Such an allision is out of place here, is off topic, and is likely to leave the reader puzzling over what was intended. Such fuzziness or lack of clarity — being too cryptic — is a sign of bad writing.

Denk’s review contains pregnant, provocative insights about Schuman’s music. There are also a lot of banal generalities having nothing to do with the book or Schumann.

This review tires and frustrates the reader because the reviewer, Mr. Denk, seems to have lost sight of the book under review, and, at times, it almost seems, of Schumann, so anxious is he to impress with a brilliant aperçu.

This is a specimen of overwriting. And, of neglecting the commandment: First, be clear. There are seemingly brilliant observations here about Schumann’s music, but they get buried in a mass of opaque verbiage.

As an example of what I term overwriting, consider the following sentence;

One of Schumann’s great discoveries was the power of an underexploited area of the harmonic universe. Imagine a chord Y that “wants” to resolve to another chord, Z. Because music is cleverly recursive, you can always find a third chord (let’s say X) that wants to go to the first: a chord that wants to go to a chord that wants to go to a chord, or — if you will — a desire for a desire. Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts.

Provocative points, indeed brilliant ones, but they could have been stated much more clearly and the point(s) thereby made more effectively. The sentence “Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts” is a prime example of such opacity, of god awful prose.

The book under review has all but been forgotten.
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Based on my own experience, I believe:

that a book review should in and of itself be readable and hold the reader’s interest;

that the review should elicit reader interest in the book’s subject;

that the reviewer should mainly discuss what the book is about and what can be learned from it, including new findings, while, at the same time, conveying, directly or indirectly, his judgment of the book.

The best reviewer is not necessarily an academic or a specialist or authority in the subject area. What is wanted most of all is an enthusiastic reader. And, needless to say, a good writer.
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019