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

metaphor-itis (aka galloping metaphor disease)

 

 

This post consists of my brief comments on the following book review:

 

“The Plight of the Aggrieved, Rich Manhattan Liberal”

review of Shelter in Place. a novel by David Leavitt

reviewed by Michael Callahan

The New York Times

October 13, 2020

 

SHELTER IN PLACE

By David Leavitt

 

It’s late 2016, and Eva Lindquist is distraught. The chilly, exacting Upper West Side socialite has gathered a circle of sycophants at her Connecticut country house to witness her gnashing her veneers over the recent election of Donald Trump. Swirling her glass of wine, she remains puzzled and furious at the blithe acceptance of this apocalyptic event by her feckless husband, Bruce, a wealth manager, and her standard-issue Manhattan leisure-class coterie: the bickering artsy couple, the hanger-on magazine editor with no money, the diffident gay decorator. (All of the women seem to be some derivative of Iris Apfel.)

Eva is the kind of perennially aggrieved cosmopolitan who in movies is depicted aggressively slapping on body lotion before bed. Even as she cows the members of her social set, she remains the sun around which they orbit; her friends spend all of their time talking either to her or about her. She’s a tabula rasa, TAUT AS PIANO WIRE as she tosses out withering rejoinders LIKE BEADS AT MARDI GRAS. But she is also prescient, warning that Trump will manipulate the media to rip the country to shreds, even as her privileged petting zoo shrugs off all the doom and gloom.

“The news isn’t news anymore,” she laments, “it’s just pompous opinionating, the purpose of which is to keep us anxious, because these people … know that as long as they can keep us anxious, as long as they dangle the carrot of consolation in front of us, they’ve got us hooked. They’re no different than the French papers in 1940, just more sophisticated. And more venal.”

Determined not to be caught behind enemy lines, she impulsively buys a grand but tattered apartment in Venice. It’s a decision that will fling the lives of her self-involved cabal hither and thither, LIKE RAINDROPS BEING SHAKEN OFF AN UMBRELLA.

There is an art to writing about unlikable people while still engaging the reader to invest in their indulgence, vanity and, yes, happiness. Tracking the fallout wrought by Eva’s acquisition, Leavitt unfurls a droll drawing-room pastiche that evokes la dolce vita as “Seinfeld” episode. His boorish elites argue over the altruism of Barbara Kingsolver, whether Jean Rhys would have been anything without Ford Madox Ford, and the true symbolism of the pussy hat, all while dropping words like “ouroboros” and “concupiscence” in everyday conversation. IT’S AARON SORKIN ON STEROIDS. And surprisingly compelling.

Leavitt has claimed John Cheever and Grace Paley as influences, and it shows here: His dissection of the pampered New Yorkers’ reaction to Trump’s election, which they treat as a personal affront, is lethal and also kookily endearing. These poor rich people, wringing their hands at a country they no longer recognize, when what they’re truly mourning is the death of their own relevance. You can almost hear Elaine Stritch warbling “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the next apartment.

At one point, Aaron, a bitter, unemployed editor in Eva’s circle of faux bonhomie, tries to look at the bright side of the election. “When writers start to feel oppressed again,” he says, “they’ll start to write books worth reading instead of all of that idiotic upper-middle-class self-absorbed liberal navel-gazing crap we got when Obama was president.” Leavitt cleverly crafting a New Yorker cartoon in words, proves there is still some navel-gazing worth reading. His autopsy of the current liberal ennui is not particularly trenchant or surprising, but it’s certainly amusing. And in this ghastly year, can’t we all use more of that?

 

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Besides the metaphors I have highlighted in all caps above, there are several “implied” ones: e.g., ‘privileged petting zoo, “cleverly crafting a New Yorker cartoon in words.” And “Leavitt unfurls a droll drawing-room pastiche that evokes la dolce vita as ‘Seinfeld’ episode.”

 

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Mr. Callahan is clearly a talented writer. It’s like when a pianist sits down to play, and you immediately know either that the piece is very good, or that the pianist is, or both.

I am wary of saying anything critical (about Mr. Callahan’s review). I am impressed by his talent. But all the clever metaphors caught my attention. I could easily become envious. but there is a danger here. The writer who is too clever. Who almost parodies himself or herself. The danger of mannered writing which sounds affected.

By the way, the characters in the novel are given to debating things such as whether Jean Rhys would have been anything without Ford Madox Ford. A clever reference (telling detail) indeed! Kudos to the author (Leavitt), and to Mr. Callahan for noticing it. And, while I am at trying to be fair to Mr. Callahan, let me repeat, he can write — that’s for sure — words and clever formulations roll off his keyboard like those of writers of yore such as Henry Miller. Which is to say, he can effortlessly compose prose that “flows” (here’s a metaphor of my own) like music to the reader’s ear (or should I say, like the Mississippi River?).

 

— Roger W Smith

   October 14, 2020

prefab titles (“Love in the time of coronavirus”)

 

 
The following op-ed was published in last week’s Washington Post:

“Love in the time of coronavirus”

By Galen Guengerich

The Washington Post

March 14, 2020

 

 

The op-ed is thoughtful and well written. The only problem I have with it is the TITLE.

The title alludes to the novel Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del cólera) by Gabriel García Márquez.

Someone who hasn’t read the novel might suppose that it is about a love affair occurring in desperate times — specially, a time of plague. This is not true.

 

According to a Wikipedia entry:

García Márquez’s main notion is that lovesickness is literally an illness, a disease comparable to cholera. Florentino suffers from this just as he might suffer from any malady. At one point, he conflates his physical pain with his amorous pain when he vomits after eating flowers in order to imbibe Fermina’s scent. In the final chapter, the Captain’s declaration of metaphorical plague is another manifestation of this.

The term cholera as it is used in Spanish, cólera, can also denote passion or human rage and ire in its feminine form. (The English adjective choleric has the same meaning.) Considering this meaning, the title is a pun: cholera as the disease, and cholera as passion, which raises the central question of the book: is love helped or hindered by extreme passion? The two men can be contrasted as the extremes of passion: one having too much, one too little; the central question of which is more conducive to love and happiness becomes the specific, personal choice that Fermina faces through her life. Florentino’s passionate pursuit of nearly countless women stands in contrast to Urbino’s clinical discussion of male anatomy on their wedding night. Urbino’s eradication of cholera in the town takes on the additional symbolic meaning of ridding Fermina’s life of rage, but also the passion. It is this second meaning to the title that manifests itself in Florentino’s hatred for Urbino’s marriage to Fermina, as well as in the social strife and warfare that serves as a backdrop to the entire story.

 

So the analogy is false.

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I’m tired of this kind of headline. It is, a priori, trite.

Well, what about writers who use boiler plate phrases taken from the works of famous writers, such as He doth protest too much (Shakespeare) or It concentrates the mind wonderfully (Samuel Johnson)?

I think this is something different. Yes, he doth protest too much is a shopworn clause. But it means something. It has been found, often, to perfectly fit what someone wants to say. Why? Because of Shakespeare’s genius for expression. Ditto for concentrates the mind wonderfully, which shows Johnson’s genius for aphorism.

Love in the time of cholera does none of these things.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Since the above referenced Washington Post article appeared, there has been a plague of articles published — in various newspapers and in The Nation — with the same title.

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

 

 

 

“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.

writing with the head and the heart

 

 

 

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

why some op-ed pieces bomb; or, should

 

 

 

indigestible genericspeak

 

“#MeToo Has Done What the Law Could Not”

By Catharine A. Mackinnon

The New York Times

February 4, 2018

 

The #MeToo movement is accomplishing what sexual harassment law to date has not.

This mass mobilization against sexual abuse, through an unprecedented wave of speaking out in conventional and social media, is eroding the two biggest barriers to ending sexual harassment in law and in life: the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims.

Sexual harassment law — the first law to conceive sexual violation in inequality terms — created the preconditions for this moment. Yet denial by abusers and devaluing of accusers could still be reasonably counted on by perpetrators to shield their actions.

Many survivors realistically judged reporting pointless. Complaints were routinely passed off with some version of “she wasn’t credible” or “she wanted it.” I kept track of this in cases of campus sexual abuse over decades; it typically took three to four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial. That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person.

Even when she was believed, nothing he did to her mattered as much as what would be done to him if his actions against her were taken seriously. His value outweighed her sexualized worthlessness. His career, reputation, mental and emotional serenity and assets counted. Hers didn’t. In some ways, it was even worse to be believed and not have what he did matter. It meant she didn’t matter.

These dynamics of inequality have preserved the system in which the more power a man has, the more sexual access he can get away with compelling.

It is widely thought that when something is legally prohibited, it more or less stops. This may be true for exceptional acts, but it is not true for pervasive practices like sexual harassment, including rape, that are built into structural social hierarchies. … If the same cultural inequalities are permitted to operate in law as in the behavior the law prohibits, equalizing attempts — such as sexual harassment law — will be systemically resisted.

This logjam, which has long paralyzed effective legal recourse for sexual harassment, is finally being broken. Structural misogyny, along with sexualized racism and class inequalities, is being publicly and pervasively challenged by women’s voices. The difference is, power is paying attention.

Powerful individuals and entities are taking sexual abuse seriously for once and acting against it as never before. No longer liars, no longer worthless, today’s survivors are initiating consequences none of them could have gotten through any lawsuit — in part because the laws do not permit relief against individual perpetrators, but more because they are being believed and valued as the law seldom has. Women have been saying these things forever. It is the response to them that has changed.

Revulsion against harassing behavior — in this case, men with power refusing to be associated with it — could change workplaces and schools. It could restrain repeat predators as well as the occasional and casual exploiters that the law so far has not. Shunning perpetrators as sex bigots who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of inequality could transform society. It could change rape culture.

Sexual harassment law can grow with #MeToo. Taking #MeToo’s changing norms into the law could — and predictably will — transform the law as well. Some practical steps could help capture this moment. Institutional or statutory changes could include prohibitions or limits on various forms of secrecy and nontransparency that hide the extent of sexual abuse and enforce survivor isolation, such as forced arbitration, silencing nondisclosure agreements even in cases of physical attacks and multiple perpetration, and confidential settlements. A realistic statute of limitations for all forms of discrimination, including sexual harassment, is essential. Being able to sue individual perpetrators and their enablers, jointly with institutions, could shift perceived incentives for this behavior. The only legal change that matches the scale of this moment is an Equal Rights Amendment, expanding the congressional power to legislate against sexual abuse and judicial interpretations of existing law, guaranteeing equality under the Constitution for all.

But it is #MeToo, this uprising of the formerly disregarded, that has made untenable the assumption that the one who reports sexual abuse is a lying slut, and that is changing everything already. Sexual harassment law prepared the ground, but it is today’s movement that is shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.

 

 

The problem, as I see it, with an article like this — I find it boring, and not uplifting — is that it is overly generalized writing, what I might call genericspeak, amounting to boilerplate written for a certain interest group. The dictionary definition of boilerplate is as follows:

1. standardized text

2. formulaic or hackneyed language

There is nothing new. It is all generalities and the author of the piece is essentially preaching to the choir, i.e., to radical feminists with views identical or very close to her own.

There is no personality on the page. A writer’s voice does not come through, other than an angry, cold one propagating dogma.

The piece is built upon a tissue of generalities.

 

 

 

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management speak

 

 

“A Note From Our New Publisher”

By A. G. Sulzberger

The New York Times

January 1, 2018

 

 

In 1896 my great-great-grandfather left his hometown, Chattanooga, and traveled north to purchase a small, fading newspaper in New York.

The moment was not unlike our own. Technological, economic and social turmoil were upending the traditions of the country. People trying to understand these changes and their implications found themselves confused by polarized politics and by a partisan press more focused on advancing its own interests than on informing the public.

Against this backdrop Adolph Ochs saw the need for a different kind of newspaper, and he committed The New York Times to the then-radical idea that still animates it today. He vowed that The Times would be fiercely independent, dedicated to journalism of the highest integrity and devoted to the public welfare.

His vision for the news report: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

His vision for the opinion report: “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

This mission feels particularly urgent to me today as I begin my work as publisher of The New York Times. Our society is again being reshaped by political, technological and environmental forces that demand deep scrutiny and careful explanation. More than 120 years after Adolph Ochs’s vision was printed in these pages, the need for independent, courageous, trustworthy journalism is as great as it’s ever been.

This is a period of exciting innovation and growth at The Times. Our report is stronger than ever, thanks to investments in new forms of journalism like interactive graphics, podcasting and digital video and even greater spending in areas like investigative, international and beat reporting. Our audience, once confined to a single city, now stretches around the globe.

This is also, of course, a period of profound challenge for The Times, for the news media more broadly, and for everyone who believes that journalism sustains a healthy society.

There was a reason freedom of speech and freedom of the press were placed first among our essential rights. Our founders understood that the free exchange of ideas and the ability to hold power to account were prerequisites for a successful democracy. But a dangerous confluence of forces is threatening the press’s central role in helping people understand and engage with the world around them.

The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding, forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions. Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press. Growing polarization is jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together.

Like our predecessors at The Times, my colleagues and I will not give in to these forces.

The Times will continue to search for the most important stories of our era with curiosity, courage and empathy — because we believe that improving the world starts with understanding it. The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor [trite] — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

These values guided my father and his predecessors as publisher as they steered this company through war, economic crisis, technological upheaval and major societal shifts. These same values sustained them as they stood up to presidents; battled for the rights of a free press in court; and overrode the financial interests of our business in favor of our journalistic principles.

The challenge before me is to ensure The Times safeguards those values while embracing the imperative to adapt to a changing world. I’ve spent most of my career as a newspaper reporter, but I’ve also been a champion of The Times’s digital evolution. I’m protective of our best traditions, and I look to the future with excitement and optimism.

Much will change in the years ahead, and I believe those changes will lead to a report that is richer and more vibrant than anything we could have dreamed up in ink and paper. What won’t change: We will continue to give reporters the resources to dig into a single story for months at a time. We will continue to support reporters in every corner of the world as they bear witness to unfolding events, sometimes at great personal risk. We will continue to infuse our journalism with expertise by having lawyers cover law, doctors cover health and veterans cover war. We will continue to search for the most compelling ways to tell stories, from prose to virtual reality to whatever comes next. We will continue to put the fairness and accuracy of everything we publish above all else — and in the inevitable moments we fall short, we will continue to own up to our mistakes, and we’ll strive to do better.

We believe this is the journalism our world needs and our readers deserve. That has been the guiding vision for The New York Times across five generations and more than 120 years. Today we renew that commitment.

A.G. Sulzberger Publisher

 

 

This is all self-congratulatory boilerplate blah. There is not one original thought or idea, and hardly any information.

The op-ed is too long winded. The entire piece could be boiled down to a sentence or two and not lose anything with respect to content or meaning: e.g.: I pledge that The New York Times will continue its mission of providing readers with the best journalism on the face of the earth.

Such writing might be appropriate as the text of a hortatory address by the principal at an assembly at the beginning of the school year, or for a motivational speech to employees by a CEO. Sulzberger’s op-ed is not worth reading. It is full of platitudes with no substance, just an assurance to readers that the Times has always been great — or, as he sees it, has always adhered to the highest journalistic standards — and will, he pledges, continue to do so. That’s nice, but so what? Is his oration worth a reader’s time?

Such language is often used by leaders in business and academia and, with embellishment, by politicians. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a motivational speech. But, such writing does not belong on the op-ed page.

What if Sulzberger had said, for example?

We are opening up a new bureau in Novosibirsk to cover developments in the Far North from the perspective of global ecology.

We intend to provide more coverage of ethnic minorities worldwide, such as the Rohingya people.

We have given more priority to coverage of women’s sports at the college level.

That would have been informative to Times readers. He should have used the op-ed piece to convey substantive information about what to expect from the Times in the coming months and years under his stewardship. He does not, for the most part, do this.

 

 

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jerry-built; too cute

 

 

“The Dancing Queen: Do The Leona”

By Sheryl McCarthy

New York Newsday

April 15, 1992

 

 

In years to come, it will be known as “doing the Leona.”

It will be written up in the lawbooks, and in the privacy of their offices, slick-suited defense attorneys will discuss using it on behalf of their clients. Certain crass members of the press, always quick with the cynical remark, will call it the “red bathrobe” technique — and they’ll use it to refer to any convicted criminal who cries, whines, scrabbles and is willing to do just about anything else to stay out of jail.

We’ve been subjected to this sorry spectacle in recent weeks as Leona Helmsley and her lawyers tried every ploy they could think of to keep Leona from being carried off in in handcuffs today for the crime of bilking the federal government of millions of dollars in taxes. The strategy didn’t work for Leona, who presumably is even now wending her way to a Kentucky prison. But that doesn’t mean that in the future “The Leona” won’t work for other felons.

The basic elements of “The Leona” are these:

1. PROCLAIM YOUR innocence, in spite of voluminous evidence to the contrary. Admit no wrongdoing, or even any mistakes, and express no remorse whatsoever for your behavior.

2 CLAIM YOUR spouse is sick and will die if you’re sent to prison, since you are the only person on Earth who can care for him properly. (Despite the fact that her 83-year-old husband, Harry, is a billionaire and can afford the best possible medical care, according to Leona it is only her presence that can ward off his premature death.)

3. CLAIM YOU are sick and will die if you are sent to prison. After a federal judge turned down her request for a new trial, Leona collapsed outside the courtroom and was rushed to the hospital. Her attorneys have since argued that because she suffers from hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure, the stress of prison life could kill her. Try telling this to the 67,000 other federal prison inmates, many of whom also feel that prison is not conducive to good health.

4. HAVE A public relations firm organize a “Keep Leona Out of Jail” rally. This tawdry event took place about 10 days and reeked of insincerity.

5. APPEAR ON national TV talk shows, claiming you have been railroaded. Leona cried a lot on the “Joan Rivers Show.” And on “20 /”20” in an interview with Barbara Walters, the queen with the fabulous ballgowns was interviewed in a long red bathrobe — her version of sackcloth and ashes, and clear proof that she was emotionally overwrought. On the same show, she claimed her only friends in the world, besides old Harry, are her black maid and the security man at her Connecticut estate.

6. OFFER TO perform community service in lieu of prison time, a ploy overused by white-collar convicts who believe prisons are for the lower classes.

7. CLAIM TO be a member of a reviled minority group. Leona’s attorneys argued that she would face hostility and abuse by other prison inmates because she is “a widely reviled, vastly wealthy New York Jew.” Try this argument on the convicted drug lords, gang members, mob chieftains, and homosexuals who also expect to encounter some “hostility” from other inmates.

8. ARGUE THAT you can’t go to jail until after your next religious holiday. Leona’s attorneys argued that she should at least be allowed to celebrate Passover with the aging Harry. I’m not sure when Leona became a devout Jew, but I do know that a lot of prison inmates have foregone a final Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, or Kwanzaa with their families.

9. IF ALL else fails, try to bribe your way out of jail. In a last-ditch bid for freedom yesterday, Leona’s lawyers offered to turn over several Helmsley hotels for use as homeless shelters. This sudden burst of charity came from a woman never particularly known for benevolent gestures, who apparently became aware of the homeless problem only this week.

In the end, none of these tactics worked for Leona Helmsley. Not even the skillful briefs and arguments of Alan Dershowitz — a brilliant defense attorney who in recent years has squandered his abilities to serve the wealthy, the contemptible and the guilty — could sway the courts in her favor.

Nor could this massive public-relations campaign change the public perception that Leona Helmsley is an awful human being with a voice like a foghorn and the morals of a pirate. For years she plundered the poor and the powerless. She abused and intimidated her minions, the low-paid, unskilled hotel workers who desperately needed their jobs to make a living.

She blatantly stiffed the contractors who worked for her and who then got their revenge by turning her in to the authorities. But the IRS was the one entity she could not stiff, and so Leona is going to prison.

Legally, her crime was cheating on taxes. Morally, her crime was in believing her wealth and power set her above the law and exempted her from normal standards of decency. A horror of realization must have set in yesterday when the court rejected her last appeal.

So, on this 15th day of April, tax day, Leona Helmsley goes off to jail. Sources tell me the little people are planning a demonstration today on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals downtown. They will gather with their recently completed income-tax returns in their hands and when a sign is given they will lift these forms high above their heads and wave Leona bye-bye.

 

Leona Helmsley, the so-called Queen of Mean, was the wife of Harry Helmsley, a billionaire real estate investor and property developer. She was convicted of federal income tax evasion and other crimes in 1989 and sentenced to 19 months in prison.

The story was front page news in 1989. It is mostly forgotten now, and Sheryl McCarthy’s op-ed piece seems dated. Op-ed pieces are, by necessity, topical, but this one is also superficial:

In years to come, it will be known as “doing the Leona.”

It will be written up in the lawbooks, and in the privacy of their offices, slick-suited defense attorneys will discuss using it on behalf of their clients. Certain crass members of the press, always quick with the cynical remark, will call it the “red bathrobe” technique — and they’ll use it to refer to any convicted criminal who cries, whines, scrabbles and is willing to do just about anything else to stay out of jail.

This assertion seemed clever, supposedly, to the writer. It makes little sense now, because it was built on a very flimsy conjecture — in fact, one that has no substance: that the Leona Helmsley case would set a legal precedent. Of course, the writer knew it wouldn’t, but her piece is jerry-built on the playful assumption that it would.

The rest of the piece is a trashing of an easy target: the reviled, convicted and unpopular Leona Helmsley, who was publicly perceived as a greedy, haughty, arrogant woman getting her comeuppance; “an awful human being with a voice like a foghorn and the morals of a pirate” in the writer’s words.

This is glib, overblown writing.

“So, on this 15th day of April, tax day, Leona Helmsley goes off to jail. Sources tell me the little people are planning a demonstration today on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals downtown. They will gather with their recently completed income-tax returns in their hands and when a sign is given they will lift these forms high above their heads and wave Leona bye-bye.”

Did this actually happen? Certainly, it did not the way the writer envisions it.

In principle, there is nothing wrong, or that should be “prohibited,” with trying to be inventive or clever in writing a lead, in trying to make a point (often with irony or sarcasm), or in using or devising scenarios in one’s head or out of thin air (for the purposes of illustration or exemplification) that the reader knows are not literally true. One sees this often in fiction, naturally, but it is also used in essay writing: consider, for example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” But it takes a clever writer to pull this off and not end up looking plain foolish, whimsical, and as if the piece was conceived in la-la land. This seems especially true of the op-ed page.

 

 

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a bad lead that leads nowhere; a faulty premise (and purple prose)

 

 

Dave Anderson

“Richard Is Real Rocket, the Only Rocket”

The New York Times

May 29, 2000

 

Other athletes are known today as the Rocket, notably pitcher Roger Clemens, the tennis legend Rod Laver and receiver Raghib Ismael, but they plagiarized the nickname. To anyone who saw Maurice Richard play hockey, he was not only the original Rocket, but also deserved to be remembered as the real Rocket, the only Rocket.

Just as Babe Ruth defined George Herman Ruth, Rocket defined the Montreal Canadiens’ folk hero who set all the National Hockey League goal-scoring records that Gordy Howe and Wayne Gretzky eventually shattered.

Whenever Richard scored in the hockey cathedral that was the Montreal Forum, hats, programs, galoshes and newspapers were tossed onto the ice in celebration as the public address announcer boomed formally, first in French and then in English, “Goal by Maurice Ree-chard.”

But his coach and former linemate at left wing, Toe Blake, usually referred to him as “Rocket.” So did his teammates.

“I sat beside Rocket in the dressing room for the seven years I played with him,” center Jean Béliveau once said. “He was an inspiration and the idol of my generation. On the team we all knew he was kind of an introvert and not the greatest talker.

“But in his own way, he was a leader and, as players and as a team, we followed him because we were inspired by his desire to win. When we lost, Rocket did not need to say anything to show how hard he accepted defat. You could see it in his eyes.”

Yes, those blazing eyes, which finally closed Saturday when he died at 78 after a two-year struggle with abdominal cancer.

 

This op-ed piece is a eulogy for hockey great Maurice Richard. The central premises are that Richard was a great player beloved by fans and an idol and inspiration for his teammates. Dave Anderson, who was The New York Times’s leading sportswriter when this op-ed piece was published under the “Sports of the Times” heading (Anderson had the prestige of writing the column), should have stuck to these points, but he overdid it with his assertion that there is something special about the nickname Rocket that distinguished Richard, or that anyone could claim distinction based upon a nickname. Such a literary device was used for Anderson’s lead, which gets the piece off to a bad start and makes it fall flat.

 

 

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“tough guy” journalism; a barroom rant

 

 

“The Death Penalty Is Queens DA’s Only Option”

By Steve Dunleavy

The York Post

May 30, 2000

 

 

The Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, should right now be shopping for twin beds.

Well, not really beds — gurneys on which you strap humanity’s filth and jab them with the needle of ultimate night.

I don’t know why DA Brown, who screwed up in the first place by not locking up John B. Taylor for 12 years, is wrestling with himself over whether to seek the death penalty.

Rick Lazio, speaking through a stitched lip, sewed up Mr. Brown’s agony when he said the words that certainly will make him the next senator of this Empire State:

“After a fair trial, competent counsel and if Mr. Taylor and [Craig] Godineaux are found guilty, there is no question that the district attorney should seek the death penalty.

“That is what the death penalty was made for. Here we see a senseless slaughter of human beings. Hard-working, never looking for a handout, not being rich, just working. A senseless slaughter.

“If they are convicted, after due process of law, there is no question about what the punishment should be.”

Rick Lazio [executive assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, New York] got a lot of votes yesterday from my friends. Yeah, they’re beer-drinking cops and firemen. And yeah, they’re the guys who put their lives on the line every day to make sure I wake up after I go to sleep.

Taylor was on five years’ probation when he committed three armed robberies and Judge Pauline Mullings gave him an incredibly low bail of $3,500.

The New York state court system accuses District Attorney Brown of screwing up because he did not indict the little punk called Taylor. Who cares now who was wrong?

You could tell it to the Marines, but don’t tell it to the friends and family of those who died in the Wendy’s slaughterhouse.

The liberals, who are against the death penalty, say lock them up forever, away from society.

Well, this state under Gov. Hugh Carey, who was more interested in dyeing his hair than a peace officer dying, should have learned its lesson on May 15, 1981 at Greenhaven prison.

Lemuel Smith, a total worm given life for three murders, was locked away in Greenhaven for life … No threat, according to the liberals, to society.

Apparently, Donna Payant did not count as part of society. She was just a correction officer.

And that gave· triple murderer Lemuel Smith the right to rape and murder Donna Payant and trash her body in a prison Dumpster. So much for locking someone away to protect society.

In the case of the lice John B. Taylor and Craig Godineaux, they have told cops what they did.

Yes, I’m sure they’ll bring in psychiatrists for their defense. I will never forget May 28, 1998 when Dr. Sanford Drob, chief of psychological assessment at Bellevue Hospital, gave evidence on behalf of triple murderer Darrel Harris.

He told the court that Harris should not be executed because he couldn’t draw a bicycle.

Harris, of course, could draw a gun, and when he ran out of bullets, he slashed Evelyn Davis to death with a knife as she said: “Please let me out of here. I have five babies.”

Don’t ask me why Dr. Drob — read that as dope — came up with the conclusion that not being able to draw a bicycle had anything to do with Darrel Harris getting a tiny needle in the arm.

Despite the best efforts of Dr. Drob, Darrel Harris became the first killer sentenced to die under the state’s new capital punishment law. So District Attorney Brown has no real problem.

All he has to do is look at the files of this newspaper, listen to Rick Lazio and listen to common sense. Lifetime in jail does not guarantee that killers won’t kill. Killers sometimes shank people in jail just to get celebrity status.

Ask me. I told the so-called “Boston strangler” Albert DeSalvo that he would be murdered by Peter Wilson and Patty Devlin in Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts, if he didn’t stop being a big mouth. They did him.

The only thing that stops murderers murdering is to have them removed from the face of the earth. Rick Lazio understands that, thank God. So does New York and I pray that today Richard Brown grasps it all.

 

 

Steve Dunleavy is a tabloid journalist known for his focus on crime and other gut issues which, in his view, call for mob justice.

“gurneys on which you strap humanity’s filth humanity’s filth and jab them with the needle of ultimate night”; “the little punk called Taylor”; “Lemuel Smith, a total worm”; “In the case of the lice John B. Taylor and Craig Godineaux, they have told cops what they did”; “Killers sometimes shank people in jail just to get celebrity status.” “I told the so-called “Boston strangler” Albert DeSalvo that he would be murdered by Peter Wilson and Patty Devlin in Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts, if he didn’t stop being a big mouth. They did him.” “The only thing that stops murderers murdering is to have them removed from the face of the earth.

This is supposedly tough street talk. It actually serves to show Dunleavy’s crudeness, stupidity, and ghoulishness; the utter absence of any reflection on his part; and that he is unqualified to be a journalist.

Note the one sentence paragraphs. This is a hallmark of tough guy, in your face journalism. And, the writing is just plain dumb and crude. It’s as if one wrote an angry note to one’s ex-boyfriend saying: “YOU’RE A COMPLETE JERK. I HATE YOU.”

Supposedly great (and, in my opinion, very overrated) journalists such as Jimmy Breslin (d. 2017) and Pete Hamill often write in the same vein. They are extolled for presenting in plain language the views of the man on the street, the common man. They do not seem to be in the same class as Dunleavy, and they can write half decently. But, they do not write that well — certainly not at a level which deserves admiration — and their views are often simplistic and can lead to serious distortions when it comes to contentious issues.

 

 

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One further thought. Re jerry-built op-ed pieces and writing that seems too “cute.” Op-ed writers can certainly use humor and ingenuity to get their points across. No one is saying they can’t or shouldn’t. But, it takes great skill to be funny without seeming jejune. Current and former columnists whom I admire who (in my opinion) have a genius for humor and use it effectively include Russell Baker of The New York Times, Art Buchwald of The Washington Post, and Maureen Dowd of the Times. For fun, I have posted below, as an attachment, two notable op-ed pieces by Baker and Buchwald.

 

 

russell-baker-presidents-big-break

 

 

art-buchwald-le-grande-thanksgiving

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     February 2018

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

For an example of a Swiftian piece of satire wherein an op-ed writer runs with a seemingly preposterous premise and pulls it off, see:

 

“Why Stormy Daniels isn’t a bigger hurricane”

By Dana Milbank

The Washington Post

February 16, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-stormy-daniels-isnt-a-bigger-hurricane/2018/02/16/9f7b6ae4-1320-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html?utm_term=.3acbcd53e840

 

 

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See also my post:

 

“Nuts?”

 

URL

 

about an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Gall Collins

 

 

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COMMENTS:

 

 

Pete Smith, February 15, 2018

Are you saying that the #MeToo movement has not changed things for the better, or that abused women are just an interest group? Whether the writing in this op-ed is good, her points are very sound.
Roger W. Smith, February 15, 2018

Pete — I guess what I would say is that I thought it was a bad and boring piece, regardless of what one may think about the MeToo movement. The focus of the post was intended to be journalism critiqued from the point of view of writing.

 

Pete Smith, February 15, 2018

OK understood but you need to think about posts like this which can be read either as critical of writing (which I now understand was your intent) or kind of a Trumpish “both sides” (or Porter is a good man we shouldn’t look at his ex-wife’s photo) defense of racism or misogyny.
Roger W. Smith, February 15, 2018

Pete — how could I have, or did I, fail to make the main topic and thrust of this piece as plain as could be?

 

 

 

 

Where have you gone, George Orwell?

 

 

re

“Defending Samantha Bee isn’t principled. It’s tribalism.”

Op-Ed

By Megan McArdle

The Washington Post

June 2, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/06/02/defending-samantha-bee-isnt-principled-its-tribalism/?utm_term=.f6297e9de421

 

 

This op-ed piece is hard to read. It’s God awful. Terribly written.

And idiotic. The writer is splitting hairs about nothing.

It is very similar to a Washington Post op-ed piece of three weeks ago by a guest columnist, Sandra Beasley, that I complained about in my post
“My freshman comp instructor would be turning in his grave.”

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2018/12/19/my-freshman-comp-instructor-would-be-turning-in-his-grave/

 

That op-ed piece — by a freshman comp instructor, no less — may have been even more poorly written, but at least one could figure out what the writer was trying to say.

 
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Regarding the former piece, i.e., the one by Megan McArdle which is the focus of this blog — Ms. McArdle is a Washington Post columnist — I dare anyone to figure out what she is saying. It’s as if she were asking her readers to consider, through convoluted reasoning which it is tortuous to try to follow, and to answer the question: how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

Perhaps it’s okay to use the c______ word for Ivanka Trump. After all, can you imagine, she had the nerve to post a photo of herself proudly holding her baby??? But, no, it’s NOT okay, because that would be anti-women, but then again, her father is Donald Trump, so maybe it IS okay.

… In-groups using words to each other isn’t the same as out-groups using those same words. Trump is the president of the United States, which carries a higher responsibility to the nation, and common decency, than hosting a third-rate comedy show.

And if you want to take this opportunity to point out the jaw-slackening hypocrisy of conservatives becoming outraged about this after defending Barr, or Trump … well, just hold on while I find you a comfy chair and some Gatorade.

But after you’ve said all that, what you’re left with is a burning question: So what? Is the behavior of a senile vulgarian with a terminal case of verbal dysentery now the standard to which feminism aspires? That seems rather inadequate. Or have feminists now lost the ability to distinguish between slurs that were reclaimed by the oppressed as terms of affection and one that is hurled as a vile insult into millions of American homes?

Counterfactuals are usually tricky, of course. But I have utter confidence in this one: The answer that feminists would give in that case would be “never.” And if a network had aired such a remark, those same people would be rightfully raising holy hell about it. They would not be looking around to see whether someone, somewhere, had sometime in the recent past made a remark that was even worse.

This is gobbledygook.

 
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I have a problem with splitting hairs while trying to justify the use of vile insults against one individual or group and, perhaps, excuse it when the target is a different group, depending upon which group is more in “favor” and which group tends to be reviled by the guardians of public virtue. (I guess Ms. McArdle does too, but it is difficult to ascertain what she does think, since she makes the issues the opposite of clear.) And, I cannot understand why anyone is entitled to call Ivanka Trump a cunt (I am not afraid to use the word, since that was the word political commentator Samantha Bee used) for holding a baby in her arms as, presumably, a proud mother.

Don’t get me wrong. I am horrified by actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that separate children from their parents, and I am absolutely against President Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Not sort of. Completely. I regard them as an outrage, an affront to humanity and common decency, and a stain on our nation that will be remembered as such in years to come just as slavery is now.

But President Trump’s daughter holding her baby? C’mon.

 
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There’s another problem that I see with such op-eds, a fundamental one when it comes to journalism and writing per se. The sophistry comes from the writer not laying out the facts clearly and presenting a coherent view, but instead speaking (writing, that is) sort of in code to a particular audience, which she assumes will be able to decode the piece and, from it, extract key talking points supporting whatever position has been ordained. Reason is a tool in the writer’s armamentarium. One that can be used effectively or not effectively. That when it is not used well can have the effect of too much of a good thing. That can produce a jerry-built piece of prose that would be tottering on its foundations, if it had a foundation.

This is a think piece. A nutty one. It is incumbent upon a writer to first establish a substratum of fact, to orient the reader, to acquaint the reader with the issues, and to help the reader get his or her bearings, so to speak, before engaging in Jesuitical reasoning.

George Orwell comes to mind. He went about his writing, as any true writer does, like a workman in overalls, so to speak, at his typewriter. Trying to make his points as clearly and cogently as he could. Backing them up, mostly, with reasoned argument, not statistics or data, or quotations from someone else. At all times, he strove to be clear, and even when he was at his most opinionated, arguing a point strenuously, there was absolutely no equivocation (or duplicity). And, no sophistry. You could not accuse him of that. One can and should accuse Ms. McCardle of the latter, of errors of commission when it comes to writing an opinion piece that is likely to confuse rather than enlighten most readers.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

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Addendum:

 

To be fair — or at least to try to be — it appears that Ms. McCardle is saying the left shouldn’t use slurs against the right. But, it’s awfully hard to extract her key points from the fog of her obfuscatory prose. Her concluding paragraph reads:

So feminists, and the left more broadly, now have a chance to prove that they really have learned a lesson from the Bill Clinton debacle. They have a chance to stand as forthrightly and rightly against an offense committed by one of their own as they do against attacks on them. Or they can slink away, muttering about Trump and the patriarchy, and wait for the next generation of feminists to get old enough, and mad enough, to repair the damage they’ve done.

It shouldn’t be so hard for the reader of an op-ed piece to figure out what is being said, which is the case here.