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

Emerson

 

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe our own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,–and our first thought, is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays, First Series (1841)

Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold. Their knowledge of the fine arts is some study of rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form which is exercised for amusement or for show. It is a proof of the shallowness of the doctrine of beauty, as it lies in the minds of our amateurs, that men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form upon soul. There is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy. We were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan, to be carried about; but there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ, much less is the latter the germination of the former. So in regard to other forms, the intellectual men do not believe in any essential dependence of the material world on thought and volition. Theologians think it a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract, but they prefer to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence; and even the poets are contented with a civil and conformed manner of living, and to write poems from the fancy, at a safe distance from their own experience. But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it. And this hidden truth, that the fountains whence all this river of Time, and its creatures, floweth, are intrinsically ideal and beautiful, draws us to the consideration of the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty, to the means and materials he uses, and to the general aspect of the art in the present time.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays: Second Series (1844)

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Emerson

he “throws his thoughts out”

pell-mell, into the air

they are interesting and provocative

But you, the reader, have to figure out what he is saying

This is a violation of what I consider to be fundamental principles of good writing

one of which is that an accomplished writer does the work for the reader … makes his meaning and the thrust of the piece clear … makes clear, through organization and coherence, whatever are the key points and which ones are ancillary

An essayist such as Samuel Johnson does this, while writing dense prose with long sentences

On the surface, one would be inclined to think Emerson’s prose is clear

It is not

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What the writer is saying should be apparent

The reader should not have to extract “buried” meaning from oracular, gnomic prose

Clarity is not inimical to depth or profundity of thought

Emerson’s writing is (on the surface) simple: too simple

He does not take the pains to make his meaning clear

He is saying something

in a roundabout, allusive way that frustrates the reader

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An often neglected feature – a desideratum – of good writing is what my high school English teacher specified as emphasis

the weight of a piece has to fall somewhere: key points at the beginning, In certain places

a skillful writer can do this subtly …one does not need to hit the reader over the head with sledgehammer (I begin my essay: “Capital punishment is wrong!”) .. the key, salient points can emerge

But …

What are Emerson’s key points? … he does make them, implicitly, and some would say, strongly and effectively … but, I would say that the reader has to extract them … the writing is a mishmash of thoughts

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Is spontaneity a virtue in writing?

Yes

Samuel Johnson urged would be writers to get their thoughts down fast. This he himself did. Many of his essays were written within a very tight time frame.

I find that some of my best and original. writing is done this way. Something occurs to me; and I think, get it down on paper (or, in my case, it is often in the form of an email written to myself on my cell phone … I do a fair amount of writing on park benches and in subway cars and taverns).

But, even in this case, as an experienced writer, I have a sixth sense about where I am going with a piece. I am very focused on maintaining a logical, coherent flow.

I have been praised by no less a critic than my wife for my readability and (as she puts it) the fact that it is always eminently clear what I am saying.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 2022

pedantic words and phrases (an authorial “sin”? I would say, it depends on the author)

 

Another of Gissing’s stylistic quirks — the pedantic term imported from Latin or Greek — appears near the climax of “Too Wretched to Live”*: “As he glanced at the handwriting, a woman’s delicate chirography . … ” From the Greek root kheirographon, that bookish final word intrudes upon a scene of supposedly high emotion. The former classics student from Owens College, Manchester, never lost his taste for ink-horn phrases. To the end of his writing career, he retained a preference for erudite words over plain ones — for visage or physiognomy over simply face. Even in Born in Exile (1892), one of his finest novels, we find a broad sprinkling of learned expressions: “susurration,” “sequaciousness,” “intenerates.” Thus the fancy word chirography in the Daily News story provides further evidence of George Gissing’s authorship.

— Robert L. Selig, “An Unknown Gissing Story from the Chicago Daily News,” Studies in Bibliography, 36 (1983), pp. 208-209.

*An early story by George Gissing, published in the Chicago Daily News  during the period Gissing spent in the United States during the late 1870s.

 

Stylistic peculiarities in “A Game of Hearts” also suggest Gissing’s youthful handiwork. The story’s prose contains the same stilted diction that frequently shows up in his signed early tales: “albeit” as a variant for although, “peradventure” for the noun doubt, “metropolis” for city, the high-flown “missives” for letters, and the pedantic “contained therein” rather than simply in it. Similar pompous usages occur, for example, in Gissing’s early story “My First Rehearsal.” “Be it premised that” for assume that; “the moon, which luminary” for the moon, which; “I doubted not” for I felt sure that; and “a trifle hot for pedestrian exertion” rather than just walking. The stiffly learned style appears to reflect the social unease of the youthful George Gissing–a wish to show off his bookish education and distinguish himself from the unlettered masses.

— Robert L. Selig, George Gissing: Lost Stories from America (Edwin Mellen Press, 1992)

 

– posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2022

“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is regarded as a classic. I would say, “Great effort.”

 

‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’

 

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a window pane.” [italics added]

— George Orwell, “Why I Write”

 

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John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker article about Ted Williams’s last game for the Boston Red Sox: “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” (The New Yorker, October 22 1960) is frequently quoted and seems to have a status akin to “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” (See downloadable Word document of the full Updike text, above.)

 

What is wrong — in my “contrarian” opinion — with Updike’s piece?

It is too long (it needed pruning).

It is too fine (typical of New Yorker pieces); too “literary and (at times) too flowery.

It is the work of a brilliant, undeniably talented writer whose dazzling performance — like that of some virtuosos — comes between you and the subject matter, i.e., the focus of the piece: the great baseball player Ted Williams, his last game.

One tires of Updike’s verbal pyrotechnics, his asides (authorial interventions, commentary).

Is this reportage or an essay? Updike tried to do both. I think it was a mistake.

“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is regarded as a classic. I would say, “Great effort.”

 

— Posted by Roger W. Smith

    January 2021

 

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See also my post:

“Saul Bellow on writing”

Saul Bellow on writing

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

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!”

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