Category Archives: journalism (examined as writing)

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

 

 

 

‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic

 

 

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

 

 

The Dominance of the White Male Critic

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

By Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang

The New York Times

July 5, 2019

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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

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

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

Awkward and wordy.

“the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated”

Poor, imprecise, fuzzy wording. Also, pretentious.

 

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

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

 


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

Very pretentious.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

This is overly generic. Such overly generic writing is flabby and invariably unconvincing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 7, 2019

writing with the head and the heart

 

 

 

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.

can the sun “grin”?

 

 

 

 

I learned in yesterday’s New York Times about the passing of my former journalism professor Maurice (Mickey) Carroll, who died on December 6th.

 

“Maurice Carroll, Political Reporter and Pollster, Dies at 86”

By Sam Roberts

The New York Times

December 6, 2017

 

 

 

 

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Mickey Carroll was a tough, dapper Irish guy and an outstanding reporter on the Times’s city desk for many years. He taught me far more about writing than any of my other journalism profs; it wasn’t even close.

It’s a truism that the best way to learn any skill is to do it. Well, besides lecturing, Carroll meticulously critiqued our writing (stories we had to report and write as class assignments).

I would hand in a story to him. I remember one was when he let the class interview him press conference style and we were assigned to write a profile of him. “This is very good,” he said to me, handing back the paper a day or two later, “but it’s too long.”

I kept tightening up my work. I began to appreciate how important space limitations are in a newspaper. For a feature article, it’s usually six hundred words. Six hundred words meant just that: six hundred words. If you wrote, say, 615 words, your editor would be unhappy, having to do the work himself of excising a “graf” from your story.

I would hand in papers that I thought were as carefully and tightly constructed as I could make them, with no superfluous words. They would come back with red lines drawn though maybe ten or fifteen words or phrases that I had never realized were superfluous. A that, say, where it could be dispensed with.

 

 

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Professor (and seasoned reporter) Carroll told us a funny story in class one day which illustrates the frustrations he himself had experienced as a writer. He finally left the Times for another paper. He said the final straw was when he once assigned to cover the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan.

The lead sentence in the story he turned in was “The sun grinned on the Irish yesterday.”

Grinned was too colorful a word for the copy editor at the Times, which was known for bloodless prose. (It still is, but efforts have made over recent years to make the writing more lively.) For “grinned,” the copy editor substituted some more generic verb.

“That did it,” Mickey said.

I could identify with the frustrations he felt with pettifogging editors.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 7, 2017

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Sam Roberts, one of the Times’s best obituary writers, and an outstanding writer in general, wrote the obituary. He notes: “Known to be cranky but easily amused, Mr. Carroll would often pepper his reporting with wry and iconoclastic asides.”

That’s how he was in class: the teacher/editor who applied principles of “tough love” to improving the writing of his students, while doing it with wit and grace. And, he showed us how, while adhering to strict standards of newspaper writing, you could also have fun and work in a quip or an amusing detail or two. Shoehorn it in, that is, word length permitting.

“He never lost his reporter’s perspective, though, advising would-be journalists never to take themselves too seriously, no matter how important the news they’re covering may be,” Sam Roberts writes.

I found this to be true. He was a complete professional, and, as such, he was never out of character in class, yet he himself was a character.

He stressed that his vocation was that of REPORTER, and he once told a story to illustrate what that meant.

Early in Carroll’s career, a reporter on the Times’s arts desk, a cultural critic, was somewhere in Manhattan at some event or performance one evening. As he was leaving, he observed that a big fire had broken out in a building across the street. He telephoned the Times from a pay phone, shouting, “Get a reporter here immediately! There’s a fire!”

He was a reporter,” observed Carroll, who happened to be at Dallas Police Headquarters on one of his first reporting assignments when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. “He was there. He should have covered the fire.”

highfalutin hogwash; pseudo intellectual inanity; pernicious pomposity, perverse pontificating (take a hike, Spiro Agnew! you too, Bill Safire!)

 

 

 

Two things are pertinent to this post — form a background to it, so to speak.

First, this past March, I wrote a blog post:

 

“Racism Rears Its Ugly Head”

Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

 

about objections to a painting by the artist Dana Schutz based upon photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, which was featured in the 2017 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Protests had arisen over the work. I am in principle opposed to the destruction of art for reasons of political correctness.

Secondly, I am working on a post of my own about the craft of writing. I want to be able to illustrate it with examples of both good and bad writing.

 

 

 

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With these things in the back of my mind, I read an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times which stopped me cold, that was so bad it was unbelievable. I thought to myself, how did it get published? I posted an angry comment on the Times site, but the comment did not get posted. No doubt, the Times editors found it inappropriate. Strange, because often comments posted in response to Times opinion pieces are not well written or articulate; and, in fact, many are obtuse and display ignorance and lack of acumen.

 

 

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The piece that has astounded me with its badness and inanity is

 

“The Art of Destroying an Artwork”

by David Xu Borgonjon

New York Times

October 25, 2017

 

The Times article merely indicates that “David Xu Borgonjon is a curator and writer.” Googling him at

 

http://laundromatproject.org/david-xu-borgonjon/

 

 

I found out that “[David Xu Borgonjon] is a curatorial fellow at Wave Hill and is the co-founder of Screen, a bilingual Chinese and English platform for media art commentary. Currently he is preparing a series of “Strategy Sessions” for Summer 2015, a professional development workshops for artists using board games as metaphor. David has coordinated the Gallery of the Women’s Center at Brown University (where he graduated in 2014 in English with honors in a Dual Degree program with the Rhode Island School of Design).”

And so forth. The information on the site may be slightly dated. Wave Hill is a 28-acre estate in the Hudson Hill section of Riverdale, Bronx, in New York City which consists of public horticultural gardens and a cultural center which includes an art gallery.

 

 

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One has to read Mr. Borgonjon’s piece in full to get a feel for its awfulness. It is a textbook example of flawed writing built upon cockeyed premises. A key problem is that the piece is too abstract, is not tethered to fact. One might ask, what’s wrong with a conceptual piece of writing, with exposition for the sake of exposition? Is there such a thing as too abstract? Yes, there is, and Mr. Borgonjon’s horribly written piece shows how this can occur.

It’s very hard to even figure out what he is talking about. One has to wade through the piece, which is tortuous reading, a ways to get some idea of what he is talking about. This, right away, indicates a problem. There are some would be intellectuals/thinkers and writers who seem to think that nebulous writing is a sign of great thoughts percolating in a genius’s mind, thoughts which he or she can’t waste time trying to explain to us. That it is our duty, should we wish, to come up to their level. This is ridiculous.

 

 

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The following are some excerpts from the op-ed du jour, followed by my comments (in boldface). Good luck in figuring out what the writer’s fulminations mean.

“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.”

This is pure nonsense. Highfalutin language signifying nothing. Jargon laden mumbo jumbo. The underlying premises are flawed and the views imbedded in them are toxic and pernicious. Idiotic premises lead to idiotic conclusions.

“What we should be asking, instead, is how it should ‘go.’ A work of art could be destroyed (burned, buried, shredded), edited, documented, mourned or even substituted. It could be supplemented with performances, talks, protests. It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.”

Pure nonsense. How can the Times publish it? “It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.” Is he serious? If he is, it’s sad. No, deplorable.

“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.”

Here we have an example of what might be called “over abstraction,” supposedly weighty observations, disguised as such, which amount to pseudo profundity. There is a pretense of deep thought, and nothing more. Everything is made perfectly UNclear. It shows an incapacity for thoughtful or meaningful analysis.

“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.

“In some way, as curator Hera Chan points out, the dynamics of the platform economy threaten to make curatorial expertise obsolete. Who needs us when institutions can figure out, thanks to social media, crowdsourcing and machine learning, audience preferences quickly and accurately? The difficult question of who ‘we’ are, when we are faced with a controversial artwork, is the curator’s only remaining raison d’être. Consider that exhibitions don’t have a standard rating system, like movies or music — at some level, we must believe that every show should be accessible to all of us. Like churches or public television in a different age, museums are now our civic institutions, where we go to argue about who counts as ‘us.’

“The ‘should it stay or should it go’ approach fumbles the opportunity to broaden and enrich what that “us” is. It’s a difficult question, and we will not agree, but even asking it together creates a kind of community. It falls to curators to facilitate this conversation. Institutions, following the lead of artists, should respond creatively to the call for censorship. Perhaps the withdrawal of the artwork can make room for something else to come into view: a new public.”

Claptrap. Nonsense. And, like the nonsense genre, almost impossible to decipher.

“Fumbles the opportunity”? An infelicitous phrase if there ever was one! This writer clearly knows something about fumbling, from experience, displays verbal ineptitude that is plain to see.

 

 

 

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I am almost inclined to say that this piece should be censored. It’s that bad, both as a specimen of writing and as an attack on art by someone who deems himself a curator. Of course, I’m against censorship. But beware of such writing by persons who pat themselves on the back for being in the intellectual vanguard. It’s just plain awful. And, as I’ve already said, it’s pernicious in its “know nothing” views worthy of a troglodyte and highly objectionable in a so called curator, presumably devoted (ha!) to preserving and promoting art. How about destroying? Anyone game?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 26, 2017

 

 

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COMMENTS

 

Pete Smith, October 28, 2017
You are bordering on the pompous here yourself I think. Don’t disagree with your main point, I guess, but among many other things in your post, one could reasonably posit that “an infelicitous phrase” (correcting your typo — I think you didn’t mean phase, which makes no sense) is in itself an infelicitous phrase.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, October 28, 2017

Yes, it is, Pete. Thanks for catching the typo. I don’t see how you can call the post “pompous.” Am I missing something?

 

Pete Smith, October 28, 2017

Yes.

 

Roger W. Smith, October 29, 2017

My asking, “Am I missing something?” was a rhetorical question inviting you to demonstrate how, in terms of what I wrote, the piece is pompous. Your “Yes” was a snarky response mean to trivialize what I said, what I went to great lengths to show.

Exerting intellectual effort to express strong disagreement is not pomposity.

a superb craftsman (Jim Dwyer)

 

 

 

Jim Dwyer is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and columnist for The New York Times. When I was an intern and freelance reporter at New York Newsday, Dwyer was writing an “In the Subways” column for the paper, which made him popular.

This post regards Dwyer’s op-ed piece:

 

“The Transcendent Incompetence of the L Train Fiasco”

The New York Times

January 12, 2019

 

 

I have always felt that Dwyer is a very good writer, and this piece demonstrates why. It seems to be true of all good writers — Dwyer is no exception — that they never write a weak or inferior piece.

 

 

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My analysis.

Dwyer starts off with a clever lead which enables him to arouse reader interest, and to say something provocative and original. What the reader would not be anticipating. It’s true in writing as in music: Surprise, taken in the broadest sense of the word, can often show ingenuity and arouse interest. But novelty (an unexpected idea or fact thrown into a piece to startle or amuse the reader) will not necessary work by itself. It depends.

The lead:

In a famous medical study, two doctors traced a chain of errors that brought the wrong patient, a “Mrs. Morris,” to an operating room for an invasive heart procedure that she did not want, did not need and that no one had actually ordered for her.

It turned out that 17 separate mistakes were made before anyone realized that the wrong woman was on the table. Thankfully, Mrs. Morris was not harmed. The doctors said it was an “organizational accident,” meaning that one person could not have done it alone. Sticking tubes into the wrong person’s heart required mess-ups by many people.

One day, Mrs. Morris may be joined in the great case studies of near blunders by New York’s L train fiasco. This one took a team of people, too.

So, Dwyer takes the reader by a commodius vicus of recirculation to the here and now. In January, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the startling announcement that New York City’s L subway line, whose East River tunnel was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, could remain in service while fixes were carried out.”

To New Yorkers like myself who use the L train, this was indeed welcome news, a major development.

Then, Dwyer gives the reader needed context and background: “In April [2019], the line was to stop serving Manhattan for 15 months so the repairs could be made in the river tunnel. Its users had spent two years planning alternative routes and, in some cases, finding new places to live. They are just a fraction of the city’s subway riders, up to 300,000 people a day. But that’s more than the ridership of most mass transit systems in the country.”

He goes on to demonstrate, convincingly, why shutting down the L line for over a year was not necessary. Engineers who have been recently consulted have concluded this.

An important part of a freshman composition course is learning how to make transitions. Many writers, including experienced ones, do this heavy handedly and awkwardly. Dwyer continues:

Which leads us to the next question: [italics added] If the planned new repairs would be as safe and durable without requiring closing the line, why didn’t anyone think of them before? Shouldn’t someone downstream of the governor have thought to bring in outside experts for a fresh look, given the disruptive stakes?”

A seamless transition. Such transitions are most effective when the piece itself is coherent. Where the inner logic and the flow of ideas are apparent and, therefore, easy to follow.

With regard to the next paragraph:

Some people are skeptical about this new plan, in fact, precisely because it was driven by Governor Cuomo. That’s good. Without skepticism, society collapses. But this entire episode illustrates a failure to be skeptical. And it shows us the risks of ignoring what it means to fail, at scale, in a booming city that grows every month. It didn’t have to be the governor asking for a better way. But no one else did.

This paragraph shows one of Dwyer’s key strengths, and illustrates an important principle lost on many academics. Good writing mixes the pithy — fact based, anecdotal writing — with generalities. By generalities, I do not mean vague ones, or truisms. I mean that the writer is always trying to draw out the implications — the inferences — of what he or she is saying. Constantly moving back and forth, so to speak, between providing information to the reader (as well as context) — in the form of facts, anecdotes, data — and teasing out the implications of what they all mean, making sense out of the “facts” (in fictional detective Sergeant Joe Friday’s memorable words). Or, to put it another way, is balancing the factual and informational with explication. Example: Theodore Dreiser grew up in a family where German was often spoken at home. As a writer, he always struggled with the basics of written English. He has often been said to be an awful writer stylistically.

Dwyer goes on the explain the intricate managerial and organizational structure of the subway system, a bureaucratic tangle. He concludes by saying that “The price of all these people being in charge is that no one owns the work.” A sentence which nails the whole point and thrust of the piece down.

He then goes on to say:

In all walks of life — engineering, politics, transportation — there is a fine line between the earned wisdom of experience and the toxic self-regard of a credentialed rut. (That goes for journalism, too. For most of the time the L train shutdown was in the air, I was writing a column in the New York section of The Times. No one stopped me from asking questions. I just didn’t.)

Pedestrian writing? I don’t think so. In the work of a master craftsman, there is much to admire. The first sentence of the above paragraph is a brilliant one. It says so much simply. It gets the reader to think. It suggests a new and propitious way of looking at things. His parenthetical admission that “No one stopped me from asking questions. I just didn’t.” shows humility and self-awareness. By including himself among others (e.g., administrators and politicians) who should have questioned the need for an L train shutdown, he actually strengthens the points he is trying to make.

His concluding paragraph is brilliant:

Mrs. Morris landed on an operating table for a procedure that she didn’t want or need, and that no one had ordered for her. New York City wound up being prepped for a different kind of surgery that it surely did not want or need. This organizational accident took a lot more than 17 errors.

 

 

— Roger W, Smith

   January 13, 2019

J-school students, give heed!

 

 

Yes, I’m a J-school grad. M.A., Journalism, New York University, 1988.

All journalism students are taught, first and foremost, the importance of the LEAD.

Here’s a stupendous one:

Without it, if you are a New Yorker of a certain age, chances are you would have never found your first apartment. Never discovered your favorite punk band, spouted your first post-Structuralist literary jargon, bought that unfortunate futon sofa, discovered Sam Shepard or charted the perfidies of New York’s elected officials. Never made your own hummus or known exactly what the performance artist Karen Finley did with yams that caused such an uproar over at the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Village Voice, the left-leaning independent weekly New York City newspaper, announced on Tuesday that it will end print publication. The exact date of the last print edition has not yet been finalized, according to a spokeswoman.

 

— “After 62 Years and Many Battles, Village Voice Will End Print Publication.” By John Leland and Sarah Maslin Nir, The New York Times, August 22, 2017

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

a nutty op-ed

 

 

I could not help but think of my recent post

 

“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”

“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”

 

when I read an op-ed piece by Gail Collins in today’s New York Times:

 

“Dogs, Saints and Columbus Day”

The New York Times, October 6, 2017

 

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It has taken me a while to realize it — I kind of liked her op-ed pieces at first (while never being that impressed by them or struck by her thoughts) — that Gail Collins is a weak writer. As this piece shows, a very poor writer.

She begins the piece with Christopher Columbus, specifically the statues of him across the country to which protestors object and which some have been desecrating.

After a digression, she writes that Christopher Columbus, whom she is writing about because it will be Columbus Day on Monday, has been “been on a slide for a long time” (an awkward phrase), has been reevaluated as not having achieved such great feats as an explorer as he had been said to and criticized and/or vilified for having perpetrated atrocities on native peoples.

She then gets to her key point, which every op-ed piece must have: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump, who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, since they were both slave owners.”

“This is obviously nuts,” Ms. Collins writes.

It is not “obliviously nuts,” despite the fact that Donald Trump said it.

Is she trying to emulate General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, who in 1944, responding to an ultimatum that he surrender to German forces, replied as follows: “To the German Commander. / NUTS!”?

Such an abrupt, peremptory dismissal by Ms. Collins — which she feels entitled to make in such a fashion because she assumes none of her readers would take anything said by Donald Trump seriously — of a sound point that requires thoughtful rebuttal proves nothing other than Ms. Collins’s weakness as a thinker who cannot go beneath the surface, and her flaws as a writer.

She goes on to say:

Robert E. Lee was perhaps a nice man and a good general. But his point was winning a war that would have divided the United States for the purpose of preserving slavery.

You judge historical figures by their main point [italics added], because if you demanded perfection on the details you’d have nobody left but the actual saints. … The point of George Washington’s career was American independence. Thomas Jefferson’s was the Declaration of Independence. I say that even though I have never been a huge fan of Jefferson, who was possibly the worst male chauvinist in Founding Fatherdom. [Note that she has to make the point about Jefferson being a male chauvinist to satisfy her readers that she is criticism-proof correct politically.]

The point of Christopher Columbus was exploration. Although people knew the world was round, they had no idea how long it might take to get around it. Columbus’s goal was to try to make it to the other side of the planet. He sailed out into the great unknown and brought back word of his discoveries.

And so on.

This is very weak thinking.

 

 

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Since when was it decided that one should “judge historical figures by their main point”? What does this mean, either as a guiding principle or in practice? How would it work? Since when do individual persons — historical figures, leaders in the present, and everyday people — amount to a POINT. A controlling idea? Since when could they be summed up that way, given the actual complexity of human personality, human motivations, and human actions?

What was Lyndon Johnson’s “main point”? (The Great Society or the Vietnam War?) Or Richard Nixon’s “main point”? What was George W. Bush’s?

What was JFK’s main point? The New Frontier? What was that anyway? It’s awfully vague.

This is simplistic, fuzzy thinking of the worst sort. It’s an attempt at dissimulation by which the “good guys” in history can be gotten off the hook for doing “bad” things such as racism or owning slaves, while the “bad guys” are still held accountable.

 

 

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A final thought. Ms. Collins says: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump [italics added], who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. …”

This is totally inaccurate, and I find it hard to fathom how she could be so misinformed as to make such a claim. The controversy over historical monuments dedicated to and buildings named after Confederate heroes, slaveholders, and other historical figures considered racist has been going on since long before President Trump’s statements about the Charlottesville violence, which were made in August of this year.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 7, 2017

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I am working on a new blog about writing examined from all angles. I have found that, in trying to ascertain what the elements or good writing are, it helps to occasionally look at bad writing. Ms. Collins’s article is an example of bad writing that is founded on a weak premise and is jerry-built. This kind of writing seems to be the product of a writer wanting to have something to say and be clever, but writing hastily or flippantly without serious reflection or doing any preparation.