Tag Archives: Roger Smith

descriptive details

 

 

Broyles

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 2019; updated October 2019

 

 

 

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

“I like it the way it is.”

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Call Me ‘They’ – NY Times 7-10-2019

 

 

 

This post concerns the following op-ed in yesterday’s Times:

 

Call Me ‘They’

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

By Farhad Manjoo

The New York Times

July 10, 2019

 

 

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The Spanish have el mano and the French la fenêtre.

 

Should we ban these “gendered” articles and insist they be replaced with new ones invented in the “language laboratory” / “incubator” staffed by technocrats in lab coats?

 

Our glorious English tongue has been around for some 1,200 years.

 

I like it the way it is.

 

 

 

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SOME SPECIFIC COMMENTS ON THIS ATROCIOUS OPINION PIECE (Quotations from the op-ed are in italics. My comments are in boldface.)

 

 

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

 

‘[T]he stifling prison of gender expectations.” Is this an op-ed about children in cages? I thought we were talking about grammar.

 

 

 

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad.

 

What the f____ is “cisgender”? It’s a buzzword I can do without.

 

 

… most people guess that I go by “he” and “him.” And that’s fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

How about moving to Laputa? You would fit right in there. Maybe you could secure a language policy making post there. … Oops, have you heard of Laputa? Did you ever read Jonathan Swift? Why do I doubt it?

 

 

So why does standard English impose a gender requirement on the third-person singular? And why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef: When I refer to an individual whose gender I don’t know here in The Times, why do I usually have to choose either “he” or “she” or, in the clunkiest phrase ever cooked up by small-minded grammarians, “he or she”?

 

No requirement is imposed. This writer is out of his (“gendered” possessive pronoun) depth. The language evolved that way. The writer probably prefers genetically engineered foods and hothouse plans. Has he ever stopped to admire a dandelion or oak tree?

 

 

… why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering?

 

Before opining any further on this topic, about which you are ignorant, I suggest you take a couple of English courses, grammar and lit; and a course in a foreign language would be very helpful too. This might enable you to begin to grasp and maybe even appreciate the beauty of languages, both grammar and structure, their uniqueness, distinctive features, how precious this is, as a flower to botanist or layperson. Read a Great Book or two. (Please don’t advocate “scrubbing” them.) It won’t hurt. You will see that the King’s English — now spoken all over the world — has a glorious history and the magnificence of a mighty oak.

 

 

I suspect my call will be dismissed as useless virtue-signaling, but there are several clear advantages, both linguistic and cultural, to the singular “they.” One of the main ones is that it’s ubiquitous. According to linguists who study gender and pronouns, “they” and “them” are increasingly and widely seen as legitimate ways to refer to an individual, both generically and specifically, whether you know their gender or not — as I just did right in this sentence.

Your “call”? As in a ministerial calling? Why do I get the impression that you — a would be word maven and “word watcher” (read language policeman) — have no facility in (as in infelicitous phrase) or reverence for correct usage?

 

 

That’s probably why the singular, gender-neutral “they” is common not just in transgender and nonbinary communities, for whom it is necessary, but also in mainstream usage, where it is rapidly becoming a standard way we refer to all people. If you watch closely, you’ll see the usage in marketing copy, on social media, in app interfaces and just about everywhere else you look. For instance, when Uber or Lyft wants to tell you that your driver has arrived, they send you a notification that says something like: “Juan is almost here. Meet them outside.”

Whom should we entrust with setting language standards? Uber execs, advertisers? Heaven help us.

 

 

Other than plainly intolerant people, there’s only one group that harbors doubts about the singular “they”: grammarians. If you’re one of those people David Foster Wallace called a “snoot,” Lyft’s use of “them” to refer to one specific Juan rings grammatically icky to you. The singular, gender nonspecific “they” has been common in English as long as people have spoken English, but since the 18th century, grammar stylists have discouraged it on the grounds that “they” has to be plural. That’s why institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it.

 

“They” is plural! you idiot.

 

 

 

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Basta. (That’s Spanish for enough.)

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 11, 2019

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

 

 

 

‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic

 

 

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

 

 

The Dominance of the White Male Critic

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

By Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang

The New York Times

July 5, 2019

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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

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

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

Awkward and wordy.

“the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated”

Poor, imprecise, fuzzy wording. Also, pretentious.

 

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

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

 


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

Very pretentious.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 7, 2019

writing with the head and the heart

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Stop the Knee-Jerk Liberalism That Hurts Its Own Cause

We liberals need to watch our blind spots.

By Nicholas Kristof

op-ed

The New York Times

June 29, 2019

 

 

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

Nicholas Kristof writes with his heart first and head second.

Sydney Schanberg did the same thing.

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

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

 

 

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Kristof/Schanberg:

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

 

An essayist such as myself:

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 29, 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

 

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

 

Jan Brady:

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

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

 

Roger Smith:

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

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

writing to spec

 

 

 

rogers-tribute-to-piere-coustilas

 

Pierre Coustillas tribute

 
Here’s a good example of writing to spec:

 

Roger W. Smith, “Tribute to Pierre Coustillas,” Supplement to The Gissing Journal, Volume LIL, Number 4, October 2018 (see PDF and Word document, above)

 

The editor of The Gissing Journal, in which this commemorative piece by me appeared, stipulated a maximum of 800 words. My piece is 796 words long.

 

Within this tight limit, I was able to:

 

— sufficiently cover (within the scope of the piece) my subject, the late Gissing scholar Pierre Coustillas and his contributions to Gissing scholarship

— provide specific, illustrative detail to make and support my general points

— maintain an authorial “voice”: The piece sounds like it was written by someone (rather than a canned eulogy), an individual with an enthusiasm for Gissing and an appreciation of Coustillas, based upon actual experience as a reader

— work into the piece, within the confines of the allotted length, a lot of detail: quotations and nuggets from Coustillas’s writings, relevant publication history of Gissing novels and works on Gissing published by Coustillas, the circumstances under which I became familiar with Gissing and his writings, and so on; and at the same time, manage to convey one scholar’s take on Coustillas as a scholar/writer

 

The piece reads well and has a sort of inner momentum. It is not a summary. It is a statement, with a unique slant yet written to satisfy the requirements as a commemorative tribute, fulfilling the editor’s requirements and mindful of the journal’s readership: Gissing scholars and enthusiasts. The tone is not dry or overly formal, but, at the same time, it is respectful. Meaning that I was mindful of the publication I was writing for and the circumstances of publication as well as the audience.

 

 

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It’s hard for me to articulate this, but a further thing that has occurred to me is that a mark of mastery in writing and in other fields — it could be music, say, or even something like sports — is that the “performer,” the writer, composer, or (as I have said) perhaps an athlete or some other performer — is in complete control. Once this has been archived — once there is such control over one’s subject matter (in the case of a writer), over the content, etc. — the writer/performer can put an individual stamp on one’s “production,” has freedom to do so.

Once I know, for example, that I am in control of a piece of writing such as this one — that it conforms to the editor’s expectations and the publication’s requirements (e.g., length, an all-important requirement for any writer to consider — is it going to be a 500 or 600 word op-ed or a 2,000-word magazine article?) and that the tone was right; that I have done my homework and provided sufficient, accurate information — then I can add pithy comments and pick and choose among details and quotes, to make the piece interesting and unique. The great composers do this. They have to master a form; the challenges are immense. Within, say, a form or musical style, there is great opportunity for a composer to put his stamp on the music. We marvel at the brilliance and mastery. At the same time, the composer communicates with the listener in an imitable style.

I am not saying that I wrote a brilliant piece. But, what I have noticed — in the works of professionals who have mastered their craft — is that you can observe complete control over the material no matter what they are writing, which does not mean that all individuality or a voice has been stamped out in producing a piece written to spec. For an example of what I am talking about, see my post

 

a superb craftsman (Jim Dwyer)

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/13/a-superb-craftsman-jim-dwyer/

 
— Roger W. Smith

   June 2019

 

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Pierre Coustillas (1930-2018), a professor of English at the University of Lille, was the world’s foremost authority on the works of the late-Victorian novelist George Gissing.

Roger’s rhetoric – introducing my new site

 

 

introducing my new site

 

Roger’s rhetoric

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/
On this site, there are many posts about writing per se: My observations re same; my education and training as a writer; the principles of good writing (including criticisms of my own writing that have made by less experienced writers, and how I have responded; and what I see as shortcomings of some common advice given to beginning writers); good vs. bad writing; political correctness and language policing of writing; what can be learned from the great writers I have read (and continue to read); some critical comments of mine  (both favorable and unfavorable) on the work of journalists; and fine points of grammar and style applicable to writing in general.

There is enough material here, I feel, for a book on writing, perhaps titled “Proverbs from Roger’s Writing Lair,” and Other Essays on the Craft of Writing. See my post

 

proverbs from Roger’s writing lair (with a nod to Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”)

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/10/proverbs-from-rogers-writing-lair-with-a-nod-to-blakes-proverbs-of-hell/

 

which I think is one of the best to do and not to do lists of its kind.

 

 

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My posts come at the principles and mechanics of writing, and issues of style, from many different vantage points, and drawing upon my actual experience as a writer. In contrast to the usual freshman composition texts and writers’ guides with a lot of anodyne, boiler plate advice organized in outline fashion, with a cookbook like feel, often overly general as a result of the author’s objective of covering every question a novice writer might have.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  reposted on June 18, 2019

 

one doesn’t write in a vacuum

 

 

 

comment posted by Pete Smith

July 8, 2018

in response to my post

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

 

Stop the self-serving blathering.

Despite your recent posts bemoaning the Trump administrations horrific treatment of immigrant families, you forget your posting in support of Trump after the Billy Bush tape, pretending that this was just “locker room talk” (Trump’s own characterization) and thus joining the legions of racist misogynist xenophobic supporters who chose to look the other way at this horrible idiot and, incredibly, helped get him elected.

Your relatives are not two-faced liberals who pretend compassion but live for only themselves. We and our spouses have given more than you will ever know (because you don’t ask or care) and far far more than you have given to support the underprivileged, both through personal service and financial support. Your hateful screeds denying this are an insult to your family and an embarrassment to yourself.

Stop reposting this garbage.

 

 

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One doesn’t write in a vacuum. Ex nihilo.

You have to have something to start with. To leverage off of. Drawing upon one’s own experience. Something you are reacting to. Which you heard or experienced. Something from your own, lived experience.

Which perhaps — or definitely — got you thinking about something.

For example:

A relative, commenting upon frequent messages of mine about migrant children being cruelly separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, seemed to be implying that I was getting too worked up over the issue (which reminded me of what most “reputable” people used to think and say about abolitionists prior to the Civil War). Which led to the outpouring of vituperation (responding to a post of mine on the topic) from the relative quoted above.

A relative asking me why do I keep posting photos of myself on my City walks on Facebook, and publicly stating that it was a case of vanity.

Close relatives telling me that I am obsessed with being praised for my writing and too proud of it.

 

 

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The following are posts of mine which resulted from me considering such topics after something brought them to mind. The posts led to snide and harsh criticisms, both on line and in emails, from relatives of mine:

 

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?
“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

on photography (MINE; an exchange of emails, with apologies to Susan Sontag)
on photography (MINE; an exchange of emails, with apologies to Susan Sontag)

 

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?
https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/02/08/in-which-the-question-is-taken-up-when-is-the-desire-to-be-admired-not-abnormal/

 

 

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To repeat. The writer has to have something to start with, to leverage off of. It’s usually something you disagree with or want to clarify and, in so doing, make your point of view stand out. Otherwise, we would only have generic, unfocused, anodyne writing — inoffensive, but dull and not worth reading:

My Summer Vacation

How I Am Enjoying My Retirement Years

Why I Am a Liberal

 

 

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The self-appointed censors in my family would be happy with prior restraint. They wish to be designated “minders” who can control what I write about and am permitted to say, making sure I step on no toes and that no one is ever offended. They want a sort of closed circuit Orwellian publication channel or venue in which thought control and censorship can be imposed, if deemed necessary, by them.

 

 

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Think of the writers — many examples come to mind — such as James T. Farrell in his trilogy Studs Lonigan; Theodore Dreiser in his early novels and his autobiographical work Dawn; Tolstoy in his novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” who were drawing upon their own experience in their families or among boyhood friends (in the case of Farrell) as a source of content and as grist for the writer’s mill. By their doing so, their works gained verisimilitude. The philistines are incapable of recognizing or appreciating this.

Inventing characters out of whole cloth or opining about hypothetical situations usually does not lead to good writing. A writer leverages off his or her own unique experiences.

 

 

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A final thought: Beware of people who want to beat you with a cudgel by bringing in some public figure such as Richard Nixon or Donald Trump whom they loathe and somehow, incongruously, trying to place you or your views in the same “camp.” It’s usually a case of psychological projection.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 2019