“(Theodore) Dreiser in some ways, some of the time, is one of the worst writers who ever lived. An American Tragedy, for instance, is an endless book with terrible sentences like ‘He found her extremely intellectually interesting.’”
-John Gardner, quoted in The Writer’s Chapbook, ed. George Plimpton
For all the times John Gardner’s acerbic proto-snark bothered me in college, it was nice to have some validation that I was not out of my mind when I found Theodore Dreiser’s writing to be horrible.
I clawed through An American Tragedy in an elective 20th Century American Lit course in my final semester, mind fully blown that such a poor stylist was still required reading. I looked quickly through Sister Carrie and found the same shit. He wasn’t funny! He wasn’t clever! Reading his clodhopper sentences felt nauseously like riding in the backseat with a student driver at the wheel.
Nothing like cruising through say, The Great Gatsby in the same class.
Hey, let’s see what John Gardner has to say about that!
“Fitzgerald is a good example–a fine stylist. But he never quite got to the heart of things.”
I’m not going to touch the substance of this, the thing about the heart of things, but those are some fighting words. Granted, Gardner was the dean of haters in American letters so on some level it’s just part of his schtick to be such a bastard. Like those restaurants where they’re famous for being mean to patrons–which, like Gardner, are trading more on the attitude than the quality of what they’re serving.
Anyway, I appreciate this for drawing the line between content and style in any writing, especially having eventually seen that I was not “getting” Dreiser at the time, not seeing that he was saying important and true things. (I think Fitzgerald was too, but whatever). And this ends up being Gardner’s point:
”What (Dreiser) does morally, that is to say what he does in terms of analysis of character and honest statement about the way the world is, is very good.”
So I’m only mentioning this here because this content/style tension is in all kinds of writing. You can always have one without the other. Ideally you get both but if you have to pick one you pick content. Otherwise the writer has had a little fun, but ultimately has wasted everyone’s time.
December 18, 2012 Leave a comment
“5.31 It is fairly common in English for nouns to pass into use as verbs; it always has been.”
-The Chicago Manual of Style
Maybe, but it’s also fairly annoying. This occurs to me as the holidays loom and I resolve that if anyone “gifts” me anything next month I’m going to spit eggnog in their face.
In fairness, it’s subjective which noun-to-verb functional variations work and which don’t. Yes, I Google and friend like any red-blooded American who wastes too much time online, and I don’t think twice about handing you the rake so you can rake the toilet paper those little punks rolled our house with.
A good article in More Intelligent Life presents this fun factoid:
“Some lovers of the language deplore the whole business of verbing (Benjamin Franklin called it “awkward and abominable” in a letter to Noah Webster, the lexicographer, in 1789). . .”
If he wasn’t a fan of this sort of manipulation, I wonder how the elder statesman would have reacted to Philadelphia’s “Benergy” fiasco. I digress…
What do you think separates a good noun-verb functional variation from a ridiculous one?
November 16, 2012 Leave a comment
“Alexi Halavazis, 25, also of Herndon, Va., cast his first presidential vote for Obama. He said the reason was Obama’s health care law, which allows him to be covered by his parents’ medical coverage. With ‘Obamacare. I can stay on my parents plant (sic), at least for another year, and it helps my parents because of the pre-existing conditions’ requirement that they cannot be denied health care, Halavazis said.’”
Isn’t it weird how that quotation from Alexi Halavazis beginning “Obamacare” is presented up there? I’m not implying anything was taken out of context or otherwise fudged by the reporters (two names are in the article’s byline), but what an awkward way of making it flow with the rest of the narrative.
I presume the reporters asked Mr. Halavazis some version of “Why did you vote for Obama?” and his response was “Obamacare. I can stay…”. But then , by summarizing the quote before actually presenting it, they put themselves in the situation of needing to make the quote a prepositional phrase.
Is there a better-written alternative to what ended up getting published? These come to mind:
- Ditch the summary of the quote, and just put the quote up top. “…vote for Obama, because of ‘Obamacare. I can stay…” This may not be best practices from a journalistic standpoint, and the reporters certainly know more than I do about that sort of thing.
- Place “With” inside the quotation mark. Probably not ethical.
- Make the period after “Obamacare” a comma. Also maybe not so ethical, though in speech, can’t commas sound like periods sometimes? How full was the stop in his voice after he said “Obamacare.”
Anyway, it’s a quickie article on the biggest content-barrage evening in America. Let’s enjoy our election night parties and not split too many hairs.
On the other hand, gotta love their typo about staying on his “parent’s plant”.
November 6, 2012 Leave a comment
“The rest of the officers fled toward the two exits in panic and jammed up the doorways like a dense, howling dam of human flesh as they shrank from going farther. . . Tents and trees were in flames, and Milo’s planes kept coming around interminably with their blinking white landing lights on and their bomb bay doors open.” -Catch-22
With Obama and Romney preparing to storm each other’s beaches at tonight’s foreign policy debate, I find myself reconsidering Milo Minderbinder, the war profiteer par excellence in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Milo is either a repulsive, treasonous f-wad who murders his fellow American soldiers, or a business and PR genius who has winning in his blood.
And I find myself wondering: Who are the Milos of 2012, and, since neither candidate is much of a dove, who are they voting for?
And eventually I find myself not caring because this isn’t a post about politics, it’s a post about writing.
“Charles Ruas: The first time you mention Milo bombing the squadron it comes as such a shock, and then you move on.
Joseph Heller: If I were going to do that with a straight narrative form, it would not be believable.” -Conversations With American Writers
There’s a really huge block quote right before this where Heller discusses how he prefers to reveal that a huge or shocking event happened, and only much later describe it actually happening. (As opposed to the “straight narrative form” where everything is chronological.) This technique sneaks credibility into what might have otherwise been incredible–it’s already somewhere in our consciousness when we get to the gory details, so in our minds it’s already “happened”.
This is an essential tool in the belt of someone like Joseph Heller, the maestro of wacky situations that may be implausible but tell us everything about everything.
And I think it’s a good one for all writers to get comfortable with, especially those of us who write to sell or otherwise convince the reader. Get the big claim or promise up front, and don’t be in too much of a hurry to break it down to its elements. By the end break it down thoroughly–describe each bomb falling, each tree flying out of the ground, each corpse burning, but don’t show your hand too soon. Your audience might just run away.
I’d be heartened if Mitt and Barack read this post as they get ready to brawl in a couple of hours, so they can land their blows on Benghazi, bankruptcy, and binders with maximum impact.
October 22, 2012 Leave a comment
I just moved into a new apartment, and the previous tenant must hate moving as much as I do–because he left behind a 75′”x 37.5″ solid wood table. I guess it was intended to be a food-supporter, but it’s my desk now.
It’s such a huge desk! My sense of executivity is already severely overinflated.
Executivity is not a word, and in an effort to stop writing words that aren’t real or using tildes where I should use carets or letting sentences run on, I’ve placed a few stacks of books about writing on one of the desk’s sprawling corners. Here are a half-dozen that I pick up at least once a week when I catch myself staring out the window:
- Getting Started As A Freelance Writer by Robert W. Bly – Bob Bly is a legend in the copywriting game, and he is very forthcoming with good advice about getting gigs, maximizing productivity, and overcoming doubts. His credibility is untouchable. Some of the parts about internet writing barely clear the generation gap (e.g. calling a website a “dot.com”), but that doesn’t make GSAFW any less of an essential text.
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser - I’ve cited Zinsser on this blog more than once, and sure as Hellman’s will continue to. OWW is like the “Principles of Composition” section of The Elements of Style blown up into an entire book. What I like so much about it is that, whether teaching sportswriting or how to commune with your audience, he keeps coming back to crystal-clear descriptions of the turmoil in your head as you write and how to beat it. A bonus is the great 1970′s vibe of the whole thing–you can just hear his Smith-Corona clacking as your eyes scan the pages.
- Fowler’s Modern English Usage - It’s not fjord, it’s fiord, OK? Deliciously, brutally British, only Fowler’s would tell you that a sjambok is “(In S. Africa) a rhinoceros-hide whip.” Imperialist bastards. I’m being a little glib here, maybe even unfair, because it is also extremely practical and as definitive as definitive gets on any questions of usage.
- The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates - Not a go-to for tips on killer sales copy or negotiating freelance rates like a salivating tiger, but probably even more valuable for anyone trying to see the big–big–picture of the writing life. Lines as willowy and sylphlike as their author trace the most essential truths about reading, developing a narrative and self-criticism. If only Mike Tyson wrote the foreword.
- Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik - Crass as it may be to brand a book with a potshot at Strunk & White–who will never be effectively discredited–Arthur Plotnik has contributed something substantially helpful to the discussion. Absolutely loaded with content, Spunk & Bite breaks down what exactly makes a great, punchy sentence great and punchy, and does it in a way that makes the technique repeatable. That’s good teaching where I come from. And for an older dude, he’s impressively not hilarious when using modern slang and idioms.
- Personal Finance for Dummies by Eric Tyson – Because if writers were naturally good with money, we’d have listened to our parents and become bankers.
October 16, 2012 2 Comments
Having determined that dangling modifiers make the writer look like a chump, Layman’s Terms will avoid them from now on.
Wait, wait… Layman’s Terms didn’t determine anything. I did! For myself, at least. You probably knew it already. But it’s another rule of usage that was never on any test I took.
The worst ones sure do look bad. Bill Bryson uses “Handing me my whisky, his face broke into an awkward smile” as the poster pimple illustrating this syntactical blemish. It’s a funny one–the face hands the whisky.
But it’s not often that a truly egregious dangling modifier like it finds its way into print. I think our brains come standard with a low threshold for such jumbling.
Avoiding the passive voice is one way of staying out of trouble. Purdue University’s helpful online grammar site gives several examples of dangling modifiers, almost all of which flop because of passive voice in the main clause.
Here’s my modest proposal: Just don’t begin any sentences with modifying clauses. You’ll never get a dangler. And even when the modifier is clear about what it modifies, it usually sounds bad.
How many terrible bio blurbs begin with something like “A passionate world traveler, gourmande and djembe beater, Petunia Zickafoose is a polymath without equal…”? No laws are broken here, but it sets my AMATEUR! alarm blaring.
Put the main thing first, then tell more about it.
October 13, 2012 5 Comments
So a headline is there to grab the reader by the earlobes and leave him no choice but to read the sub-headline, which is there to grab him by the eyelids and leave him no choice but to read the first sentence, and so forth.
The AdWords revenue just gushes forth from there, right?
Even if no one literally says that’s how it works, there is no shortage of do-or-die advice about the need to grab attention right away in a blog post or any other type of article.
And it’s all correct–attention spans are growing scarcer than fossil fuels as the internet continues to have its way with our brains, and the headline is the shiny, spinning lure that is the writer’s only chance of getting fish to bite.
But I have some reservations about how this wisdom is applied. At what point does being provocative and attention-getting cross the line into poor taste or even dishonesty? OMG Cat isn’t so cute after all? Pringles cause cancer? Defibrillators might not work?
Maybe a line can be drawn by saying you have to be able to back up your shocking truth, but nowadays you can back up any claim and find (or become) an expert in no time. In the context of a blog post, what are the odds you’re really going to be fact-checked?
Hyperbole is OK, but integrity is really cool.
October 10, 2012 Leave a comment