Please see my new post:
“I am my own best editor and critic.”
on my rogers-rhetoric site, at
I am my own best editor and critic.
It is of general and biographical interest, along with the focus on writing.
— Roger W. Smith
Please see my new post:
“I am my own best editor and critic.”
on my rogers-rhetoric site, at
I am my own best editor and critic.
It is of general and biographical interest, along with the focus on writing.
— Roger W. Smith
Downloadable Word document of this post is above.
In this post, I would like to consider and respond to criticisms of my writing which have been made by readers of this blog from time to time. In responding, I have used my own writing and writing of acknowledged masters as a basis for drawing conclusions about matters such as verbosity, big words versus little ones, simplicity versus complexity in style, supposed pomposity, when one is entitled to have an opinion, and so on. By explaining what I feel are legitimate reasons for writing the way I do, I hope to be able to shed some light on the writing process.
You have stated, “concision is a desideratum in writing.” Sounds pompous. Using “desideratum” is not as clear as saying “concision is essential to good writing.”
I stated, responding to one my critics, “Concision is a desideratum in writing.” The critic pounced on this. He said it sounded pompous and that it would have been clearer if I had said, “Concision is essential to good writing.”
English happens to have lots of fancy Latinate words. There is nothing wrong with using them when appropriate. Connotation as well as tone is important here. Desideratum and essential mean essentially the same thing, but they are not exact equivalents. The connotation I was striving for was embodied by the choice of a word meaning something that a writer seeks to achieve, a sort of authorial ideal.
Saying that concision is essential would not convey my meaning as well, since I happen to feel that while concision usually is desirable, it is not always essential. This point has been made by composition theorists such as Brooks Landon, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, who has stated, in a series of lectures for the Great Courses series, that “in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.” In view of this, I am wary of saying, as a general proposition, that concision is essential to, is a sine qua non of, good writing.
Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. My critic, in his eagerness to “lay down the law” in Strunk and White fashion, did not perceive that there may have been a good reason for my using the “fancy” word desideratum.
In a novel by Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, the term “a porcine martyr” is used to describe a drowned pig. A barely educated woman character has been eagerly telling a story in which a pig which her husband was trying to get out of its pen was swept away by a deluge and drowned. Alcott’s use of the fancy phase is humorous — ironic; her wry authorial voice contrasts with the speaker’s raw narrative tone. The irony is clever and appropriate.
Sometimes, your writing appears to be pompous and self centered. The pomposity comes through in the frequent use of highfalutin outmoded phrases, such as “as it were” (usually adding no apparent value to whatever you are saying); or “may I interject a comment here?” (as if the reader were in a conversation with you).
The critic objected to my writing, in one of my posts, “may I interject a comment here?” He felt as if I were guilty of being supercilious. What the critic fails to appreciate is that I want the reader to get the feeling that we are having a conversation.
A conversational tone and the use of “highfalutin outmoded phrases” do not necessarily amount to pomposity. And, a conversational tone is often (depending upon context) desirable.
The critic thinks that by affecting to directly address the reader I am guilty of pomposity or conceit. It is conceit of a sort, a rhetorical conceit — or, more precisely, a rhetorical device.
The best writers often adopt a conversational tone. This is to be desired and is not an indication of affectation or pomposity.
Consider the following complex sentence of mine, from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.
Note the deliberately conversational tone.
Similarly, in my post “I am not the center of the universe,” I address the reader directly, in the second person, as follows:
Did you ever have an experience in the course of life, at a particular moment on a particular day — something seemingly inconsequential — that permanently altered your fundamental outlook on life?
The intent is to draw the reader in, to suggest that perhaps the reader may have had a similar experience, which would help or encourage him or her to “get” the piece.
One has the feeling, with the best writers, that you, the reader, are being privileged by having a conversation with the writer, or, to put it another way, that the writer is conversing with you, his or her interlocutor. There is no off-putting pretense or stuffiness. And, the writing seems to flow naturally the same way a good conversationalist or raconteur can keep his or her listener riveted. It is not surprising that the best writers have often been good conversationalists and, plain and simple, good communicators. “Good writing invites interaction,” in the words of Professor Dorsey Armstrong in her series of lectures “Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything” for The Great Courses.
I want the reader to be able to feel that he can share and follow my thoughts and thinking. So, when I say “may I interject a comment here?” or “did you ever have such an experience?” I am inviting the reader in, so to speak, drawing him or her in, as Walt Whitman did when he would write, for example, in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (addressing the reader in the second person), “Closer yet I approach you.”
And, in his great poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman says:
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.
Again using the second person and increasing the power and impact of the poem and its message by addressing the reader directly, as if it would have been possible for the reader to share the experience with him. He invites readers, current and future, to join him, figuratively, using a rhetorical conceit by which he fuses his personality and enthusiasm with an imagined reader’s.
Talking to your audience is not equivalent to talking down to them.
The following is an example of Charles Dickens addressing the reader directly in a fashion which suggests that he and the reader are having an actual exchange:
It was on a fine Sunday morning in the Midsummer time and weather of eighteen hundred and forty-four, my good friend, when—don’t be alarmed; not when two travellers might have been observed slowly making their way over that picturesque and broken ground by which the first chapter of a ‘Middle Aged’ novel [by which reference Dickens meant to evoke the typical opening of a historical novel in the manner of one by Sir Walter Scott, in which the narrator/observer would be seen viewing things from a distant vantage point with respect to space and time] is usually attained; but when an English travelling-carriage of considerable proportions, fresh from the shady halls of the Pantechnicon near Belgrave-square, London, was observed (by a very small French soldier; for I saw him look at it) to issue from the gate of the Hotel Meurice in the Rue Rivoli at Paris [by which assertions Dickens styles himself as a narrator observing things, as a journalist would be, at close range]. — Charles Dickens, The Daily News (London), January 21, 1844
If Dickens can do it, why can’t I?
Here is an example from the opening paragraph of George Gissing’s novel Workers in the Dawn:
Walk with me, oh reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week in which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this ‘Truce of God;’ our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.
Note how Gissing deliberately, at the very beginning, adopts a conversational tone, addresses the reader directly, which works and draws the reader in.
“By Jove” is an archaic word no other writer has used in a hundred years. You used it in the USA is the greatest country piece. The word “indeed” would have sufficed.
I used the expression “by Jove” in my post “the greatest country in the world.” The critic suggests the use of a more common word/expression and implies that I am putting on airs.
The word “indeed” could have sufficed, along with many other choices. The critic missed the point that words are used in context and must be taken that way. “By Jove” was used playfully by me for effect, not pompously. If you read the blog, you can see that I was almost making fun of myself, the jejune fellow with a new idea striking like a thunderbolt. In this context, “By Jove” is actually a better choice than the more neutral word indeed.
This is consistent with thoughts about writing that the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham expresses in his Style: An Anti-Textbook:
American pragmatism insists that words are for use, not enjoyment. … Surely we ought to move in the opposite direction from such moral earnestness, stressing not words as duty but words as play. …. “Speech in its essence,” Kenneth Burke tells us, “is not neutral”; it is full of feeling, attitude, emotion. Drain this out in the name of useful unmistakability and you end up with composition class prose, a dismal grayness.
Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in the Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.
To the critic’s “Why not,” I would reply: Why?
Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. The use of arcane or highfalutin words is not necessarily a sin.
Big words and archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided. It depends on the context. An example would be my use of autochthonous to describe Theodore Dreiser as a writer in my post “On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.” It’s the perfect word. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able when appropriate to use such words.
Words are not equivalent and cannot be substituted, as is the case with substitution in an equation, as the critic seems to think. This was made clear by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, a language, Newspeak, is invented that is intended to replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with ungood and, “if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ [the character Syme tells Winston Smith] what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still.”
Similarly, consider a phrase from the New Testament (Matthew 7), as translated in The New English Bible: “do not throw your pearls to the pigs.” Do you think this is an improvement on The King James Version: “neither cast ye your pearls before swine”? I don’t. Yes, pigs and swine mean the same thing, and pigs is the commonly used word nowadays. But, the antiquated word sounds better, whereas the commonly used one makes the passage sound flat to the ear, if not idiotic, as if a rapper were saying it.
What my critic does not fully understand is that words are not only fun to use; they have an extra-literal dimension. It is not as if your journeyman writer is a sort of processor of words working on an assembly line, with the words being components or parts lined up on a “vocabulary conveyor belt” from which one selects words needed and slots them into the constituent piece (e.g., a sentence) in assembling the writer’s end product, a piece of prose. With the choice of words being dictated by some theoretical framework, so that the one chosen must be not only the closest fit conceptually but the most readily available. So that the writer selects the common word original because it is in the inventory, but is not allowed to deviate from “production constraints” and choose a less common word such as autochthonous.
The reality with the best writers, as they actually write, is that it is not a case of interchangeable parts. The writer should actually enjoy and exercise great freedom in choosing words. My ear told me that autochthonous was the right word. It is the one that came to me, and it fit perfectly.
Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in one of your emails. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?
What I said, in response to a critic’s remarks about supposed pomposity in my writing, was that I promised henceforth to write “sans pedantry.” The French word sans (without) was used playfully by me. Using another word than the usual one unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep him or her awake, and sometimes help to emphasize or make a point. The critic was tone deaf and completely missed the irony.
Note that great writers sometimes use foreign words for no apparent reason. For example, there is a famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene 7), where Shakespeare describes old age, the final stage of life, as “second childishness, and mere oblivion,— / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It has been said that Shakespeare himself wasn’t perfect. Was he guilty of showing off when he used sans?
Walt Whitman used foreign words for novelty and effect. For example, in the line “Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs [French for sidewalks; italics added]!” in his poem “Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun.” And, in “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote: “no dainty dolce affetuoso I,” using Italian terms. Should he be accused of affectation? After all, he could have said: “I am not an effete snob.”
As James Perrin Warren points out in his book Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment, Whitman in his poems used the following foreign borrowings: kosmos, debouch, Americanos, Libertad, programme, philosoph, finale, evangel-poem, en-masse, omnes, camerado, ma femme, ensemble, adobie, sierras, dolce affettuoso, vistas, and arriere.
And in Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road,” we find the line: Allons! whoever you are come travel with me! [italics added].
Here’s an example of me doing the same thing in one of my posts, “writers: walkers”: “I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.” And then said, “Por favor, read on!” I used the Spanish por favor (meaning please, or kindly) for no special reason other than variety. And, perhaps, to stimulate the reader, to wake him or her up!
Your writing is laden with filler phrases such as “so to speak,” “say,” “as it were,” etc.
Qualifiers are not necessarily bad. They actually, quite often, serve a purpose, syntactically speaking.
As it were is neither pompous nor superfluous. It is a qualifier that conveys the idea that an assertion should be taken in a certain sense — not exactly or precisely — as, for example, in the clause they discussed areas that had been, as it were, pushed aside in previous discussions.
As it were means in a way, or in a certain sense, but not literally. It is used by a writer who wants to be less precise. (So to speak is an equivalent phrase which I also often use.) A writer uses as it were to make what is being stated less definite, to avoid absurdities in meaning if the statement were taken literally. An example would be the following statement by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”
As it were is not a highfalutin, outmoded, or superfluous phrase.
Here are a few more examples of acknowledged masters using as it were:
“… I confess I once or twice fancied that I caught glimpses of bliss round the corner, as it were; but, before I could decide, the glimpses vanished, and I was very sure I was conceited coxcomb to think it for a moment.” — Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience
“The things he invented were as real to [Balzac] as the things he knew, and his actual experience is overlaid with a thousand thicknesses, as it were, of imaginary experience.” — Henry James, “Honoré de Balzac,” in The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction
“In general, one’s memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them. … But it can also happen that one’s memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others.” — George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys …”
“The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages.” — Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942
And, in a book review of mine, published in The New York Sun, I wrote: “In true Johnsonian spirit, [the author] has mined every conceivable scrap of information about [the subject of his biography], bringing him as it were back to life.” Should my editor have blue-penciled “as it were”?
So to speak is another qualifier that I often use which the critics of my writing object to, finding it to be another filler phrase that amounts to padding. An example would be my post “I am not the center of the universe,” in which I wrote: “One should not assume that people one meets in public, so to speak, are that interested in or focused upon you.”
The same observations apply here.
Similarly, in a blog post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?” I used the often overused filler phrase the fact that:
I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen.
The fact that seems to work here, notwithstanding the fact that (!) Strunk and White and my high school English teacher would not have hesitated to edit it out. It acts as a sort of “divider.” Sometimes the writer and reader need to be able to pause and “catch their breath.”
My guess is that a high school English teacher would do a good bit of editing on some of your longer posts. Some of your posts could be shortened without losing context or texture or meaning.
I would tend to respond to this comment by saying: Shrinkage may or may not be desirable. It depends.
In his series of lectures for the Great Courses, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Professor Brooks Landon says:
Unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.
Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” [italics added] … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].” …
[S]imple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense. …
Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … [I]n many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.
There is a pleasure, as the critic Kenneth Burke notes in his book on rhetoric Counter-Statement, in writing which “in all its smallest details … bristles with disclosures, contrasts, restatements with a difference, ellipses, images, aphorism, volume, sound-values, in short all that complex wealth of minutiae which in their line-for-line aspect we call style and in their broader outlines we call form.” What Charles Dickens calls “the indispensable necessity of varying the manner of narration as much as possible, and investing it with some little grace or other.” In other words, rich writing, showing a pleasure taken in using words. The opposite of a corporate memo studded with bullet points.
The goal of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was yo get rid of words. Doing so has the effect, as another rhetorician, Richard A. Lanham notes in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, of paring away not only words, but paring away “all sense of verbal play.” Paraphrasing the famous slogans of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have a couple of my own:
We don’t all have to write like Hemingway.
Complexity of syntax is not forbidden.
The key is not amount of words or, necessarily, syntax. It’s clarity.
Consider the following sentence of mine from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.
Or the following sentence from a post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?”:
I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen. (I have a dream, one might say.)
From my recent post “Beethoven; nature,” about music and poetry devoted to pastoral themes:
With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution.
The last sentence may or may not be too long. Perhaps it could have been broken up, simplified. But, as Professor Brooks Landon says, we don’t have to always write (or ever write!) like Hemingway. Sometimes, long, convoluted sentences can be intriguing to read — just plain fun.
And from a published book review of mine:
[The author] has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Notre Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at The Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it.
A long, convoluted sentence or two, but I think they work. And skillfully pack a lot of information, embed it, within a sentence.
Which raises the question: Does a long sentence necessarily mean convoluted syntax? It depends what you mean by convoluted. The above sentences of mine are convoluted, but they are clear. You will find this in the prose of many good writers whose sentences are dense and tightly packed with meaning — not diffuse, they are tightly constructed — but dense and complex. (See appendix.) Complexity in syntax can challenge and (yes) delight the reader. The good writer can do this without sacrificing clarity or becoming incomprehensible. The writing should be clear, not opaque. Or, as the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham puts it, clarity in writing means simple, not plain.
And here’s a passage from a book I have been reading:
The greatest defect in the SEASONS, respects the cast of its moral sentiments; but in this respect it is not the less adapted to the more numerous class of the readers of poetry. The Religion of the Seasons, is of that general kind which Nature’s self might teach to those who had no knowledge of the God of Revelation. It is a lofty and complacent sentiment, which plays upon the feelings like the ineffable power of solemn harmony, but has no reference to the quality of our belief, to the dispositions of the heart, or to the habitual tendency of the character; still less does it involve a devotional recognition of the revealed character of the Divine Being. But on this very account “the Seasons” was adapted to please at the time that Pope ruled the republic of taste, and to the same cause the poem is still indebted for at least some of its admirers. — John Sharpe, “Critical Observations”; introduction to James Thomson’s The Seasons, 1816 edition
Writing such as this consists of passages that are dense and packed with meaning. Should one require of such passages that they be written in telegraphic or perhaps even outline form, so that no one is confused and everyone gets the point or points?
George Orwell said, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” He achieves this. But does this mean that prose must be vitiated by overcutting?
Your writing can be needlessly redundant.
Repetition can be effective. As Richard A. Lanham has observed, in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, “People, even literary people, … repeat things for the pleasure of repetition.” And, I would add, for emphasis.
In my post “thinking “too energetically,” I wrote as follows, about the writings of Ralph Colp Jr.:
They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation.
Note the intentional, deliberate repetition by me of superb.
The following is a passage from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:
Some people have the human touch — in fact many, if not most, do, I would be inclined to say. One may not realize it, but I have found from personal experience that many service people in lower paying jobs actually enjoy being able to deliver and are eager for human interaction and reciprocity. I have found that, if I make it a point to ask how they are doing, or to thank them for the service — as I have been doing more frequently lately — they brighten up and let you know that they appreciate being appreciated and acknowledged. So, I will ask, for example, at the counter of a store or a restaurant, “how is your day going” or “how was your weekend?” And, if I can find something nice to say, truthfully, about good service, I try to do so. There is something very pleasant about being recognized at a business establishment.
I stopped briefly in a local restaurant the other day to purchase a takeout item. Two persons served me, one with respect to the item purchased and the other one being the cashier. They were all smiles and said, we haven’t seen you in a couple of days! Trivial perhaps and not uncommon, but it is remarkable how good such interactions can make one feel. Good business practice for them, but it’s more than that. It’s the pleasure of being able to share one’s common humanity with casual acquaintances, such as in this case. It helps to decrease feelings of alienation and the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that one often experiences when dealing with the business world, its advertisements, and its products.
The “good” businesspeople enjoy helping others, serving them, being able to ameliorate things for you while engaging in a business transaction. Knowing that they made you happy and gratified themselves at being thanked and appreciated. Feeling that being able to benefit mankind makes their life worthwhile. Showing their humanity.
There is repetition/redundancy here. I make a point that is more or less obvious, then make it again in different words, and restate it several times. To me this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because, in what was the peroration of the piece, I wanted to drive the key point home. Think of a concluding passage in a symphony, where the main theme comes back and often gets hammered home, so to speak.
Here is example of Walt Whitman using repetition:
I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. — Preface to Leaves of Grass
He uses repetition/restatement for emphasis.
There is nothing wrong with arguing strongly to make one’s point, or using irony or highly critical language. But when it is embedded in a spirit of “I am the true intellectual and you (or they) are not” and when your conclusions are presented as definitive facts rather than opinions, and when your posts comment on how much smarter you are than the academics or editors you abhor, you come across as arrogant and positive.
When you are talking about others’ opinions in your blog, your strong feelings often come across as definitive conclusions rather than strong opinions, especially when you are talking about editors at the NY Times or academics with advanced agrees or other cohorts for whom you seem to have a special loathing. And sometimes you sound pompous and arrogant.
Opinions are just that. To express an opinion does not amount to arrogance. Even when one is being a contrarian.
Some people, it seems, don’t want or don’t feel that a writer is entitled to have an opinion about anything, with the possible exception of a cardiologist writing a book on heart disease, a psychiatrist a monograph on schizophrenia, or a geology professor writing a treatise on rock formations.
And that, if you should be so presumptuous or rash as to have one, you should begin (they seem to be saying) — wasting words and probably guaranteeing that few will read the piece — with a totally unnecessary introduction explaining (in the manner of someone writing advertising copy for a pharmaceutical company) that these are merely your personal thoughts which, you hope, will not unduly disturb anyone who happens to disagree and that you realize that some, if not many, readers will disagree, which (you hope they will realize that you realize) they are entitled to.
I let my thoughts take me where they may.
Consider George Orwell, whose essays are assigned to freshman composition students as models of excellence and clarity in writing, of burnished prose. Without fail, a strong opinion comes through, not only in Orwell’s essays and in short pieces such as his “Such, such were the joys …,” where he lays bare the injustices of the English boarding school system of the 1930’s, but also in novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where (in the latter work) he calls attention to the pettiness of middle class sensibilities. Should Orwell have begun with a prologue asking the reader to excuse him should the latter be inclined to disagree or (heaven forbid) take offense? Didn’t our English teachers instruct us not to keep saying “In my opinion,” “I think,” etc. over and over again, since it should be evident to the reader that you are presenting your opinion.
Sometimes, it sounds as if you consider yourself to be more knowledgeable than most people. Nothing wrong with having opinions, but sometimes it does sound like you are boastful or consider yourself intellectually a notch above “most people.” You appear to be talking down to your reader. As if you are the scholar expert and your reader should feel privileged to be learning from on high.
Sometimes, your style gives the impression that you are trying to impress your reader with your extensive vocabulary and depth and range of reading. This can get in the way of the point you are trying to make.
There are several criticisms (directed at my writing) embedded in these comments: bosting or showing off about what (allegedly) I regard as my superior knowledge, talking down to the reader, trying to impress the reader with my vocabulary and reading/scholarship. I will take them up all of a piece, so to speak.
Mustering all the learning one can is desirable.
I do, of course, draw, as is entirely appropriate, upon all the learning and knowledge I can muster. Would one counsel me to do otherwise? But, when I am unsure about something, or cannot claim to know it with certainty, I will say so. I do not pretend to experience or knowledge I don’t have. I make every effort I can to draw upon my experience, my reading, my learning (such as it is) and scholarship to flesh out and elucidate what I am saying, and to provide corroboration for my views.
I do think that when someone writes about something, such as literature and music, one should exhibit a modicum of intelligence and prior knowledge, as well as discernment, and a more than superficial knowledge. The writer should not just leap in midstream and go off half cocked.
Be that is it may, I have opinions that I am eager to share in the case of, say, music, one area of aesthetics I enjoy writing about, and even more so about literature, about which I know the most. I do not let the fact that I am not a musicologist or English professor stop me. Because, intuitively, or experientially, I may possibly have seen or perceived more than them.
What about polemical pieces? I have written quite a few, on everything from the criminal justice system to (occasionally) politics.
A polemic is an essay where you argue strongly for something, often an unpopular position rather than the majority one. It should be clear to any reader that I am expressing my opinions. All good writing arises from personal experience or reflection, and writing without a point of view is bland and uninteresting. I do quite often find that I strongly disagree with the opinions of many persons who are regarded as authorities or who hold positions in academia and journalism. What’s wrong with that? It’s called thinking for oneself.
Regarding the charge of trying to impress the reader with my extensive vocabulary, I can only speak from my own experience, as a reader. Many of the best essay writers in the English language use big, recherché words where called for, as well complex grammatical constructions, and write long, convoluted sentences. And yet, they are admirably clear. They take great pains to be so. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Samuel Johnson (to mention one of my favorite writers) challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. It seems to me that the only criterion to be taken into account is the following: Was the word used correctly; does it fit?
Pomposity is not true of me in person or of my writing. A better word for what my critic describes as arrogance might be invective. Invective used where appropriate. In certain posts, that is. I will use irony and invective to try and make a point when I feel that they are appropriate.
Some of my posts, such as my posts about Janette Sadik-Kahn’s plan to remake Fifth Avenue, about the “cultural misappropriation” movement, about the protest against the Emmet Till painting at the Whitney Museum of Art, about the call for destruction of politically incorrect statues and monuments, and about the Anthony Weiner prison sentence, are polemical. To make one’s point — arguing often with fierce “winds” of contrary, often entrenched opinion blowing back at oneself — irony and invective are not inappropriate. Think of Swift writing “A Modest Proposal,” Tom Paine “Common Sense,” or Zola “J’accuse!” The thing is not to be mealy mouthed. A good writer has to say something, assert it.
I do often find myself strongly in disagreement with politicians, policy wonks, social engineers, judges, prosecutors, etc. Writing under such conditions should have an edge. A writer has to be clear and make points forcefully; also, it is hoped that one’s writing will stimulate and provoke the reader to perhaps look at things with a fresh eye.
You can be quite a good writer and have a decent memory, but your writing can be full of braggadocio and totally self-obsessed.
Self-centered (or, as the critic says, “self-obsessed”)? Because I use my own my own experience as fodder for my writings? A writer should not be afraid to write about himself or herself. Honestly. Braggadocio should not be a concern, as long as the writer is honest.
Any writer or writing instructor will tell the beginner: write about what you know best, beginning with your own experience. With yourself.
For some reason, the writings of Theodore Dreiser come to mind. Almost all of his writing drew, directly or indirectly, on his own personal experience.
Take his two autobiographical works, Newspaper Days (originally published as A Book About Myself) and Dawn. The books are notable for their candor, honesty.
For example, Dreiser talks about how he was eager to get a reporter job with a Chicago newspaper, with no experience — he had practically no hope. Then, he was given one or two spot assignments with one of the lesser daily papers and achieved a scoop that earned him immediate recognition. It makes a good story. Dreiser also tells about his personal insecurities and mistakes he made, such as quitting a reporter job with a respected newspaper in disgrace because he faked a theater review. The story about the scoop — it was about the 1892 presidential election — is well worth telling since it shows how Dreiser got a foot in the door as a reporter, leading to a short lived journalism career, and to his establishing a vocation as a writer.
In my autobiographical post “My Boyhood” and other posts of mine which are wholly or in part autobiographical, I discuss successes as well as failures. Personal successes and failures. Honestly. Showing my strengths, some of them noteworthy, as well as weaknesses. Almost all of them make good stories, and that’s what’s important. Examples: an exam I took in a high school history class in which I answered a question about Charles Dickens that no one else could, impressing the teacher; the time I did something similar in a college Spanish course; how I gave a lecture on Tolstoy in Russian from memory in a course at New York University when the professor thought I couldn’t do it and that I couldn’t have written the essay myself. (I noted, in my post: “To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.”) I also discuss, in autobiographical posts and anecdotal material about myself, all kinds of mishaps and miscues in my early years. Embarrassing myself. Showing marked weaknesses in certain areas requiring aptitude or skill. And so on.
In the posts where I talk about my accomplishments and where I came of well, it is usually because there is a narrative interest to them. They reveal something about me, but they also make for good reading, since they are good stories.
I have a preference for the writing style of the essays of E. B. White over the essays of Johnson or Addison or Steele. Their essays are well worth reading and every bit as valuable as White’s but their style is clearly dated. [A middlebrow comment from someone whose exposure to English letters did not go much beyond college English courses.] Sometimes your style sounds dated.
E. B. White is no Joseph Addison or Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson outdated? One can’t use Addison or Johnson as examples because they’re out of date? Or Edmund Burke?
I am not a priori inclined to give much weight to the views of a “critic” who prefers E. B. White to Samuel Johnson.
The works of great writers don’t become obsolete, and they are the best models. To improve my writing, at this advanced stage in my writing, I find it much more worthwhile to read Samuel Johnson’s essays. Or those of other great prose writers, such as Burke, Hazlitt, Emerson, or Thoreau.
To repeat, my maxim is study the greats. You can’t go wrong. You can’t do any better.
Why would anyone advise elsewise?
A final thought. We all make judgments about literary and artistic productions, and have opinions about writers, ranging from whether we liked a novel to whether we agree with a magazine or op-ed piece or not and how well it was written.
But, it’s probably not a good idea, when it comes to an avocation, to try to advise someone for whom the same activity is a vocation how to do it.
— Roger W. Smith
March 2018; updated October 2019
The following are some examples of writing in which the writer uses long sentences and/or complex syntax that challenges the reader without being obscure.
He was chosen again this Parliament to serve in the same place, and in the beginning of it declared himself very sharply and severely against those exorbitancies which had been most grievous to the State; for he was so rigid an observer of established laws and rules that he could not endure the least breach or deviation from them, and thought no mischief so intolerable as the presumption of ministers of state to break positive rules for reason of state, or judges to transgress known laws upon the title of conveniency or necessity; which made him so severe against the earl of Strafford and the lord Finch, contrary to his natural gentleness and temper: insomuch as they who did not know his composition to be as free from revenge as it was from pride, thought that the sharpness to the former might proceed from the memory of some unkindnesses, not without a mixture of injustice, from him towards his father.
— Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (begun in 1641; published 1702-1704)
Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces, or infirmity suffers, in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings; and Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved, in a private and familiar interview, that reputation which his works had procured him.
— Samuel Johnson, “The difference between an author’s writings and his conversation” (Rambler no. 14; May 5, 1750)
When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and their bed, with the blood of their favourites, there is a saying recorded of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan’s presence without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders. The experience of every day might almost justify the scepticism of Rustan. Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the tranquillity, of the Persian. The monarch’s frown, he well knew, could level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour.
— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)
“[Joseph] Fowke prided himself on a friendship that allowed him to be a reservoir of anecdotes about [Samuel] Johnson: ‘I remember Samuel Johnson remarking that in the early part of his studies he used always to think the fault lay in himself when he did not understand a passage, but at length, after many discouragements, he discovered that his author did not understand himself.’ ” [italics added]
— Joseph Fowke, letter to Philip Francis, 7 September 1789, quoted in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 375
This quote calls something to mind about my experience in reading and writing.
I tend to read serious, weighty works of both nonfiction and fiction. I read slowly and deliberately. I often find myself reading passages and pages over again, often several times. The effort is usually worth it. It’s not necessarily that the author didn’t say it well, but the ideas or thoughts are deep and invite reflection. Or that the thought — the point being made — is embedded in a “dense,” intricate grammatical structure, which does not necessarily mean it was poorly written.
If something seems new or striking to me, I often make note of the passage — copy and save it.
(In general — this comment pertains not to reading per se but to cogitation engaged in in daily life, ongoing mental activity and the ordinary process of rumination — I tend to be a somewhat plodding thinker and to be very reflective. I run things through my mind over and over again, often something I can’t quite explain to myself to my satisfaction. Later — sometimes weeks later or longer — it will occur at times that a new way of seeing something I have been mulling over comes to me.)
Samuel Johnson’s comment pertains to reading. It can be inferred from the above quote that he was a diligent reader. Everything I have read by him and about him supports this inference. He devoured books, read closely, with an active, engaged mind.
This is very true of me. I am the opposite of a “passive” reader. I am continually asking myself, do I agree with the author; is something well said or not; what kind of corroborative or evidentiary support is provided; and so on. What do I think? Is this a good book, in my opinion, or not, and if so, why or why not?
Books for me are nutritive. They are a source of ideas and a stimulus to mental activity. I do not read for “relaxation” (as, it seems, is often the case with TV). Yet reading is invigorating. Also pleasurable. And usually exciting.
An anecdote worth repeating by way of illustration is the following. I came across a review by the English historian J. H. Plumb in the 1980s in The New York Times Book Review. He mentioned among the great historical works of all time those of Francis Parkman.
I had heard of Parkman, but was not acquainted with and had not read his works. The mention of Parkman made me want to read him. Before starting to do so (once I had resolved to) and getting ahold of his books (not readily available), I experienced a frisson within me (akin to pleasurable feelings of anticipation in other spheres of human activity) at the thought of beginning an “excursion” into his works, which I knew meant reading not just one of them.
Over the course of months, I read all seven volumes of Parkman’s France and England in North America. It was an experience one might compare to a keenly anticipated prolonged overseas trip. As I told my therapist, who found the comment telling, it wasn’t just picking up a book. The excitement I felt showed how much reading meant to me.
I read books eagerly. I “devour” them. (Continually reflecting upon and critiquing what I read.) And extract every bit of wisdom and knowledge I can.
According to Johnson, the fault often lies with the writer, not the reader. So true.
There have been innumerable instances in my own experience of reading writers who don’t take pains to be clear. Who don’t seem to feel it is worth the bother. Or — it seems to often be the case — never bothered, in the first place, to learn how to write. My own training and experience in writing began early, and I was also aware of the importance not just of having something to say, but of being able to write well. I worked very hard, from an early age, at writing, labored at it, at getting my ideas down on paper and polishing and improving a composition.
I have read quite a few books over the years which were by authors supposedly learned and well informed, and highly regarded — often experts in their field — who turned out to be very poor writers. Who confound the reader and leave you more confused than enlightened. I have often found myself giving up and laying the supposedly authoritative and masterful work aside.
This sort or experience is also true of some epistolary and other communications and even conversations that I have had with persons I was closely acquainted with, who, rather than clarifying things, tended to obscure them with (sometimes) pomposity or thoughts and observations not made clearly that they are fond of expounding upon.
Apropos clarity, as it pertains to writing, I have been accused of pomposity in my own writing. Such criticisms are utterly unfounded. My writings do display erudition, which, unaccountably, makes some readers uncomfortable. (It occurs to me: Erudition, learning, in the minds of persons such as my detractors, makes you a snob.)
I myself, as a reader, humble myself before a display of erudition, and am eager to be instructed and enlightened. But I find that often inferior writers are “showing off,” as it were, want to impress the reader without taking pains to be clear.
It should be apparent to anyone who reads my writings what pains I take to be clear. (My wife will tell you that.) The opposite of arcane. This is true of my “scholarly” writings (sometimes based on extensive research) and other pieces of mine that are on topics of general interest and often reflect personal opinions.
There are no examples in my writings of pretentiousness. And erudition (I am not an academic or renowned or well known scholar) is not a sin.
Samuel Johnson, by the way, expressed his opinions forcefully (for which he was often accused, I think unfairly, of arrogance) and brought great, indeed prodigious, learning to bear. He had a distinctive, elevated style which some commentators (not a few) have found pretentious and old fashioned, like eighteenth-century dress would now be. This bothers me not a whit.
— Roger W. Smith
I was looking today at an old post of mine, from September 2017 – it was about President Trump, but (despite the controversy that always surrounds Trump) the subject matter does not really matter insofar as what the augment with a critic of the post ended up being about – in which we had a back and forth exchange about certain key issues which will be clear from what follows. The comments (mine and the critic’s) are posted verbatim below.
— Roger W. Smith
August 8, 2019
Roger Smith, September 28, 2017
Pete — Going back to when I wrote the blog, what motivated me to do so was the books reviewed in the post in which experts discussed Trump’s psyche and his presumed or possible insanity … I don’t have to take off my thinking cap when it comes to such stupid books as those that were reviewed. A medical degree is not required.
I have all sorts of opinions about literature, and I strongly disagree with many English profs who have Ph.D.’s. I think Beethoven’s late quartets are the best ever; that Shostakovich is the greatest 20th century composer; and that Aaron Copland is the greatest American composer. I am not a musicologist or musician. One doesn’t have to forbear using one’s eyes and ears, one’s common sense, and good judgment. …
Pete Smith, September 28, 2017
I understand your opinion but still disagree. Trump clearly hallucinated when he claimed his inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s (I was at both, and it was probably one/fifth the size); his bullying of the idiot in North Korea is insanely dangerous to the world; his inability to remember today what he promised yesterday are all behaviors that many sensible people, with or without Ph.D’s, believe is insane. That you don’t is fine, but your opinion that others are wrong is nothing but an opinion, not a fact.
I agree with you on Beethoven and Copland; haven’t heard enough Shostakovich to have an opinion. But what you are expressing here are opinions as well — in your case, very well-informed opinions, but still opinions. Someone else who’s studied a lot of classical music might come to very different opinions about who is the best — your statements notwithstanding.
In a way, this same issue was the underpinning of our argument about whether America is the greatest country in the world. My disagreement wasn’t with your right to have that opinion or to enjoy living here; it was simply to try to convince you that it was equally reasonable for you to others to aver that another country, maybe Sweden of Finland, could be the greatest country in the world — and that it was bad timing for you to jump on the Alt-Right “American Exceptionalism” bandwagon.
Consider these statements:
“Beethoven is the best composer ever!” (requires provable facts)
“I think Beethoven is the best composer ever.” (Subject to debate, but doesn’t require proof.)
In my opinion, a number of your blog posts state opinions as facts (as in “Beethoven is the best composer ever” — and without an evidence basis for your opinion, this comes across as arrogant. If you just had said “I don’t think Trump is insane, because I don’t see the evidence of it,” it would have bothered me one whit. But when you said “He’s not even close to being mentally ill. Common sense could tell one that in less than 60 seconds of reflection,” you are denigrating anyone who disagrees with you on this point. As the saying goes, “judge ye not lest ye be judged.” Food for thought. . . .
Roger Smith, September 29, 2017 [I quoted from Pete Smith’s prior comment, as noted, in responding to him.]
[Pete Smith wrote] “Someone else who’s studied a lot of classical music might come to very different opinions about who is the best — your statements notwithstanding.”
[Roger Smith] Of course I know that. You missed the point. I wasn’t trying to convince you of the rightness of my choices. My point was that, even though I don’t have expertise as a musicologist, I am not afraid to express my opinions. I do think that when someone writes about something, such as literature and music, one should exhibit a modicum of intelligence and prior knowledge, discernment and a more than superficial knowledge.
All I was trying to say is that in music – even more so in literature – I have opinions that I am eager to share. I do not let the fact that I am not a musicologist or English professor stop me. Because, intuitively, or experimentally, I may possibly have seen more than them. In literature, I know that this is sometimes true of me, or at least I strongly feel that way. Just because I don’t have a degree or professional certification doesn’t mean I have to abstain from expressing my opinion. When it comes to something like, say, music, I am well aware, of course, that there will be others who would say something different, or the opposite. (Just like someone else might say Finland is the best place to live.)
[Pete Smith wrote] “In a way, this same issue was the underpinning of our argument about whether America is the greatest country in the world. My disagreement wasn’t with your right to have that opinion or to enjoy living here; it was simply to try to convince you that it was equally reasonable for you to others to aver that another country, maybe Sweden of Finland, could be the greatest country in the world — and that it was bad timing for you to jump on the Alt-Right “American Exceptionalism” bandwagon.”
[Roger Smith] I wasn’t jumping on the Alt-Right, America First bandwagon; that’s a preposterous claim.
I tried very hard to explain that to you in replying (repeatedly) to comments of yours. I shouldn’t have had to, because if you had been able read the post in the spirit it was written — or at least perceive that — you wouldn’t be accusing me of espousing Alt-Right views (and call me a deplorable”).
[Pete Smith wrote] “ …. it was simply to try to convince you that it was equally reasonable for to others to aver that another country, maybe Sweden of Finland, could be the greatest country in the world”
[Roger Smith] Of course. Do you think I can’t see that?
[Pete Smith wrote] “‘In my opinion, a number of your blog posts state opinions as facts (as in “Beethoven is the best composer ever”) — and without an evidence basis for your opinion, this comes across as arrogant.”
[Roger Smith] Not arrogant whatsoever. The TONE of my writing is not arrogant. But, a good writer has to SAY SOMETHING, assert it. Has to have a point of view. Hopefully, stimulate and challenge the reader. My acquaintances know that I am not arrogant in discussion or conversations. I do feel strongly about a lot of things. I think that’s a good thing.
By the way, I never did say that Beethoven is the best composer ever. I said his late quartets were the best quartets ever, by way of giving am example. If I did make such a statement, I would not be so clueless as to think that someone else might not have a different opinion.
You and other commenters have characterized my views and posts as pompous and arrogant. That’s not true of my writing, nor is it true of the experience others have had in discussions with me. They find me humble, polite, willing to be corrected, and eager to exchange opinions, as well as to learn something new or hear an original take on something. (My wife does it all the time.)
A writer has to be clear and make points forcefully; also it is hoped that one’s writing will stimulate and provoke the reader to perhaps look at things with a fresh eye. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Pete Smith, September 29, 2017
I don’t disagree with much that you say and recognize that you were saying that the quartets were the best ever, not Beethoven throughout, etc. My error here. I also recognize that in person you are humble, polite, thoughtful, bright, and open to other people’s ideas even when they are contrary to yours. You are also a damned good writer — as I’ve told you often before. My only complaint is that whether you are talking about others’ opinions in your blog, your strong feelings often come across as definitive conclusions rather than strong opinions, especially when you are talking about editors at the NY Times or academics with advanced degrees, or other cohorts for whom you seem to have a special loathing. And yes, sometimes you sound pompous and arrogant.
Roger Smith, September 29, 2017
Thanks for the complimentary words, Pete.
Pomposity. That’s not me. Never has been. I am authentically me, without putting on airs. This is true of me in person and of my writing.
A better word for what you describe as arrogance might be invective.
Some of my posts, such as the posts about Janette Sadik-Kahn’s plan to remake Fifth Avenue; the against “cultural misappropriation” movement and the protest against the Emmet Till painting; the call for destruction of statues and monuments; and the Anthony Weiner sentence, are polemical. To make one’s point, arguing often with fierce “winds” of contrary, often entrenched opinion blowing back at oneself, irony and invective are not inappropriate. Think of Swift writing “A Modest Proposal,” Tom Paine “Common Sense,” or Zola “J’accuse!” The thing is not to be mealy mouthed.
Pete Smith, September 30, 2017
You should poll your followers on this. Or maybe go back and read all your posts with a fresh eye.
There is nothing wrong with arguing strongly to make one’s point, or using irony or highly critical language. But when it is embedded in a spirit of “I am the true intellectual and you (or they) are not” and when your conclusions are presented as definitive facts rather than opinions, and when your posts comment on how much smarter you are than the academics or editors you abhor (or, as above, equating your self with Jonathan Swift), you do come across as arrogant and positive.
Which is nothing like the nice, gentle person who you really are — which is why I’m trying to steer you in a less self-centered direction. In the recognition that I may be off base here, I invite other readers to comment.
Roger Smith, September 30, 2017
Pete — I appreciate that you say something nice about me, BUT:
A polemic is an essay where you argue strongly for something, often an unpopular position rather than the majority one. It should be clear to any reader that I am expressing my opinions. All good writing arises from personal experience or reflection, and writing without a point of view is bland and uninteresting. If I say, for example, that I don’t like New York Times editorials, I realize that a lot of Times readers are not going to agree with me.
I do not claim to be smarter than others. I did not equate myself with Jonathan Swift. I used him as an EXAMPLE. An example of using sarcasm and irony (brilliantly) to get his point across.
I often do mention other writers and thinkers. I try to EMULATE them.
Yes, I strongly disagree with the opinions of many persons who are regarded as authorities or who hold exalted positions. What’s wrong with that? It’s called thinking for oneself (by a born contrarian).
Hubris and pomposity are not personal faults of mine. You do not seem to realize this, at least not fully. Writing should have an edge, and the writer should bring all the learning or she can to bear. You would be surprised if you knew how much research and spade work goes into many of my posts, to bring myself up to speed.
Some of my posts are all about myself. Others are about others. I felt strongly the other day about the Anthony Weiner sentence. I felt I had to write about it. Was that post about ME?
Many of my other posts are about general issues, or writers I admire or music I like, and so forth.
Self-centered? Because I use my own my own experience as fodder for my writings? I am reading Thoreau’s famous essay about walking now. Guess what it’s built upon. His own experiences as a walker: where he walks, how long he does, why he does, what he thinks about when he walks, etc., etc.
In my own essay on this site about walking (which I wrote before having read Thoreau’s essay), I talked a lot about my own experience as a walker, then tried to extrapolate from it to make points that readers may find worthwhile to consider as they may pertain to their own experience. This is the best way to do it because the best examples I can provide to illustrate and prove my points come from my own experience. It’s a sort of inductive method: start with what you think you know and have experienced and generalize from that. I could have approached the subject differently and said, here are 6 things about walking, Mr. or Ms. reader, that you ought to know and 5 tips. That would be boring and less convincing (plus a lot less fun to read).
I appreciate the nice things you have said, but I am not a self centered or arrogant person. My writings are a true reflection of me, and they are not self centered or arrogant. Nor are they pompous. I’m too smart to commit the error of pomposity. (That’s an oxymoron.)
One other person whom you know well has said similar things about my posts. No one else has. Absolutely no one. By way of a comment or in conversation with me. Absolutely nothing about arrogance, pomposity, or showing off.
Please show me where in my posts I “comment on how much smarter you are than the academics or editors you abhor.” Which ones? I do find myself strongly in disagreement with politicians, policy wonks, social engineers, judges, prosecutors, educators and academics. No doubt you will find examples. I have, on a different site (on Theodore Dreiser), pointed our errors in scholarship, but only when I was certain. I have also disputed certain scholarly views occasionally. By “editors,” perhaps you mean the Times Editorial Board.
I am not a passive reader. You should read William Blake’s annotations to Joshua Reynolds, Lavater, etc. (or Samuel Johnson’s review of Soame Jenyns’s “A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil”) if you think I’m too quick to criticize or too vehement. Blake is another literary figure I admire. Note I said admire
There are some core issues here.
Some people seem to be threatened by the thought of a writer having an opinion.
Granted, we have all witnessed people ranting and raving with in public forums or on talk radio, for example.
But anyone who reads my posts knows that they are well written and thought out and are the product of deep reflection and reading by a well educated, widely read, cultured person.
This particular critic says things such as that I am espousing alt-right, America first, etc. views congenial to the Trump camp; and (he has stated elsewhere) misogynistic views. Does he think such wild, unfounded allegations will discredit me as a writer?
What were Samuel Johnson’s credentials? Jonathan Swift’s? Orwell’s? Did they need to obtain “permission” from a minder in the press office before publishing?
Does anyone still read them? I have, extensively. For instance, I’m not just familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four; I have read it at least three times. I have read Gulliver’s Travels in its entirety two or three times. I have spent the last twenty-five years or so reading everything I can by and about Samuel Johnson.
All are worthy exemplars. None was afraid to expound. Their words, their writings, are sufficient. No one cares or would bother to ask whether they were sufficiently credentialed or “entitled” to publish works such as Johnson’s moral and political essays and Swift and Orwell’s satirical and dystopian novels.
The proof is in the pudding. My writing can withstand such scrutiny and in fact, by virtue of its excellence, proves it to be ill informed and short sighted.
‘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.
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
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.
“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.
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
I have a new site:
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 (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”)
which I think is one of the best to do and not to do lists of its kind.
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.
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 my Roger’s Gleanings site on June 18, 2019
“I think … that the insistence on neatness and correctness [in writing] is one of the signs of a modern nervousness and irritability. When has clumsiness in composition been felt as so annoying, so enraging? The “good” writing of the New Yorker is such that one experiences a furious anxiety, in reading it, about errors and lapses from taste; finally, what emerges is a terrible hunger for conformity and uniformity. The smoothness of the surface and its high polish must not be marred. One has a similar anxiety in reading a novelist like Hemingway and comes to feel in the end that Hemingway wants to be praised for the offenses he does not commit. He is dependable; he never names certain emotions or ideas, and he takes pride in that—it is a form of honor. In it, really, there is submissiveness, acceptance of restriction.”
— Saul Bellow, “Dreiser and the Triumph of Art,” Commentary, May 1951
I agree with Bellow. I admire good writing, never cease trying to study and learn from it, deplore lapses including those caused by ignorance of style and grammar points. And, yet, a writer must dare to write and be guided by the subject and fidelity to the truth of experience. I have always felt that The New Yorker was overrated, for precisely the reasons Bellow states. Writers writing well, often about not much of anything, with an archness that leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled.
— Roger W. Smith
“Defending Samantha Bee isn’t principled. It’s tribalism.”
By Megan McArdle
The Washington Post
June 2, 2018
This op-ed piece is hard to read. It’s God awful. Terribly written.
And idiotic. The writer is splitting hairs about nothing.
It is very similar to a Washington Post op-ed piece of three weeks ago by a guest columnist, Sandra Beasley, that I complained about in my post
“My freshman comp instructor would be turning in his grave.”
That op-ed piece — by a freshman comp instructor, no less — may have been even more poorly written, but at least one could figure out what the writer was trying to say.
Regarding the former piece, i.e., the one by Megan McArdle which is the focus of this blog — Ms. McArdle is a Washington Post columnist — I dare anyone to figure out what she is saying. It’s as if she were asking her readers to consider, through convoluted reasoning which it is tortuous to try to follow, and to answer the question: how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?
Perhaps it’s okay to use the c______ word for Ivanka Trump. After all, can you imagine, she had the nerve to post a photo of herself proudly holding her baby??? But, no, it’s NOT okay, because that would be anti-women, but then again, her father is Donald Trump, so maybe it IS okay.
… In-groups using words to each other isn’t the same as out-groups using those same words. Trump is the president of the United States, which carries a higher responsibility to the nation, and common decency, than hosting a third-rate comedy show.
And if you want to take this opportunity to point out the jaw-slackening hypocrisy of conservatives becoming outraged about this after defending Barr, or Trump … well, just hold on while I find you a comfy chair and some Gatorade.
But after you’ve said all that, what you’re left with is a burning question: So what? Is the behavior of a senile vulgarian with a terminal case of verbal dysentery now the standard to which feminism aspires? That seems rather inadequate. Or have feminists now lost the ability to distinguish between slurs that were reclaimed by the oppressed as terms of affection and one that is hurled as a vile insult into millions of American homes?
Counterfactuals are usually tricky, of course. But I have utter confidence in this one: The answer that feminists would give in that case would be “never.” And if a network had aired such a remark, those same people would be rightfully raising holy hell about it. They would not be looking around to see whether someone, somewhere, had sometime in the recent past made a remark that was even worse.
This is gobbledygook.
I have a problem with splitting hairs while trying to justify the use of vile insults against one individual or group and, perhaps, excuse it when the target is a different group, depending upon which group is more in “favor” and which group tends to be reviled by the guardians of public virtue. (I guess Ms. McArdle does too, but it is difficult to ascertain what she does think, since she makes the issues the opposite of clear.) And, I cannot understand why anyone is entitled to call Ivanka Trump a cunt (I am not afraid to use the word, since that was the word political commentator Samantha Bee used) for holding a baby in her arms as, presumably, a proud mother.
Don’t get me wrong. I am horrified by actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that separate children from their parents, and I am absolutely against President Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Not sort of. Completely. I regard them as an outrage, an affront to humanity and common decency, and a stain on our nation that will be remembered as such in years to come just as slavery is now.
But President Trump’s daughter holding her baby? C’mon.
There’s another problem that I see with such op-eds, a fundamental one when it comes to journalism and writing per se. The sophistry comes from the writer not laying out the facts clearly and presenting a coherent view, but instead speaking (writing, that is) sort of in code to a particular audience, which she assumes will be able to decode the piece and, from it, extract key talking points supporting whatever position has been ordained. Reason is a tool in the writer’s armamentarium. One that can be used effectively or not effectively. That when it is not used well can have the effect of too much of a good thing. That can produce a jerry-built piece of prose that would be tottering on its foundations, if it had a foundation.
This is a think piece. A nutty one. It is incumbent upon a writer to first establish a substratum of fact, to orient the reader, to acquaint the reader with the issues, and to help the reader get his or her bearings, so to speak, before engaging in Jesuitical reasoning.
George Orwell comes to mind. He went about his writing, as any true writer does, like a workman in overalls, so to speak, at his typewriter. Trying to make his points as clearly and cogently as he could. Backing them up, mostly, with reasoned argument, not statistics or data, or quotations from someone else. At all times, he strove to be clear, and even when he was at his most opinionated, arguing a point strenuously, there was absolutely no equivocation (or duplicity). And, no sophistry. You could not accuse him of that. One can and should accuse Ms. McCardle of the latter, of errors of commission when it comes to writing an opinion piece that is likely to confuse rather than enlighten most readers.
— Roger W. Smith
Addendum: To be fair — or at least to try to be — it appears that Ms. McCardle is saying the left shouldn’t use slurs against the right. But, it’s awfully hard to extract her key points from the fog of her obfuscatory prose. Her concluding paragraph reads:
So feminists, and the left more broadly, now have a chance to prove that they really have learned a lesson from the Bill Clinton debacle. They have a chance to stand as forthrightly and rightly against an offense committed by one of their own as they do against attacks on them. Or they can slink away, muttering about Trump and the patriarchy, and wait for the next generation of feminists to get old enough, and mad enough, to repair the damage they’ve done.
It shouldn’t be so hard for the reader of an op-ed piece to figure out what is being said, which is the case here.
Last winter, I emailed a relative with the following comment: “Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets.”
A few months later, we were having a discussion about various matters, including my blog. I came from a very literate family and have three siblings, all of them gifted writers (as were my parents). I emailed my relative again, saying: “I am ahead of the rest of our family in one key respect: I have had professional writing experience (plus a journalism degree) and have written for publication in scholarly journals, reference books, major newspapers.”
My relative seemed to think I was bragging, was guilty of puffery, for no reason, and, besides, what was the point of making the comparison, which it appeared to my relative was an invidious one, but which I thought was worth mentioning. “I am not questioning your writing credentials, which are very strong and give you more knowledge of and experience in writing than anyone in our family,” the relative wrote back. “But I do not understand why you are comparing yourself to your family in this regard. There is no family writing competition.”
I did not intend, did not mean, to disparage anyone, or to exalt myself. I merely wished to make a point. To wit: that professional experience is crucial for anyone who wants to master a craft.
I was thinking when I made the observation to my relative, and have often thought in the past, about my father in this regard. My father was professional musician: a pianist, church organist, and piano teacher. He was born with musical talent. His mother was a church organist and attended a music school in Boston for a couple of years (of which she was very proud). It was said that her mother (my father’s maternal grandmother) played and/or conducted choir music in a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where my grandmother grew up.
My grandmother recognized my father’s talent and encouraged him. He began piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was moonlighting as a musician with bands in the Boston area. At a young age, he was hired as a piano teacher in a studio in Boston, where he worked for several years before becoming an independent piano teacher. He appeared on radio programs in the 1930’s, playing and discussing music.
His experience was extensive. After serving in the Army in World War II, he went back to college and got an A.B. degree from Harvard College in music. In his senior year, he took five music courses. One was a course in composition with the renowned composer Irving Fine. He told us children that on the final exam, Fine said: “You have been studying composition all semester. Your requirement for the final is to write a four-part piece.”
My former therapist, discussing my versatility in writing, once brought up the actor James Cagney during a session with me. He quoted Cagney as once having said, “I could always play any part, any type of character, they asked me to.” He said that this was a significant statement. My father was the same way. He played in nightclubs, on a pleasure boat making daily cruises, at ice skating shows, briefly in a burlesque house orchestra, with back up Big Bands, as an accompanist to singers such as Dinah Shore (who was making a demo record early in her career), at functions such as wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, as a church organist, and for many years as the entertainment in a restaurant/lounge. He played the accordion when required (e.g., on the excursion boat) and the organ in a Unitarian church. He told me, “I never mastered the organ,” explaining that to really do so required mastering the pedals and stops. This admission by him was not a sign of weakness. It showed the kind of awareness that professionals have of what their true strengths are, as well as their limitations. Similarly to my father’s case, I know that I excel as an essayist and writer of scholarly articles, and have reportorial and research skills. At the same time, I know that I can’t write fiction or poetry.
My father once had a revealing talk with me, which I never forgot, about his technical skills and expertise as a pianist. It wasn’t braggadocio, it was a matter of actual fact.
For years, my father was the pianist at the Chart Room, a restaurant bar in Cataumet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He would play there six nights a week for around six hours each night. People came to hear him play.
My father told me something that might have seemed trivial or not worth noting, but that I found quite significant for what it said about him, and his self-awareness when it came to professional capabilities. He would take a 15 to 20 minute break after a set. During the break (when he was probably enjoying a drink at the bar and would be chatting with customers), someone, it seemed, would always get up, sit down on the empty piano stool, and start playing. My father had no problem with this.
As my father told me, they would play simple tunes and enjoy emulating him, encouraging customers to sing along. My father pointed out to me — this was significant — that they would always play in the key of C. To my father, this distinguished the amateurs from him. He could play in any key that was required and was proficient at accompanying vocalists and singers because of this. And, by the way, my father had perfect pitch. One of my siblings would be practicing piano in the living room when my father was in the dining room. If they hit a wrong key, he would say, without leaving his chair, “E flat!” or “G sharp!”
Like my father with the advantages of not only being born with musical talent but also of having had professional experience — where he honed his skills and kept developing and refining them — professional experience in writing has been invaluable to me. One learns certain lessons as a professional that are crucial to one’s development. And, then, as was true in my father’s case, and was also true in mine, there is formal education.
What seems to be the case with most people (athletes are a good example) is that there has to be inborn talent — one has to have the “genes,” endowment, or makeup for achieving the highest levels of excellence in writing/verbal expression, music, or sports — but then one will never reach that level without rigorous training and professional experience. This often means formal training, such as a good writing instructor(s) or education in general, or a professional level coach. Some writers and athletes seem to be naturals who do not get that much formal training. But think of all those who do. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell come to mind. They started out as writers in college and graduate school. Similarly, my writing instruction began in the “writing workshop” (writers’ boot camp?) of my high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe — where we wrote almost every day, and were trained to do so “on demand,” on any given topic, in class — and continued with a superb education in the humanities in college and as a postgraduate special student taking college courses in languages, editing, and translation.
My point is that some would be athletes, musicians, writers, and so forth never progress beyond the amateur stage. In the playgrounds and parks of New York, there is a plethora of amateur athletes who exhibit great talent — basketball players, say — but who, at some point, never progressed beyond achieving distinction on sandlots and in playgrounds.
From professional experience, which means writing for pay and actual publication, I have learned:
— to become less fearful of criticism and failure as a writer
— to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and how to “shoehorn” in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space
— becoming hyper attuned to the actual editor who you turn your work into, and to the “editor in the sky,” and thereby to become more vigilant and careful in trying to avoid errors, having the final, published piece and how it will look always very much in one’s consciousness (a rule of thumb I learned when working as a freelancer for a daily newspaper: if your pieces go into the paper virtually unedited, that means you are meeting expectations and can consider yourself a success)
— continually engaging in fact checking as one writes (the way a copy editor does) and not relying on someone else to do it for you — in short, having a hyper sense of responsibility when it comes to accuracy. (A good writer knows that when one is sloppy about facts — as well as about grammar, for that matter — the whole piece is likely to be called into question.)
— being very alert to one’s audience — that is, readers — and cautious about making assertions or stating facts that might be ambiguous or questionable.
Regarding the “inner editor,” I notice that nonprofessional writers — good ones, well-educated ones — frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly because they lack professional experience. For example, a professional writer working in a newsroom or for a publishing firm knows where a period or comma goes: inside or outside closing quotation marks. Some basic style points have never been learned by amateurs who are otherwise excellent writers. The same thing with spelling. I never really learned to spell until I wrote professionally. An instructor I had in journalism school (a longtime New York Times reporter) told the class that there was zero tolerance in the newsroom for stories submitted with any errors whatsoever, including typos. Another way of putting this is that any professional (including writers) learns at the outset of his or her career some common mistakes to avoid. But you can spot the amateurs because of the obvious errors (small but nevertheless “impermissible” ones) they make.
I worked for four years in the publishing industry before getting my first freelance writing assignments. My job was writing advertising copy for scholarly/technical books and textbooks. The job and subsequent ones enabled me to acquire an essential skill: how to process and digest information for rendering, so to speak, in publishable form.
Someone hands you a prospectus — often no more — of a book about to be published. One of the first I ever wrote advertising copy for was a textbook on neurology. From a professor’s dry summary of a few paragraphs (often leaving out key points that would be relevant from a sales point of view), I would come up with a cogent, readable advertising brochure. I faced similar challenges early on as a freelance writer for reference book publishers and as a freelance reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper and a business magazine. One has to dig for information and quotes, weigh them, verify them, then do the best one can with what one has by way of facts/information and quotes. Until one has worked for a daily newspaper, I doubt anyone realizes how difficult it can be to get good quotes. To get an interview. To dig out information and verify its accuracy. I once wrote a routine article having to do with an elementary school. I was at my cubicle in the newsroom for a good part of the evening calling a source again and again to make sure I had all of the school personnel’s names spelled correctly and got other facts about the school (from the picayune to what some of the major issues were) right.
The editor of the business magazine liked my writing and had me writing a couple of stories every month, including cover stories. When you are a beginning writer, you are thrilled to get any sort of assignment.
The editor asked me to write an article about cooling systems (e.g., fans) used in commercial buildings, which ones were most cost and energy efficient and so on. It was not a topic of interest to me, but it was to businesspeople in the area, and that was what mattered to the editor. Needless to say, I had zero knowledge, but I interviewed building managers, asking them not only which systems they preferred but also to educate and bring me up to speed on the subject.
I pulled it off a la James Cagney.
— Roger W. Smith
The following is the text of an email of mine to a relative, dated February 17, 2000. It was buried in one of my file cabinets:
From today’s New York Post —
“Lake Placid: My Winter Blunder-Land,” feature article by Gersh Kuntzman:
At 22, [Oksana] Baiul still looks like the day she won the Olympic gold in Lillehammer in 1994. Her face is the classic Russian mix of Dostoevskian brashness, Tokstoyan grace and Chekhovian petulance.
Would you not agree that this verbally gifted writer has — with dashing brio and a wonderful mélange of ingredients comprised of piquancy, élan, brio, and mellifluence, admixed with a dollop of not un-Russian tartar sauce and relish — brilliantly grasped the essence of the Slav “mystique”? [RWS comment]
Addendum: Taking another look at this over the top sentence (the second one from the Post article, above), it strikes me how some writers, in their eagerness to dazzle, have scant regard for anything approaching accuracy. The mot juste, the phrase which nails an impression or idea are desiderata — nicht wahr? The writer no doubt thought calling Oksana Baiul the epitome of “Dostoevskian brashness” would impress readers. But, are Dostoevsky’s characters known for brashness? And, what is “Chekhovian petulance,” I would like to know? Is it different from Dostoevskian petulance?
Goes to show that, proves the point: the first responsibility of a writer to his readers is accuracy . Once the reader can trust you on that score, you can go ahead and try to be clever. But even that might blow up in your face.
— Roger W. Smith