Category Archives: writing (the craft of writing; good vs. bad writing; my training, experience, and lessons re same)

he used to think the fault lay in himself



“[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

  October 2019

pompous? arrogant?




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.

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



‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic’
This post focuses on an opinion piece in Friday’s New York Times:


The Dominance of the White Male Critic

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

By Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang

The New York Times

July 5, 2019

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

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

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






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.

Very pretentious.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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




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

new site: Roger’s rhetoric


I have a new site:


Roger’s rhetoric


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”)


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


Saul Bellow on writing



“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

    July 2018

Where have you gone, George Orwell?




“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

   June 2018






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.


the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)



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

    June 2018