Monday, March 24, 2014

Writing 101

Nothing stupefies the amateur so much as what liberties the experts take with impunity. The amateur toils away in obscurity, following the rules, while the expert tosses them to the wind amid approbation. Harrumph! Yet the grammatical misdemeanors of Ciceronian hyperbaton, of Catullus' elisions, Shakespeare's neologisms, and Eliot's poetical periphrases are not mine to forgive but the Muses', and the beauty of such works is the vindication and celebration of genius over grammar. Of course not everyone billed as an expert owns the name, and it's the venerated balderdash that irks most. The trend today is ostensible authors publishing middlebrow fare  to whoop for their books. Alas, since the passing of its founder, Arts and Letters Daily seems to specialize in promoting this aggrandizement.

Today's Arts and Letters docket brings us the case of Katie Roiphe in The Financial Times. Forthwith I would like to throw the FT editor under the bus with the author. Second, I want to postulate and hopefully demonstrate beyond its exemplarity as bad writing that the piece is a failure to persuade

Even the sloppiest authors usually get the first sentence approximately right.
Do you know someone with insomnia who wakes up at 4am and ends up working and reading novels and cleaning closets and cycling through anxieties until the sky turns pink? I know her and sometimes I am her.
The purpose here is to introduce the character of an insomniac and make her sympathetic and engaging. The detail first, though, that plenty of people wake up at the wee hour of 4AM, or thereabout, to go to work. No pity points there, and while I comprehend that the point is she loses sleep, regardless of when it is, few but the literati elite will sympathize with her pre-sunrise wakeup. Lesson: know your audience.

The author is trying to convey the desperate meandering from task to task that is the torture of the insomniac seeking sleep. The problem is that she hasn't chosen examples which exemplify the condition or linked them, i.e. written, in a way which conveys the condition. She uses polysyndeton, extra conjunctions, which conveys quantity, but quantity is neither the only nor the most important characterization of the experience of insomnia. She doesn't write to convey the variety and often frivolity of the tasks, her desperation, or the interminable duration of the sleepless hours dripping by. There is a substantial disconnect between style and content in which the former betrays the latter to languor.

Now I've relaxed about using the objective case in English, even to the point where "than me" doesn't up by dander, at least when used without a linking verb. Still: I am her? The author doesn't make the mistake later so the possibilities remain that the paragraph was not edited or that the author, or editor, thinks the correct alternative would cause more confusion or grief in its uneducated audience. In either case, unfortunate.

The next paragraph:
I often hear friends and acquaintances talking about being up in the middle of the night, worrying, whirring, working. It’s not a boast but there is, to a certain extent, a personal mythology being advanced. There is a sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps these anxious friends are tapping into. There is a definite and possibly weird element of pride.
Talking about being up in the middle of a lousy sentence. What a prepositional participial mishmash. The asyndeton and alliteration of worrying, whirring, working here is the same mistake as in the first paragraph and is whirring the right onomatopoetic word here? Insomniacs fly quickly about? Before she was cycling and reading. What mixed, unclear imagery. The remainder of the section is a confusion of indecipherable phrases:
  • advancing a personal mythology
  • sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps
  • a definite and possible weird element of pride
Their tales of insomnia are stories about how they came into existence? The morale is sort of counter-intuitive? The pride is definitely present, and possibly weird? The next paragraph, which desperately needs a concrete thesis, hypothesis, or at least definition of something, doubles down on the sophomoric adjectives:
  • pretty universally
  • bad thing
  • possible that certain segments
  • strange level
  • common mystery
Then we read about the "tremendous artifice" of the energy via an example about coffee-drinkers craving more coffee, without explaining how it's related, but she keeps describing "energy" and so we don't know if she's talking about the coffee-drinkers or something else or anything at all.

Oh, and how can you be jangly? By clanging pots and pans? Perhaps she uses the less common meaning of upset, but coffee and/or insomnia now makes you irritable or upset? When? How? Please, dear writer, help me!

The next paragraph is cheap piece of rear-end covering, admitting that some people may be clinically anxious, meaning I don't know what exactly but presumably that in some cases anxiety is objective, involuntary, or a disease. This is just a cheap bow to science and reason as she plunks ahead without investigating how the science might impact her argument. Then she goes on to use the word addictive, so whatever.
There is a particular vitality in anxiety, a sort of nervy power that one can’t say is fun, exactly, but is nonetheless slightly addictive. It can be productive, in a crashing way. It gives us a feeling of motion, of momentum, of wheels turning. One gets used to it, maybe seeks it out. One inhabits it, sets up camp.
This is a noteworthy paragraph because it both demonstrates how not to depict an idea and is the point at which I get annoyed. She keeps using delimiting words like particular, sort of, feeling of, used to without actually following up with a definition, giving use the illusion of explanation. The style is vexing to serious readers and pleasing to the soft-minded. The next sentence is a cake-taker.

The power is not fun (but it is in some way, we're supposed to gather, I guess), but nonetheless slightly addictive? So something which may or may not be fun is anyway addictive. Slightly. Perfectly clear. It's also productive, in a crashing way. What exactly about the act of crashing is meant here? The energy give us a feeling of motion. So is there any actual motion? One maybe seeks it out, but if he doesn't, then does he accidentally set up camp there? 

The next is a sad spectacle that makes you long for a real writer:
She used as an inspiring example an employee who successfully battled stress by stopping to gaze at a tomato plant in the concrete, urban nightmare of his life.
Aside from its Oprah-esque you-can-too tune-in-at-11 mentality, it leaves out a relevant detail: how often did the man gaze: regularly, or once? Makes a difference, no? 

Anyway, you can read on if you want more phrases like invented a thing called, usually sort of blah, and pretty much, but writing like this is frustrating enough when it's about nonsense, but aggravating when it's about something good. It cheats you of both knowledge and experience. A sentence of G. K. Chesteron accomplishes the feat Ms. Roiphe missed:
One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it.
He lures is in with a long unrolling of simple words, grabs our attention with suddenly strike, slows down again to set two locations, and then slows down more as if asking us to lean in for a secret. Halfway he masterfully shifts to the perfect tense, making us feel as if we've missed the point, but rushes on about the importance of that point, finally calling us a fool for having missed it. The experience of reading the sentence is the topic of the sentence. 

It's not unlike Ms. Roiphe's piece with talk of "strange moods" and apparent simplicity, except it works and is beautifully brief, clear, and specific. We are curious about the experience and eager read it again, and it's a pity when you can't say that about writing. I sympathize with Ms. Roiphe's premise and so acutely feel the piece's lack of cogency. How frustrating it is to see just the glimmers behind the words instead of the idea in full radiance. 

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