Friday, January 14, 2011

The limited relevance of "bad writing"

(I know, this post is a little self-serving.)

I recently read Adam Gopnik's NY'er piece on Churchill via Alan's feed; I enjoyed it, as I enjoy all of Gopnik's articles, but was occasionally tripped up by how awful the writing was, and was surprised in the end by how little it hurt the piece.

Exhibit A: About a speech by Stanley Baldwin,
This has Orwellian virtues. It is lucid, clear, intelligent, and even subtle. It is also flat, fatuous, and commonplace, three things Churchill never is.

What could it possibly mean for something to be cleverly fatuous, or subtly commonplace, or fatuously subtle, or lucidly unclear?

Exhibit B: About Churchill's fondness for military stunts:
Hastings ascribes Churchill’s military preferences to his temperament—“He wanted war, like life, to be fun”—but surely the mystic chords of national memory played as large a role. British military history between Waterloo and the Great War was mostly peripheral, in the sense that relatively few pitched battles and lots and lots of opportunistic skirmishes, raids, and bluffs had made an empire. On the other hand, the strategy that the Americans believed in rhymed and chimed with the strategies of Sherman and Grant: find the enemy, attack him as directly, and stupidly, as necessary, lose men, make the enemy lose more, and then try to do it again the next day. Neither army was eager to waste lives. But the American theory of keeping men alive meant not throwing them away in sideshows; the British, not inserting them in meat grinders.

In the second sentence, "peripheral" is entirely the wrong word and what follows is clunky; you don't really have any idea of what the sentence is doing until you've read it over twice. In the sentence after that, "rhymed and chimed" is gratuitous and grating. But then everything comes together again with the delightful antithesis that ends the paragraph. "On average" this paragraph is badly written, but this doesn't matter at all because it's only the good bits you remember.

Exhibit C:
Barbara Leaming, in her new biography of the older Churchill, “Churchill Defiant: Fighting On, 1945-1955” (HarperCollins; $26.99), italicizes what Lukacs has already established: that, in the early fifties, Churchill was desperate to make a “supreme effort to bridge the gulf between the two worlds” and seek some kind of European understanding with Stalin and then with his successors.

This is a dreadful metaphor. While there is some precedent for "italicize" in a figurative sense, it certainly isn't a dead metaphor; to "italicize" an establishment means nothing literally (unless it refers to the leaning tower of Pisa, which also happens to be Italian); "emphasize" or "underline" would have been entirely adequate.

And yet how little it all matters... The moral I'd draw from this is the same as that I'd draw from Gopnik's discussion of Churchill's style -- a few resonant and/or clever lines make up for a lot of missteps; very few essays with quotable aphorisms are considered "bad writing."


zbs said...

Oh how I loathe his writing. I don't even like the parts you do, such as "sideshows and meat grinders," which is plenty graphic but not at all precise. But I too often enjoy the articles—probably because the subjects are good and he is obviously perceptive. But he's just that orator so in love with his own voice and the plenitude of theatrical devices he's in command of: those over-extended rhetorical oppositions, strings of alliteration, chiming rhymes, fancy noise rather than simple resonance. The best we can hope for (and this is what you're saying) is to piece together a kind of synthesized understanding by reconstructing the language itself through some intermediary interpretation, where it is not muddied up by all this filthy apparatus.

... I don't mean to say that those devices are bad in themselves, and I'm not at all a "Politics and the English Language" prescriptivist; but they ought to serve a purpose; here they are just gaudy frames that distract from the picture.

Sarang said...

Yes "it's the thought that counts" as it were. What I liked about the antithesis was less the phrasing than the novelty, to me, of the idea behind it.

zbs said...

And if he killed his darlings there would be nothing left.

Sarang said...

And that's true too... has he gotten worse of late? I've read lots of his articles and generally the writing doesn't, like, intrude.