A few days ago, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (July 15, 2018) happened to come my way, and I copied two sentences to discuss in today’s post.
The first is from “The Urbane Bookworm,” James Wolcott’s review of Near-Death Experiences…and Others by Robert Gottlieb.
Gottlieb is an author and editor who has crammed more into his lifetime than most ordinary mortals could do in a century. One of Gottlieb’s pastimes is ballet, and – besides attending and reviewing performances for 70 years – he served on the board for the New York City Ballet.
Here’s the beginning of James Wolcott’s assessment of one of Gottlieb’s ballet reviews:
Heavy hangs the crown on choreographers, too, burdened by the romantic cliche of “the Anguish of the Tormented Artist,” as Gottlieb dubs it in his angry review of Boris Eifman’s biographical ballet “Musagete,” a Ken Russell-size vulgarization of the preeminent ballet genius of the 20th century, George Balanchine, which dishonored the stage of the New York City Ballet in 2004.
Sixty words crammed into one sentence. That, my friends, is bad writing. I don’t care how carefully you balance the clauses or how precisely you position the commas. There’s no excuse for forcing readers to battle their way through that much information before finally reaching the period and getting a chance to catch a breath.
On the facing page, Paul Begala wrote “A Pinch of C-Span and a Dash of ‘Sex and the City.'” Begala was reviewing From the Corner of the Oval, a memoir of a White House job by Beck Dorey-Stein. When Dorey-Stein was 26, she answered a Craigslist ad for a stenographer – and found herself working for President Obama. Here’s Begala’s description of what Dorey-Stein experienced on the job:
Advance teams and Secret Service agents arrive ahead of time, scouring travel routes and sweeping rooms for explosives. While the particulars are surreal (who travels with a surgical suite on their plane?), even the most unusual systems, in time, become routine.
Notice anything? I did – the much-despised singular they, right there in the New York Times Book Review (“who travels with a surgical suite on their plane?”). And I say – good for Paul Begala! The singular they has been part of the language since the 14th century. It’s much smoother and easier than the clumsy he-or-she construction we were all taught to use.
By the way, Begala’s two sentences add up to only 41 words. They’re readable and get the point across. This is good writing.
Everyday reading gives us many opportunities to think – and rethink – our ideas about good and bad writing. I’m always doing little assessments as I read, and it’s a practice I recommend to you.