|Bad editing afflicts even the best publications
November 14, 1999
For top-quality journalistic writing, you couldn’t do much better than the discursive, thought-provoking essays in The New York Review of Books.
I used to read the Review regularly, but then I became a journalist, and found scant time for leisure reading. I happened upon the Nov. 4 issue by accident while browsing a newsstand. I picked it up because it featured a Joan Didion review of Edmund Morris’s controversial book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.
Though I hadn’t read her books, I knew Didion by reputation, so I figured she’d have something interesting to say about Dutch, which has been roundly savaged because Morris wrote himself into the “memoir” as a fictitious character. I was thinking of writing a column, not about Dutch, but about reviewers’ reactions to it, so I picked up the Review.
I got a column all right, but not the one I expected. Before I go any further, I’d like you to read this verbatim transcript of Didion’s lead. Read it in one go without rereading any portion:
“Edmund Morris, who became in 1985 the choice of Michael Deaver and Nancy Reagan for a curious and unprecedented post, that of ‘in-house historian’ at the White House, or official biographer to a sitting president, was born in Nairobi, Kenya, the son of a pilot for East African Airways, a self described ‘colonial boy’ who grew up believing that books were written only in ‘another, superior hemisphere’ and who after two years at Rhodes University in South Africa, opting for that ‘superior hemisphere,’ dropped out without receiving a degree and worked, from 1964 until 1968, as an advertising copywriter in London. In 1968, he moved with his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris, to New York, where, according to the 1989 Current Biography Yearbook, the entries in which are submitted to its subject for approval before publication, he ‘applied his versatile writing skills to a variety of freelance projects… including poetry, travel articles, science fiction, radio scripts, screenplays, advertising copy, and mail-order catalogs.’
I got lost somewhere around “a self-described colonial boy,” which ambiguously refers either to Morris or his father. How did you do? If you made it to the bottom without losing your breath or train of thought, you probably belong to the select few who can make sense of Hegel.
Didion opens the first sentence in 1985 at the White House when Morris is assigned the task of writing Reagan’s biography, and ends up in 1968 London—via Kenya and South Africa—with Morris as an advertising copy writer. What one has to do with the other is anybody’s guess.
Somewhere here, there’s likely a useful commentary on Dutch, but I’m damned if I could find it. Didion lards her sentences with so many prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses and parenthetical asides that following the narrative thread is a chore, but reading shouldn’t be a chore.
She writes like someone in love with sound and importance of her own voice. As I slogged through her verbiage, I began to paint a mental picture of what kind of person writes like this. Though I have no idea what Didion looks like, I imagined a self-obsessed name-dropping society dame gossiping away at a table in a ritzy club, gesticulating with a long cigarette holder, oblivious to the fact that she’s boring the knickers off everyone.
For the record, Didion’s lead paragraph contains 158 words—99 in the first sentence, 59 in the second. Long sentences are not bad by definition, but this sort of pretentious, impenetrable ooze has no business appearing in print. Yet printed it was. How it came to be printed is the real issue, and the inspiration for this column.
No matter how badly Didion wrote, she wasn’t responsible for her review being inflicted on the reading public. It had to pass through the hands of an editor, perhaps more than one. Ostensibly, an editor at the Review is trained better than most to distinguish good writing from bad, and to make bad writing presentable, if possible. I don’t intend to condemn the Review solely on the basis of one piece, but the fact that such bad writing got into this newspaper is deplorable.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Turgid writing, sloppy punctuation, misused words and quotation marks thrown around like confetti plague print journalism. As more and more students leave high school and university with substandard writing skills, editing standards will naturally reflect that decline.
In the 1970s, public school teachers stopped emphasizing grammar, or even teaching it. Certain ideology-driven educrats decided that making children learn all those rules was hurting their self-esteem and self-expression.
This was also the time when “deconstructionism”—a nonsense word—began to infect our universities, especially the English faculties, in a big way. Its acolytes teach, among other things, that an author’s point of view is no more valid than the reader’s, and that standards of good writing are utterly arbitrary and reflect an unjustifiable élitist bias. In a world of absolute relativity (nihilism), accuracy or objective learning is a mirage—interpretation is all that matters.
It’s easy to see how interest in good English skills can plummet in such a climate. Why care about good writing when the written word has no intrinsic value? Why edit bad writing when any writer’s “style” is by definition as good as anyone else’s.
Those who want to read about the deplorable state of English faculties at American universities should turn to Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco’s superb essay “The Decline and Fall of Literature,” in the same issue of the Review.
Until we start emphasizing grammar and good writing over ideology, newspapers should set a better example.