Thursday, August 19, 2010

'Writer needed imediatley! Must be Knowlegible & Hily Skild.'

Returning for a moment to the subject of writers and writing... Following is the first graph (the "lede," as we say in the biz) of a baseball story disgorged (one hesitates to say "written") by Mark Bowman, who apparently outputs his stuff to

This wasn't the time of year for the Braves to find themselves dealing with the fact that they weren't going to be getting the middle-of-the-lineup production that they had projected to receive from Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus.
Come again?? Look, this isn't about dumping on poor Mark, who's just doing his job (even though a quick check of his blog reveals that the above phrase isn't exactly anomalous). But I'm sorry, there's no excuse for a sentence like that to see the light of day. No, not even in a lowly sports piece. Thomas Boswell and Pat Jordan and Gary Smith write "sports pieces," too. And their work, in my opinionand not just mineholds its own with some of the best writing of any kind, anywhere. If you never again read a word about sports, you owe it to yourself to read this piece by Smith. It is not, in the end, about basketball, or even sports. It's about values. About hypocrisy. About the human tendency to rationalize. In a very real sense, it is about everything. (Oh, in the spirit of full disclosure, I also like it because it appears in the very same issue of SI with this piece by yours truly.)

See, this is what I was driving at about the way editors and publishers approach their so-called profession nowadays. They know they don't have to pay colossal sums to find "writers." So if the real writers, the good writers, want too much money (or in any case cost more money than a given media outlet is prepared to pay), they hire Mark Bowman. He'll produce the kind of stuff that a Mark Bowman produces, and they'll run with it, and most of the fans won't particularly give a damn (though they may have to read some of Bowman's passages two or three times to fully make sense of what he's saying). Everyone's happy.

Except that there's one more tiny nail in the coffin of the craft that I regarded with such awe and reverence when I was up in my room at age 12, reading and reading and reading some more.


John said...

Steve, publishing is not a profession; it's a business. And trust me, it's not a very profitable business to be in nowadays, especially periodicals. There's been a steady decline in circulation over the last decade and advertising revenue is way down. Consequently, the margins just aren't there.

The bottom-line is that what they're prepared to pay is all they can afford to pay. It's that or close the doors for a lot of them. Granted, quality suffers but like you said the reading/buying public doesn’t seem to care all that much, or it wouldn't be so.

Best Regards,

Steve Salerno said...

John: The saddest part is that I can't disagree with anything you say. The business model may simply be unsustainable--if they also want to keep the quality up (unless decent writers suddenly become so terrified of going broke that they're willing to work for peanuts...and still in the shell, at that).

Another signpost: The circulation of Harper's Magazine has gone up slightly from what it was when I did my first piece for them in 1982, but still lolls at around 220,000 monthly readers. By comparison, People Magazine is read by 3.75 million, well, people. And People is hardly the worst offender; there's some good writing in there, now and then.

This also speaks to your comment about the buying public's lowbrow (no-brow?) tastes.

Rational Thinking said...

Steve - thanks for linking to that article by Gary Smith. What wonderful writing. And your piece on father and son coaching is excellent.

As to bad (or possibly incoherent) writing - one of my favourites of this genre is, I think, by P G Wodehouse, when he quotes a young cleric's fervent prayer: "Lord, help us to take our hearts and look them in the eye, however hard it may be". Or something very like that :-)

Steve Salerno said...

RT: Thanks for taking the time to read the pieces. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone would start the Smith piece and not finish it, despite its (prodigious) length and scope. It's the kind of writing that impels you forward and, when you are done, leaves you with a certain disquiet that has the hairs on the back of your neck standing at attention. It is just marvelous, marvelous writing. I used to use it in my writing classes all the time as a brilliant example of literary nonfiction (to the occasional, elitist dismay of one of my department heads: "Sports?? You're teaching out of a sports magazine...!?").

Dimension Skipper said...

A very surprising place to find such a detailed piece on the process of writing (specifically non-fiction) and other eventual peripheral details...

Finding Your Writing Voice without Losing Your Mind
By Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D. at 'World of Psychology'

I thought it was a very thorough overview of the journey from wannabe writer to writer-in-fact.

Steve probably has no reason to read it, of course, but I found it interesting and would recommend it to others as worth reading re the subject at hand.

Dimension Skipper said...

Also, Steve, I tried to read the Smith piece one day, but—and not to be contrary just for the sake of contrariness, though admittedly I can sometimes be that—I couldn't make it very far into it. Why?...

I found the beginning to be way too choppy for my taste—a couple short sentences setting a scene and a mood, but not really giving any real info, then a related news blurb and... repeat too many times. It fractured my attention and did not draw me in, but rather repelled me. My gut reaction was... "This screams 'LOOK AT ME, AT HOW STYLISH I AM AS A WRITER!'"

I have the same problem sometimes with science fiction stories where the author tries too hard (imo of course) to impress and show how "literary" he is. I just want a good story and good characters. I'll take an interesting plot with significant forward story progression at a decent pace any day over "stylish." That could just be me, but I know what I likes.

Another reason I didn't like the "choppy" style is that the article itself is presented so choppily as well... 12 frickin' pages!? I wouldn't mind except that there isn't that much on a single page. I could see breaking it up over four pages, max, but no more. I know dialup users are rare these days, but when you are on dialup you just want the article, not twelve pages of small bits of article surrounded by ads, promos, links to other magazine bits, and other peripheral nonsense. I can't in fairness hold that against the article or Mr. Smith, but still... and I'm just sayin'... It doesn't help.

I've been known to blindly page through such articles without actually reading, but cutting-n-pasting the text into a Word doc so I could read it all later in its entirety, offline and without the distractions of a typical web page—if it's something that really is of significant interest to me.

I think I'm just not that into sports articles in general any more (like I was in my youth) or the subject matter in that one (though I recognize the more general non-sports-centricness of it). Not having read it, I can't say for sure, but it seemed pretty clear to me the piece was going to be one documenting injustice toward a young man as a result of one very brief moment of youthful poor judgement. I'm not saying that story isn't worth telling, but I didn't get drawn into this particular one as anything special in THE WAY it was told.

Note: I just skipped ahead to page 12 and saw that the story has a potentially "happy" ending. OK. Fine. But it still appears to have been pretty much what I surmised early on. I didn't feel the need to read it word for word to get the basic message.

On a related aside, I remember when I used to actually read the sports section in the Philadelphia Inquirer and I always found myself skipping the first 10 paragraphs or so of any column by Bill Lyon. It just took him that long to get past the "writerly" stuff and eventually start homing in on his actual point.

...Just my 2¢ to use the proverbial non-writerly hoary cliché.

Dimension Skipper said...

Interesting quote of the day today within the context of your couple of recent posts on writing, the art amd value of...

Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values.
—Willa Cather