Monday, October 11, 2010

So why am I doing this again? (whines the not-so-famous author)

UPDATE, Thurs., Oct. 14. Speaking of articles and this crazy writing thing, my Skeptic cover story on the cultural obsession with happiness, "Ignorance of Bliss," is now in bookstores everywhere.

Just an FYI for anyone who doesn't have plans for some forthcoming evening and might really enjoy sitting down with 5500 not-so-cheery words....

===============================

The writing business has changed a great deal since I sent out my first manuscript in the fall of 1981
. I'd put together a longish magazine memoir about my then current livelihood, which consisted of selling custom wall mirrors mostly in New York's dicey Harlem sectionwhere I was often the only white face I saw, not counting cops and firemen, between the time I arrived in the city each morning and the time I headed back over the Triborough Bridge to the suburbs each night, well after dark. In a larger sense, the piece was thus about racial tensions and the "easy hypocrisy" of the liberal thinking of the era (my own thinking included).

I recall quite distinctly the experience of going to a Manhattan bookstore between sales calls, spending a couple of hours browsing the racks of magazine after magazine, and makin
g up a list of about two dozen I adjudged good candidates for such a piece. At the top of that list was Harper's; I thought the magazine "sounded like me." I did not yet know that literary greenhorns don't usually presume to send their very first manuscript, unbidden, to a prestigious magazine like Harper's, which each month offers its cozy subscriber base the work of the premier thinkers and writers in America and the world. I intend no haughtiness in saying any of this. It's just,well, fact. But Harper's loved the piece and ran it the following January in an issue whose cover story announced the coming coke-fueled crime wave in Miami. (And the year after that, the same subject got a decidedly more pop-culture treatment in the Pacino classic, Scarface.) The best-selling author who'd been informally mentoring me in breaking into the business was stunned: "Harper's! You got a piece in...Harper's? I never got a piece in Harper's!"

The story was called "Going Uptown," and it pains me to say* that it features my favorite opening line, and arguably the best one I've yet to write despite the K2-sized pile of additional words I've churned out in the intervening years: "I stand, conspicuously Caucasian, in the lobby of 2937 Eighth Avenue."**

Today I'd have trouble making up a list of a half-dozen good candidates for such a piece...if that many. To its credits, Harper's still buys these types of stories now and then, but my spies tell me that the magazine doesn't pay that much more than it paid me three full decades ago in the fall of 1981. (And
I'll never forget thisa few months later when I hand-delivered a second piece they'd asked me to write, editor Mike Kinsley sits down, opens up a ledger book and writes me a check on the spot. Doesn't quite work that way anymore, you writers who are reading this, does it now...) And to some degree that's because it's a buyer's market: Many of the other magazines that were then on my list either ceased publication or have so dramatically altered their format, focus and/or business plan that there's simply no place for a piece like the one I wrote...let alone at the 4800 words I submitted it! (To give some context to those who don't really understand the significance of such a number, 4800 words would translate to seven or eight solid magazine pages, with today's art-heavy layouts; maybe more. You don't see a story of that size nowadays unless it's a revelation about a major crisis in Prince William's love life, or maybe Britney's ongoing upskirt issues.)

Of course, situations like the present buyer's market don't develop in a vacuum. Magazine markets (as well as other publishing markets) are a reflection of what the public wants to read. "Going Uptown" was a combination memoir/think piece. Today's readers
to the extent that people truly even read anymoreseldom are interested in a memoir that wasn't "written by"*** some celebrity, and seldom seem interested in thinking at all. We are a pretty literate bunch here on SHAMblog, no doubt about it, but I ask you: How many reasonably lengthy works have you read in the past month just because they "made me think"? I'm talking about open-ended articles that raised more questions than they answered and/or dealt with subject matter that might never have occurred to you to read about, given your customary interests and lifestyle. For that matter, how many things have you read at any length that challenged your intellectual biases instead of confirming them? If you consider yourself an atheist, have you read When Bad Things Happen to Good People? If you're an avid churchgoer, have you read The God Delusion? Hey, I'm just askin'.

I don't really know where I'm "going with" this post, but it makes me feel rather bad that so much of what passes for writing in 2010 is nothing more than gossip or how-to or pissing-and-moaning of one form or another. To young people weaned on Facebook and now Twitter, writing = venting or just "saying something." Standards for the written word are not much higher than standards for the spoken word
and that's a dramatic change from when I started out in this business. Most magazine writing today is either for titillation purposes or has some practical/pragmatic agenda. (The tacky genius of Cosmo at the height of its glory was that it managed to do both, via zesty pieces like "He Wants to Put His What, Where?") Craft is largely irrelevant in this equation. Who you are matters a great deal more to editors than what you have to say and how you say it. If that sounds elitist, I ask you: When did it become "elitist" to expect people to think? To "stretch" a little bit intellectually? To let an idea play out to a certain depth, and over a certain span, such that readers have to wait longer for the payoff (or must provide it themselves based on thinking about what they've just read)?

Is it too much to ask that every now and then, consumers who aren't professional writers read something that's written at a higher level than they could've written it themselves, if they sat down at the computer for a half-hour?

Maybe it is. I don't know anymore. I do know that a member of my own family said to me, just the other day, "Writing is communicating. That's all it is." Is that so? But a grunt communicates. So does a scream. So does a withering look or, in a sense, a fart. So does a tweet that says, "I just finished scrubbing the bathtub and I am soooo tired!" If that's really all that writing is, then I guess I wasted three decades that I could've (should've?) spent selling more $2500 wall mirrors to people who lived in buildings that didn't even have front doors.

*
I certainly don't mean to compare myself to Orson Welles, either, but I sometimes feel as if I've ended up in the same sad predicament, never to equal my very own, poor-man's Citizen Kane.
** It's important to realize that Harlem was not, in those days, the kind of trendy, gentrifying place where certain horny ex-presidents would feel comfortable maintaining a business office. Indeed, it was ground zero in an almost incomprehensibly violent ongoing war between the Black Liberation Army (BLA) and New York City cops. The sprawling housing project mentioned in the first line of my story had been the scene of one of the most infamous police ambushes in Manhattan history, as recounted in former DA Robert Tannenbaum's riveting "period piece," Badge of the Assassin: Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones (who was himself black, but whom the BLA considered a "traitor") were lured to the complex by a phony 911 call, then savagely gunned down from behind. Especially during the beginning of my stint in Harlem, the early 1970s, the BLA and its imitator groups were not above doing things like waylaying white salesmen and tossing them off a rooftop.
*** i.e. ghostwritten.

57 comments:

Lena Phoenix said...

"For that matter, how many things have you read at any length that challenged your intellectual biases instead of confirming them?"

One thing that gives me hope in this area is The Week Magazine. It's basic format is to provide a summary of the major news events, followed by a discussion of opinions about the issue from both ends of the political spectrum.

The fact that every single person we've told about The Week finds as compelling reading as we do makes me think that, just maybe, there are still people who want to be exposed to more than just reinforcement of their own pre-established opinions.

But then, most of our friends are open-minded liberals to begin with, so maybe I'm being overly optimistic about that.

Steve Salerno said...

Lena: You imply that "open-minded liberals" are somehow more open-minded than, say, open-minded conservatives. Do you think this is true? And just out of curiosity, does any of your friends ever actually switch sides or at least modify his/her original feelings based on anything found in The Week?

To be clear, these aren't rhetorical, "in your face"-type questions. I'm sincerely asking.

Anonymous said...

I wish people would stop beginning a sentence with 'and' and 'but'. Commas, folks, learn about them, they ensure a good written rhythm that isn't just a reflection of pause laden speech.
That's my contribution to the literary world. Thank you.

Lena Phoenix said...

When I say "open-minded liberals," it's in part in recognition that plenty of liberals are anything but open-minded. I think the cognitive biases that make changing a pre-established opinion so difficult are a human problem, not a conservative or liberal one.

That said, I also come from a liberal educational background where emphasis was placed on the idea that all perspectives are valid and problems can be solved by seeking to understand the other party's point of view. I no longer think things are anywhere near that simple, but I remain surrounded by people who are at least interested in what the other side has to say.

As for what impact The Week actually has on those opinions, it does force me to regularly reconsider my own. Those instances where it has completely reversed my position are few, though there have been a couple of them.

What I have seen both in myself and others who read it, though, is a general softening of positions and a greater recognition of the underlying complexity of the issues. It seems to serve as an effective inoculation against rigidity.

Anonymous said...

while I am at it, I would like to encourage people to stop saying 'like' so much.
Using 'like' to describe someone's action or speech merely means you have watched too much television and can now only relate something by acting instead of by simple description or quote, or it means that you have a paucity of confidence that what you are describing actually reflects reality due to your excessive immersion in visual and commercial culture.

Karl said...

Unfortunately the press is subject to the same laws of the marketplace as everything else. Bean counters and the titans of the media concerned with the financial profitability of magazines and papers only allow what sells.

Unfortunately it is the whims and fancies of the lowest common denominator determines what appears in nearly all magazines, papers and television.The media is essentially run by cretins who are only concerned with their salaries, bonuses and stock options so they pander to the general populace which by and large has the attention span of a gnat.

There are some good thought provoking articles and websites online. They are like a beacon among the dross and superficialities of modern life.

jamesfell said...

Actually, I was an atheist, and then I read a very convincing (and somewhat lengthy) piece on Slate.com that convinced me I was wrong.

Now I'm agnostic.

Jenny said...

Hi, Steve. Your question is "why am I doing this again" and I somehow missed the part where you mention what "this" is. Are you talking about writing another book?

Man, I'm with you! I used to write for a living, too. I get it. And yet now I seem to be a lot more about communication and dialogue, with emphasis on listening and actually hearing what is being said. Okay, so I give myself away and must go back and read what you wrote again because you probably did answer the question in there somewhere.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 4:15/4:27, I have known any number of purists who'd agree with you. Some of them have been my editors. They correct my (technically) improper use of commas (and other punctuation and/or syntax), I change it back, they correct it again, and on and on we go till we reach the fateful press run and then the person who got the last shot wins. This is a toughie for me because I do believe that one should be conversant with all the rules of grammar and usage--but--I also believe that language and grammar should be used in service of point, emphasis and rhythm, not the other way around. If I want the reader to pause, I'll use a comma or ellipses or em-dash, or I'll break up a sentence in ways that it technically shouldn't be. On the other hand, if I want the thought to swooosh by or I'm aiming for a certain breathless effect, I may run all the words together without the proper punctuation.

It's similar to my feelings about music. A musician should know and understand all the basic musical theories and concepts, but then he is free to improvise on those in ways that suit his own ear. Such was the genesis of jazz, after all.

Anonymous said...

Tsk, well, I don't know about this license you grant yourself. I shall keep wincing, convinced that most attempts to add emphasis and dramatic pause to prose by beginning sentences with ands and buts merely makes writers look like they are straining unnecessarily to get a point across. Unneccessarily. Unnecessarily. Unnecasserily.

Something like that.

Anonymous said...

I mean, look at this, if you don't mind feeling queasy.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/09/howard-jacobson-comic-novels

The first paragraph by this newly award winning author is the perfect example.
Even if reproduced visually in a film, such a pause and emphasis would look clumsy, cliched and self important. In print it's unbearable.

Steve Salerno said...

Starting to sound so familiar. So very trollishly familiar. But (there I go again) maybe I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

I don't live under no bridge.

Jenny said...

Hi again, Steve. I still can't figure out the "this" you are referring to when you ask why you are doing this again. But the posting is interesting, overall, and it does make me wonder about the kind of writing that is most valuable, and I don't mean in a monetary sense. I also would like to comment on your assertion that "who you are matters a great deal more to editors than what you have to say and how you say it." It seems that in order to become someone in that category (a notable Who, I suppose), wouldn't the "what" and "how" naturally have to come first? I mean, how does a person become the one who "matters" to editors if not by what that person has previously said, at least at some point, and how it was said? Thanks for such thought-provoking commentary. I enjoy coming here to read what is on your mind.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny: I'm sitting here smiling at the fact that you found the title so provocative and mysterious, when all I was trying to say was--to put it another way--"So what was it that made we want to be a writer, again?" Something like that. As if I were trying to remind myself of the ideals and desires that lured me into this nutty biz in the first place. That was the "this."

However--interestingly enough--if all goes well over the next few weeks, there may be another "this" to talk about as well. ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

To be perfectly honest, I began writing not because I had something worthwhile to say, but because I had a knack for expression. Aside from an assorted collection of self-serving poems that fairly dripped with banality, the things I wrote were written primarily as an exercise in the craft, rather than being borne of a compulsion to express any given idea.

In our work, I've written in voices ranging from that of a black lesbian psychotherapist to that of a borderline misogynistic gumshoe, and everything in between. From deeply spiritual treatises to dismissive lampoons of the abuses of religion. In my "day job," I have to acknowledge having been something of a literary whore. Even made a lot of money promoting various oil companies, back when the "awl bidness" was spendthrift king here in Texas, while my personal attitude toward large corporations was one of revulsion.

It was many years before I came to the point where I felt I had something worthwhile to say and applied my craftsmanship to that task. Ironically, I seem to have come full circle, realizing that the "matters of consequence" that I chose to address probably had little influence on readers' attitudes, and provided them with little more than reinforcement for their personal "badges" (back to Vonnegut yet again).

Nowadays, most of my writing is devoted to either helping others get their points across or participating in the little debates that I seem to relish. One pays the bills (barely, at times), while the other is purely for fun, though it does help me to clarify (and occasionally change) my own perspectives.

To address anon's "issues," I remember visiting my favorite teacher in high school and being asked to give his students a talk on making a living as a writer. I told them that it was essential for them to learn the mechanics of good grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, but that once those disciplines had become second nature, they could quit obsessing about them and concentrate upon making their writing as clear and impactful as possible. As a professional writer, one is judged by the clarity and power of his or her writings, rather than their strict adherence to the conjugation of verbs. The only people who will obsess about the errant (or absent) comma are those whose focus is so intent upon structure that they lose sight of content. They make excellent high school English composition teachers, but terrible communicators. As the old saying goes, "those who can't..."

Sometimes (actually, quite often) the obsessive pursuit of grammatical purity comes at the cost of effective flow.

Cal said...

How much is the fact that people have so many choices contributes to the what's called the "dumbing down" phenomena? I try not to think of myself as an elitist, because I know that I get caught up in celebritology
sometimes when I know it's the biggest waste of time.

I have so much stuff that I would like to read, but you can waste a lot of time surfing the Internet. And the Internet tends to lend itself to skimming more than in-depth reading. Every once and a while, I do think about pre-Internet times. That period, in my mind, wasn't that long ago.

The comment about the use of "But" and "And" to start a sentence makes me laugh. I was taught also never to use those words to start a sentence. For some reason, it always stuck with me. Then I had a job where my boss used those two words in starting sentences. I remember attempting to correct him on it, to no avail. Then I just started using it myself. A part of me still feels uncomfortable doing it now, but I don't correct people anymore if they use it...ha

Steve Salerno said...

Cal: And, of course, there was Winston Churchill's classic rejoinder to someone who chided him for ending a sentence with a preposition. It went something like, "That is a rule up with which I cannot put." Kinda sez it all.

namowal said...

Steve: read about the first 1000 words of your Skeptic article on the bus yesterday - hope to finish it today. You're becoming a regular with them, no? I found your longevity article in the last issue fascinating and truly well-written. I have to admit I had bought the myth for years!
I also wanted to point out that the 'Churchill quote' has been debunked .

anon: get over yourself! Good writing comes in so many different forms. You cannot make up arbitrary rules that have to be followed 100% and expect that to equate with good vs. bad writing.

Steve Salerno said...

Nam: Thanks. The thing I like about Michael (Shermer) is that he lets me tackle contrarian topics, and he lets me approach them the way I want to. Which is not to say I don't have to deliver the goods (in terms of evidence or whatever). It's just that I figure a skeptic should be skeptical of just about everything, including many of the sacred cows. Certainly longevity and happiness are in that category. I even went after journalism a while back, which made some of my colleagues in the realm not too happy with me.

The thing I don't like so much is that the pay ain't the best. BUT, the magazine has a fairly wide readership among opinion leaders, who will often get in touch with me on this topic or that, thus yielding secondary work, so I'd have to say it's a worthwhile endeavor in the overall. I've gotten a lot of compliments from people who'll read something I wrote for Skeptic and say, "You know, I never thought about it quite that way..." That alone can be enough to make my day...at least if it happens on a day when I don't have a big bill due.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to contribute to your ridiculous career in negative thinking by going out to buy a copy of that magazine, so I haven't read the article on happiness and I won't be. I'm sure it would reduce to me to tear anyway. I just want to say, you have now outdone yourself. I guess this must be the crown jewel in your career, writing an article that attacks happiness of all things!! What else is there to say? Let me guess, your license plate says I HATE LIFE.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: How did you guess?

Actually, it says I HATE DELUSIONAL PEOPLE. (That wouldn't originally fit, but I asked the universe for a bigger plate, and voila, it happened!)

RevRon's Rants said...

I asked the universe for a bigger plate once. It was at our favorite Chinese buffet. Universe slapped me upside the head and told me to get 2 regular plates, then went on to complain about idiots who thought the universe had nothing better to do than grant their petty wishes. As it turns out, old Universe actually likes the reasonable skeptics better than the airy fairy ceiling surfers, as one of their more prominent spokespeople called them (It was a guy named James Ray. Apparently hosted a cosmic cooking show somewhere in Arizona until some inconvenient events caused him to close it down and focus on other matters, like coming up with a defense in his criminal trial).

And for the record, I don't believe that you hate delusional people, Steve... at least, not until they try to cram their delusions down other people's throats, get rich selling them, or refuse to even look at anything that doesn't fit within their delusions.

Cosmic Connie said...

I don't buy many magazines any more because my house is already full of them, but I did order that issue of Skeptic (I live in the sticks and don't have any book stores near me), and I look forward to reading your article, Steve. Here's to negative thinking!

Dimension Skipper said...

Just remember a double negative creates a net positive statement. And a negative number times a negative number is positive as well. There may even be times when two wrongs make a right.

Anonymous said...

Ron, to my eyes the use of 'and' and 'but' at the beginning of so many sentences is clumsy and spoils the flow of so much writing because as I said, it lends too much weight, gives to much pause, attempts to give too much theatricality to the written word.
Such pauses often seem to belong in a monologue given in a theatre or on TV, with a special close up for emphasis. I just don't think writing needs so many rhetorical devices to be added, or needs to reproduce the breathing and emphasis patterns of speech because writing is a different medium to speech and information is processed in a different way.
It's nothing to do with being an anal retentive about grammar but your point is good, I think, about riffing off the grammar scales once you have learned them. However, have so many people learned them in the first place? I doubt it, I haven't and my grammar education was as bad as many other's.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, OK, try this on for size:

"We all thought Obama was the answer to our prayers but it was not to be."

Although you really need the set-up to appreciate this fully, that rendering just isn't dramatic enough, to my ear. It rushes the payoff. Even adding a comma after "prayers" (which would be the grammatically correct approach by some rulebooks) doesn't get the job done. So:

"We all thought Obama was the answer to our prayers. But it was not to be."

OR

"We all thought Obama was the answer to our prayers--but it was not to be."

Yes? No?

Anonymous said...

I'm not the same anon but I was skeptical originally and I see your point better now. Thanks for the illustration, professor!

Anonymous said...

That's a good example of what I mean, Steve.
It's a rhythm that would be fine coming from a TV anchorman but I question whether a reader really needs that form in writing. Is it really the case that a reader simply can't produce their own emphasis or get the payoff without it being made so obvious?

When did this start to occur?

Did readers have no appreciation of such emphasis until the old and/but rule started to be broken (if it was ever adhered to)?

Were the rules of grammar laid down by people who wished to restrict, or had no appreciation of, emotional expression?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, first of all, why the dichotomy between listening and reading? Good writing is like good music; it has a rhythm to it. It has stresses and loud parts and quiet parts and blank spaces that are all part and parcel of the piece. Do you not want Beethoven or Coltrane to specify in his sheet music how long the notes last, or where the rests go, or which parts are to played louder than others? You want to leave that all open to interpretation?

I think the writer has the right, as creator of the piece, to give readers little "tips" as to how his work is to be read, where the emphasis is, etc. These devices are to be used judiciously (which is why almost all writers agree that a manuscript should not be full of italicized words every other sentence), but they have every right to be there. And let's face it, what would everyday life be like if conversations unfolded by your logic? Sample dialog from dinnertime conversation:

Man: "Honey, you look a little distracted. Out of it. What's wrong?"

Wife: "Well, we need butter and eggs and the garbage has to go out and I want a divorce."

Everything all run together, with no distinctions made between emphasis or importance.

If you were watching a film (that wasn't a comedy) and the dialogue unfolded just that way...wouldn't you feel cheated? Wouldn't you bolt upright a bit and say, "Wait a minute, that all happened way too fast. That needed a more dramatic set-up..."

My feelings exactly.

Incidentally, the other day I was reading that controversial journal by the girl at Duke who kept a diary of her sexual conquests and rated them afterward, and there came a point where she wanted to communicate the unusual size of one of the men. She could've written "He was so huge." (This is not a verbatim quote, but an adequate paraphrase.) Instead she wrote, "He. Was. So. Huge."

Much, much better. Inspired, I dare say.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and bad writing is like bad music; it has a rhythm to it. It has stresses and loud parts and quiet parts and blank spaces that are all part and parcel of the piece.
Beethoven is no more dramatic for being played through a Marshall stack than on a grand piano, though some may prefer it and pay for it, too.

Man: "Honey, you look a little distracted. Out of it. What's wrong?"

Wife: "Well, we need butter and eggs and the garbage has to go out and I want a divorce."

With a little sarcastic smile at the end what a wonderful way to start a divorce from the bastard.
If I read that in isolation I would never get it but, fortunately, I saw the whole film and can set that little exchange into it's correct context and read the appropriate feeling and body language into it. I could also likely do that with your Obama sentence, given the context and the rest of it. See if this fits more snugly.

"We all thought Obama was the answer to our prayers but... it was not to be."

The question still stands, who set the rules of grammar and why did they omit to allow for emotional expression, if that's what they did?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 3:21, but if you take a too-rigid interpretation of grammar and syntax--which are there to serve meaning and emphasis, not obstruct it, at least in my view--then you are limited in the rhythms you can project to the reader.

That said, I think we've reached an impasse. You of course have every right to use punctuation according to strict AP style if you choose, and also to refuse to read (or be annoyed by) works that fail to hew to your standards of orthodoxy. What else can I say?

Anonymous said...

Say "You.Are.So.Right"!

roger o'keefe said...

This is not an easy topic for me, in light of my Catholic education. In Catholic school rules were rules. The Nuns had a way of making you feel that beginning a sentence with BUT was on the order of a mortal sin.

However emphasis clearly is very important in writing, just as it is important in delivering a good speech. So I hear what you're saying. I do think that somebody should be required to know and master all the formal rules before they start branching out on their own and improvising. That's why I could never get behind Ebonics or bilingual ed and all that PC stuff. To me that's simply a justification for letting people slide by without making the effort to actually learn something.

a/good/lysstener said...

To Roger's point (and also I guess Steve's?): I had a prof who used to say, "You have to prove to me that you know the 'real rules' before I let you break them in the name of 'art'."

Anonymous said...

Well, one could say that nuns definitely had an interest in promoting limited grammar at the expense of expression. There would be no "He.Was.So.Huge." in the sisters' book, but there also would be no "He was so huge that... (enjoyably and articulately lurid description)".

RevRon's Rants said...

I have to agree with both Roger (gasp!! again!!) and Alyssa that the fundamentals of proper grammar need to be mastered before one goes about the process of deviating from those rules. That said, I think we lose a great deal by becoming so focused upon structure that the emotional impact of a passage is lost. I can just see the veins bulging on the foreheads of the grammar purists as they peruse the offerings of an e e cummings or a Richard Brautigan, with their objections to structural deviation distracting them from the beauty of the writers' prose.

Once again, I find myself in favor of a more balanced approach to literature, where the quest for clarity of the images presented demands following conventions to a degree, but where some freedom from those conventions is granted in those instances where the images themselves are enriched by the very flaws that might drive the grammar-obsessed to distraction. When I read, I read for the sheer pleasure it gives me, or to satisfy a hunger for information. I choose not to have my pleasure sullied by a demand for rigidity in structure and form. Neither am I willing to disqualify clearly presented and pertinent information because it is "improperly" punctuated.

But that's just me. Others' mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I am a bit lazy for not doing the research (I wouldn't really know where to look for the answer), but if someone could address my question of why the grammar rules are not really adequate in the first place and therefore have to be bent so much to give people what they want that would be pretty interesting to this under-bridge dweller at least.
My annoying trivial question is, where the rules sufficient when they where made, or have people always felt the need to look for extra emphasis by breaking the and/but rule?
If so, what has changed in people's outlook and the way they read?
Take a look at this, a graver speech has never been made or delivered with such solemnity, yet there is no '.But' or '.And'.

http://www.presentationmagazine.com/winston_churchill_speech_fight_them_on_beaches.htm

Note that this is from the days of radio, I would presume that it was seldom in a writers mind to imitate the visual grammar of TV and film for added impact.

Anonymous said...

Move on 70 years, and here is Obama's speech with it's broken pattern of '.And' and '.But'.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2010/08/oval-office-makeover-obama-iraq-speech-text.html

To me it just seems like needless fracturing of sentences and the speech would carry just as much weight by swapping those for commas.
I don't know if that is a transcription by an LA times journalist or the original text.
Ho hum.

Anonymous said...

Your piece sounds to me like every other old fogey who finds himself out of step with the modern day.

There are even more vast and interesting resources available today on the internet for those who choose to read--- those who don't choose to read would never pick up a magazine article or book in any age.

Instead of moaning that you cannot sell your work as easily as you did 30 years ago and blaming changing tastes for your falling income why not demonstate some flexibility and find some new markets in the new media and pander to those changing tastes?

Writing is a business, not a fundamentalist religious calling.

If your niche is shrinking you need to find another niche, not expect the world to change its tastes so that you can stay in your comfortable rut.

Steve Salerno said...

Making the large (and possibly unfounded, but justifiable) assumption that Anon 1:48 is also Anon 2:07 is also 2:20, I would simply like to point out that those three comments are contradictory even within their own internal logic (that is, leaving aside all other issues having to do with me, etc.). In the first and second comments we have someone arguing for tradition--"why are the rules that have always existed no longer good enough?!"--and in the last comment we have someone explaining to us how the world has evolved and there are now new rules (apologies to Bill Maher) for the writing biz. So which is it? How come the traditions that you seem to like are eternal and inviolable, whereas my alleged fondness for certain traditions (and you really missed the point of the piece, but that's another matter) somehow make me an "old fogey" who is "out of step with the modern day"?

I say again, assuming these comments are indeed by the same individual, what we have here is a person who just wants to nitpick, find fault, and otherwise attempt to elevate himself (or herself?) by throwing darts at whatever the other person says. Troll, troll, troll...

RevRon's Rants said...

Art is, by its very nature, the act of stretching beyond that which is well-established, in the pursuit of a level of thought and/or emotion either not yet experienced or experienced and forgotten. That the pursuit of those thoughts and feelings frequently leads the artist to break with established practices is to be expected, even encouraged, if one hungers for the experiences that occur beyond the realm of familiarity. For those whose existence depends upon a world that is orderly and thoroughly predictable, such stretches are distasteful, even terrifying. They will reject, shun, and even condemn anything that might prod them beyond their comfort zone, as we've seen in some of the comments here.

However, for those who hope to make of their lives something more than that which they have already done and tasted, the stretches, complete with their break from rigid conventions, are no less essential than the very air that they breathe.

Cosmic Connie said...

Here's what I think of those one-word "sentences" that are used for extra emphasis:

They. Are. Getting. Old.

I confess that I still use that technique once in a while myself, though.

I'm with Ron (11:33 AM) on that balance issue.

What really bugs me is trying to read unedited speech. The spoken word, unless carefully crafted, does not often translate well to the printed (or onscreen) page. Reading the transcripts of the James Arthur Ray witness interviews, for example, nearly drove me up a wall. I had to read some statements two or three times to figure out what the person was trying to say. (The message about JAR's atrocity came through loud and clear, though.)

For some of our book projects, Ron and I have also had to read hundreds of pages of depositions -- also crazy-making.

What bugs me even more is when authors don't realize that editing a transcript into readable prose is almost as much work as writing the book from scratch. But that's a whole other complaint.

Acceptable writing styles change with the times, of course. What sounded okay in 1846 or even 1946 would sound hopelessly stuffy today. However, as Namowal said a couple of days ago, good writing comes in many different forms. And good writing is what keeps me coming back to SHAMblog (that, and the provocative ideas).

Kathryn Price said...

Steve, I read your article in Skeptic, which I have never before purchased. I found Skeptic right next to Shambala Sun, a magazine I used to occasionally purchase. I liked the article and I wondered if you have read Lincoln's Melancholy, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, in which he makes the case that depression actually "fueled [Lincoln's] greatness". Putting aside the question of whether all would agree that Lincoln was great, I thought it was a compelling work.

I could relate to "Whistle While You Work" as there were some positive thought police at my workplace, unofficial as far as I know. One of them insisted on having fun meetings. It was interesting the first time, but spooky after that. You might imagine a bunch of winter-weary Minnesotans walking into a meeting with candies, music, and "fun" props, expected to grin like children at a birthday party.

Regarding the grammar controversy: I was educated by nuns, the best in the business, in my opinion. I was a technical writer in an R&D department for a few years, where once a colleague and I argued for half an hour over the placement of one comma. Even our boss told us to get over our perfectionism; this was not academia, he said. ("I would rather you have diarrhea than constipation," was how he put it, on the subject of our rate of paper completion.) It depends on the venue for which you are writing, but my take on grammar is to have due respect, but break rules as needed, according to the demand of the expression itself.

Steve Salerno said...

KP: Thanks for dropping by.

One of the people I quote in the Skeptic piece (I forget which) argues that almost all greatness is the byproduct of some form of depression. This is not an altogether new theory, of course, but the case he makes is compelling.

Anonymous said...

If everybody just makes up their own rules, pretty soon there is no communication, Steve. I find it amusing that you don't like ebonics or hip hop, which are movements representing an entire class of people, and you don't like bilingual society either. But you think you're somehow entitled to do any damn thing you please in your so called art.

Dimension Skipper said...

Today's Brewster Rockit! perfectly, if a bit simply, the essence of SHAMminess imo (at least until the last panel).

WV: "sellati"... Is that like the literati? Or maybe a sub-genre within the self-help section? (Or perhaps there's nothing "sub-" about it.)

Steve Salerno said...

DS: Very true. In fact--many people don't know this--Stephen Covey's book originally was titled The 8 Habits of Highly Effective People, but his editor sat him down one day and told him, "Steve, I think we should take out the thing about ray guns..."

RevRon's Rants said...

"But you think you're somehow entitled to do any damn thing you please in your so called art."

In a word, yes. He is entitled to do "any damn thing" he pleases. If it has value and meaning to readers, they will encourage it. If not, they will avoid it. And if they are threatened by what he has to say, they will attack every minute element they can - even stooping to blatantly personal derision - in their attempts to divert the dialog so as to focus it upon something more to their liking.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 8:27, look, I could rise to the challenge and give you a nasty answer, but I think it's more useful to stick to the logic of the argument at hand. I know many ace car mechanics who have discovered individual ways of approaching a given car repair--in other words, after many years of doing things by the book, and learning everything there is to know about automotive components, they've discovered ways of doing things that are faster and cheaper. However, I, as the consumer, want to know that they have those many years of study and experience behind them. In other words, they may not be doing things precisely by the book now--but they know the book backwards and forwards. It is their complete mastery of the fundamentals of their craft that gives them credibility and license, if you will.

Same thing with writing, and the technical mastery of same.

Dimension Skipper said...

Sigh (in a disappointed-with-self kind of way). I meant "...if a bit simply, ILLUSTRATES the essence of...." I gather you gathered my gathering drift, at least. (<-- Blatant, but playful intentional example of really BAAAD writing.)

I hate when I make obvious typoes and commit word omissions or misuse. Yeah, I know it's just a silly comment on a blog, which pretty much by the mere definition of "blog" is rather ephemeral in nature, but still... I. Hate. It. (And as an aside I generally don't like it either when writers do that single word [period] thingie for emphasis, but I also recognize it's just a stylistic preference and any gut reaction is mine alone, not necessarily representative of any objective "truth" or "reality" re the quality of the writing.)

In further embarrassment I also confess I even clicked the wrong iGoogle feed link to comment... I meant to post it under the most recent SHAMbloggy doggie whisperer item. Double sigh. What can I say except I was somewhat limited by personal time concerns at that moment, but that's no excuse for not doing a cursory proofreading.

Oh well. I enjoyed your comment re the editing out of ray guns btw. Of course, my own reference about the last panel being incongruous with "SHAM reality" is that the last panel should have the alien returning and actually happily paying for more advice, probably the Special Deluxe Gold Tier plan/seminar series of Brewster's "Lessons In Alien Repelling" (i.e. LIAR).

Steve Salerno said...

DS: I think you're a bit hard on yourself. To be honest, I didn't notice the omission until you just brought it up.

Was it Disraeli who said "Never apologize and never explain"? Not sure he exactly said that, but it's often credited to him, and there may be a lot of truth to it, at least in certain settings.

Anonymous said...

Again I want to disassociate myself from the other anon. I meant to butt out the first time but I wanted to reply to Ron. Sorry about the confusion Steve.

Dimension Skipper said...

SF author John Scalzi has this little item this morning which resonates with the topic of how the writing/editing process differs today from the glory days. It's only one particular instance, but perhaps further illustration of the growing shift in the publishing mindset...

The Stupidest Thing an Editor With Three Decades of Experience Has Said About the Web Today

...Yeah, pretty danged stupid.

And in the comments, Scalzi adds:

"It’s not an isolated case, it appears; it looks like others have seen examples of lifting in the magazine."

In some fairness to the editor in question I take his line (which you'll find if you follow Scalzi's links) "But honestly Monica, the web is considered 'public domain'..." as an ironically tongue-in-cheek way of saying this goes on all the time out in web-land and though, yes, it's not right, no one blinks an eye. In other words, everyone does it and one gets tired of fighting it, so why not go along with it then, right?

Wrong. Completely and utterly wrong. And pret-ty lame too.

I think I can kind of see where he's coming from in making the statement, but that's not the sort of thing that an editor with three decades experience should be saying at all, let alone putting in writing. He goes too far, especially when he then goes on to gripe about how the original article was so badly in need of editing, as if trying to throw blame back on the writer. At a certain level of professionalism and pride, ya gotta be above that sort of thing. And if you make a mistake, admit it and take your lumps.

Dimension Skipper said...

On second thought... the part where I said "In fairness to the editor..."? Forget it. I read even further and thought some more about it and there's really no reason to grant any sort of fairness toward the editor at all.

He's a nincompoop of the nincompoopiest variety.

Anonymous said...

Our Father
Who art in bog heaven
Thy punctuation come,
In print as it is in longhand
Give us this day our daily spellcheck
And forgive us our typos, as we correct those whose typos offend us
And lead us not into hasty posting
But deliver us from laptops
For thine is the syntax,
The font and the grammar
For ever and ever
Amne.

Steve Salerno said...

Very gud.