Bad writing in The New Yorker

I have a six-month subscription to The New Yorker that will automatically renew if I do nothing. But I’m thinking of stopping it after the next interval because of its encroaching Regressive Leftism, as well as the usual reason: the magazine comes weekly, and there’s a lot of stuff to read that doesn’t get read. I find, though, that I’m reading less and less of the magazine as a whole. There are exceptions, but the solid reportage of yore has given way to fluff pieces, or pieces in which substance takes a back seat to prose style. I also see too much science-dissing for my taste. And the magazine’s relentless, week-after-week dissing of Trump, through either the introductory essays by humorless editor David Remnick or the magazine’s cover art (the “Trump penis” cover last week was out of line), makes me think that, like many venues, Trump’s election has driven the magazine mad. (Do I need to emphasize again that I despise Trump and his Republican running dogs?) I get enough information on Trump from the news, the New York Times, and other venues; I count on the New Yorker for culture as well as politics, and the politics, as a form of virtue signaling, is beginning to dominate.

Well, one thing you could count on, at least, was decent prose, for the magazine prides itself on the quality of its writing.  So when I opened this week’s issue and read the opening article “Death of a King“, by Jelani Cobb, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was written in a pompous, overbearing style that I would criticize my own undergraduate students for producing. And that is despite the magazine’s well known and hardcore editing.

The article itself is okay, though it hardly says anything new, much less stirring. Its point is that America has made progress in racial equality in the five decades since Martin Luther King’s death, but there’s still a long way to go. Well, who doesn’t know that? It also ties King’s death with gun violence, which afflicts both black and white communities, not mentioning that the problem is especially bad in some black communities, like the South Side of Chicago. But the connection with Dr. King is tenuous at best, since campaigning against guns wasn’t a major part of his agenda.

So the message, supposed to be a memoriam for and reflection on King, is trite and tedious. But the prose is noticeably leaden. A few examples:

Occasionally, a particular year transcends its function as a temporal marker to become shorthand for all the tumult that occurred within its parameters. 1968, a leap year, brought the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the student protests at Columbia University, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the bedlam of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Black Power salutes at the Olympics, the emergence of George Wallace as an avatar of white-resentment politics, and the triumph of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. That’s a great deal of history, even adjusting for the extra day in February.

Let me translate that for you into English lacking pomposity.

“The year 1968 saw many tumultuous and divisive events, including. . . ” (add list of events).

The word “particular” is superfluous (Cobb could have said “Sometimes a year”); a year is not usually seen as a “temporal marker”; the phrase “shorthand for all the tumult” is awkward; and—dear God!—what are the “parameters” of a year? And who cares if 1968 had an extra day—is that some lame attempt at humor when Cobb “adjusts” for the degree of tumult?

It goes on:

We have not, in the past half century, had a year freighted with such emotional and historical heft, in part because we have not seen the convergence of so many defining issues—war, civil rights, populism, political realignment—in so short a timespan. Yet the singularity of 1968 does not diminish its pertinence to our present turmoil. This week, two events in particular are worth considering in tandem: one a cataclysm, the other a tragically predictive attempt to understand how such cataclysms occur.

“Freighted with heft”? Seriously? “Timespan” is awkward, 1968 may have been especially noteworthy, but wasn’t singular, and “diminish its pertinence to our present turmoil” is awkward and could be simplified. And there’s that superfluous “in particular” again.

I’m not going to point out the awkward prose of the rest of the piece, nor attempt a rewrite, for that’s the job of the New Yorker‘s editors. They appear to have fallen down this particular time.

 

72 Comments

  1. Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Ever since I can remember, the New Yorker has been far left SJW, with mind-numbing prolixity.

  2. Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Their cartoons also aren’t funny.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      I’ll second that, with the proviso that they used to be funny. The cartoon editor should be fired. The only consistently funny cartoon feature is the one where the readers supply the caption.

      I’ve subscribed to The New Yorker for many years and I agree with Jerry’s opinion about its decline. I haven’t read that article, and after reading the excerpts I certainly won’t.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        /

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        Two of my favorite cartoons of all time were in the NY but both in the 1980s.

  3. Sarah
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    It is possible to surmise that at the particular period in time that the above said article was in the process of consideration the appropriate copyeditor might have perhaps been indulging in a personal requirement for a physically somnolent state.

    • BJ
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      For goodness’ sake, give the guy a Seconal prescription! Such desperation is tough to watch.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Conceivably. But perhaps one should as well ponder the possibility that the copyeditor does not want to discourage the primordial endeaver of this new writer?

    • nicky
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Or maybe just mushrooms?

    • Taz
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      We don’t know his life. Perhaps he was dealing with too much emotional heft?

    • Posted April 6, 2018 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      Worthy of Sir Humphrey

      • Merilee
        Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        How I miss “Humpy”!
        “In the fullness of time”…

  4. John Black
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Wow, that is over-the-top bad writing. Especially for a magazine renowned for tight editing.

    Some writers are so good that even when you disagree, they are still a pleasure to read. Hitch was this way.

  5. Craw
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Wanker prose. Buy him a Strunk & White. (One of Pinker’s blindspots is the excellence of S&W).

    • Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Agreed about S&W! I cut my teeth on that short book.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Coauthored (or, rather, rewritten from William Strunk’s original) by the quintessential New Yorker writer from the Harold Ross years — E.B. White.

        It’s come in for some withering and well-deserved criticism, see here, but I still thrill to read it.

        • mirandaga
          Posted April 5, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          I seoond the enthusiasm for S&W and would add same for William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, which contains, among others, this gem: “There’s not much to say about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”

          • Filippo
            Posted April 5, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

            I’m reminded of A.C. Grayling’s quoting a Hungarian parliamentarian’s quip: “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.”

    • Dominic
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Fowler!
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Dictionary_of_Modern_English_Usage

      • Dominic
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        Quoted there “French Words –
        Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth—greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manner.”

        • Filippo
          Posted April 5, 2018 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

          I think that would be especially true of those who “don’t know that they don’t know.”

    • freiner
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      My first thought on reading this was “what would E. B. White have said?’

    • Dominic
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Strunk – I note the advocacy of the active voice. British English is far more likely to use the passive. Microsoft Word continues to annoy me when it suggests that I rephrase, presumably, we might hazard, as those who set it up swallowed a Strunk style guide?

      • Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Surely you meant to write: “it is annoying when it is suggested that my writing be rephrased”?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 6, 2018 at 1:31 am | Permalink

          Active or passive – often the choice subtly changes the meaning or the emphasis of the sentence.

          If I’m writing something, it’s highly annoying when MS Word implies that it knows what I want to say better than I do. I positively hate all those unasked-for gimmicks and features that are ‘on’ by default and take considerable effort to turn off.

          (Not that I’d ever use MS Word by choice, but I was stuck with it at work).

          cr

  6. Dominic
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Ye gods! Pathetic writing – a leap year, AND an Olympic year? who would have thought…

    The auteur nigh on pushed me into a apoplexy with his verbosity…

    Yes, why not shovel in superfluous words to show us how clever you are…

  7. BJ
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Seeing as how I’ve already gone on rants in recent days about the decline in journalistic quality and encroaching regressive leftism in publications I used to respect, I’ll comment this time on the decline in prose.

    I used to have a subscription to the New Yorker, but I cancelled it for many of the reasons you cite. I also had a subscription to Vanity Fair until a few months ago. I was glad I didn’t renew my subscription to VF when a friend handed me an issue two months ago so I could read an article on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here is a quote from the second paragraph of the article:

    “You might have thought escapism would be in vogue, and 2001 offered that, but moviegoers in this uneasy but heady era were also in a mood to be provoked and challenged, even baffled, and they had never seen anything like 2001 — literally, in terms of the film’s painstakingly realistic portrayal of inter-planetary space travel, with special effects that still hold up, and figuratively, in the sense that 2001’s elliptical storytelling was as confounding to many viewers as, for others, the film’s cosmic scale, mythic reach, and wordless, psychedelic finale were exhilarating (if still confounding).”

    Yes, you read that right: it’s all one sentence! This is so confusing, with so many shifts from subject to subject, breaks in what should be continuous thoughts, and unnecessary adjectives that it’s nearly incomprehensible. This is, apparently, what passes for quality or “intellectual” writing these days. Maybe they were trying to invoke the confusing nature of the film itself…

    Here’s a link to the article, if anyone’s interested: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/02/behind-the-scenes-of-2001-a-space-odyssey-50-years-later

    • freiner
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      I’m afraid I can’t read that, Dave.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        Give us a couple bars o “Daisy,” willya?

        • freiner
          Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          I would but I’m stuck in the zero gravity toilet right now. I should have read those instructions before use.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 6, 2018 at 1:33 am | Permalink

            I think that was the only joke in the movie (from memory).

            cr

      • Robert
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        “I’m afraid I can’t read that, Dave.”
        Brilliant!

      • BJ
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Excellent 🙂

        “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

        “I can’t do that, Dave. You’re not wearing a spacesuit. You’ll die.”

        “Damn it, HAL, don’t you think I know that? I just read that Vanity Fair article. I WANT to die!”

    • Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      That’s nothing; in the sublime Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald gives us a sentence eight pages long (at least in my edition). It’s kind of fun to read through.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Mind diagraming it for us, Mikey?

        • Posted April 5, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          :-O

        • Merilee
          Posted April 5, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          Am I the only nerdy one who loved diagramming sentences in 5th grade?

  8. glen1davidson
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    The greatness of 1968 cannot be sufficiently hyperbolized to reach to the weighty magnitude that extends its largeness unto all of the years that follow, although the latter remain shrunken to nothingness by their shame of not being 1968.

    Above all, 1968 embiggens my majestic prose.

    Glen Davidson

    • Taz
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      It was certainly a cromulent year!

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      There was a lot of big stuff in 1968…

      Much as I dislike polysyllabic prolixity and sesquipedalian speechifying, sometimes brevity is not the soul of wit.

  9. Michael
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I’ve been meaning to cancel my New Yorker subscription for a while, but I never seemed to remember it when I’m online. Meanwhile, the stack of mostly unread magazines has continued to grow.

    But, thanks to your post, all that ends today. As of moments ago I have officially cancelled. Thanks so much.

    • Merilee
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Wow! So much ranting over what is still a remarkably good magazine. No, we no longer have Harold Ross or E.B. White or James Thurber, but we do have the likes of Evan Osnos and George Packer and Robin Wright and Margaret Talbot and Elizabeth Kolbert and many others. I happen to like most of David Remnick’s editorials, and have never found him oarticularly humorless. Harper’s is still great ( have subscribed since 1964), and The Atlantic is mostly good. At the risk of getting told off, I would say that unsubscribing in a huff over one article is not a good way to keep what little is left of good print journalism alive.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 6, 2018 at 2:57 am | Permalink

        Hear, hear.

  10. Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    You’d think a piece by the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University wouldn’t need much editing, wouldn’t you?

    • Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      “…within its parameters.” I think he was groping for “…within its perimeter.”

      • Craw
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        I think he was groping for “within the ambit of the parameters of its perimeter” but he didn’t want to sound pompous.

      • Oran Bouville
        Posted April 6, 2018 at 3:29 am | Permalink

        I think the use of “parameters” was intentional. It’s a common misconception that “parameter” means “constraint” – or something similar in an informal context – when an actual synonymn would be “variable”.

  11. Dominic
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Have just read a Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, & – “j’accuse”! He uses ‘should of’ & ‘could of’ instead of ‘should’ve’ or ‘could’ve’ that could have easily stood in & reflected the speech.

  12. Liz
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    The use of multiple cataclysms leaves the word hackneyed for me.

  13. Historian
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Regardless of the quality of his writing, Cobb does a service by bringing to public attention the significance of 1968. People who do not remember that year are perhaps not aware how America changed because of the events Cobb cites. The Vietnam War was at its height and much of this country’s subsequent woes can be traced back to it. Johnson’s decision not to run again marked the definitive end of the liberal moment in America (although in practice it ended a few years earlier). Conservatives have run the show since then. For me, 1968 ranks with 1914, 1933, 1939, and 1945 as the most pivotal years of the twentieth century.

    • Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Not 1989?

      • Historian
        Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        I won’t argue with you. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism was certainly important.

    • nicky
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention 1968 in, say, France or the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.
      I would indeed add 1989 (and 2016 🙂 ).

  14. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    The events making 1968 leap to attention are the assassinations. They consume the period and make me wonder what if.

  15. rickflick
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Going “over the top” about Trump is due to the sense that he is far more than a crazy distraction. He is a serious threat to humanity. Going “over the top” is due to a sense of frustration at the inability to do anything about it until 2020, which could be too late.

  16. Robert Bray
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    The poetry in the NY appears to be chosen to fit the page(s) it’s printed on. Perhaps it’s WRITTEN to fit those pages–(the editors like the two-page spread for a long-lined poem). In any case I find the poetry almost uniformly bad: self-absorbed, self-stroking voices. . . the verbal equivalents of that famous scrunched up geographical cover of the U. S. east to west.

    • Davide Spinello
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I see a simple solution: quit identity politics and hysteria. A Democrat could win just by acting sane.

  17. Posted April 5, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I am delighted to see so many people coming out of the woodwork to expose the dreadful writing in the New Yorker. I have been deploring it privately for a couple of years. There is little reason to continue reading it. I will stick with Harper’s for general cultural stuff as well as its refusal to join the SJW/Identity Politics cheerleader squad, and look forward to the comments on this blog as well as Jerry’s outlook.

    • freiner
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I second the vote on Harper’s — though I probably really stick with it for the puzzle.

  18. chris
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    My husband just renewed his New Yorker subscription a couple of months ago after an ~15 year hiatus. Just in time for that dreadful article on Jahi McMath. To make matters worse, even the cartoons aren’t as funny as they used to be.

  19. Merilee
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  20. Merilee
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    And ✔️✔️

  21. mirandaga
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree that the writing of the article is unworthy of The New Yorker’s standards, but would like to make an observation about the point of the article—“that America has made progress in racial equality in the five decades since Martin Luther King’s death, but there’s still a long way to go.”

    I probably wouldn’t be writing this except that Jerry’s post happened to coincide with a headline in my local paper about the MLK protest marches to “keep the dream going.” It occurred to me that the headline might have read “keep racism going.” Am I the only one who detects a certain desperation in the current tactics of the left to underscore that racism is alive and well? I’m thinking of the ridiculous extremes in being offended, such as, in my town, changing the name of Lynch elementary (named after the family who funded the creation of the school) because it was offensively racist. I’m thinking of the Broadway plays that cast icons such as Jefferson (“Madison”) and Christ (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) as blacks (does that mean that Jefferson’s slaves were white?). What’s next—a black Frosty the Snowman?

    These are just examples, but they strike me as deliberately provocative, intended to challenge anyone to object and, if they do, label them “racist.” If such tactics are necessary to make the point that racism is rampant in our society, one has to ask to what degree it is, in fact, rampant. It almost seems that blacks are in panic mode, afraid to lose the leverage they have as an oppressed minority.

    There’s no question that there’s more to be done in combatting racism—as Jerry says, “Well, who doesn’t know that?”—but I for one don’t think these backhanded and desperate attempts to provoke “racist” responses are helping the cause.

    • Historian
      Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      “Am I the only one who detects a certain desperation in the current tactics of the left to underscore that racism is alive and well?”

      My answer would be yes.

      • Posted April 6, 2018 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        IMO, some of it may well be the Democratic Party machine not wanting to talk about class and how they are basically a plutocratic party too.

        • mirandaga
          Posted April 6, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that too. I probably should have said “Democrats are in panic mode, afraid to lose their image as champions of oppressed minorities.” But thanks for chiming in, Keith, and implicitly agreeing that I might have a point. Frankly, I’m surprised that more people have jumped all over me for my post.

  22. Jon Gallant
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Shouln’t our list of pivotal years include all the years in which Microsoft issues a new version of Windows? Oh, wait, that would mean EVERY year.

    As for Jelani Cobb being a professor at Columbia—well, compare his prose, in all its temporal markers and parameters, to standard academic post-modernism. For example, Judith Butler is a professor of something-or-other at Berkeley, and her writing makes Professor Cobb’s look like poetry.

  23. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Good writing has to strike a balance between being colorful, and being directly to the point. Cultivate brevity without dryness, and color without long-windedness, and you have a key element to good writing.

    An intermediate compromise behind the original

    “Occasionally, a particular year transcends its function as a temporal marker to become shorthand for all the tumult that occurred within its parameters.”

    and JACs

    “The year 1968 saw many tumultuous and divisive events, including. . . ”

    might be

    “Some years become a symbol for all the turbulent events that happened in them”

  24. Posted April 5, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    The awkwardness and weird irrelevant journalistic hyperbole works fine if its read Philomena Cunk style. Especially the bit about the leap year.

  25. Posted April 5, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    “I have a six-month subscription to The New Yorker that will automatically renew if I do nothing.”

    A service that requires automatic renewal can be beaten by using your bank’s option to issue you a temporary credit card number with a limit that you specify. Bank of America calls it “Shop Safe” (or maybe it’s “ShopSafe.”)

    When the service provider whines that your credit card number didn’t go through, you can then decide whether to give them another temporary number or just let them cancel the service.

  26. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Just occurred to me that I passed a comment in yesterday’s Hili dialogue on the same topic as the Jelani Cobb excerpt above:

    They ain’t makin’ years like ’68 anymore — from Tet, to Gene McCarthy’s surprise in New Hampshire, to LBJ not seeking reelection, to Martin gettin’ clipped at the Lorraine and Bobby at the Ambassador, to the riots in Chicago, to Nixon’s snaking the peace deal in Paris, to Nixon’s squeaker over Humphrey.

    Still, there’s something happenin’ here, and even if what it is ain’t exactly clear, there’s a spirit in the air again. Trump fires Mueller, gonna be time to take it back out to the streets.

    Now, that’s not great prose by any stretch — and it’s nothing The New Yorker would be interested in putting on its august slick pages — but at least it’s got a bouncy rhythm, and a to-the-pointness, that those wet rags of Jelani’s lack.

  27. jellen
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    My New Yorker subscription ended with the March issues, decades after it began. Although I am a lifelong liberal, I had grown tired of its leftist polemic, bias, and outright propaganda. Every few weeks, its cover illustration was a demeaning caricature by Barry Blitt of Donald Trump. Its front page political commentary excoriated the president with a frequency and a vitriol that, although I did not vote for him, I thought immoderate and even unjust. Since the departure of Hendrik Hertzberg, moreover, those commentary pieces in the Talk of the Town section became tedious. I typically read only one or two of the insipid articles. With the ousting of Ryan Lizza, the magazine lost its best political writing. Emma Allen and her obscure, smug sense of humor replaced Robert Mankoff as cartoon editor. A greatly diminished percentage of the magazine’s solitary weekly short stories were written by Americans or appealed to an American reader. Editor Remnick’s own occasional commentary strutted his self-righteous social justice viewpoint. He and his staff have not recovered from the election. They will not be content until the duly elected president is ejected from his office.


%d bloggers like this: