November 23, 2009
On Writing Too Well
by Sam Kean
I’m hoping here, now, after a combined twenty-three months of their being dead, and two full months after the most recent death, that the statute of limitations has expired on de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and that I may be allowed to speak, if not ill of the dead, at least in a frank and semi-unflattering way.
Not that I want to, exactly. The thought of speaking ill-ish of these two men still rattles me, still stokes a bourgeois fear of being found out as less than cultured. Combined, they reigned over the Brahmin caste of American literary English users for close to a century (I’d pulled that figure out of the air, as hyperbole, before I realized it was practically true!), and while they maybe don’t have ghosts, they were grammatical prescriptivists and do have disciples, descendents, and defenders of repute, who are more vigilant and vengeful than ghosts ever were anyway. There’s also, admittedly, a sort of guild guilt. Both men were writers, fancy ones, deploying octosyllabics most of us would have trouble pronouncing if spelled out fo-net-i-cal-ly. They’re smarter than me; they spoke French and Latin and Sanskrit probably; and it just sounds so philistine, downright sans-culotte, to criticize someone for writing too well.
Nonetheless. With all due respect and paces to their skill and influence, when it came down to doing what they built their reputations doing—trying to putting the best words in the best order—William Safire and William F. Buckley struck me as pretty dreadful writers.
My dislike for them isn’t personal, though I guess I had a (minor) run-in with Safire at least. After retiring from his New York Times column, Safire took a sinecure in the District of Columbia as head of a small foundation dedicated to promoting neuroscience. I interviewed for a sub-entry-level editorial job there once, and after two hour-long interviews with his underlings had to sit down one more time with “Mr. Safire” himself. His office was bigger than the rest of the building, I think; it had about a thousand books, and a fireplace, and leather couches. We settled down on one, him in a cardigan, me in a skinny tie, and he started the interview by mocking my facial hair. “What’s with the beard?” My eyebrows went up. He smirked. He followed up by asking what I’m pretty sure are illegal questions about my marital prospects and the steadiness of my relationship with my girlfriend.
I realized quickly he was just twisting my titty—prodding me to see if I was uptight—and though I ended up turning down the job, I walked out of there pleased to have met him. I never thought to hold a grudge. In fact, having encountered him only through his writing before, my estimation actually improved after he made fun of me. I never met Buckley, but from everything I’ve seen and heard he probably would have delighted in eviscerating me, too. (Something about my manner says I can take it, I guess, and something about my look or carriage or gait says I deserve it.) Probably Buckley would have done it a little more deftly if we’d ever sat down to chat—more epee than hammer; it’s hard to imagine Buckley’s gambit being making fun of my beard, however much he might have hated it—but my viscera probably still would have spilled out on the floor all the same, and I probably still would have liked Buckley for it.
Most people who disliked Safire and Buckley lumped them together because their writing could be overtly, at times even grubbily, political. But that wasn’t it for me either. I don’t mind political dust-ups and enjoy reading (not watching on television, mind you, reading) people of all orientations, left, right, wherever. Reading only what you agree with narrows you. Anyway, both were political, but whenever I felt my blood hit 100°C during one of their columns, it wasn’t because I took offense with their views—I took offense with their grammar, their vocabulary, their goddamn syntax. Heidegger argued somewhere that men don’t speak languages; languages speak men. So maybe getting lathered up over their writing was basically equal to getting upset with their worldviews. But I didn’t remember their worldviews afterward. I remembered the rhetoric, the whole linguistic cold shower. Plus, I was fair: I loathed Safire’s “On Language” columns and Buckley’s spy novels as much as anything else they composed.
Still, that both were conservatives cannot be a coincidence. Part (though not all) of what annoyed me was their affected, almost mannered style, and there’s a kind of literary-political righty that enjoys being perversely old-fashioned. This often shades over into a urge to distress if not shock people—a desire no less potent than in those radical “artists” who work in bodily fluids or set up exhibits featuring themselves masturbating to sounds of crying children. The writer-righties transgress via regress. They’re imps in bowties, good at getting a rise out of people and pimping emotions. The prime example is of course Evelyn Waugh. Think of the elderly Waugh wearing spats long past World War II ended, or him frightening guests at dinner with a Jurassic-sized ear trumpet it wasn’t even clear he needed.
But unlike Safire or Buckley, Waugh wrote smoothly, brilliantly. Brideshead Revisited throbs and sings, Scoop is still hysterical. This is sort of mealy amateur sociology, but I suspect the difference between Waugh, a novelist, on the one hand, and Buckley, an editor and columnist, or Safire, a speechwriter and columnist, on the other, was that Waugh had total artistic control over his material. He could write to whatever length and (after escaping a career as a newspaper correspondent) didn’t have to bother with daily deadlines and all the strictures and dumbing-downs that can strangle journalistic or speech writing. (People who bitch nowadays about how poetry and short stories are workshopped to within a comma of their lives really need to spend a year writing for a publication and trying to slip anything cute by an editor, or writing speeches by committee for a public figure. That’s editing; that’s homogenizing and submission.) I suspect the affectation in Buckley and Safire is a reaction to the journalistic environment. When you really care about words and sentences, as they did, seeing them hacked up hurts. You develop a stubborn reflex to “stet” everything. You ruminate over pronouns, and at times feel like walking down the hall and scrapping with copyeditors. By the end of their lives Buckley and Safire could of course have published a book on cave diving or Peruvian minerals or whatsoever they felt like, but both came of age as hacks, and such relentless editing infects your mind. Sometimes you can’t shake it. Nature-nurture-wise, I suspect an inborn tendency to propriety became exaggerated. What better way to hold onto your prose, to make sure that no one ever strikes a letter, than to make it so exasperatingly exact that in some sense it can’t be edited? Hyper-correctness became a style, a strategy, because perhaps that’s all that was left to them.
For me the pain of reading either one reached beyond the page. Other dreadful writers take up too much space, but with Buckley and Safire, there were always hints that they didn’t have to be so stiff. Safire, at times, could be jazzy. In snippets, he could sound like David Foster Wallace’s Korean-vet dad. But then I remember that this is the man who, penning for Spiro Agnew, thought that calling the press “nattering nabobs of negativism” was a fresh and interesting way of putting it. Clunk clunk clunk.
As for William F. Buckley, Jr., he played the character of himself just brilliantly for thirty-three years on Firing Line, and what made him so delightful was that he was so nimble. No silent screen star used his eyebrows as well as Buckley. His prose, meanwhile, hitches along like someone the day after a marathon. He never seems quick on the page, and he never seems to understand that most effective use of a big vocabulary is comic—exotic words, employed well, can be extremely funny because we have to stop and notice them; timing-wise, they’re natural punch lines. (Which see David Foster Wallace.) In most rhetorical registers, fancy words get in the way. It’s too easy to say, a la The Elements of Style, that $5 words have no place. They do. But do we really need to, as Buckley was wont to do, drop words like “usufruct” in everyday conversation? Writing in The Atlantic recently, someone suggested that Buckley used big words because he was a daredevil—he used them almost daring you to contradict or top him. And again, in person or on the screen, he probably pulled it off. But as people are learning all over again with e-mail, many rhetorical clues and cues don’t come across in writing, and Buckley, unfortunately for him, left too little color on the page.
So why were and are Buckley and Safire read? For the same reason I continued to read them, month after month, long after I’d admitted to myself (though not others, not out loud) that I could barely get through a column. Because, frankly, they’re both inspiring. As much as I didn’t like it, their language was technically perfect, pristine, and it’s reassuring to know there’s someone out there who never dangled a modifier, who sidestepped every solecism, who never ever once got “uninterested” muddled up with “disinterested.” Who would have known every word in the phrase de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est without looking it up (thank you, Google). Honest to god I’m frightened that this column—which harps on two language mavens after all—is chalk full of linguistic boners that remain, despite my re-reading it about seventy-five times, invisible to me; and I suppose it would be just desserts if someone typed up a list of every error here and posted it below. (Gotcha here, though: “chock full,” and “just deserts.”) Perhaps one reason I get upset reading Buckley and Safire is that I know I’ve got miles of improving to do.
When young, Joan Didion used to retype the short stories of Hemingway, to see, she said, how they “worked”—how the sentences worked, how the language did, something you don’t sense when you’re skimming over the top, reading. Retyping Buckley and Safire would probably improve someone’s writing in a different but still valuable way. Hopefully, though, not improve it too much.
Posted by Sam Kean at 12:40 AM | Permalink