Resisting the Felicitous and the Deft: Sentences, Punctuation, and Meaning

There’s an entertaining and intelligent article in a recent New Yorker about the uses and abuses of punctuation, among other things. The piece, written by a veteran copyeditor at the magazine, will be as dull as dishwater to many, and fascinating to those like me, who work on how to make sentences say what we mean.

Really say what we really mean. Not seem to say what we more or less mean.

As the New Yorker piece suggests, that task poses endless difficulties. But the piece also exposes what I see as important failures in the tactics we use to make sentences say what writers mean.

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The author, Mary Norris, defends what she calls “close” editing for punctuation and other aspects of sentence construction. Here’s one of her examples:

“Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.”

Norris and The New Yorker favor placing those commas after “died” and “cancer” over this cleaner and more common approach: “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret.”

The example comes up because the writer Ben Yagoda called The New Yorker‘s reasons for putting commas after “died” and “cancer” nutty, and at first glance Yagoda seems sound. He ascribes the magazine’s insistence on the extra commas to a hysterical concern that otherwise “the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.”

But that’s not quite the rationale. It would be nutty indeed to fear that without those commas, a reader couldn’t gather that Atwater didn’t also die before or after 1991, and didn’t die of causes other than brain cancer.

We read sentences like it all the time, but the sad fact is that, regardless of how you punctuate it, “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret” is a foolish thing to write, and not noticing the foolishness causes problems that run deeper than incorrectness in grammar and usage.

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Romance! Money! Writing!

GullyI respond here to comments on my previous post, on the future of longform journalism amid disruptions in publishing. A key element in the discussion seems to be coming down to what publishers — whether print mags or online sites or both — “should” do, regarding paying the writers they publish. And while I don’t think it’s unimportant how such entities, or any entity for that matter, should act, that issue has never seemed to me to be germane to this particular discussion.

Because regarding money, they never did what they should do, at least as far I’m concerned. No magazine I’ve published with, so far, has paid me what I think my work is worth, and I don’t mean that I think I should get paid vast sums; I just mean I’ve never been one of those writers who commands from magazines, on or offline, the kind of pay that would be adequate to support me, modestly but comfortably, in what some might want to call a bourgeois profession and others might want to call a skilled labor. To be in the former (which is how I look at it), I’ve had to do other things. [UPDATE: Because — and I guess this will only lend credence to those accusing me of taking a romantic line on the matter — it’s not really a profession or a labor but some kind of calling-like thing, or the only way I can once in a while put myself and the world together.]

The idea of “the professional” keeps coming up here, and I think it needs critiquing. Once we start trying to determine the meaning of value in this context, the whole discussion stops making sense to me. People seem to be gesturing at, but not thoroughly advancing, a labor theory of value in the freelance writing and longform-journalism publishing relationship, and I see [UPDATE: I must have meant “hear”] dissonances there. The dissonances are connected to a number of the comments on the post, but I’ll promote three of the comments here, because I think they’re the most salient.

The first is this, from reillymanz: “So as a student attending the University of Missouri in pursuit of a journalism degree, what’s my ‘angle’ to this business? Clearly the industry is changing, and will continue to change. How am I to get ahead of the curve?” The second, not at the post itself but on Twitter, from @ilenesmachine: “The question remains, how do we writers make a living anymore, when all the sites want short $5 blog posts?”

And the most challenging, this one again on the post itself, from broadsideblog, refers to how I closed my post. I said: “I think most writers are more like Gulley Jimson, as played by Alec Guinness in the film adaptation of ‘The Horse’s Mouth.’ Homeless, wandering, drunk, sly, just looking for a wall to paint on. Don’t really care about too much else. If one thing doesn’t work, find something else. If you’re a writer, you’re not really in the publishing industry: from the writer’s point of view, publishing, as we once knew it, was only a modern means to an ancient end.”

In response, broadsideblog says this:

As someone who’s been writing for a living — NF books and journalism — since 1978, I disagree with this romantic notion that writers just wanna write — $$$ be damned. No. There is a subset of writers, perhaps you among us, who expect to be compensated for the skill, experience, insights, analysis and our own growing audiences that WE bring to these publishers. When my stories end up (as they do) being the best read of the entire Sunday NYT online, I’m adding value that needs to be financially compensated — just as they pay their staff. But the “model” doesn’t work that way. Funny thing!

The fantasy that we’re willing to eat ramen in perpetual gratitude for being handed an established name-brand audience is nuts. The Atlantic’s misguided greed only made that clearer because Nate had the guts to challenge it publicly.

I don’t think broadsideblog is saying it’s my “fantasy that we’re willing to eat ramen in perpetual gratitude for being handed an established name-brand audience”; I hope not, anyway, because that’s not what I was suggesting. I think she (I checked; broadsideblog is the writer Caitlin Kelly) ascribes that fantasy to “The Atlantic” and others, and I think she’s partly right: something like that possibly pretty unfavorable deal is now being offered writers, as publishers suddenly need tons of fresh content, and as the old pay models crash.

But clearly many a writer is willing to eat ramen, or do the equivalent (like work a day job, or two), just to be handed a name-brand audience; many, throughout history, have of course done their work in the absence of any significant kind of audience, let alone adequate meals. I disagree that by referring to Guinness and Jimson, I was advancing the notion necessarily that “writers just want to write — $$$ be damned” (partly because my point is that writers want to be read), but I do think romanticism is legitimately involved here. The whole issue is a romantic — or Romantic — one. The very idea of a “professional writer” is an effect of an earlier disruption, the breakdown of court and patronage systems and the rise of a literate middle class consuming a capitalistically financed press. (By way of broad-stroke analogy: Haydn did great in the old system; Mozart had trouble with it; Beethoven could not have existed within it.) So the job description “journalist” itself may be a function of Romanticism — especially when it comes to the “longform” journalism I began by talking about, those extended pieces financed by major papers and magazines and carried out by the likes of Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, John McPhee, David Foster Wallace, David Grann, David Samuels, etc., etc.

Kelly suggests that because her work adds value to, for example, “The New York Times,” and manifestly so, since some of her pieces are the most widely read online there, she should be compensated accordingly. I beg to differ with that approach to valuation — somewhat sadly, since I too have had my day in the top-five sun — employing this stark line of thought: that thing is graded on a curve. Somebody was going to have the top piece that day (even, for that matter, if the “Times” readership plummeted to six). If you hadn’t published, the person behind you would have had your slot. The added value — actually the only value — is of course the content, that’s what the “Times” sells to readers. But no one piece or one writer can ever add or subtract any measurable value. The reader will leaf or click through the issue the same way regardless. It’s cool to have those readers, and to get paid, but trying to price a piece per the value it adds seems to me to have nothing to do with what’s going on in magazine and newspaper publishing.

Or: Forget it, Jake. It’s the “Times.” But let’s say Kelly’s idea is right — that we could price our work based on its value, measured any way you choose to measure it. Some writers would then command higher fees, based on how much value their work adds. Well, as many have noted, the new online situation may begin to enable pretty straight pay-for-value transactions, unmediated by editorial brands. When filtered through magazines, however, that fees-for-high-value idea created the kind of hierarchy in which the famous writers I mentioned above thrived for a longish time. I think it’s inspired a false sense of solidarity — a kind of aspirational solidarity — among writers in lower ranks: “we writers,” as @ilenesmachine put it on Twitter. There’s a prevailing sense that if a David Samuels — I come back to him because, to me, he was the strongest voice on the CUNY panel that got me going on this — is struggling, we’re all in trouble.

That’s a star system. It allows us all to imagine one day actually becoming one of the stars; in the meantime, the trickledown effect, we hope, might keep us going.

No nice way to say it: Fuck that. Industries encourage star systems, but there’s no solidarity in such a setup. (Maybe if editors hadn’t spent so much money overprivileging John McPhee, there’d be something left for the rest of us.) If we wanted real solidarity, if we wanted to see ourselves as a true labor force, we’d walk out and demand collective bargaining. But while staff of certain papers and Hollywood writers are organized that way, we’re not. And we can’t be. That’s not what the kind of writing we do actually is.

So to reillymanz, the j-school student, I have two pieces of advice: 1) get out of j-school, since they’re training you for an industry that doesn’t exist (and graduate writing programs of all kinds stink anyway); 2) if you take any advice from me, you’re a damned idiot.

(Note: I wrote this piece for no pay, in order to reach the vast readership for this blog.)

Keywords: “Longform,” “Print,” “Journalism,” “Thayer” “Pay”, “Whither?”

[UPDATE: In my next post, I respond to some of the excellent comments below.]

The writer Michael Washburn put together a good panel the other night, at CUNY Graduate Center, on the future — or not — of what’s now called longform journalism. The idea being that in the age of the tweet, we have to call it something (we used to just call it journalism).

“People don’t read on the Web, they scan” — that dictum prevailed in the Web’s early days, with the corollary notion that the rise of digital, interactive technology might signal doom for longish, fully developed, fully reported and researched pieces like those famously published by “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic,” “Rolling Stone,” “Esquire,” etc., in fast-fading good times for writers, editors, and readers. Now, however, we know that people do read “on the Web,” or read on whatever we want to call anything involving a screen digitally displaying written content. Indeed, people ramble on at interminable length online (on blogs like this!), with no evident sense of structure. Sometimes other people even read those ramblings. And comment at length.

The CUNY panelists — writers David Samuels of “Harper’s” and David Grann of “The New Yorker,” digital publishers Evan Ratliff of “The Atavist” and Alana Newhouse of “Tablet,” moderated by Max Linksy of the organization Longform — seemed to be suggesting that sheer length isn’t really the thing endangered by digital. Which seems right. As a copywriter in online marketing (my day job, back in what were the good old days to a David Samuels, when I couldn’t get arrested as a writer), I figured out a long time ago that the scanning-vs-reading thing doesn’t really map to the digital-vs-print thing. People always scanned brochures in print, and they now read long essays online, and vice versa. Varying content gets varying engagement. [UPDATE: A commenter below takes issue with the use of “scan” here, since the word originally meant “read closely.” It’s developed to mean something like “glance and quickly gather,” or, as the commenter suggests, “skim,” which is how “scan” is used in assessing online marketing copy; such text is supposed to have have “scannability,” achieved via headlines, subheads, bullet points, etc.]

(Deploying text for good interactive usabilty is a separate issue. In the early Web days, I think we sometimes confused it with this one.)

The CUNY panelists gravitated naturally toward considering whether quality is endangered, and if so, whether that’s because the financial models for delivering quality journalism to readers are — not endangered — demolished! — by the rise of new technologies. On the one hand, the good long stuff, in the oldest, best modes, does exist online — often but by no means always on the websites of the old-school magazines — and it’s even lionized (given the name “longform,” for example), fostered and promoted by efforts like Longform and Longreads. As print magazines collapse financially in the face of digital, there are ways in which digital is actually preserving the longer form.

The overall tone of the panel seemed to suggest that the ultimate questions may therefore be business ones. Continue reading